Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Ki Tavo – Reciting Selichos Can Grant Us Early Forgiveness

I find it fascinating that the U.S. president can fully override the judicial system by forgiving a person convicted and found guilty of a crime. Indeed, the Constitution of the United States gives the president plenary power “to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

All presidents have used this pardon power to grant clemency. President Trump granted 237 acts of clemency during his four years in the White House. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, granted 1,927 clemencies, the highest total of any president going back to Harry Truman.

Typically, presidents have used this pardon power in their last days in office. This concept can help us understand the selichos we will start reciting on Motzei Shabbos.

I always found it quite puzzling that we start saying selichos, asking Hashem for forgiveness, prior to the Aseres Yemei Teshuva”—the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are designated for remedying wrongdoings. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to observe these solemn days of repentance prior to Rosh Hashanah, so we enter the day of judgment having worked on our attributes, then daven selichos to gain forgiveness?

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus explains that Hashem’s love and desire for our good is so incredible that He allows us to start asking for forgiveness even before we do teshuva. The time period prior to Rosh Hashanah is to focus on obtaining forgiveness from Hashem. Even while we are still in a state of guilt without having yet repaired our ways we ask for a pardon. Before teshuva, before repentance, we nevertheless come asking.

In the judicial system, one needs a good lawyer. However, there are some crimes where the person is guilty, and no lawyer can help his client win an acquittal. Only the “president” can grant a pardon or commute the sentence.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus says every time we daven and mention the God of Avraham, we entreat Avraham Avinu to bring our prayers before Hashem. The same is true of imploring Yitzchak and Yaakov. This also applies to the different parts of tefillah that correlate to each of the Avos). In Shemoneh Esrei, there is the first bracha—which correlates to Avraham, the second to Yitzchak, and the third to Yaakov. The same correlation applies to the three tefillos of the day: Shacharis relates to Avraham, Mincha to Yitzchak and Maariv to Yaakov. It is incredible that we have the Avos as our personal advocates.

But Tosfos tell us the merit of the Avos could be depleted and they might not have enough ability to advocate on our behalf. What happens then? The Gemara tells us the merit of saying the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which are the core of selichos, is that they never go unanswered. These Thirteen Attributes were taught to Moshe by Hashem after klal Yisrael sinned with the golden calf (comparing that egregious act to a bride committing adultery at her own wedding!). Hashem wrapped Himself in a tallis and told Moshe anytime the Jews sin they can say these Thirteen Attributes and He guarantees to respond to them favorably. The power of these Thirteen Attributes is that Hashem Himself will be praying on our behalf when we articulate this formula. Here it is Hashem Who is the chazan on our behalf! And it is Hashem Himself who forgives, based on these extra-special measures of compassion and tolerance that He provides!

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are all guilty of some misdeeds and are responsible for our actions. All people slip up and make mistakes, and only Hashem can forgive us.

We all need to request a pardon from Hashem, to avoid punishment for our wrongdoings. Hashem in His beneficence gives us the opportunity even before Rosh Hashanah to start asking for forgiveness and the granting of a pardon through the recitation of selichos.

Every word of selichos is a jewel. It’s an incredible opportunity. While we will get up early and may be exhausted from the effort, Hashem’s granting of forgiveness makes it all worthwhile!! This is our opportunity…let’s make sure we utilize it to its full extent.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shoftim – Acquiring Spiritual Nourishment

When I arrived at Yeshiva Ner Yaakov, my post high school yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, I was greeted by a large mound of construction debris. Clearly, the building the yeshiva had rented was not ready! I never knew the whole story until I read the details in a book, “At his Rebbe’s Side,” by my cousin, Rabbi Nachman Selzer.

In 1993, the Yeshiva moved from Har Nof to Katamon, renting a building that had been used as a school for many years. Unbeknownst to the yeshiva, the building was located in a residential area that was not officially zoned for a school. When the neighbors heard a yeshiva with a larger population was moving in, they filed an injunction with the court, which halted all work on the building. This was one week before opening day! Rabbi Liff, the Rosh Yeshiva, met with his lawyer who told him the odds were not good. The date of the court case was Friday the 10th of Elul and the plane with the boys from America was arriving on the following Sunday!

