Rabbi Yehonsan Gefen – Rosh Hashanah – The Mood Of The Day

One of the most perplexing aspects of Rosh HaShana is the seemingly contradictory sources about whether It is a happy day or a serious day:  The Gemara states that we do not say Hallel on Rosh HaShana.  It records that the Angels asked HaShem why this is the case: HaShem answers: “Can it be that the King is sitting on the throne of judgment and the books of the living and the dead are open before Him, and the Jewish people are singing[4]?!”

Yet, the Midrash has a different approach: “It is the way of the world that if one has a judgment pending, he wears black clothing, leaves his beard unkempt, and doesn’t trim his nails, for he doesn’t know how his judgment will turn out.  However, the Jewish people are not like that; they wear white clothing, trim their beards and nails, and eat, drink and rejoice on Rosh HaShana, for they know that the Holy One, Blessed is He, will perform a miracle for them [and give their judgment a favorable outcome][5]”.

On the one hand, there is a very serious element on the day, to the extent that it is inappropriate to say Hallel.  On the other hand, we are confident that HaShem will provide us with a good outcome.  In truth, there is no contradiction at all. One can have a serious state of mind, realizing the gravity of the day, and at the same time, be confident (but not complacent) that HaShem will judge him favorably.  This idea is only difficult to fully comprehend based on a common, incorrect view of happiness that pervades the secular world: That is that happiness by definition involves having fun, and not having to take anything seriously.  This is antithetical to the Torah value system:  In the Torah outlook, seriousness and joy do not contradict each other, rather they complement one another.  As Rav Immanuel Bernstein shlit’a, puts it: “The basis of our joyous mood is our confidence that HaShem will judge us favorably.  That favorable outcome is itself a product of how seriously we are taking the day.  Additionally, without a sense of its seriousness, a positive mood may be more an expression of complacency and obliviousness than one of trust in HaShem[6].

In truth, this dichotomy lies at the very foundation of two fundamental Mitzvos in the Torah: Ahavas HaShem, and Yiras HaShem.  My RebbeRav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlit’a, notes that these two Mitzvos also seem to be contradictory.  Is our relationship with HaShem supposed to be a loving one, or are we supposed to live in mortal fear of Him?[7]  He explains that this question is built on the incorrect premise that it is impossible to love someone who we also fear. When we think of fearing something, we normally visualize that this thing can cause us great harm.  However, in truth Yiras HaShem is a very different kind of fear.  It is built on the recognition of the fact that there are consequences to our actions.  As the Gemara[8] states, HaShem is not a vatran, someone who ‘lets us off’ when we err.  A person who believes that He is a vatran, will be punished.  What is wrong with this belief?  Rav Berkovits explains, based on a difficult Midrash[9]:  The Midrash states that Noach was among the Ketanai amanah – those who had limited faith.  He believed in G-d, but he did not believe He would actually bring such a destructive flood.   How can Chazal call Noach one who is lacking in Emunah when he spent 120 years building the Ark, suffering ridicule from those around him. Surely, he would not have done so if he believed that HaShem would never really bring a Flood?  The answer lies in the resolution of the contradiction between Love of HaShem and Fear of HaShem.  As Rav Berkovits[10] is quoted:

“When a person inculcates himself with the idea that HaShem loves him, he puts himself into a precarious spiritual position.  HaShem’s love for us can easily be misunderstood as a willingness to look aside when we sin.  If HaShem loves me, one can think, then why can’t He allow me to act as I see fit?  Why must He demand retribution if I transgress His decrees?  This sort of outlook on life and religion allows a person to live the life of a reprobate, because no matter how low he sinks, HaShem will forgive him.”

To a minute degree, this was Noach’s mistake.  He knew HaShem was capable of bringing the Flood, but he was convinced, deep down, that HaShem would ultimately forgive humanity’s sins out of His deep love for them.  Why is this error so serious, that it ‘merits’ the description of being ‘small in Emunah’?  The problem with this attitude is that it diminishes the definition of love.  This can be understood when analyzing the relationship between parents and children. Permissiveness on the part of the parents does not reflect love, rather it reflects weakness.  A parent who cannot say no to his children is weak, not necessarily loving.  A parent who truly loves his children will look out for their best interests, and sometimes that will mean giving them boundaries, limits and even ‘unpleasant’ consequences to their actions, that are for their benefit. Chinuch experts assert that parents who do not teach their children the concept of discipline and boundaries, do them a great disservice, and their children are far more likely to struggle in life, when they face the inevitable challenges and consequences as they grow up.

