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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Toldos – Fulfilling Our Birthright

Last year, Parshas Toldos was the occasion of the pidyon haben (redeeming the firstborn) of the older of our twin grandsons. For my own family, this was a brand-new mitzvah, as our oldest children were twin girls. The firstborn rights play a prominent role in Parshas Toldos, where Yaakov purchases Eisav’s birthright.

Eisav returned from the field exhausted and famished, seeing Yaakov cooking lentil soup. Eisav asked Yaakov to serve him some of the red broth, with Yaakov replying, “Sure, I’ll give you the soup in exchange for your rights of the firstborn.” It’s a nice story, but purchasing firstborn rights was not so simple. Jewish law says one cannot sell a “davar shelo ba l’olam,” something that is not yet in his possession. The firstborn had the right to serve as a kohen in the Beis Hamikdash, which did not yet exist! If the seller did not yet have the opportunity to serve as a kohen, how was the sale legally binding?

The Ohr Hachaim explains Yaakov was aware of this issue and used a legal exception that permits the sale of a davar shelo ba l’olam that has the value of no more than a day’s worth of food. (This exception was designed to help poor people sell merchandise they were soon to receive.) That’s why Yaakov used the words “michrah kayom”—“sell to me ‘today’” your birthright, in exchange for a day’s worth of food, which Eisav desperately wanted.

Another legal problem: The firstborn’s birthright entitles him to prestige and honor, which is a davar she’ein bo mamash—something intangible. One cannot sell prestige with a classic transaction, as it is not a physical item. So how was the sale valid? The Ohr Hachaim explains that’s why Yaakov told Eisav “to swear” regarding the sale: The actual transaction would not bind Eisav, but the oath would require Eisav to keep his word regarding the transfer of the birthright.

Clearly, all these issues must have been on Yaakov’s mind for quite a while. Purchasing the bechora was a priority for Yaakov; otherwise, why would Yaakov’s first reaction to Eisav’s request for lentil soup be to sell it for the firstborn rights?

The birthright represents the spiritual purpose of the firstborn, both in terms of serving as a kohen and providing spiritual leadership. The Torah opens with the word “Bereishis,” in the beginning, but Rashi translates the word Bereishis using the Midrash’s interpretation, “The world was created for the purpose of the Reishis—the First.” The First refers to klal Yisrael together with the Torah, as they are referred to in various pesukim. The purpose of the creation of the world was for klal Yisrael to learn and keep the Torah.

One of the explanations for the intent of the mitzvah of pidyon habechor is that Hashem wants to impress on us that the purpose of raising a family is to serve Hashem. Therefore, the firstborn son is designated “holy for Hashem” and needs to be redeemed from physically, as opposed to spiritually, serving Hashem.

The Targam Yonosan ben Uziel tells us that when Eisav returned from the field tired and hungry, he had committed the cardinal sins of murder (killing Nimrod), adultery and idol worship. That day, Eisav demonstrated his goal and purpose was to live a hedonistic, self-gratifying life, disregarding the Torah’s commandments

The Gemara tells us that was the day Avraham passed away. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that precisely on that day the descendants of Avraham chose whether to carry out the direction of their grandfather. Yaakov, who heard about the abhorrent actions of Eisav on that day, realized Eisav had discarded the spiritual world, choosing to live a life driven by temptations and desires. Therefore, Yaakov had to acquire the bechora that day to prevent it from being used for evil.

Beginnings matter: We determine what’s primary and act upon that determination. Thankfully, Hashem gives us many opportunities for “beginnings”: a new month, a new week and a new day. My wife and I always recall our years living in Eretz Yisrael when we would go to the Kosel each Motzei Shabbos to properly begin each new week. Here in the U.S., we had to find other ways to start out each week in a positive manner. Last Motzei Shabbos, for example, I participated in a father-son learning group filled with fathers and their eighth-grade boys. Even playing a nice family game, which helps bring the family closer, can show what’s primary in one’s life.

