Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Chanuka – A True Source Of Torah Inspiration

There really is something special about Chanukah that tugs at the Jewish heart.  Regardless of how observant (or not) they are, Jews around the world observe the lighting of the menorah.  Why is Chanukah the holiday that is so widely observed by Jews of all backgrounds?  The following story will shed some light.

Joe Wallis was a non-observant Jew living in Israel.  His wife asked him to pick up dinner for the family.  On his drive home, he stopped at the Elephant Steakhouse, famed for selling non- kosher meat.  Waiting patiently in line, his mind began to wander to a story his mother had told him.  His grandfather, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Winkler, was in the slave labor camp of Debrecen during World War II.  One morning, the head Nazi guard assembled all the Jews and said, “The war is almost over.  In a few hours the Russians will be here and you will be free.  But before we go, I have one final test of how religious you think you are.”  He ordered Joe’s grandfather to step in front of the assembled crowd.  “Rabbiner, eat a piece of this pork and you will be free to go. If you refuse, I will shoot you on the spot,” said the guard as he placed his pistol on Rabbi Winkler’s temple. “No, I will not,” said Shraga Winkler.  “You stupid Jew,” yelled the guard, “eat the pig now and you shall live and restart your life.  If you refuse, I will shoot you and you will be the last Jew to be killed at Debrecen”.  Rabbi Winkler refused and fell to the floor, dead from the bullet in his head.

Joe Wallis thought to himself, “Here I am standing in line to purchase pork to feed my wife and children!  And my grandfather chose to be killed rather than eat a piece of pork!”  He left the restaurant and picked up burgers for dinner instead.  Thus began Joe Wallis’s search to learn about Torah and mitzvos. Now, Rabbi Joseph Wallis is the CEO of Arachim, an extremely popular and successful Kiruv organization.

Let’s look at the Chanukah story. The Chashmonaim were just a few men that waged war against the mighty Greek army.  The Greeks were the superpower of the world.  The Chashmonaim, meanwhile, were kohanim trained for the service in the Beis Hamikdash.  They were most definitely not trained or skilled warriors.  They did not have any hope of winning. They fought because they wanted to demonstrate that keeping Torah and mitzvos was worth dying for.

If we observe a mitzvah today, it’s because our parents were dedicated to that mitzvah and passed it onto their descendants.  That is why Jews from all backgrounds connect to Chanukah and the menorah. Although Shraga Winkler surrendered his life, he implanted a seed of pure love and caring for Hashem’s mitzvos, which germinated years later in his grandchildren.  Similarly, the Chashmonaim implanted a deep connection to Yiddishkeit by preserving the purity of all mitzvos.

The Nesivas Shalom explains the conviction of the Chashmonaim to preserve the absolute sanctity of Torah and mitzvos is seen once again in their refusal to light contaminated oil, even though there was a halachic exception which would permit it under the circumstances.  Additionally, they could have shaved the wicks down into an eighth of the thickness, allowing the oil of the one flask to naturally last for eight days.  However, the Chashmonaim wanted to perform Hashem’s will to the fullest.

We see this dedication in how we light our Chanukah candles today as well.  In the laws of Chanukah, even though the base requirement is to light one candle per night per home, the actual law adopts the highest of the three tiers of observance found in the Shulchan Aruch – mehadrin min hamehadrin – the most beautiful way to perform, by lighting one additional candle each night.  This is part of our legacy from the brave Chashmonaim.

The willingness to surrender one’s life for one’s ideals is called mesiras nefesh (giving over one’s soul), as was the case of the Chashmonaim.  Mesiras Nefeshalso means to give everything we’ve got towards a mitzvah.

When we light the menorah, we should think about the sacrifice and dedication of our ancestors. As we add a candle each night, this should fan our flame of devotion and inspire us to go the extra mile for Hashem. May Hashem respond in kind by performing miraculous wonders and bringing us the ultimate redemption speedily in our time!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayeshev – Redemption In Its Time

Let’s put ourselves in Yosef’s shoes right after he was sold by his own brothers as a slave. Can you imagine the feeling of betrayal and abandonment? He had to sit alone in a wagon, heading down to Egypt to be sold as a slave. Gone were his dreams of leading Klal Yisroel; his being the chosen child of Yaakov would soon be a fading memory. One can practically feel the total darkness and despair that must have enveloped Yosef at that moment.

The Jewish people felt this palpable feeling of doom just over 50 years ago, in the spring of 1967. Our precious little Eretz Yisrael seemed on the brink of destruction. Massive Arab armies were openly preparing to attack on all sides. Their intentions were very clear.