This mirrors the way HaShem treats us:  He created a system of actions and consequences, where the wrong decisions and behavior can have ‘negative’ results.  Yet this is for our benefit, for if life was simply one unending free gift, then we would never face the challenges and difficulties that force us to grow and become great.  Ahavas HaShem and Yiras HaShem do not contradict each other – on the contrary, they are complimentary.  As Rav Berkovits conclude[11]: “It is because of Ahavas HaShem – the mutually loving relationship between HaShem and us – that Yiras HaShem is possible.  When we realize that HaShem loves us and will ensure that we suffer the consequences of our sins so that we can merit the ultimate pleasure of closeness to Him, we can develop awe of the One Who weighs our deed and responds to them according to whether or not they are in accordance with His will, thus becoming true yirei Shamayim.

This is also the basis of the dichotomy of Rosh HaShana:  We are afraid, because we know that there are consequences to our actions, but we are happy, because we know that if we make the effort, then HaShem will respond in kind, and our success in judgment will have been earned.  Rosh HaShana reminds us not to look on HaShem as a vatran, but as both a loving Father and powerful King. May we all merit to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

[4] Rosh HaShana, 32b.

[5] Devarim Rabbah, 2:15, cite in Tur, Orach Chaim, Simun 581.

[6] ‘Teshuva’, p.66.

[7] ‘The 6 Constant Mitzvos’, p.191.

[8] Bava Kama, 50a.

[9] Cited by Rashi, Bereishis, 7:7.

[10] Ibid, p.197.

[11] Ibid, p.198.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Ki Tavo – The Curse Of Two-Facedness

The Torah lists eleven curses (Arurim) which were to be part of this recitation for which a person who transgressed them should be cursed. This ceremony was a national Kabbalas Shevuah (acceptance of a binding oath) not to be in violation of these eleven transgressions. The specific sins for which it was proclaimed “Accursed be he who…” include one who: Makes a graven image and places it in secret; degrades his father or mother; moves back the boundary of his fellow; causes a blind person to go astray on the road; perverts a judgment of a convert, orphan, or widow; lies with the wife of his father; lies with any animal; lies with his sister; lies with his mother-in-law; strikes his fellow in secret.

Rav Yissachar Frand shlit’a, asks the following, basic question on this list:

“Let me ask something: Are these eleven things the worst sins in the Torah? It does not say “Cursed be one who desecrates the Shabbos.” It does not say “Cursed be one who eats chametz on Pesach.” Some of the things mentioned do not involve the serious Kares penalty, nor even the less serious penalty of makkos (lashes). If we had to pick a list of “the worst eleven,” maybe we would have listed some of the eleven items, such as those involving Avodah Zarah or Arayos. But most of them do not seem to be “all that bad” that they should be worthy of this unique curse. So why were these eleven singled out?”

Rav Frand cites the answer of the Darash Mordechai.  He suggests a common denominator to all eleven items. These sins are all done behind closed doors in which a person can act hypocritically.  In Rav Frand’s words, “A person can act as the biggest Tzadik out in public, and behind closed doors he can treat his parents with utter disrespect.  Cursed be he who encroaches on the boundary of his fellow man.” A person can promote himself as one of the most honest businessmen there are, and yet in the stealth of night he will move the boundary demarcation a couple of inches, and no one will know the difference.”

Likewise, many of the other Issurim listed here involved sins which could be hidden behind a veneer of righteousness.  “Cursed is he who leads the blind man astray on the road,” according to the Rambam, refers to giving bad advice with one’s own personal interests in mind.  For example, if a person gives business advice to his friend, when in truth it is harmful advice.  Similarly, the curse about one who strikes his friend in private, refers to speaking lashon hara behind one’s back.  The commentaries say that this is particularly pernicious because the ‘victim’ of the lashon hara is helpless to defend himself because he doesn’t even know that he is being attacked.

Moreover, it seems that is not just the damage caused by being two-faced that is the subject of such a strong curse, rather it is the basic character trait that seems to be so repulsive to Chazal.

The idea is demonstrated by the the Minchas Chinuch in his discussing of the Issur of Geneivas Daas (literally translated as ‘stealing the mind’).  Geneivas daas takes place when a person lets his fellow think that he did a favor for him, when in truth he did not.  For example, if a person consciously gives the impression that he traveled a long distance to attend the Simcha of his friend, when in truth, he was at another Simcha next door and it was easy to pop in.  The Gemara asserts that unlike many Bein Adam LeChaveira Mitzvos, the Issur of Geneivas Daas even applies to non-Jews.  The Minchas Chinuch offers a suggestion as to why this is:  He explains, based on the idea that the term ‘Geneivas Daas’ indicates an element of thievery:  There are two aspects to the sin of geneiva, which implies stealing without anyone knowing, as opposed to gezeilah, which is stealing in front of other people.  One is the unlawful taking of someone else’s property, and the other is the fact that it is a bad midda to take from someone behind their back.  He goes so far to argue that even though some hold that Gezeilas goy is only Assur miderabanan, everyone will agree that Geneivas goy is Assur midoraisa because of the bad midda that it involves.  He thus explains why Geneivas daas is even Assur with non-Jews because of the negative character trait that it involves. My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlit’a elaborates that the trait of being two-faced or ‘sneaky’ is viewed extremely negatively by Chazal.  It indicates dishonesty and fear of people as opposed to fear of HaShem. 