As Jews, we start each new day with the words “Modeh Ani,” thanking Hashem for waking us up and giving us another day to follow His Torah. As children of Yaakov, we are heirs to the lofty purpose of serving our Creator each day and embracing His Torah. Carpe diem—seize the day and its spiritual opportunities!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Chayei Sarah – Chancing To Find A Designated Shidduch

It was last year in the week of Parshas Chayei Sarah that my older brother, Binyamin, got married to Sarah Miriam Kaplan. Both had been single for many years and never married. They planned for a small wedding, with more friends coming for dancing and a buffet at the end. To their surprise, when they walked down the aisle, every seat was taken, every inch of standing space was filled, and the side rooms and halls were packed! Friends and coworkers were just so elated for them that they had to be there to witness that special ceremony. Everyone who had met them together or attended the wedding had the same reaction. “They are so perfect for each other. How come no one set them up earlier?!”

Parshas Chayei Sarah is known as the parsha of shidduchim, as Avraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer on a mission to find a suitable shidduch (match) for Yitzchak. In the yeshiva Mir Yerushalayim, Rav Eliyahu Boruch Finkel, zt”l, gave his famous yearly shidduchim shiur on Parshas Chayei Sarah, presenting many fundamental concepts on how to find a match and what qualities to look for.

When Eliezer came to Charan, he davened to Hashem, “Hakreh na lefanai…,” Hashem, “may You so chance it for me this day” that a perfect match will approach the well…and please make a sign that I will know she is the one. Why does Eliezer refer to this as a chance occurrence? He is asking Hashem for Divine intervention; clearly this will not be a chance occurrence!!

Rav Hirsch points out the word mikreh—chance—is used in other places in the Torah with a different meaning. In commanding cities of refuge be set up for an accidental murderer, the Torah says, “V’hikreisem lachem arim,” which Rashi translates as “designate cities for yourselves.” Similarly, Yitzchak asks Yaakov, who was impersonating Eisav to obtain Eisav’s bracha, “How did you catch an animal so quickly?” to which Yaakov replied, “Hashem hakreh lefanai, Hashem placed it before me.”

What’s the connection between the two seemingly opposite meanings of mikreh—chance and designate? Further, Rav Hirsch explains that similar-sounding Hebrew words that have different spellings are related in meaning. The root word karah, whose last letter is heh (used in the word mikreh, meaning chance or designate), and the root word kara with an aleph at the end (used in the word mikreh meaning call) are related. When calling someone, you attract their attention and cause them to look toward your direction. A mikreh (chance) occurrence is really a case of something unexpected happening that calls our attention. When a “chance” occurrence happens, it should turn our focus to the One Who caused the chance occurrence—Hashem. The two meanings of the word mikreh with a heh—chance and designate—are really one and the same, as all chance occurrences originate from Hashem, Who designated the occurrence for a special purpose.

But why did Eliezer use this ambiguous terminology of hakreh—make a chance occurrence—when Eliezer was clearly asking for Divine Providence at the moment? Eliezer said “hakreh na lefanai” because he realized that finding the most suitable match for Yitzchak was totally out of his hands. He needed a “chance” occurrence to happen where Hashem would designate a good shidduch for Yitzchak. This teaches us a great lesson in shidduchim: While an individual needs to take the appropriate actions to find a shidduch, it ultimately happens due to Divine Providence.

This is very encouraging for everyone involved in the important mitzvah of trying to set up shidduchim. We need not get despondent if our efforts do not initially materialize, as Hashem makes it happen; it is totally out of our hands. We make the effort and offer our suggestions and Hashem does the rest..

My friend Betzalel Wagner told me an incredible insight that Rav Meir Stern, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah of Passaic, shares with each chasan and kallah. “Although a shadchan might have set you up, the real shadchan was Hashem. As the Gemara says, Hashem makes zivugim—Hashem makes the matches. Clearly, it was Hashem’s intervention that made this shidduch appealing to you, guiding you to select one person over another and helping you make your final decision to marry each other. However, after the match is sealed at the wedding, each new married couple is given the full power over their relationship. It is as if Hashem hands you the keys to your car to drive away on your own.”