Rabbi Liff met with Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach the morning of the court case and asked him for a bracha and advice. He told Rabbi Liff, “We must daven.” The person presiding was Judge Eliyahu ben Zimra, who opened up by saying to the courtroom that he had been living in Katamon for 15 years and no one had objected to the building being used as an educational center in the past! He then proceeded to ask many questions. How much money did the yeshiva already invest in the building? When is opening day? Are there other options?

Judge Ben Zimra ordered a two-hour recess, during which Rabbi Liff took Rav Auerbach’s advice: he davened the entire time.  Judge ben Zimra returned and asked the courtroom, “What is the essence of a Yeshiva?” Answering his own question, he quoted the passage in Maariv that says (in the Ahavas Olam paragraph), …“beshachveinu uv’kumeinu nesiach bechukecha v’nismach b’divrei Torahsecha…. ki heim chayeinu v’orach yameinu uvahem nehgeh yomam valayla” – when we lie down and when we get up we will discuss Your decrees and rejoice with the words of your Torah for they are our life and the length of our days and we will meditate about them day and night….” This refers to Torah being studied both day and night, which would include studying and davening in both the home and the yeshiva.

Since it is natural to study and daven in the home, the judge concluded, “I see no legal impediment for the building to be used the way a Jewish home is supposed to be used – for Torah and tefillah.” The Judge proceeded to write a legal brief that would be used by other yeshivas for their zoning issues in residential areas.

In Parshas Shoftim, we learn a similar point. The Torah instructs a person who kills someone accidentally to move to an “ir miklat’ – a city of refuge. He must leave his family and home and remain there as long as the current Kohen Gadol is alive. The Torah says,“vchai,”[1] “so that he may live. The Gemara [2] tells us that the Torah is indicating the essentials of an ir miklat. There must be food and water, plus no weapons may be sold in the city, to ensure the safety of its inhabitants. In addition to all the basic human physical needs, the Gemara says the rebbe of the accidental killer must move to the city of refuge with him! This is because the Torah learning taught by his Rebbe is what gives a person life. Similarly, if a rebbe kills someone accidentally, his entire yeshiva must accompany him to the ir miklat.

A home is not only a place for nourishment, nurture and basic physical needs, but it’s also where our souls are nourished. The Jewish home needs to provide both types of nourishment. Echoing Judge Ben Zimra in his verdict, a Jewish home needs to be a place for Torah learning and prayer.

Postscript to the story: when Rabbi Liff left the courtroom, he immediately called Rav Auerbach. It was 2:30 Friday afternoon. Rav Auerbach’s grandson answered and said, “My grandfather has been waiting for your call. He’s been davening the entire day from the moment you left the house this morning.” When Rav Auerbach said “We must daven,” he meant not just Rabbi Liff but himself as well. That degree of leadership and support is a sign of a true Rebbe.

May our learning and davening in the month of Elul, in our homes and yeshivas, serve to our credit for a healthy and prosperous New Year.

[1] Va’eschanan 4:42
[2] Makkos 10a

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Va’etchanan – Keeping Our Torah Learning Vibrant

There is a program called “V’haarev na” created by Rabbi Dovid Newman that has brought the joy of Gemara learning to thousands of teenagers. The program expanded with “Kinyan Mesechta” to both adults and children. The concept is simple: review, review and review again! Not surprisingly, each time the person reviews, the Gemara becomes sharper and clearer, and—v’haarev na—more enjoyable. The key to a feeling of vibrancy regarding Torah learning is to keep Torah perspectives new.

Each year, Rabbi Newman puts on an event called the Simchas haTorah Event, in which over 600 boys come to a wedding hall to learn for three hours without interruption. Each table has ample snacks, so no need to get up! Everyone diligently reviews their assigned mesechta, some even completing it. When the three hours are up, the music and dancing begin. Next comes a lavish meal and inspiring speeches and testimonies from some of the participants on the joy of overcoming their learning challenges.