The Eleven Curses do not necessarily represent the worst sins in the Torah, but they all involve the despicable traits of sneakiness and two-facedness, which indicate fear of people and not HaShem. May we all merit to avoid these damaging traits.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Ki Teitzei – Avoiding Tests

Devarim, 21:10-11: “When you will go out to war against your enemies, and HaShem, your G-d will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captivity; and you will see among the captivity a woman who is beautiful in form, and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife.”

 Rashi, Devarim, 21:11; Dh: Velakachta: The Torah only spoke in response to the yetser hara, because if Hakadosh Baruch Hu would not permit her, he would marry her in a forbidden manner…”

Parshas Ki Seitsei begins with the unique Mitzva of the Yefas Toar, the woman of beautiful appearance.  The Torah addresses a possible scenario that could take place during war.  The Torah recognizes that if a Jewish soldier sees a non-Jewish woman in the midst of a battle, he may feel an uncontrollable desire for her.   Rather than risk him acting in a sinful manner with her, the Torah provides an avenue for the lustful soldier to satisfy his desire.[1]

This appears to be the only situation in which the Torah acknowledges that the yetser hara is so powerful that the Torah actually gives a permitted way to fulfil its desire.  The question arises as to why is this situation considered more difficult than the myriad other possible scenarios where a person can be put under immense pressure to sin by the yetser hara?

One Talmid Chacham answers that in almost every instance of where a person faces a nisayon (test) where he is at risk of succumbing to the yetser hara, the person must strive to avoid the nisayon as much as possible, and if he unavoidably finds himself subject to the nisayon, then he must escape as quickly as possible to protect himself from the danger of failing the test.  However, these are not feasible options in the case of the soldier doing holy battle – he must go to battle, and once he is there, it is forbidden for him to leave, because of the Issur to run away lest it adversely effect his fellow soldiers.  Since he has no option but the face the nisayon head-on, the Torah acknowledges that it may be too difficult for him to overcome it.  This does not apply in any other case, because there is no other similar situation where it is forbidden to run away.

There are many sources in Chazal about the importance of avoiding Nisayon.  One is if a person has to go somewhere, and has two possible paths to take, but there are immodest images on one path, then he must go the other way.  If he nonetheless takes the path where there are images, then he is called a Rasha – wicked person – even if he overcame the nisayon and did not look at the forbidden sights.  This is because he should not have unnecessarily placed himself into such a difficult nisayon.[2]  Likewise, we ask HaShem every day in the bracha of ‘Hamaavir sheina’ not to bring us into the hands of a nisayon, because we are fearful that we will fail.[3]

Our Gedolim, despite their great self-control, went to great lengths to avoid facing nisyonos.  Rav Shalom Shwadron, zt”l used to tell the following story about Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l.

“When Rav Aharon lived in Kletzk, his home was some distance from the yeshiva: using the main streets would entail shemiras einayim risks.  So, he went instead by way of the backyards, though he had to vault over fences and other such inconveniences.  It once happened that two bochrim were at his home discussing Torah until it was almost time to be back in yeshiva.  He offered to escort them along his usual, quick route behind the house.  They couldn’t refuse. However, when they reached an alleyway with big, fierce prowling dogs, they were simply too scared to proceed.  Rav Aharon instructed them to take hold of the hems of his coat and walk beside him.  Trembling, they obeyed, and lo and behold! Those dogs ignored the trio.”[4]

Rav Yosef Shlomo Goldschmidt notes that Rav Kotler would happily negotiate tall fences and dangerous animals rather than streets where he could see forbidden images.[5]  This was how important it was to him to avoid nisayon.  Needless to say, the extent to which Rabbi Kotler avoided tests is beyond us, but the lesson is relevant to many aspects of our lives.  One obvious application is with regard to technology.  Many people feel they need internet access and various modes of communication for various reasons[6], but it is well-known that there are numerous, inappropriate sites and modes of communication that can cause great spiritual (and other damage). It is well-know that many people have failed this test, and so it is essential to install effective filters and blocks that can reduce the temptation to enter such sites.

It is inevitable in life, that a person will face many difficult tests, yet it is incumbent upon a person to avoid deliberately putting himself in a position where he will face a tests.  By doing this, he will greatly reduce the power of the negative inclination tempt him into wrongdoing.

[1] There is a Machlokes Rishonim as to the exact nature of what this man is permitted to do.  According to most Rishonim, he is allowed to cohabit with this woman one time, even before she undergoes the process that precedes her potential conversion and marriage.  Rashi and Rambam hold that he may not cohabit with her even once, rather the heter is that he can take her even against her will, and go through the process whereby she will be permitted to him when they marry.

[2] Bava Basra, 58a, Brachos, 61a.

