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.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Ki Teitzei – Recalculating Our Destination

I was recently in Miami, Florida, for my niece’s wedding. We were driving back to return our rental car next to the airport and catch our return flight to New Jersey. Like everyone else today who needs directions, we typed the address into our phone’s GPS. We dutifully obeyed our GPS and exited, only to hear, “recalculating!” We proceeded back onto the highway in the opposite direction the navigator initially told us and again it said “recalculating.” The third time we heard “recalculating,” we lost all faith in the GPS. We called the rental car agency and discovered it was one of those quirky addresses that doesn’t register correctly with any navigating system and we had to correct our course.

This story is a powerful illustration for a fundamental lesson in Parshas Ki Seitzei, which makes a bar/bas mitzvah teen very nervous. This is the parsha containing the issue of “ben sorer u’moreh,” the wayward child who is executed for his wanton behavior and actions.

What terrible crime did this wayward child commit to warrant capital punishment? The Ramban says it was actually two crimes.  First, he cursed his parents and rebelled against them. Second, he was a glutton for pleasure, transgressing the mitzvah of “Kedoshim tihyu, “You shall be holy,” and the mitzvah of “U’bo sidbokun,” you shall cleave to Hashem.

Seriously though, how can we convict a 13-year-old child for not possessing these high levels of holiness and cleaving to Hashem constantly, when most adults have not yet achieved these goals?

Rebbe Shimon tells us (Sanhedrin 71), “In reality, there never was and never will be a “wayward child” due to all the extremely specific conditions that must be followed to be classified as a ben sorer u’moreh. The reason why the Torah relates to us the whole topic, is to learn the topic and receive reward.” This is most enigmatic – a very detailed mitzvah with no practical application.

Rashi tells us that the crimes of this young adult currently are not deserving of capital punishment; however, he is being judged based on his future actions, for he is destined to become a murderer. Why are we so confident that this young adult will end up a murderer? The Ibn Ezra clarifies it’s clear that this individual’s interest is solely to indulge himself in this world; therefore, he will become an addict of pleasure and will stop at nothing to feed his addiction, even murder! Rav Chaim Friedlander explains that this is the purpose of our learning the topic of ben sorer u’moreh– to teach us the fundamental concept that we are judged based on our agenda and our goals in life.

This is really one of the main reasons why it’s hard for us to relate to Elul and Rosh Hashanah. Rav Yisrael Salanter points out that we get used to doing things out of habit and live our lives on autopilot, assuming that we are going in the right direction, although that may not be the case..  Our final destination is not going to change unless we change our habits, or even better, we change the GPS destination which forms our aspirations and goals for life. Becoming a better person requires looking ahead. We need to see where we are heading. Only then can we can evaluate our goals and possibly change direction for the better.

Last week there was a solar eclipse that was all the talk everywhere, my family included. Many people traveled long distances to states in which they would have a better view of the entire eclipse. Why all the excitement? Because it was out of the ordinary.  We go to sleep and do not think twice whether the sun will rise the next day. We assume the world will continue in its natural path. Therefore, when something happens which is totally different from our expectations, it catches our attention!

As we approach Rosh Hashana, Hashem has set up a reminder for us that things need to change. The daylight hours get shorter, the nights become cooler, and around this area, the leaves start to change color. Change is in the air. This is our signal to re-evaluate our goals, fit more quality time into our days, and embrace and act on the opportunities that come with meaningful change. May we all meet with success in this holy endeavor.

 

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Shoftim And Elul – Giving Us A Chance

Elul…It was a word spoken in hushed tones in the streets of pre-war Europe, such was the awe it evoked. It’s different today, but Elul still brings on many feelings and emotions in Jews everywhere- fear, hope, regret, change…Elul is our path to Rosh Hashanah.

To gain some additional insight into Elul, let’s look at some of the allusions to the month of Elul which are comprised of Roshei Teivos, where the first letter of each word spells the word Elul (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed).  Some of them are: Eesh L’re’eihu Umatanos L’evyonim (Megillas Esther); Ena L’yodo V’samti Lecha (Mishpatim); Es Levavcha V’es L’vav (Netzavim), and Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li (Shir Hashirim).

Why are all these allusions in the form of Roshei Teivos, where the first letters of each word form an intended new word? This is the same as the concept of “Muat Machzik Hamerubah”, something small contains a great deal.

In Rosh Hashanah we create the master plan for the New Year and our Sages teach us that every minute of Rosh Hashanah correlates to the days of the coming year. This same concept is illustrated in the usage of Roshei Teivos. The significance of these Roshei Teivos spelling out Elul, is that Elul also has this inclusive property- the days in the month of Elul have ramifications for the entire year.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the hints to Elul mentioned above, for it has a lot to teach us.  Let’s explain the allusion of Ena L’yodo Vesamti Lecha – Hashem allowed it to happen to him and made a place for him to flee (Mishpatim 21:13). This topic is discussed at length in Parshas Shoftim, which is read at the beginning of Elul.