Torah learning that creates such excitement is a critical message in Parshas Va’eschanan. The Torah reading on Tisha B’Av morning was from this parsha. “Ki tolid banim… v’noshantam ba’aretz vehishchatem—when you bear children and grandchildren, they will be established in the land and become corrupt.” Rashi and Onkoles explain that the root of the word “v’noshantam’ is “yashan” (old), as in: “when you grow old in the land.” Rav Hirsch notes the difference between zaken—an elderly person—and the word yashan—old. A zaken is elderly, the opposite of young in age. Yashan is old, the opposite of new or fresh. The message of the reading on Tisha B’Av is the danger of becoming dull, losing a sense of vibrancy and freshness, be it in our Torah observance or regarding our living in Eretz Yisrael. This change in perspective is a part of human nature we must guard against. Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin says that after a time, Jews will come to feel that their success in Eretz Yisrael comes from their efforts, rather than Hashem’s involvement.

The Torah portion read on Shabbos Nachamu is always Parshas Va’eschanan. “Nachamu,” read in the haftorah, indicates “comfort”—something we truly need after properly observing Tisha B’Av. But how does the parsha fit in?

Va’eschanan contains the first paragraph of Shema, which says “…veshinantam levanecha,” translated as, “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children.” Rashi quotes the Gemara that says the root of the word veshinantam is shein, tooth. We should learn Torah until the words are sharp in our mouths, so if someone asks you a question regarding what you learned, your mouth can articulate a clear, quick response.

The key to nachamu, to being truly comforted, is to find excitement and sharpness in our Torah!

Let’s face it. A major challenge for our Torah learning is to always review. Our minds tell us, “It’s boring, I learned this already.” But this is the advice of the satan, who wants to rob us of enjoyment in our Torah learning. In fact, our Torah learning is always enhanced by review!! Moshe Rabbeinu set up a mitzvah process to learn the weekly parsha twice in Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation. When one makes a siyum (completion) on a Gemara, he recites the Hadran, which says, “I will come back.”

The mitzvah of veshinantam, to attain clarity, fluency and enjoyment in our learning, is specifically about teaching our children. Veshinantam levanecha—you shall teach your children. So why is the focus on our own learning? What’s the link?

The greatest mode of teaching is through modeling. If we want our children to learn Torah, we can’t just assign them a Gemara or Chumash and say, “learn!” The Torah says our learning must be fluent in our mouths, which comes from true commitment and constant review. This can only happen if we are excited and passionate about our learning. That passion is contagious. Our children will catch on…that Torah is a good thing.

When the Torah discusses “v’noshantam ba’aretz vehischatem,” it’s in relation to children and grandchildren, as they will pick up if we are positive or negative in our attitude toward achieving closeness with Hashem. Our Torah learning needs to be fresh and exciting; our families see the difference!

Let us leave the Three Weeks and look forward to the days of Elul by renewing our commitment to Torah and letting our children (and spouses, friends, neighbors…everyone!) see our passionate exc

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI- Passaic Torah Institute – Tisha B’Av: Feeling The Love

Sometimes we get Divine inspiration from an action we performed. The Gemara records the episode of Rav Avahu asking his son Rav Avimi to bring him a drink of water. When Rav Avimi returned with a glass of water, his father had dozed off. Instead of putting the water on the table next to his father, Rav Avimi waited, glass in hand, to present it to his father the moment he awoke. While waiting, an explanation to a puzzling line in Tehillim occurred to him. In Tehillim 79, Dovid Hamelech says “Mizmor L’Asaf”—a song by Asaf—and goes on to describe how the nations came into the Beis Hamikdash and defiled it. Why are the opening words that introduce this calamity presented as a song? It would seem more appropriate to say it’s a kinah—lamentation—as we recite on Tisha B’Av. The answer to this question popped into Rav Avimi’s head as he was waiting. The element of song is there because klal Yisrael really deserved to be wiped out because of their actions! Yet, Hashem in His infinite mercy caused the Beis Hamikdash, the meeting place of klal Yisrael and Hashem, to be destroyed instead of destroying the Jewish people themselves.

Why did this idea occur to Rav Avimi at this apparently random time? Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that since Rav Avimi performed an extra measure to honor his father, Hashem rewarded him by giving him an understanding of the compassion our Father in Heaven has for us.

The month of Av is the month the first Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. The second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed by the Romans, who were descendants of Eisav. Eisav excelled in the mitzvah of kibud av—honoring his father, Yitzchak. This attribute gave Eisav’s descendants the upper hand on klal Yisrael, giving them the power to destroy the Beis Hamikdash (but not the people) in this month. However, Eisav’s kibud av was just on the surface, as Eisav was planning on murdering Yaakov as soon as his father passed away—something Yitzchak would not have wanted.