[3] Needless to say, we will face numerous nisyonos regardless of our efforts, and overcoming such tests enables us to grow.  However, these sources teach us that we should not choose to face nisyonos of our own volition.

[4] ‘Enlighten our Eyes’, pp.38-39, written by Rav Yosef Shlomo Goldschmidt.

[5] Ibid.

[6] It is advisable to consult with a competent Torah authority as to the appropriate use of technology.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Shoftim – The Prohibition To Have To Much Money

Devarim, 17:15-17: “You shall place upon yourself a King…Only, he will not have too many horses, and he will not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, and HaShem said to you, you will not add to return in this way anymore. And he will not have too many wives and he will not turn his heart, and he will not greatly increase silver and gold for himself.”

Targum Yonasan, Devarim, 17:17: “…And he will not take for himself silver and gold so that his heart will not be haughty and he will not rebel against G-d in Heaven.”

The Torah commands us to appoint a King.[1]  The Torah then outlines a number of Mitzvos unique to the King: He is forbidden from acquiring too many horses; He is forbidden from having too many wives; And he is forbidden from having too much silver and gold.  The Torah gives a reason for the first two Mitzvos – the prohibition to have too many horses is because Egypt was the main provider of horses and if the King would buy too many horses, then people would have to return to Egypt, and it is forbidden to return to Egypt.   The reason for the prohibition to have too many wives is that they will turn the husband away from HaShem.

However, the Torah does not give a reason for the prohibition to have too much silver and gold.  There are two main opinions among the commentaries as to the reason for this Mitzva:  The Targum Yonasan, Daas Zekeinim[2] and Sefer HaChinuch[3] all explain that the reason is because having excess money, in addition to having so much power, will lead to the King becoming arrogant and consequently, he will turn away from HaShem.  According to this explanation, the Mitzva does not apply to a regular person because they do not have as much power as the King, therefore having an excess of money is less likely to lead them to becoming arrogant.

Other commentaries[4] explain that the problem with having too much money is that the King will be tempted to impose heavy taxes on the people in order to acquire riches, which will lead to an overwhelming burden on the nation.  This indeed was the case with Shlomo HaMelech, and it resulted in the splitting of the Kingdom.  This took place when the people demanded that his successor, Rechavam, lighten the burden.  He refused, and consequently, they rebelled and made a new King.  This reason clearly only applies to the King, but it is not relevant to regular people who cannot tax others.

The Ran adds that according to this explanation, if the King acquired money from conquests, there is no prohibition for him to keep the spoils for his own personal wealth, as it will not lead to the King overly taxing the nation.  In contrast, according to the other opinion that the wealth will lead to arrogance, the King is forbidden from keeping the captured money for himself, rather he must give it to the National Treasury.[5]

The question remains, as to why the Torah itself gave reasons for the prohibitions of having too many wives and too much money, but did not offer a reason for the prohibition of having too much money?  Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch[6] explains that the love of money is worse than any other desire.[7]  In addition, one can never be satisfied with money, and will always want more, as it Shlomo HaMelech says himself in Koheles,[8] “One who loves money will never be satisfied by money.”  Accordingly, the Torah says that having too much money in and of itself is highly problematic, even without any other consequences. In contrast, having too many horses or wives

is not necessarily intrinsically negative, but only because of the subsequent damage that can result from an excess of them.

The question arises as to if the Prohibition to have too much silver and gold is limited to the King.  According to the reason that it will lead the King to overly tax the people, it clearly does not apply to others. However, according to the reason that it will lead a person to becoming overly arrogant, then perhaps that applies to every person.  One could argue that it still only applies to a King because he is already in a position of great power and honor, and so is more prone to arrogance, whereas a regular person is at less risk.  However, R’Meyuchas[9] writes that the reason also applies to a regular person, and he cites as support, the Passuk in Koheles: “Guarded wealth for its owner is bad”.[10] Accordingly, he asserts that one should only gather as much money as one needs to live.

Regardless of whether the halacha follows this opinion, it is certainly an important warning that striving to earn more money that one needs to live, carries with it great risks.  It can lead to arrogance and as Rav Hirsch pointed out, one who loves money will always want more and such a person will likely focus on material pursuits to the detriment of spiritual pursuits.

[1] See my essay on Parshas Shoftim from last year, ‘The Institution of Kingship’ where the famous question is addressed as to why if the Torah commands the people to make a King, HaShem was angry with the people in the time of Shmuel HaNavi when they did indeed request a King.

[2] Devarim, 17:16.

[3] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 502.

[4] Ibn Ezra, Devarim, 17:16, Ran, Sandhedrin, 21b.

[5] Minchas Chinuch, Mitzva 502, Os 1.

[6] Devarim, 17:17.

[7] He does not explain why – any approaches are appreciated.

[8] Koheles, 5:9.

[9] A Rishon, cited by Shaarei Aaron, Volume 15, p.512.


Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Re’eh – Mourning For A Parent

The Torah forbids various forms of mourning the death of loved ones that were prevalent among the non-Jewish nations.  One of the reasons that these were forbidden is that they were too excessive, in that they ascribed a sense of permanency to the death of a person, when in truth, we know that the person’s soul continues to exist and lives in the Next World.  Chazal also criticize excessive mourning even when forbidden acts of mourning such as cutting one’s skin, are not performed.  The Gemara[1] tells us of a woman who had seven sons and one her sons passed away.  She was extremely distraught and mourned for a long time.  Rav Huna warned her that she should not mourn so much, but the woman continued, and soon after, her remaining sons also died as a punishment for her excessive mourning.

The Gemara continues to give outlines of the length of the mourning process and how, in stages, the intensity of the mourning is reduced.  The mourning period varies as to the relationship between the niftar and their relative:  A person mourns for twelve months for a parent, but only one month for a child, wife or sibling.  On one occasion, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was sitting shiva for his wife, and he was visited by Rav Yitzchak Hutner and Rav Pinchas Teitz.  The question arose as to why is the mourning period for the more natural and frequent loss of a parent longer than that for the unnatural and seemingly more traumatic loss of a child?  Each Gadol offered a different, fascinating perspective on this question.

Rav Hutner suggested that with the death of a parent, a person becomes more removed from his connection to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which requires additional mourning. This would not apply to a child or any other close relative.  This reminds us of the fact that our parents are not merely physical ancestors, rather they are spiritual ancestors who are our most direct connection back to the ultimate spiritual moment of Mattan Torah.

Rav Teitz pointed out that all other relatives are ‘replaceable’, meaning that a person can, in theory, remarry, have additional children, or gain new siblings through his parents having children[2]. The only relative for whom there can be no substitute is a parent, and this unique status merits additional mourning.

Rav Soloveitchik himself suggested that the answer is alluded to in the question.  The basis of the question is that mourning for a parent is more natural than mourning for a child, therefore one may have thought that the mourning process should be longer for a child.  Rav Soloveitchik explains that because of the very fact that the death of other relatives is less natural, the Sages were concerned that a person may overdo his bereavement if he was allowed to absorb himself in his grief for a long time, therefore they limited the mourning period to thirty days.  This concern is not applicable to the natural death of a parent.

Rav Yosef Sorotskin suggests yet another answer: that a person needs the advice of his parents for his entire life. When a parent dies, a child must focus on remembering and internalizing their values and priorities, which will guide him for the rest of his life. He does so by mourning the loss and focusing on the memories for an entire year, for this period contains all of the festivals and different periods in life through which a person passes.  This does not apply to any other relatives.

Finally, Rav Binyamin Rubin offers an answer based on the Gemara[3] that tells us that the Mitzva of Kibbud Av V’Eim applies both during one’s parents’ lives and even after they have passed away to the Next World.  Accordingly, the extended mourning period and following the laws pertaining to it, is a way of honoring the parent for a longer time, something which again does not apply to other relatives for whom the same laws of honoring do not apply.

While all of these answers focus on different aspects of mourning for one’s parents, they generally share the common denominator that there is something extra special in the relationship between a person and his parents[4].  The lengthy mourning process enables a person to continue honoring the memory of his parent, appreciating the irreplaceable loss, learning from their example, and to recognize their line in the chain of connection back to Mattan Torah.


[1] Moed Kattan, 27b.

[2] Needless to say, in many situations this could not happen, such as when one’s parents are too old to have children, but Rav Teitz’ point seems to have been that in general, children, spouses, and siblings can be ‘replaced’.

[3] Kiddushin, 31b.

[4] The exception to this is the explanation of Rav Soloveitchik, because he stressed that the natural pain one has for losing a parent is not as great as for losing a child, and therefore there is less concern of excessive mourning.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Eikev – The Two Aspects Of Chessed

Devarim, 10:12: “And now, Yisrael, what does HaShem, your G-d ask of you, except to fear HaShem, your G-d, to go in all His ways…”

Sifri, Devarim, 11:22: “’To go in the ways of HaShem’ – these are the ways of Hakadosh Baruch Hu…

In the midst of his speech to the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu exhorts them to go in the ways of HaShem.  The Sifri explains that a person should emulate the character traits of HaShem – for example, in the same way that He is kind, a person should be kind.  Thus, when a person does an act of kindness, it would appear that he fulfils this Mitzva of emulating HaShem. 

There is another Mitzva that a person fulfils when doing kindness – that of V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’.[1]  Accordingly, the question arises as to why there are two Mitzvos for the same action.  My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlit’a suggests that there is a fundamental difference in the two Mitzvos in that the motivation for each Mitzva is very different.  Rav Berkovits suggests that the primary aspect of V’ahavta lereyech kemocha is to develop a love for one’s fellow man, and this motivates a person to help him in the same way that he would help himself.[2]  Thus, if one’s focus is on the desire that his friend succeed, and his concern for his well-being, then he fulfils ‘V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’.