On June 1st, 1967, the Palestinian chairman Ahmed Shukairy shouted out from a podium in Yerushalayim, “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants. As for the survivors – if there are any – the boats are ready to deport them.” Egyptian president Nasser threw out the UN peacekeepers from the Sinai and ordered the Straits of Tiran blockaded to prevent Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Syria and Jordan called up all their armies to Israel’s borders. Panic ensued in the streets of Israel. Literally thousands of graves were being dug in public parks throughout the country. Another Holocaust appeared on the horizon.

But tefillos (prayers) from Jews around the world were many as well. They rose to the heavens, with the knowledge that there was only one source of salvation: Hashem, the Almighty, Who watches over His nation. The war that began June 5, 1967, and the victory that ensued was nothing short of Biblical in its proportion. The entire Egyptian air force was wiped out in hours. Yerushalayim and the Kotel were liberated. Within six days, the war was over and Eretz Yisrael was over four times its original size. Nations around the world could not deny the Hand of Hashem in what had just happened.

Getting back to Yosef, there is no denying how bleak the future looked for him when he descended to Egypt. Yet, the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah 88) informs us that Yosef did not despair. The Midrash reminds us of others that did not despair: Avraham and Sarah who waited so long for a child; and Yaakov who waited for Yosef’s return for so many years. Yosef, who kept his dear father Yaakov in mind when he was experiencing his trials, knew that his prophetic dreams would somehow come true. The Midrash calls on us not to lose hope in our everyday trials, for Hashem is rooting for us to overcome the challenges and pass the tests to emerge stronger and fully victorious.

Further, Rav Elya Svei zt”l tells us the Midrash, gives us a deep insight into the parsha, noting that, “Yaakov was watching the matter of discord between the brethren.” Rashi says the word shomar – watch – here means “wait.” Yaakov was waiting and watching eagerly to see how and when the prophecy that his son Yosef would become a ruler, would come to fruition even when it seemed impossible. He knew the ultimate goal was attainable, but how and when it would happen was hidden.

Based on this explanation of the Midrash, we learn an important lesson. The Midrash is not giving us comfort that Hashem is there for us through our struggle – though we know that to be true – but rather is teaching us a formula for salvation to come. In order for the ultimate redemption to occur, we as a people need to wait patiently, believing with certainty that it will happen and just waiting to see how it will transpire as we maintain our connection with Hashem.

We live in a rapidly changing world. Corporations that were “too big to fail” have gone bankrupt overnight. Countries change leadership and policies. Mighty empires have fallen suddenly. Technological breakthroughs change our world in a moment’s notice.

Today, we are still in exile and still awaiting Moshiach. When it will happen, we don’t know, but we can help make it happen! Hashem is orchestrating events for us. Like our forefather Yaakov, we need to keep watch and be patient for the plan to unfold and the deliverance to occur, all the while doing our part to gain Hashem’s benevolence to make it happen soon.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayishlach – How To Be A Winner

In Parshas Vayishlach, we have the greatest wrestling match of all time:  Yaakov Avinu vs the Angel of Esav.  It’s worth noting the word used to describe this wrestling match, Vaye’aveik Ish – and a man wrestled (32:25). The root of the word Vaye’aveik is Avak – dust.  Rashi (quoting the Gemara Chullin) explains they wrestled with each other to the extent that they kicked up a tremendous amount of dust and the dust rose all the way up to the Throne of Hashem.

What is the significance of the dust rising all the way to the throne of glory?

This story will help us understand the answer. Boruch Hirschberg was a successful, young man, well-liked by his peers.  As he was unfortunately nearing the end of his battle with cancer, he said to his father, “I know my time is near and I’ve decided I want my second grade Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Morgenstern to eulogize me.  Only him, except for family.” The father agreed, but asked, “Why only your second grade Rebbe? You had many other terrific Rabbeim over the years?”

“Because I owe all my success to him,” replied Boruch.  “Let me explain. One day, when I was in second grade, Rabbi Morgenstern walked in with a big smile.  He handed out a piece of paper to each of us with all the names of the boys in the class and asked us to write down next to each name a special quality of that boy.  When we finished, the Rebbe collected the papers. The next day, he handed each of us a paper with all the list of qualities that the boys in the class had said about each of us.  I never felt so good about myself!  Wow, I thought, Yanky really believes I’m smart and Shloimy says I’m a good ball player. There were many other complimentary opinions.  From that point on, I had a new self-confidence; I realized the person I really could be.”  

Boruch then pulled out an old folded piece of paper from his wallet and showed it to his father.  “This is the paper that Rabbi Morgenstern gave me,” he said. “Since that day, I kept this paper in my wallet and whenever I doubted myself, I took it out and read it.  This is how I was able to climb the ladder of life.  Rabbi Morgenstern really believed in his students and he made me focus on my unique qualities and talents.”