The Jewish people’s relationship to Hashem is unique. With the other nations, Hashem is their Creator. With us, Hashem is not only our creator but also our Father, and we are His children, as expressed in the pasuk “banim l’Hashem,” and when Hashem chastises us, He does so as a father chastises his children—constructively—with deep love and caring.

For most people the month of Av brings a feeling of sadness. We experience the Nine Days with all its restrictions, especially on Tisha B’Av. Yet Tisha B’Av is called a moed—holiday. What kind of holiday is Tisha B’Av? Rav Wolbe explains that the word moed means “to meet” as in the term “Ohel Moed”—Tent of Meeting—which refers to the Mishkan during our sojourn in the desert. The Torah refers to a Yom Tov as a moed, as it’s a time we meet with Hashem. There are two types of festivals: most are festivals of closeness. But there is also a festival of distance—Tisha B’Av.

Rav Motty Berger, from the Aish Discovery program, would often say a relationship is only as strong as its weakest link. On Tisha B’Av we need to confront ourselves in a very serious manner, to take stock of how distant we feel from Hashem and how much we want to connect to Him. Only from that fragile beginning point is our relationship able to grow.

We are about to sit on the floor on Tisha B’Av and face our loss of the Beis Hamikdash, all the tragedies throughout the millennia, and recent tragedies as well. Let’s find one area in our daily lives in which we can honor our Father, Hashem, in a better way. This step will demonstrate our yearning for a closer relationship. We pray that as a result of our efforts Hashem will show His love for us and recognize how much our suffering pains Him.

A week after Tisha B’Av, which compares to the mourning period of a relative, is Tu B’Av—the 15th of Av, which the Mishnah tells us is one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar. May we end the mourning period of Tisha B’Av to Tu B’Av together with Moshiach, and merit a sweet, close relationship with Hashem.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Pinchas – The Importance Of Maintaining Our Kedusha

A friend of mine took on the responsibility of helping out two boys whose father had passed away. About two years ago, he asked me if I knew someone who had tickets to a professional baseball game. I approached my friend Harry as I thought he might help. “I don’t have season tickets, but my company sometimes has tickets, so let me check.” A few days later Harry called me back. “I have tickets for your boys!” When I picked up the envelope with the tickets, I saw there were four—two for the boys, one for my friend who was bringing them and a fourth so they could pick a friend to bring along! And these were box seats behind home plate! The boys were so excited.

A couple of weeks later, Harry invited me to the vort (engagement party) of his daughter. I looked at the date for the vort—it was the same day as the baseball game he had arranged for the fatherless boys! While the boys were attending the game, his daughter would be having her vort! When I saw Harry at the vort, I told him, “I believe that because you went out of your way to take care of Hashem’s children, Hashem took care of your child.”

This concept of Hashem rewarding praiseworthy behavior is illustrated in Parshas Pinchas when the Torah lists the family names in each shevet (tribe) with the prefix letter “heh” and suffix letter “yud” as in “Hachanochi” or “Hapalui.” Rashi explains that other nations were challenging the legitimacy of the Jewish people in the time of Pinchas, 40 years after they left Egypt. Egypt was known for its moral decadence, so maybe some of the children had an Egyptian father or mother. To counter the nations’ accusations, Hashem added the letters “heh” and “yud” to each family name within each shevet. These two letters, in reverse order, spell out the specific name of Hashem used in reference to kedusha (purity) with regard to intimate relations.

Why was this accusation by the other nations happening now in Parshas Pinchas, a full 40 years after leaving Egypt? The accusation should have been dealt with when the Jews first left Egypt! The Shem Mishmuel explains that when Bilaam’s plan to curse klal Yisrael was thwarted by Hashem, Who was protecting them, he advised Balak to send Midianite women to seduce the Jewish men. He knew that Hashem detests licentious behavior and if his plan worked, the Bnei Yisrael’s level of kedusha would decline and they would lose their divine protection. Bilaam’s plan was successful and 24,000 of Bnei Yisrael who were seduced into worshipping idols were executed.