The Torah teaches us that when someone accidently kills another person, the relatives of the deceased have a license to avenge the blood of their relative by killing the murderer, except in “cities of refuge,” which are havens of security. The allusion to Elul teaches us that the month of Elul is also a haven of security. It’s a safe time period when assuming we have erred, which we all do, we can receive “protection”- we have the opportunity to mend our ways. The cities of refuge were not just asylums but were places where the murderer would be able to refine himself and return back to society rehabilitated.

The custom of blowing the Shofar from the first day in Elul through Rosh Hashanah is based on the Chazal which states that Hashem ordered a shofar blown on Rosh Chodesh Elul when Moshe was ascending the mountain for another forty day period to receive the second set of Luchos.  This helped the Jewish people keep track of the 40-day absence of their beloved leader. This is quite puzzling. Why is this a reason for us to blow the shofar every year? Based on the concept that the days in the month of Elul have ramifications for the entire year, we can explain that we do our marking with the shofar, to signify that we are in a new, rehabilitative time period- the time period of Elul. We mark this defined period of time by reminding ourselves with the blowing of the shofar that each day is an opportunity, and each day is getting that much closer to Rosh Hashanah and our master plan for the new year.

It’s a big challenge. So many of us look at ourselves and say, “Wasn’t I here last year, facing the same challenges, the same weaknesses?  How can this year be different?”  The daily shofar blast is there to wake us up, to let us know that yes, it can be different… if we want it to be… if we try.

Remember your engagement period?  Your first weeks of marriage? It was so fresh, so full of promise and possibilities. Creating the love and solid bonds early on leads to a lifetime relationship.  Elul is Hashem’s gift to us- a time period in which we can create an entirely new relationship without all the baggage of the past years. We can turn back the clock and becomec hasson and kallah again.  Elul is that time.

It can be a challenging process for us, even if the chance to renew our relationship with Hashem after past failures is very appealing. We might think we’ve caused too much pain or become too hardened to return to that pristine state. But Hashem gives us the greatest gift of Teshuvah – which means return- the ability to return to Hashem and to be regarded favorably by Hashem. In Elul, Hashem is offering us an entirely new, fresh relationship without all the pain and scars. Let us all take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Re’eh – How To Cleave To Hashem

This past week, I drove my car to the mechanic and a friend followed me so he could drive me back home. On my way, I noticed a small side street that looked like a shortcut, so I took it. Driving down the small block, something didn’t feel quite right. Suddenly, a car pulled up alongside me and the driver rolled down his window and wagged his finger at me. Then it all came together: I was driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction! Of course, all this time my friend was following right behind me the wrong way on this one-way street! I thought to myself, “It’s incredible how people will follow someone they trust implicitly-even when it’s in the wrong direction.”

One of the last Mitzvos in the Torah is in Parshas Re’eh, “You shall follow after G-d… and to Him you shall cleave” (13:5).

Certainly, following after Hashem will only lead us in the right direction. But, how does one follow after Hashem who is infinite and has no physical manifestations? The Gemara (Sotah 14a) explains, you shall follow after Hashem’s qualities – just as Hashem clothed Adam and Chava, so too we should ensure people have clothes to wear. Just as Hashem visited Avraham Avinu when he was sick after his Bris Milah, so too we should visit the sick ….

And how do we “cleave to Hashem?” Interestingly, Rashi uses the above Gemara which talks about mirroring Hashem’s qualities, to explain how to cleave to Hashem!   

Why does Rashi use this Gemara to explain this Mitzvah of clinging to Hashem when clearly the Gemara is explaining the mitzvah of following after Hashem? Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l explains that Rashi is giving us an entirely new perspective on compassion and caring for others. “Kirvas Elokim li Tov”- Closeness to G-d is what’s good for me,” (Tehillim) says Dovid Hamelech.  

Think about it. Who does not want to get close to Hashem? Yet, how do we do that? Initially, we might think of Tefilla – prayer, or Torah study – which is an excellent start.  When it comes to Chesed, we view it as a very important mitzvah, but not as a mitzvah which unites us with Hashem Himself, as Torah and Tefillah help us to do.  Yet, from this Rashi, we see that simple acts of caring for others constitute clinging to Hashem… literally. Even the small talk needed to make a person feel important and cared for, not to mention picking up an item at a supermarket for your neighbor, or visiting the sick, or listening to what’s bothering someone .. all these constitute clinging to Hashem Himself, just as much as Torah and Tefillah. This is precisely why Rashi quotes this Gemara on the mitzvah of clinging to Hashem, because by performing the mitzvah of following after Hashem’s ways, we then are clinging to Hashem Himself.  

As this Shabbos is Shabbos Mevarchim of the month of Elul, I am reminded of a story which illustrates this point.  