A few days later, Boruch passed away and Rabbi Morgenstern was the only non-family member to eulogize Boruch.  The shiva house was packed with many of Boruch’s classmates.  Someone asked Rabbi Morgenstern why he was the only non-family member to give the eulogy.  After a nod from Boruch’s father, Rabbi Morgenstern related the story. As he was finishing, all of Boruch’s former classmates reached into their wallets and pulled out their precious piece of paper. (Rabbi Spero, Touched by A Story 2).

Rav Gedalia Schorr sheds light on the Gemara that tells us the face of Yaakov was inscribed on Hashem’s Throne of Glory.  This indicated the true level of perfection that Yaakov had:  his reality mirrored his potential self on Hashem’s Throne.   Looking back at the wrestling match, the angel of Esav kicked up the dust to blur Yaakov Avinu’s vision of what he looked like, and mostly, what was his true potential.  This was Esav’s attempt at victory:  preventing Yaakov from seeing his own true nature.

Now we can understand why Yaakov Avinu’s name was changed to Yisrael after the match.  He had battled and overcome the greatest challenges that the spiritual world could offer: the threat to lose sight of his potential greatness, the greatness that is latent in every Jew, waiting to be brought out. The angel of Esav is a manifestation of the Yetzer Harah (evil inclination), which seeks to obscure our vision of who we really could be.  

This is a timeless message.  Every Jewish soul emanates from the Throne of Glory.  We each have the potential to reach great heights.  We have an image in Heaven which represents our true potential.  Our mission in life is to perfect our deeds, speech and thoughts so they mirror our image in heaven.

Our job is never to lose focus of who we can be. We can learn from Rabbi Morgenstern and Boruch that the greatest gift we can give people is to help them see their own potential for greatness and encourage them to reach that potential. Our spouses, our children, our friends and co-workers:  love them, encourage them, compliment them and most of all, believe in them.

And never forget:  believe in yourself and do all it takes to be what you can be!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Toldos – All You Have To Do Is Ask

Have you ever brought an awesome proposal to your boss – one that would make your work easier, the company more efficient and bring in more clients – only to have it REJECTED? You are convinced it’s a winning idea, so you present it again. You lay out all the data, explain the principles behind the changes and believe the chief “gets it.”  And again, you are REJECTED. You’re disappointed, but you try again. Should you now be surprised when he throws you out of his office, saying, “Stop wasting your time and get back to your job. No means NO!”

Our Parsha opens by telling us that Yitzchak and Rivka were extremely persistent people: “Vaye’etar Yitzchok lenochach ishtoh“, “Yitzchok entreated Hashem opposite his wife” (Toldos 25:21). The word vaye’etar is rare, so Rashi defines it: Yitzchak and Rivka kept imploring Hashem, over and over, to grant them a child. This seems to border on being disrespectful and insolent: why keep asking after Hashem has clearly said “NO!”?

Let’s be honest.  This question doesn’t just apply to Yitzchak and Rivka. It applies to the tefillos (prayers) of each and every one of us. We daven three times a day and repeat the same requests over and over- perhaps for a sick person, perhaps for a marriage partner, or perhaps for one’s livelihood.  Why is it okay to ask for the same things over and over; shouldn’t we just make our requests and trust that Hashem has heard them and will do as He wills? I believe the following story (from With All Your Heart by Rabbi Binyomin Pruzansky) will help us understand.

There was a young boy named Dovi who had difficulty keeping up with his class. Dovi tried hard, but his mind would constantly wander; he simply could not follow the reading and discussions. When Dovi’s class started learning Gemara, he was completely lost.  To make matters worse, the boys in his class teased and made fun of him. Finally, the day came when he told his mother he just could not go to school.  After much cajoling, Dovi reluctantly went back to school, continuing to suffer.

One day, the Rebbe asked a question and Dovi uncharacteristically raised his hand to answer. The Rebbe called on him, jumping at the opportunity to build Dovi’s confidence.  To everyone’s surprise, Dovi gave the correct answer.  The next day, his Rebbe noted that Dovi followed along in the Gemara for most of the class.  He was steadily improving. The Rebbe was very pleasantly surprised and he called Dovi’s mother to ask what had led to this wonderful transformation.  

The mother told him, “A few weeks ago, the situation was so bad that Dovi refused to go to school. On that Erev Shabbos, I called Dovi over and suggested that since candle lighting time is an opportune time to daven for Hashem’s help and I was about to light candles, we should daven together that he will merit from Hashem to see the light of Torah in his learning. We davened and cried together.  We did this for a few weeks and, with Hashem’s help, it worked!”