When Zimri, the nasi of the tribe of Shimon, publicly engaged in an immoral act with Kozbi, a Midianite princess, Pinchas sensed the anger of Hashem rising from all the immoral behavior. He boldly and courageously ran into the tent of Zimri and executed him and Kozbi with a spear. Pinchas’s zealous public act served to restore the sanctity of klal Yisrael. However, the sinful behavior demonstrated by Zimri with Kozbi raised the question of the moral level of the Jewish people while they were in Egypt. Therefore, Hashem specifically attested, by adding the “heh” and “yud” around the family names within each shevet, that the Jews did not falter in the area of kedusha in Egypt and that all their children were truly born of only Jewish parents.

This fact is noted by Dovid Hamelech in Tehillim: “Shivtei Kah eidus l’Yisrael.’’ Although the simple translation of this verse means the tribes of Hashem are a testimony to Israel, it can be translated as, “The name of Hashem surrounding the name of each tribe testifies to the moral legitimacy of the tribes of klal Yisrael.”

The Gemara tells us that Pinchas is actually Eliyahu Hanavi and the Tur tells us that Eliyahu / Pinchas attends each bris milah via a seat designated for him. Eliyahu is referred to as the “malach habris,” the angel of the bris, and the mohel in his recitations calls out to Eliyahu to stand at his side and support him while he is performing the bris milah. This honor is a reward to Eliyahu for preserving the moral sanctity of the Jewish nation. Hashem in effect tells Eliyahu, “You took care of my children in your lifetime, so I will let you see at each bris that I am taking care of your children’s moral sanctity, which is signified by the bris ceremony.”

Maintaining the attribute of kedusha is especially important as summer begins. The weather is warm, our schedules are more relaxed and we may be traveling away from our regular shuls and the presence of our role models. A little extra effort at this time in maintaining our kedusha pays dividends that will span the generations.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Chukat – Tefillah Is Our Personal ‘Iron Dome’

Last month, Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Eretz Yisrael attempting to kill civilians—men, women and children. Most of the rockets targeting populated areas were shot down by the Iron Dome defense system. Still, Iron Dome was at times overwhelmed by huge simultaneous barrages of rockets. With Hashem’s help, there were only a small number of deaths compared to the huge number of rockets fired.

When klal Yisrael left Mitzrayim, until shortly before they entered Eretz Yisrael, they had a foolproof “Iron Dome.” The Clouds of Glory covering the Jewish nation protected them from any harm. They also served as a climate control system to keep the temperature surrounding Bnei Yisrael comfortable, even in the burning heat of the desert days and the bitter cold of the desert nights.

In the last year of their desert sojourn, however, Aharon HaKohen passed away and the Clouds of Glory surrounding klal Yisrael dissipated. It was in the merit of Aharon HaKohen that we had the clouds, and our enemies quickly noticed the change and launched a fierce attack. Indeed, the Gemara notes they were attacked specifically then because they saw that the Clouds of Glory had vanished. This is indicated in the pasuk that mentions Aharon HaKohen passing: “Vayiru kol ha’eidah ki gavah Aharon”—all the nations saw that Aharon had died. The Gemara says the word “vayiru” can be read as “viyara’u”—the nation was now exposed and visible to all, due to the dissipation of the Clouds of Glory.

The Midrash notes that although the pasuk says that the Canaanite king of Arad saw that the Jews traveled by “the way of the spies and he attacked Israel,” it was really the king of Amalek who disguised his people as Canaanites when they attacked. Amalek had attacked Bnei Yisrael once before after they passed through the Splitting of the Sea. Then, we were protected by the Clouds of Glory—a kind of “force field Iron Dome,” and Amalek was only able to reach the stragglers, the sinners who were banished from the protection of the clouds. Now, with the clouds removed, Amalek saw it was a fortuitous time to attack klal Yisrael.

Amalek attacked derech ha’asarim, by the way of the spies. Rashi says this is the southern side, the direction the meraglim (spies) used to enter Eretz Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael might still have had the merits needed for Divine protection despite the clouds being gone, but Chazal tell us that Amalek had the ability to attack the Jewish nation because of the sin of the meraglim. That sin caused us to be vulnerable to attack. This teaches a powerful lesson: when we perform mitzvos we build fortresses that protect us. In contrast, our aveiros (sins) create minefields that can harm us.