It was the eve of Yom Kippur. The whole town was in shul for Kol Nidrei. The Rabbi concluded his impassioned plea for everyone to do teshuva, and the Chazzan was ready to start Kol Nidrei. Unexpectedly, at this momentous time, the Rav turned to a close shul member and said, “Come with me.” They walked out of the shul and kept going until they reached one of the homes at the far end of town. The Rav knocked on the door. A 12-year-old girl answered the door. She looked weak and ill. “How do you feel?” asked the Rav. “I feel weak, “said the girl.  “Refuah Shleima. I want to wish you a Gmar Chasima Tova. Tell me… did you get a new dress for Yom Tov?” asked the Rav. “I did, but I feel so weak that I haven’t even been thinking about the dress,” replied the girl. “Can you tell me what your dress looks like?” asked the Rav. “Well, it’s pink and has ribbons on the sleeves … .” The girl continued to describe the dress in great detail. Incredibly, the girl’s spirits seemed to perk up as she was talking and color started coming back to her cheeks. “I can even show it to you,” added the girl. She then ran to get the dress and showed it to the Rav. At this point, the girl looked much healthier. “It’s beautiful… the perfect Yom Tov dress! I want to wish you a sweet year,” said the Rav and with that he went back to shul, having accomplished his goal before Yom Kippur.

Small talk. Showing interest and compassion. Chesed. That is the way Hashem wants us to cleave to Him.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Eikev – Listening For The Feet Of Mashiach

Did you ever find yourself sitting in the kitchen, hearing someone’s footsteps coming down the stairs and saying, “Oh, I hear my wife (or son) coming down the stairs. I can tell by the footsteps.”  

This week’s Parsha – and this Dvar Torah – are all about footsteps we need to be able to recognize. We hear them clearly, but we must train ourselves to recognize and respond to them. What am I talking about?

Our Parsha starts with the words, “V’haya Eikev tishmeun…v’shamar ….” – and if you will listen ….. Hashem will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness. The Chidushei Harim explains the word Eikev is referring to the period of time before the coming of Moshiach, a time the Gemara calls Ikvasa D’Meshicha, the footsteps of Moshiach.  What is the connection between the footsteps of Moshiach and our Parsha’s sentence besides the word association?

All the commentators are bothered with the unusual word “Eikev”.  The word usually refers to the heel of the foot (as in the root of the name “Yaakov” who held his brother’s heel.) What does it mean and why is it used here? How is it related to a quality of listening? The simple meaning of the term Eikev here means, “If you listen,” in the sense of, “in exchange for listening.” Rashi explains the word allegorically as referring to Mitzvos that we (figuratively) trample under ourheel. We perceive them as insignificant, due to our limited perspective, and assign them lesser importance, while that might not be the case.

Ramban points out that the word Eikev has many different meanings, among them “Acharis“–the end.  Indeed, the heel is the end point of the body. Therefore, he interprets the sentence to be saying that the end result for listening to Hashem is Hashem will guard His covenant.

A thought occurred to me as I stood in Shul on Tisha B’Av.  On this day of national sadness, we are not allowed to wear leather shoes. Absent leather, our heels are considered to be touching the ground. I thought perhaps that is exactly the point:  Tisha B’Av, the day we are most distant from the Beis Hamikdash, is when we most urgently need to get in touch with the Eikev, the heel, so that we will be grounded. Tisha B’Av will then be capable of catapulting us to Moshiach.  Indeed, Chazal tell us that Tisha B’Av is the birthday of Moshiach!

If we combine all the explanations together, I believe it’s a core life message.  We tend to focus on big goals and ideals. Often, we overlook the little things. Areas we perceive as trivial we might neglect or take for granted.  But in doing so, we are making a mistake.   Those small nuances in Jewish law do matter; they ground us. That’s how Rashi explained Eikev.  If we keep our heels steady on the ground, then we can use our heels to start propelling us forward.  That is what we need to focus on at the end of time when we hear the footsteps of Moshiach.

We are in a very difficult era.  One hundred years ago, the Chofetz Chaim already said that we are close to the coming of Moshiach. What must we do to shorten the time we must wait for Moshiach? We need to use adverse events occurring in this time to cause us to listen to Hashem, to follow his Mitzvos with the appropriate detail and enthusiasm and focus well on our Torah study. We aren’t as perceptive as our ancestors were, so Hashem is sending messages that are less and less subtle! All the political unrest, anti-semitism, and acts of terror are these messages. These events are the footsteps.

We hear the footsteps…but are we willing to recognize the sound and the significance? It’s time we hear with our hearts and minds; really hear! As the word Shema directs, we must not just listen, but fully understand.  By doing that, when we hear the “footsteps” treading near us, we can bring Moshiach into the room! Let’s grab onto the heels of Moshiach by being extremely diligent in our Mitzvos and by applying that “great principle of Torah,” as Rabbi Akiva (whose name also has the root Eikev!) said: “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha,” “Love your friend like you love yourself.” If we can listen carefully to each other’s hearts, we will be more finely attuned to the footsteps of Moshiach. May it be Hashem’s will that we hear those footsteps and respond appropriately, so that the sweetest sound our ears hear are the dancing of our own feet with Moshiach in the Holy City of Yerushalayim.