May Hashem provide shidduchim for all those looking and may Hashem give married couples the tools to maintain a beautiful and healthy marriage.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayera – Receiving by Giving: Following the Mitzvos

Rabbi Yoel Gold told the following story: Yaakov was accepted into a prestigious law school that had no other religious Jews. Despite this, he decided to wear his yarmulke and tzitzis openly. Upon graduation, the school hosted major law firms for interviews. Yaakov faced the dilemma again: Should he continue to openly show his observance? The morning of his interview with a desirable law firm, he decided not to wear his yarmulke and tzitzis. As he entered the room to meet the “power attorney” who could hire him, he faced…a chasidishe man with a large yarmulke, beard and tzitzis. He said, “We selected you from all the other students because we heard you wore your yarmulke and tzitzis for your four years in law school. A person who sticks to his values so well—that’s what we want for our firm. But I see you do compromise on your values. We are no longer interested.” Yaakov lost the job, but learned a lesson for life.

There is a different story with a better outcome. After being out of work for over a year, Abe was very excited to land a new position. Abe asked his rav if he was permitted to shake hands with women in his office. His rav replied he may not. Abe was worried. “If I am so rigid, I may make a bad impression.” He heard some opinions permit it but he decided to follow his rav and not “shop around” for a more lenient opinion. When Abe arrived, his manager said, “I would like you to meet Pat. She will be introducing you to the other members in the office.” Pat stuck out her hand. Politely, Abe said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I apologize, but as a religious man I don’t have physical contact with a different gender.” “Oh, I’m so sorry to place you in an uncomfortable position,’’ said Pat. “Come, let me introduce you to the rest of the team.” Pat introduced him to several female team members, but each time, before the team member stuck out her hand, Pat said, “Abe is a religious man and doesn’t shake hands with women.” Once I took the first step, thought Abe, Hashem cleared the way. “If I would have shaken Pat’s hand, I would have to shake the hand of every other woman in all future interactions.”

There is a special blessing Hashem accords to those who follow in His mitzvos, especially when it puts them at odds with the worldview. The Midrash quotes a pasuk in Iyov, “V’achar ori nikfu zos,” and the midrash explains that this refers to many more people being drawn in after Avraham performed the bris milah on himself. Why? Avraham and Sarah had been bringing people close to Hashem and making them Jewish for decades prior to the bris milah. The Sfas Emes explains that objectively, the requirement to perform a bris milah for any male who wanted to be Jewish might sabotage Avraham’s ability to bring people closer to Hashem. As convincing as Avraham and Sarah were, once people would hear this requirement, they might say, “Sorry, I’m not willing to do that!” Yet Avraham went ahead with Hashem’s command, and after his bris milah, many more people converted than before!

A similar challenge occurred with regard to the Akeida (sacrifice of Yitzchak). Rav Shach explains that Avraham had been teaching for years that Hashem is compassionate and caring. If Avraham were to slaughter the only child born to him and Sarah in their old age at Hashem’s direction, surely people would scoff and dismiss him. Nonetheless, Avraham went against his own instincts to follow Hashem’s command.

Rav Tzadok Hakohen says this is the rule for any mitzvah: It must be followed no matter what people may say, and he lists an example. A Jewish farmer must separate terumos and ma’asros from produce grown in Eretz Yisrael, which totals 20% of the yield. Seemingly, this is a significant loss to the farmer. The pasuk says “aser ta’aser,” you shall surely tithe. The Gemara notes that the root letters of the word ta’aser are the same as those for osher, wealth. In using the same word twice, Hashem is giving a blessing: If you tithe, you will gain wealth. Thus the cost of giving terumah and ma’aser, instead of creating a loss, will actually yield a monetary gain! There is one condition, however. Reb Tzadok says the blessing is given only when the mitzvah is performed lishma—altruistically.