Why did Amalek dress his soldiers like Canaanim? The Midrash explains that Amalek knew the Bnei Yisrael would daven to Hashem to be saved. Amalek learned his lesson about the power of tefillah (prayer) from his first battle against Bnei Yisrael, where Moshe stood on top of a mountain flanked by Aharon and Chur, with his hands raised to heaven, spurring the Bnei Yisrael to daven to the Almighty and thereby defeat Amalek. Now Amalek was trying to sabotage the prayer of the Jewish nation. They thought their disguise would lead to a prayer for protection against someone else so they could be victorious. They knew Hashem fulfilled specific requests.

However, the Jews heard the opposing soldiers speaking the language of Amalek. It became unclear who they really were, so the people davened to be saved from their attackers in general, without specifying who that might be.

Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk adds a twist to this Gemara. Bnei Yisrael already had a promise from Hashem that they would defeat the Canaanites so they wouldn’t need to daven to prevent an attack from them. Therefore, Amalek played a trick by dressing up like the locals so Bnei Yisrael wouldn’t bother davening. True to form, Amalek was clever, but their spoken words heard by Bnei Yisrael were their undoing.

In our own lives, we also have our Iron Dome—tefillah. Tefillah is a powerful force that is available to us at all times. This “system” is always active, always at the ready. We just need to lift our eyes toward heaven and ask for the specific help we need.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shelach – ‘Seeing’ Through The Lens of Emunah

I remember learning about optical illusions in school. We were shown a picture that looked like an old lady, but if turned upside down, it looked like a young girl. Another page had an image with multiple boxes and colors, yet when the light in the room was dimmed, numbers seemed to pop out from the page. Optical illusions manipulate the difference between what our eyes see and what the brain perceives. What you “see” you do not always correctly perceive.

Parshas Shelach is all about perception. The Jewish nation heard Eretz Yisrael was special, but they wanted to “get eyes on it.” So they sent meraglim (scouts/spies) to view the land. “V’yasuru es aretz,” which means, “You shall scout out Eretz Yisrael.” The Gemara says one can’t compare hearing to seeing. Human nature wants us to “see” things with our own eyes; hearing isn’t enough.

Ten of the meraglim came back with a bad report about Eretz Yisrael. While they agreed with Kalev and Yehoshua (two of the spies) that the land “flowed with milk and honey,” their perception was that it couldn’t be conquered because the cities were too fortified, the inhabitants were giants, and the land “consumes its inhabitants” (based on all the funerals they saw, which Rashi indicates were caused by Hashem to distract the people from the spies’ mission). Kalev and Yehoshua saw the same fortified cities and giants, yet they said, “…the land is very, very good. If Hashem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us….” Same things viewed but different conclusions…based on their perception.

As we read about the meraglim, we wonder: Where was their emunah (faith) in Hashem? They witnessed the 10 plagues, they experienced Krias Yam Suf (splitting of the sea) and many other miracles in the desert, including the daily munn food and the Clouds of Glory. They were leaders; how could they misinterpret so badly?

The end of Parshas Shelach discusses vision and perception. Hashem instructed the Bnei Yisrael to place tzitzis (strings) on the corners of any four-cornered garment they wore, and to gaze at the tzitzis to remind them of their connection with Hashem and to help them perform the mitzvos. The pasuk concludes, “Lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem… Don’t stray after your heart and your eyes.” Rashi notes the word sasuru has the same root as the word “lasur,” which was used to describe the scouting mission of the meraglim. The Torah is teaching us that each person has his own personal “spies/meraglim.” The eyes and the heart are the spies of the body and can help cause a person to sin. The eyes see, the heart desires and the body acts.

Rashi notes that the word tzitzis comes from the root word tzitz—to gaze. The mitzvah of tzitzis is given specifically to help calibrate our eyes to perceive the world with the lens of emunah, which is the way Hashem wants us to see the world. The clothing we wear can remind us to align our body’s agenda with that of our soul. Gazing at our tzitzis reminds us to view the world through the lenses of emunah and mitzvos, and to comply with Hashem’s will.

One of the strings on the tzitzis was initially colored with techeiles—a blue/greenish color. Rashi tells us that the blue of the techeiles is to remind us of the blue of the ocean, the blue of the sky and the blue of the throne of Hashem. Someone once asked the Gerrer Rebbe, “What kind of association is this? I look at my tzitzis and they don’t remind me of these things!?” The Gerrer Rebbe asked the individual, “There is a halacha that a man should not gaze at women’s clothing. Do you understand this halacha?” “Sure,” the man replied, “it is to prevent people from thinking inappropriate thoughts about women.” The Gerrer Rebbe replied, “So why do you understand that association, but refuse to understand the association of tzitzis with our closeness to Hashem? It’s because your mind chooses its associations.”