The Gemara in Yevamos 64 explains that the sole reason Hashem created both Yitzchak and Rivka biologically unable to have children, is that Hashem desires the tefillos of the righteous. Rav Shimshon Pincus zt” l explains there is a big difference between asking a person for something and requesting something from Hashem. A person who considers a request and says “no” usually means no.  However, when Hashem does not answer our tefillos for something that is essentially good for us, it’s not because Hashem wants to deny our request.  Rather, it’s to prompt us to ask again. . Hashem wants us to pray to Him and get close to Him, so when we get what we prayed for, we realize that it came from Hashem.

Rav Pincus learns a novel idea from this. The term “masmid” is generally used for someone who sits and studies Torah at every opportunity, with diligence and without interruptions. From the Rashi defining Vaye’etar, we now learn of a new type of “masmid“:  a “masmid” in tefilla!

Hashem does not get annoyed at such a masmid. On the contrary, this is what He wants, that every one of us should be turned to Him at all moments for all of our needs, asking and asking. Our very first request, even before the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei, is: “Hashem sefosai tiftach…” – Hashem, open my lips.  – Hashem, give me the ability to turn to you and pray to you.

Hashem’s door is always open. His appointment book is never full.  We just have to ask and if it’s really important, to keep asking.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayera – Choosing Your Academy

Everyone would love to be trained by the best experts, be it in school, college, work, or Yeshiva. People pay top dollar and even intern for free to be trained by the best in their profession. Often that can mean the difference between success and failure in what we do.

After learning about Avraham Avinu, wouldn’t we want him to be our spiritual guide and anchor as we attempt to grow in our closeness to Hashem? The truth is…we can. Looking at a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, we discover how. “Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our forefather Avraham … a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul.” (5:22)

There’s a flipside to the Mishnah: “Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.” Apparently, the time gap is not an issue and we can join the “academy” of either Avraham Avinu or Bilaam, learning from the qualities of either individual. The Parshiyos of Lech Lecha, Vayeira and Chayei Sarah are replete with lessons we learn from Avraham. Conversely, Parshas Balak is replete with negative lessons that can be learned from Bilaam!

Why are Avraham and Bilaam singled out? What’s the common denominator of the three positive qualities of Avraham and the three negative qualities of Bilaam?

The Maharal explains that both Avraham and Bilaam were founding fathers. Avraham is an acronym for “av hamon goyim,” a father of a multitude of nations (Rashi, Lech Lecha 17:5). Bilaam was also a leader and father of nations. He was the first gentile prophet. However, their ideologies and lifestyles were polar opposites. They represented a distinct fork in the road for a person choosing his direction in life.

The Maharal opens our eyes to the root of the ideologies of these “founding fathers” by examining a seemingly inconsequential detail about both Avraham and Bilaam. The Torah mentions that Avraham and Bilaam rode on a donkey.  However, different Hebrew words for donkey are used in each case. Avraham saddled his chamor – male donkey, while Bilaam saddled his asson – she-donkey. This small difference highlights the basic difference in their ideologies. The root of the word Chamor is the same as the root of Chomer – physical matter/ physicality. The donkey in effect represents physicality.

The Torah is depicting a very fundamental difference in how Avraham and Bilaam related to the physicality of the world. Avraham Rochev al Hachomer; he rode on top of the physical. He showed an ability to harness the physical world as a tool for spiritual growth. Conversely, Bilaam related totally to the physicality of this world, in a very intimate, very attached and deeply connected manner. He even harnessed the spiritual to feed his desire for the physical.

Keeping in mind the Maharal’s analysis, having a “good eye” means using one’s efforts to help others and to be humble and content, instead of seeking to please oneself. To Avraham, that meant setting up a free “bed and breakfast,” housing and feeding all passersby and using that opportunity to nourish their neshamos (souls) as he introduced them to the realization that Hashem is really the One who blessed them with food and housing.

Bilaam was the paradigm of selfishness.  His three motivating qualities–evil eye, arrogant spirit, and greedy soul, are manifestations of the three base negative urges: jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor. Bilaam always felt he was missing something and always sought to feed his desires. This exemplifies someone who is interwoven with the physical. He always feels he is lacking and wants more.

We see the end result of their divergent paths when the Torah describes Avraham and Bilaam toward the end of their lives. Avraham died at a good old age, mature, and content and left this world with a multitude of positive accomplishments. Conversely, “Bilaam rose and returned to his place,” lame, blind in one eye and disgraced as a result of his total failure to accomplish anything positive.  

The lesson for us is clear.  Many people would love their children to attend their alma mater, be it yeshiva or university. The Mishnah, however, lists only two academies, Avraham or Bilaam.  Our perspective towards the physical world will determine of whom we are disciples and which academy we are attending and learning from. Let us adopt the warm and giving personality of Avraham and utilize our efforts for true tikun olam– using the physical world for the spiritual development of ourselves and our fellow man. May we merit to be not just children of Avraham, but his disciples as well.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Lech Lecha – GPS Not Required

The Parsha opens with Hashem commanding Avraham Avinu, “Go to the land which I will show you.” The obvious question is: why the vague directive?  Why did Hashem not immediately tell Avraham his exact destination? Rashi quotes the Midrash that it was to give Avraham reward for every step that he took. Yet the question seemingly remains: wouldn’t Avraham still receive reward with every step, just for following Hashem’s command, even if he knew his destination?