In contrast, the underlying focus of the Mitzva of ‘V’halachta b’drachav’ is to improve one’s character traits so that they emulate those of HaShem.  Therefore, just like HaShem is kind, a person should strive to be kind.  Accordingly, if his primary focus is on improving his middos in order to emulate HaShem, then he fulfils ‘V’halachta b’drachav’.[3]

Needless to say, it is possible and ideal to simultaneously have both intentions and thereby fulfill two Mitzvos at the same time.[4]  One person who exemplified both aspects of doing kindness was Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l. There are numerous examples of his outstanding chessed that seemed to emanate both from his midda of chessed and his great love of his fellow man.  The following example shows how on occasion, doing chessed might require considerable effort and time, and yet, just like HaShem’s chessed is limitless, a person should strive for his chessed to be as limitless as possible.[5]

A couple from Ofakim where Rav Pincus was the Rav, gave birth to a premature baby in Yerushalayim.  The baby would have to remain there for at least three weeks.  The doctors urged the mother to remain nearby so she could feed the baby herself, because that would aid the baby’s development and enable him to come home earlier.  Unfortunately, this was not possible, so instead the hospital said they would feed the baby with special formula milk, which was not as effective as mother’s milk.

The father relates what happened next:

“…I went to Rav Pincus who was like a father to us all, to share the exciting news personally, and he in turn wished me a hearty Mazal Tov and Refuah Sheleimah to both the infant and mother.  Three days later the Rav called me over after Shacharis and informed me that he was traveling to Yerushalayim that day and would be happy to deliver mother’s milk to the hospital….Presuming the Rav was traveling to the city center, which is nowhere near the hospital, I tried to dissuade him…yet Rav Shimshon refused to take no for an answer…This was the first of numerous trips that Rav Shimshon made on our behalf to the hospital.  Incidentally, the Rav ‘just so happened’ to travel to Yerushalayim every day for the next two weeks, and he insisted on delivering a daily shipment of mother’s milk to the hospital, since he was ‘going anyway, and what a shame to forfeit such an opportunity’.  I have no doubt that these trips were made especially on our behalf.

This level of chessed is already incomprehensible, but when the father came to take the baby home, he found out the full extent of Rav Shimshon’s chessed.  The first time that Rav Shimshon brought the milk, he suspected that the nurses had no intention of feeding the milk to the baby, as it takes more time and energy than feeding formula.  Accordingly, he obtained special authorization as the ‘Family Rabbi’, despite the fact that official hospital policy permits entry only to parents and grandparents.  He visited the emergency unit every day and with endless patience, fed the baby it’s mother’s milk.[6]

Needless to say, Rav Pincus reached a level of chessed beyond most of us, yet his example can motivate us to make a little extra effort in our fulfilment of the Mitzvos of Chessed – to love one’s fellow, and to emulate HaShem’s ways.

[1] Needless to say, there are a number of ways of fulfilling the Mitzva of ‘V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’ – doing kindness is just one of them.

[2] It is important to note that the Rishonim point out that in most instances one is not obligated to do Chessed because of the concept of Chayecha kodmim – that one should put himself first.  However, doing Chessed is highly praiseworthy, and one should not be overly makpid on always putting himself first.

[3] In addition, there are situations where one Mitzva could apply while the other would not -for example, showing kindness to an animal could be a fulfillment of emulating HaShem but would not constitute the Mitzva of ‘V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’ since that Mitzva only applies to one’s fellow Jews.

[4] In the Summary and Halacha Lemaaseh Section we will discuss other possible nafka minas between the two Mitzvos.

[5] This should not be at the expense of one’s own well-being or that of his family – such chessed is misplaced.  Evidently, Rav Pincus was on the level where there was no contradiction between his chessed for others and for his own family.

[6] ‘The Life of Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus’, pp.191-193.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Va’etchanan – The Difference Between ‘Elohim Acheirim’ And ‘Hashem Echad’

Devarim, 5:7: “You shall not recognize other gods in My Presence”.

 Devarim, 6:4: “Hear, Israel, HaShem is our G-d, HaShem in the One and Only.”

Two of the most well-known passages in the Torah appear in Parshas Va’eschanan: The Ten Commandments and the Shema. On close analysis, there seems to be a repetition between two of the Mitzos that feature in these passages. The second of the Ten Commandments is the Prohibition to follow other gods (elohim acheirim), and the Shema itself is the Mitzva to believe that G-d is the one and only G-d, (Yichud HaShem), which indicates that it is forbidden to believe in many gods.  This Prohibition seems to have been already covered in the Mitzva not to follow other gods, so what is added by the Mitzva to believe that there is only one G-d?