The same is true for us. Sometimes we are quick to interpret a comment, email or text as an insult. But if we would read it with different punctuation or tone or attitude, it might really be a compliment. A rebbe of mine once told me that if you ever think your wife made a comment or did something to purposely upset you, just remember that your wife loves you and would never want to do anything to hurt you. This advice helped me see so many situations differently. The same is true regarding our relationship with Hashem. Hashem loves us and has only our best interest in mind even though it may not appear to be so in specific instances. If we use our “emunah lenses” to view life’s events, we will experience so much more joy and success in our lives!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Lag B’Omer: Lessons From The Cave

Three years ago, I went to Eretz Yisrael in the summer along with my son. On our itinerary were visits to Meron and Tzfat so we could daven at the kivrei tzadikim. I was warned that Waze can direct you through Arab territories unless you adjust the settings to avoid those areas. I even asked someone to review the route Waze gave me to ensure we’d be fine. When we were up North, Waze told us to exit the highway. Suddenly, the signs switched from Hebrew to Arabic and the look of the people got me a little nervous. Yet, the road was narrow and mountainous, which made sense for Meron, so I figured we must be going in the right direction. The road soon opened up and once again, it looked like an Arab neighborhood. I was getting very nervous. Moments later, with Arab homes on both sides, Waze said, “You have reached your destination!” It had been many years since my last time in Meron, but I knew this most definitely was not the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the “Rashbi”).

My heart started palpitating and I was terrified. I pulled to the side of the road and davened a few chapters of Tehillim with an urgent plea to Hashem to please get us out of here quickly and safely. I called a friend of mine and asked him how to exit as quickly as possible. Thirty seconds later, a van pulled up and three people with white shirts and tzitis got out and walked toward our car. I asked them, “What are you doing here? Aren’t you guys scared to walk around an Arab neighborhood?” They said, “This is a Druze village. They are friendly to Jews; no need to worry.” Still, I was curious—why were they here also? The mystery unraveled. “This city is where you’ll find the actual cave where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known as the Rashbi) hid with his son to escape the Romans. Would you like to come join us while we daven by the cave?”

I thanked Hashem for answering my prayers by sending me Eliyahu Hanavi in the guise of these people and off we drove. On Lag B’Omer, thousands of Jews go to daven at the kever of the Rashbi, but not many go to the actual cave where he hid. I had the merit of saying Tehillim near that cave where his intensive study took place!

When the Rashbi hid from the Romans, who had sentenced him to death, Hashem miraculously made a carob tree grow and a stream of water flow at the entrance to the cave. That’s how he and his son survived for 13 years. His uninterrupted study and writing helped make the secrets of the Torah in the Zohar available to scholars, which eventually made it available to all who wished to study it. Rabbi Shimon endured tremendous physical suffering during that time. The Gemara records that Rabbi Shimon went to the springs of Tiveria to heal his cracked skin. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, his son-in-law, accompanied him and when he saw the cracks and bleeding skin, exclaimed, “Woe is to me that I see you in such a bad condition.” Rabbi Shimon responded, “Fortunate are you to see me in this condition, for if it were not for this predicament in which Hashem has placed me, I would not have achieved and accomplished what I have done.” Rabbi Shimon taught us an important life lesson. Although difficult times happen and seem harsh, many are life-enhancing opportunities that Hashem has provided to us.

Last Lag B’Omer we were locked in our homes like the cave of Rabbi Shimon. Baruch Hashem, this year we are emerging from the cave! We need to recognize that our time in the “cave” was an incubation period that helped us achieve higher levels in our avodas Hashem. My morning learning chabura intensified their study during this period. Attendance and consistency, via Zoom and in person, increased, and we delved deeper into the Gemara than we have ever done before. The cave provided us with the opportunity for tremendous accomplishment in our Torah learning and development of character.

Rav Yaakov Emden says Lag B’Omer is a yom tov, which is why we do not recite tachanun in davening on that day. Even those who do not take haircuts or make weddings during Sefira, suspend their observance of Sefira on that day.