Let’s explain with a story.  It was a beautiful morning in the old city of Jerusalem. Rachel Auerbach was leaving her house to pick up some fresh rolls for her children and almost tripped on a basket on her front doorstep.  She looked down and there was a cute little baby sleeping in the basket, with a letter attached.  The letter read, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Auerbach.  I am a young mother and I have a severe emotional and mental disorder. I am incapable of caring for my child.  You have a reputation of being warm, compassionate and hospitable.  I plead to you to take care of Dovid.  I know you will raise him well.  Thank you.”

The Auerbachs searched for the mother, but no one had a clue who she might be.  They considered the situation and decided to adopt Dovid as one of their own.  Years passed.  Dovid graduated high school.  The Auerbachs felt it was time to let Dovid know the whole story.  Dovid was shocked.  Dovid took the news pretty hard and although the Auerbachs took wonderful care of Dovid, he felt a sense of abandonment.  Dovid’s schoolwork and behavior deteriorated dramatically. As much as the Auerbachs tried to help, nothing seemed to work.  By Elul, his Rosh Yeshiva told him that he needed to “shape up or ship out.” His misbehavior continued, and he was asked to leave the Yeshiva.  The next yeshiva also turned out to be a failure.  He floundered.

Elul came again, and Dovid joined a new yeshiva.  Now he soared, becoming a top student.  The Auerbachs were ecstatic!   What caused the sudden turnaround?  Time went by, and Dovid was about to get married.  The night before the wedding, he sat down with his stepparents and thanked them for raising him.  “I owe you an apology and an explanation,” Dovid said. “I know you are probably still wondering what caused my erratic behavior and the sudden change for the better.  During the month of Elul, I was reciting L’Dovid Hashem Ori and said the pasuk “for my father and mother have abandoned me.”  I began to cry.  I pictured my mother leaving me.  But then I considered the end of the pasuk, “but Hashem has gathered me in.” Suddenly, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of calm.  That was my turning point. I went from feeling unwanted, to feeling incredibly precious and cradled in the hands of Hashem, Who gave me you as my parents!  Feeling Hashem’s presence allowed me to turn my life around.”

Now we can see the answer. If Hashem had told Avraham where to go, he would still have gotten his reward for each step, but by accepting to “go to a land that I will show you,” Avraham walked into the unknown, placing himself completely in Hashem’s hands. We can now better understand why Hashem elaborated, “from your land, and from your birthplace and from your father’s house.”  Avraham was abandoned by his parents spiritually and now he was leaving any connection with them. “For my father and mother have abandoned me, but Hashem has taken me in.”

One of the most unsettling feelings in life is not knowing what will take place in the future.  We make plans but we never know what will actually happen.  Leave early to work and there is major traffic that makes you late. Go to sleep early to be well rested for the next day, and your child wakes you up in middle of the night.

We constantly live in a state of uncertainty – “To the land that I will show you.” There are two ways to handle this. We can get anxious, over-plan and be upset when plans sometime don’t work out…OR we can put our total trust in the hands of Hashem and feel secure that Hashem is leading us in the proper direction.  Which approach do you think will give you a true sense of calm?

This week’s Parsha helps us walk in Avraham’s ways, teaching us that Hashem is always leading us in the way that is best for us. We needn’t worry because every step we take is with Hashem’s guidance. Google Maps and Waze are useful tools, but Hashem is our ultimate Guide!


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Noach – Re-entry And Transition

The most dangerous part of a space shuttle mission, more than blast-off, is its re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. When the spacecraft has ended its space mission, it must re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at a precise angle or it will burn up.

When the waters of the flood subsided, Noach was instructed to leave the teivah (ark) and start the world anew.  Noach, too, needed to properly re-enter the land and start a new beginning.

The Nesivos Shalom compares a Sukkah to the teivah. Both the teivah and the Sukkah cocoon its dwellers from the physical and spiritual dangers of the surrounding world.  Rav Wolbe points out that at the close of the Yomim Noraim and Sukkot period in which we experienced a spiritual blast-off, we too must re-enter our “mundane” daily schedules properly, or we can lose all the gains from this entire time period.