Evidently, the Mitzva of Yichud HaShem goes a lot further than just the requirement to believe that there is only one G-d.  In order to fully understand this Mitzva and contrast it to the Mitzva of elohim acheirim it is first necessary to explain what it means not to follow other gods and how this applies nowadays.  In earlier times, there was a widespread desire to actively worship false gods so this Mitzva was highly pertinent.  However, from the time that the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah removed the inclination of Avoda Zara, it would appear that this Mitzva is basically obsolete, so how does it apply to us.

However, in truth, the idea behind this Mitzva is highly pertinent at all times.  A false god is not just a physical idol, rather it is anything that a person ascribes power to, meaning that he believes that this thing is the source of a person’s success. It can include money, desires, oneself, one’s boss, or any number of other things that a person feels are the key to his success in life.

The Gemara[1] points out another false god that influences everyone.  David HaMelech in Tehillim[2] states that “there should not be within you a strange god”.  The Gemara explains that this strange god refers to the yetser hara that actually pervades a person’s very consciousness.  One possible meaning of this is that the yetser hara itself is what controls a person’s drives and fulfilling its desires will provide a person with satisfaction.  And in this form, it is a kind of false god.

Thus, the Mitzva not to have other gods tells us that all those forces that convince us that the way to succeed is through them, are null and void when contrasted to the all-powerful G-d.   Yet, there is still something lacking in what a person’s attitude should be towards the various sources of power outside of G-d – that is where the Mitzva of Yichud HaShem steps in:  Yichud HaShem teaches that, in truth, all of these powers are not ‘fighting’ HaShem, they are not against Him. Rather, in truth, they are part of HaShem’s purpose just like everything in Creation.  For example, the ultimate goal of the yetser hara is not, chas v’Shalom, to cause us to turn from HaShem, rather its goal is for us to overcome its temptations and thereby become closer to Him.   This is why Chazal state that when G-d saw that the creation on the sixth day was ‘very good’ in contrast to the other days where it was merely ‘good’, He was referring to the creation of the yetser hara – it is indeed very good because it brings us closer to our purpose of coming closer to HaShem by overcoming its challenges.  So too, the other powers that we view as taking away from closeness to HaShem are also tools to get closer to Him.

In this vein, another application of Yichud HaShem is that everything that happens to a person is directed at the same purpose of bringing him closer to HaShem.  Thus, seemingly ‘bad’ events that take place come from HaShem just as must as pleasant Hashgacha.  Both are there to bring us closer to him, albeit in different ways.  My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlit’a expresses this even regard to ‘minor’ suffering that we view as nuisances.  In his words:  

“We say that some things are good and some things are bad. What are you talking about? That negates “Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” You mean some things are working in one direction and some things in the other direction? Everything was created for the same purpose, because it has the same source, and its source is only good! Everything is made up of this Hashem-liness. Everything is good. Everything is created only for the sake of bringing us back to being misdabek b’HaShem, being one with HaShem, and taking pleasure in it! Oh, I’d really want to learn, but I keep getting these problems in life. I really want to learn but I caught a cold, what a nuisance. It’s standing in the way of my Avodas HaShem. Baloney! You mean there’s something other than nature that is there for the sake of bringing you to eternal pleasure? You mean this cold is a nuisance that came in from Mars, it came from another sphere? This cold was created to bring you closer to Hashem no less than anything – than your siddur and your gemara and your chumash. It is just that there are lots of different aspects of our growth. There are many different things we have to learn, and there are some things you can only learn when you have a cold. Now go figure out what that was for. Absolutely everything is pointing in the same direction. Everything has the same purpose. There’s total unity in everything. There are no other forces. There’s no evil. It’s illusion! We’re misunderstanding it, because we take it seriously. We think it’s really, really evil. It’s not.”[3]

Thus, Yichud HaShem builds on elohim acheirim and tells us that as well as viewing these perceived sources of success in our lives as null and void against HaShem, we should actually look at them as helping us get close to HaShem.  May we all succeed in fulfilling both of these seminal Mitzvos in the ideal fashion.

[1] Shabbos, 105b.

[2] Tehillim, 81:10.

[3] From a Shiur on the Six Constant Mitzvos.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Tisha B’Av – Torah And Love Of Hashem

Chazal tell us that any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is viewed as if it were destroyed in that very generation.[1] Rav Yaakov Weinberg, ztz”l, explained that this means that had the Beis HaMikdash been extant in that generation, it also would have been destroyed as a result of people’s actions. Accordingly, the actions that caused the initial destructions are still very relevant to the present generation.