Although it might sound paradoxical to have a holiday on the day of the passing of the Rashbi, the Arizal tells us that it is a hillula, a yom tov. Why? Rebbe Shimon teaches that when people learn the words of a talmid chacham who passed away, his lips move in the grave, uttering the words that he once taught.

The talmid chacham lives on through his words of Torah. And Rabbi Shimon lives on through the incredible words of Torah that we learn from his writings.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – The Secret To Living Forever

I was speaking recently with Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel, from Project 613 of Chicago, for advice about our building campaign for Yeshiva Ner Boruch—PTI. He shared an insight he heard from Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman when they last met. He asked Rabbi Wachsman, “What drives sports players and sports fans? What’s the big deal if they win or lose?” Rabbi Wachsman replied, “It’s the Hall of Fame that drives them. People want to be champions and feel connected to champions. They want to be the greatest of all time. ‘Winning’ creates’ a legacy for a person and through that legacy he can live forever. This is evidenced by the Hebrew word for victory, nitzachon. The root of the word nitzachon is “netzach”—which means ‘forever.’”

This universal drive to succeed was ingrained by Hashem into Adam and Chava, who were originally intended to live forever. But after they sinned by eating from the eitz hadas (Tree of Knowledge), Hashem punished mankind with a limited lifespan. In truth, our neshama lives forever, and we hope to merit techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead) where our body will once again be reunited with our soul.

Many people love the idea of leaving a legacy, being admired for their accomplishments or even just having their name on a plaque on a wall. But that’s something finite. Genuine satisfaction comes from adding true value and meaning to their time on this earth. For example, when you present someone with an opportunity to help erect a building devoted to the study and practice of Torah and he seizes that opportunity by providing financial and other support, that action lasts forever. Torah itself is infinite and eternal, and by partnering to build and support a makom Torah, one gets infinite and eternal reward.

We get a clear glimpse of that eternal reward from a pasuk in Parshas Acharei Mos, “You shall observe My decrees and My laws that man shall carry out and by which he shall live.” Rashi says the reward for performance of a mitzvah will be enjoyed in the next world/eternally, while things in this world are temporal and can only be enjoyed while one is alive. The Torah is telling us clearly that the reward one receives for the performance of mitzvos lasts now and forever.

Yet, there is a troubling question on this explanation, as the Gemara expounds from the words, “v’chai bahem”—by which he shall live (i.e., the mitzvos). This indicates that one must perform the mitzvos in a manner that does the maximum to preserve his own physical life. Indeed, if one’s life is in danger and the only way to save his life is by violating a mitzvah, he must violate the mitzvah to save his life (except for the three cardinal sins.) So…do we have a contradiction? Are the words “you shall live by them” referring to preserving our physical life now, or do they refer to eternal life received as a reward for the performance of mitzvos?

Rav Shimon Schwab offers a fundamental concept to answer this question, with an encounter he had with the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Schwab frequently spoke of the one Shabbos he spent as a guest of the Chofetz Chaim when he was 20 years old. The Chofetz Chaim asked Rav Schwab, “What do you have in mind when you say in the Shacharis davening (at the end of Uva Letzion, right before Aleinu) “vechayei olam nata besocheinu”—and He implanted eternal life inside us?

Rav Schwab did not know what to respond so he remained silent. Then the Chofetz Chaim asked, “Where are you going to be in 500 years?” Without waiting for Rav Schwab to reply, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “With Hashem.” And continued, “Where are you going to be in 5,000 years?” And answered again, “With Hashem. And in five million years? With Hashem. You are always with Hashem.”

That’s what the pasuk means by “eternal life implanted inside of you.” We are eternally connected to Hashem, therefore every mitzvah we perform while we are alive strengthens that connection and creates a stronger bond that will remain with us…forever!

Every day of our lives we are building our eternity. The way we live here in this world determines how we live in the next world. The only difference is we will be without a body. Therefore, there is no contradiction in the meaning of “by which you shall live,’’ as the actions we perform now create our future forever. That is what it means by “He planted eternity inside us.”

Each mitzvah we perform creates an eternal bond between us and Hashem, on the basis of which we “live forever.” Our actions in this regard have eternal value—more than a legacy and more than any plaque or award. Torah and mitzvos develop and benefit our souls and make possible our eternal existence.

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!