Let us learn from Parshas Noach how to “re-enter” properly. Upon exiting the teivah, Noach offered sacrifices and thanked Hashem for sparing him and his family. He then set forth to work the land and planted a vineyard to start growing food. However, the Torah takes Noach to task for his planting priority, describing the planting as Vayachel Noach” (Bereishis 9:20). The commentators discuss the definition of this word “Vayachel”. Rashi says it is related to the word “chol“, meaning mundane or ordinary. The Sforno relates Vayachel to the word “techila”, beginning. All the commentators point out that this is a criticism of Noach for choosing to plant grapes as the first crop. Noach thereby debased himself by planting grapes, for wine, before anything else.

But why is Noach being criticized for planting grapes which are used to produce wine and tied to kedusha. All of our holy celebrations – weddings, bris milahs, every kiddush –  are in fact sanctified over a cup of wine. Furthermore, Hashem commanded Noach to take vines into the teivah to replant after the Flood. So why is the criticism of Noach justified? Rav Yerucham Levovitz, famed Mashgiach of Mir Yeshiva in Poland, explains that if we analyze Rashi’s words carefully, we will see that the criticism is regarding Noach’s decision to plant the vines before a different crop…wheat.

Planting a vineyard was important for our holy ceremonies but it brought with it the danger of indulgence in luxury. In contrast, planting wheat was a necessity; wheat is the “mateh lechem” (Vayikra, 26:26), the staff of life, the basic staple of man’s diet. The Torah is criticizing Noach’s priorities- he should have planted wheat before the vines. By planting a vineyard first, he actually made the wine chol, not kadosh. It went from being special and luxurious to being common and ordinary; hence vayaCHeL. The Torah makes this clear with the words that precede his planting: “Noach became a man of the earth, and he planted…” He had been so spiritual previously (offering a sacrifice) and now he was “earthy.”

Prioritizing is crucial. We are involved in prioritizing each and every day: our jobs, family issues, calls, emails, texts and so on. It’s up to us to sort out what to do and when to do it. As we see from the Sforno above, beginnings are crucial! Beginnings set the course for the final destination; a small deviation at the beginning of a journey will cause us to arrive at an entirely different destination.

Now we understand why the Shulchan Aruch says that after Yom Kippur, one should immediately start to work on his Sukkah. Transitions – ending one event and getting off to the right start on another – are vital!

We must be careful to restart our year with the goals we set for ourselves during the Yamim Noraim. Many times, we shoot for the stars and fall flat.  We then abort the mission.  Small, but firm steps create a reliable new path. And often, we’ll need wise counsel to keep our new ways without stumbling.  We need to build on our goals based on the foundations and concepts we have absorbed during the last two months of Elul through Sukkos and thereby continue to increase our closeness to Hashem.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Sukkos – From Vulnerability To Security

I have such wonderful memories and warm feelings for the Yom Tov of Sukkos.  I remember the solid wood, green-painted Sukkah of my grandparents in Boston. I can vividly picture the Sukkah of my parents in Monsey.  And today, I can’t wait to reconnect with my Sukkah here in Passaic. The wind, the cold that blows through sometimes-it doesn’t matter. It’s quite strange how this small, flimsy shack conjures up such warm feelings.  Practically speaking, it’s a hut that pales in size, comfort, aesthetics and luxury to our homes, yet it creates for us such beautiful memories.

We are instructed to leave our solid homes to live in a Sukkah (a temporary structure) for seven days.  Paradoxically, the Torah calls Sukkos the holiday of happiness: “Vehayisa Ach Somayach” (you shall be completely happy). Further, the Torah calls it “chag ha’asif” – the holiday of gathering – since it’s the time to harvest and gather all the produce from the past year. At this time of plenty, we celebrate by moving into a flimsy shack with a roof that will let in the rain. As we rejoice over Hashem’s gifts to us, shouldn’t we be sitting in our comfortable dining room to eat the festive meals?

The Chidushei Harim enlightens us that every holiday is endowed with a special attribute that we develop.  In Shema, we list three areas in which we must dedicate ourselves entirely to Hashem: our heart, our life and our money. The Chidushei Harim aligns these three with the three major holidays of Pesach – all our heart; Shavuos – all our life; and Sukkos – all our money. Conversely, there are three primary evil character traits: jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor (Pirkei Avos), which are offset by dedicating ourselves entirely to Hashem with the three positive areas listed in Shema: “All our heart” counters jealousy; “all our life” counters lust and “all our money” counters pursuit of honor.

The focus of Sukkos is serving Hashem with “all our money” by actually foregoing our monetary possessions.  Even though we adorn and decorate our Sukkah, few among us would be comfortable welcoming guests into their Sukkah all year round. This helps us mitigate our pursuit of honor. Instead, we focus on simcha – a pure sense of spiritual happiness where we joyfully honor Hashem instead of being concerned with our personal possessions.