In everyday life we encounter situations in which we may feel tempted to compromise our observance of halacha, since it appears our observance will result in a loss. We learn from the above instances that if we don’t compromise our principles, we will merit an increase in blessing and extra help from Hashem to perform each mitzvah in its most optimal form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Pasaic Torah Institute – Taking Advantage Of Elul

Like many people, I took my family on a little end-of-summer getaway. We loved it—change of scenery, peace and quiet; a respite before the rush of fall activities begins. This year we ended up finding a newly renovated five-bedroom home in Fleischmanns, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. It’s a tiny place known for its Jewish hotel called Oppenheimer’s. Sure enough, we felt we entered a different world up there. No hustle and bustle. Even quiet by mountain standards! Locals drove their pickup trucks and people like me drove their minivans. Nearby, we saw a retreat for Satmar chasidim with a small Satmar camp and yeshiva, plus a new shul. The air was clean, the stars were bright at night. It was just what we needed.

The Jewish calendar now puts us in the month of Elul. For many, this time of year can get overlooked because of summer plans and trips and the whirlwind of getting ready for a new school year. Often, we might only begin to think about Rosh Hashanah when Selichos begin.

It’s not surprising that some people associate Elul with a feeling of nervousness. It’s a time to focus on changing for the better…Rosh Hashanah is coming! Perhaps that’s why many people don’t like thinking about Elul—there’s so much at stake! However, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explains that Elul should evoke a feeling of great joy, as it’s a truly auspicious time. In no other time period does Hashem openly make Himself so available to us. Elul is a gift!

Rav Wachtfogel equates Elul to spending time in a remote vacation village. We take ourselves outside our “normal” world to cocoon with the Almighty! I look back now at my time in Fleischmanns, New York, with a whole new motivational perspective.

Many pesukim allude to this 40-day period. One famous one is “ani l’dodi ve dodi li”—I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. Here, the first letters in these four words spell Elul. The Mishna Berura points out these four words all end with the letter yud, which has the numerical value of ten. The sum of these last four letters equals 40, alluding to this 40-day period.

The Bnei Yissaschar notes the minimum size of a mikveh is 40 seah of water and equates the period of Elul through Yom Kippur to a mikvah. Forty seah is equal to 960 pugin (measurement used in time of the Gemara), which is the same number of hours found in 40 days. When we emerge, we are new and purified.

The mazal (Zodiac sign) for the month of Elul is a besulah (an unmarried girl), signifying this time period is one of creating a new relationship and marriage with Hashem. The start of any relationship needs quality time and attention. As expressed in Parshas Ki Seitzei, the first year of marriage absolves a man from his army service, as he needs to be home with his new wife to develop their relationship. The month of Elul provides us with the opportunity to renew our relationship with Hashem and we need to invest time to develop this relationship.

With every step we take to get closer to Hashem, He takes a step closer to us. Everything we do pays dividends and catapults us further! In many airports you’ll see “moving floors.” Some people stand on them for the ride, not having to walk. Personally, I get a thrill to walk on them and see myself zooming by the people walking on the regular floor. Every step I take, I move at double or triple the speed! This is Elul. Every positive move we make to increase our commitment to Torah and mitzvos propels us forward spiritually for the rest of the year.

We have a gift in this 40-day period between Elul and Yom Kippur. We can accomplish so much more. Now is the time to sow simple seeds and watch them grow. With every little increase in Torah study, starting a new shiur, focusing a bit more on just one part of our davening, making a phone call to someone who needs our help—the payoff in making these efforts is huge.

A student of mine just completed learning the entire Mishna Berura; it took him five years. He studied one page a day. It took focus, persistence and perseverance. A day at a time—and he gained a life-changing accomplishment.

The most effective steps are baby steps—slow and steady wins the race. One small change can transform your Elul…and your life!