A simple story helps to illustrate. Mr. James had purchased a rare Bordeaux at an auction for $7,800. He invited a few good friends to join him for a fancy dinner celebrating his 60th birthday at a country club. The friends arrived dressed in their finest.  All were eagerly awaiting the opening of the prestigious bottle which was scheduled after the appetizer. The moment came and the white-gloved waiter walked in with the bottle balanced on a silver platter. You could hear a pin drop. Just as the waiter reached the table, he slipped!  The bottle sailed through the air and shattered on the floor! All the guests, fully attired in tuxedos and custom gowns dived to the floor and began to lick up the wine. That night, a taste of the luxurious wine was worth more than their dignity and honor.

This story demonstrates that when something is truly valuable to us, we don’t care about our personal honor. We now understand why sitting in a Sukkah is so meaningful. The Chovos Halevavos tells us that true happiness comes from placing our entire reliance on Hashem. Each Sukkos, we show this to be true by leaving our secure and comfortable homes to live in a hut for seven days, as Hashem commands us.

It’s true that financial security may help a person feel happier. However, the federal government only guarantees about $100,000 – $250,000 in a bank account.  Mutual funds, real estate and stocks may suddenly sink in value. You can literally be rich one day and poor the next. Only Hashem can truly guarantee financial security.

True simcha – happiness comes from something that has real value.  Our relationship with Hashem, as we demonstrate by performing mitzvos, is priceless. It helps guarantee both our spiritual and physical happiness. This explains why Sukkos is truly a time for happiness.

Sometimes we are concerned about what others will think, so we hesitate to perform certain mitzvos, such as wearing a yarmulke or wearing tzitzis in public, stopping lashon hara in a conversation, or praying in a public area.  Sitting outdoors in our simple Sukkah, putting aside our own possessions and sense of importance – orients our values and priorities for the entire year.  It shows our trust in Hashem and empowers us to embrace all our mitzvos…with joy and without hesitation.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Yom Kippur – The Opportunity Of Neila

This Shabbos there will be no Kiddush, no challah and no cholent.   For many, there will be no Shabbos nap either. This Shabbos is Yom Kippur.  And because it’s Shabbos, we will also be omitting a tefillah that is normally a hallmark of our Yom Kippur davening:  Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, since we do not make personal requests on Shabbos.

However, during the final tefillah of the day, during “Neilah,” we will nonetheless recite Avinu Malkeinu.   Why does Neilah trump the power of Shabbos, which silences us from reciting Avinu Malkeinu all the other times in the Yom Kippur davening?

The following moving story suggests an answer.  Yoni often visited the Jewish patients in the local nursing home, helping the elderly men attend the minyan and don their tefillin. There was one Jewish man, Mr. Neumann, who refused to attend the minyan. Yoni always greeted him with a cheerful, “Good Morning,” only to receive a curt reply.  One day, the minyan was short one man, and Yoni decided he had no choice but to ask Mr. Neumann.  “Mr. Neumann, we need a tenth man for the minyan; can you please come?   You don’t need to do anything, just be there,” said Yoni.   Mr. Neumann hesitated, but finally agreed.  “I’ll just sit in the back.  And don’t ask me to put on tefillin!” he said emphatically.

While wheeling out of his room with Yoni, Mr. Neumann suddenly said, “Wait!  Please take that bag along for me.” “Ok” replied Yoni, grabbing the bag.  They reached the back of the minyan room, and everyone came over to thank Mr. Neumann for joining them. Half way through davening, Mr. Neumann motioned to Yoni to come over.  Yoni was taken aback as he saw Mr. Neumann pulling up his sleeve and removing a pair of tefillin from the bag he had taken.  “Can you help me put this on?” he said. Yoni helped Mr. Neumann, and soon, both had tears in their eyes.  Mr. Neumann was now a full participant in the minyan.

Back in his room, Mr. Neumann’s demeanor had clearly improved. You could tell he wanted to talk.  “I made my father very happy today,” said the 83-year-old Mr. Neumann to Yoni.  “When I was 12 years old, my father and I were captured by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz.  My Bar Mitzvah was approaching and my father told me he was going to find me tefillin to wear.  The night before my Bar Mitzvah, my father told me he found tefillin, but they were across the camp.  It was dangerous, but there was no stopping him. He silently snuck to other side of the camp and I waited nervously for his return. He loved me and wanted me to wear tefillin on my Bar Mitzvah.  I caught sight of him across the yard, holding a bag and making his way back. I was hoping and praying he would be safe. Suddenly, lights went on, a guard yelled out, and there was the sound of gunfire.  My father was gone.  I cried my eyes out.  When the guards left, I ran over. My father was still clutching the bag of tefillin. With tears still in my eyes, I took the bag and went back to my barracks.  The next morning was my Bar Mitzvah day.  I looked at the tefillin, but I couldn’t put them on.  All I could think about was the tragedy that I experienced on the previous day.

It has now been 70 years.  These are the tefillin my father gave his life to obtain for me.  Today I took the tefillin just in case, and after I came to the minyan, I was inspired to put them on.  Today I made my father happy,” said Mr. Neumann.

We are concluding a 40-day time period, spanning Elul, Selichos, Rosh Hashanah, and the Aseres Yemei Teshuva (ten days of repentance).   The last prayer of Yom Kippur is Neilah, when Hashem, our Father, is waiting for us to return to him.  He has been waiting patiently for us, just like Mr. Neumann’s father was waiting. Like Mr. Neumann, we also have certain circumstances and personal issues holding us back.  But Hashem, our Father, is still waiting for us to do what we know is right and thereby be close to Him.  That’s why we say Avinu Malkeinu at the close of Yom Kippur, even on Shabbos, calling out to our Father to take us back. We can no longer restrain ourselves. That is the time He awaits us with outstretched arms.  Let’s make our Father, and ourselves, happy.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Getting Excited For Selichos

How lucky we are to have the gift of the Torah and to enjoy the results of our striving to get closer to Hashem.

When Hagaon Harav Shach zt”l was a young boy, his parents sent him to learn in Yeshiva, first in Ponevezh, then Slabodka and then Slutsk. He had almost nothing – little food and ragged clothes – yet he learned Torah day and night. When World War I broke out, he tried in vain to find his beloved parents, but he would never see them again. He was a shy person, reluctant to ask for help. He lived in the Beis Hamedrash, sleeping on a bench and surviving on some small scraps of food that a lady in town would bring him. Rav Shach later said, “If I wrote all the sorrows and worries of my life, the book would be thicker than my four-volume set – “Avi Ezri” – that I wrote.  I had no worldly pleasures. Nevertheless, from the day I was mature until now, I have been the richest and happiest man in the world.  I never had a moment in my life that I was not happy, because I was learning Torah!”

Parshas Ki Savo has one of the most perplexing verses in the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the 98 curses of the Tochecha (admonitions) listed in the Parsha and warns that all this will happen to you, “Tachas asher lo avadata es Hashem Elokecha B’Simcha“- Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d with rejoicing (Ki Savo 28:47) Yet, to serve Hashem with Simcha is not one of the 613 mitzvos.  So how can it be that the punishment for not serving Hashem with Simcha is this whole list of 98 curses?  

Hagaon Harav Avrohom Schorr explains that the Torah is not telling us the direct reason for these terrible punishments.  Rather, it is indicating the underlying cause for the person going off and doing so many sins. We humans are pleasure seekers and if we do not find simcha in serving Hashem, we look for pleasures elsewhere.  So the cause for all the curses is really the performance of all the sins which arise from the pursuit of physical pleasure and enjoyment, in order to fill the void caused by not having simcha from serving Hashem.

A discerning reader will no doubt ask: “Could it be that man is so base that his whole life centers around pleasure?” The answer is yes!  As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says in the opening of Mesilas Yesharim: man was created for pleasure and the greatest pleasure is connection to Hashem. Indeed, our lives center around pleasure; however, we do have a choice. We can govern our lives based on strictly physical pleasures, or we can aim higher, seeking spiritual pleasure by connecting with Hashem.

Finding and developing our enjoyment in learning Torah and serving Hashem yields the ultimate pleasure- a platform for infinite growth and connection to Hashem. Rav Shach, in the story noted above, experienced this sweet enjoyment and we all have the capacity to experience (and in many cases already experience) this sweet enjoyment as well.

But truthfully:  how do we generate this genuine happiness in serving Hashem if we just don’t feel it?  The answer is simple: by recognizing all the good Hashem bestows upon us, every single day.  Elul is the very best time to make our accounting for Rosh Hashanah and review this past year. We need to recognize the Hand of Hashem in everything we have:  food, clothing, house, spouse, children. When we recognize every gift Hashem has given us, and keeps giving us, that will bring us true joy.

The week prior to Rosh Hashanah, we start waking early and reciting Selichos.  Certainly, we need all those prayers for mercy, but why specifically do we wake early in the morning? Normally, we wake early because we have trouble sleeping, because we have a job or responsibility, or because we are excited about the coming day.  In the case of waking up early for Selichos, being excited about the opportunity to say Selichos early to get closer to Hashem, is what we want to aim for.

The opportunity to connect with our Creator in a meaningful way and come closer to Him is the source of the greatest happiness.  For this, we pray every day in the blessings of the Torah: “V’ha’arev Na Hashem Elokeinu es Divrei Torahsecha” Hashem, please cause us to taste the sweetness of your Torah.

May our taste of Torah be as sweet as the coming New Year.