The Gemara in Nedarim offers one explanation as to why the first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. It tells us that after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash and the galus  that followed, the sages and prophets did not know what had caused such a terrible punishment, until Hashem Himself told them that it was because “they left My Torah.”[2] Rav explains that this does not mean they were not learning Torah. Rather, they did not say birkas haTorah before learning.[3] The commentaries find a number of difficulties with this Gemara.[4] Why were the people punished so severely for the relatively minor sin of not saying birkas haTorah? Moreover, this gemara seems to contradict another gemara, which states that the first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of murder, idol worship, and immorality.[5]

The Maharal addresses these problems.[6] He writes that it is impossible to understand the Gemara literally, that they were not saying birkas haTorah. Rather, they did not say the berachah with the proper intentions. When a person says birkas haTorah, he should focus on his great love and gratitude toward Hashem for giving him the tremendous gift of the Torah. The sages of the generation did say the berachah. Moreover, they did not say it merely by rote. However, they did not focus sufficiently on their love of Hashem when saying it. The Maharal proceeds to explain how this subtle failing was the root of the terrible sins that led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. If a person focuses sufficiently on Hashem in his learning, he merits tremendous siyata diShmaya in avoiding sin, and even if he does falter, it enables him to repent without great difficulty. Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztzl, writes that this is what Chazal mean when they say that “the light of Torah returns a person to goodness.” However, if one does not connect to Hashem through his learning, he loses that special siyata diShmaya, and if he falters, he is far more likely to become trapped in a downward spiral of sin.[7]

Based on this explanation, we can resolve the contradiction between the gemaros in Nedarim and Yoma. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of the terrible sins enumerated in Yoma. However, the failure to say birkas haTorah with the proper attitude was the root of the deterioration of the Jewish people to the point where people were sinning so greatly. Because they didn’t connect to Hashem properly, they lost their siyata diShmaya and consequently fell prey to the powerful temptations of the evil inclination.  The Maharal offers a fascinating and somewhat surprising explanation of why people may fail to show proper love of Hashem in their birkas haTorah. He argues that it is impossible to love two entities at the same time. Consequently, focusing on love of one thing will reduce one’s love for something else. Based on this idea, he writes that one can express one of two possible “loves” when saying birkas haTorah: love of Hashem or love of the Torah—and it is impossible to love both simultaneously! When a person says this berachah, he is more likely to express his love for the Torah than his love for Hashem! The Maharal therefore warns that “one must be very careful to say the blessing on the Torah with all his heart and soul.”[8]

This explanation may seem to contradict the approach of Rav Chaim Volozhin, ztzl, in Nefesh HaChaim. Rav Chaim emphasizes that when one learns Torah, he should not be thinking lofty thoughts about Hashem. Rather, he should delve as deeply as possible into the Torah he is learning. Rav Chaim argues that this approach is the optimal way of becoming close to G-d. The Maharal’s distinction between love of Hashem and love of Torah seems to clash with the Nefesh HaChaim’s emphasis on Torah as opposed to thoughts of Hashem. However, on deeper analysis it seems that there is no disagreement. The Maharal doesn’t say a person should focus on his love of G-d during his learning. Rather, before he begins to learn, when he says birkas haTorah, he should be careful not to lose his focus on G-d. The Nefesh HaChaim himself makes a very similar point with regard to one’s attitude before learning: “Whenever one prepares himself to learn, it is proper for him to spend at least a small amount of time contemplating a pure fear of G-d with a pure heart.”[9] Rav Chaim even argues that at times one should take a small break during his learning to rekindle his yiras Hashem.[10]

Thus, these two gedolim seem to agree that before a person learns, he must be very careful not to lose sight of Whose Torah he is learning. With regard to the actual time of learning, there is no reason to say that Maharal does not agree with the Nefesh HaChaim that one shouldn’t be thinking lofty thoughts about Hashem.

The Three Weeks is a time to reflect on the various causes of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. A key area of avodah is to maintain a constant awareness of Hashem during one’s Torah study and fulfilment of other mitzvos. By doing so, Maharal teaches, each of us will have great siyata diShmaya in avoiding the other sins that caused the destruction.  May we all be privileged to see the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash speedily in our days.

[1] Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1.

[2] Yirmeyahu 9:12.

[3] Nedarim 81a.

[4] See Orach Chaim 47 with Bach and Taz; Maharal, introduction to Tiferes Yisrael.

[5] Yoma 9b.

[6] Maharal, introduction to Tiferes Yisrael.

[7] Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuos, essay 7.

[8] Maharal, Netivos Olam, “Netiv HaTorah” 7.

[9] Rav Chaim Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim 4:6.

[10] Ibid. 4:7.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Pinchas – The Bnos Tzelafchad

Bamidbar, 27:1,3: “And the daughters of Tzlafchad son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the family of Menashe the son of Yosef, approached…Why should the name of our father be diminished (lamah yigara) from among his family because he had no son?

Rashi, 27:1, Dh: Lemishpechos Menashe ben Yosef: “Why does it say this [of the family of Menashe son of Yosef] – it already said ‘the son of Menashe’?  Rather it is to say to you, Yosef loved the land, as it says, ‘and you will bring up my bones…’ and his daughters loved the land, as it says, ‘give us a holding’, and it teaches you that they were all righteous…”

In the midst of the Parsha, we find the brief account of the Bnos Tzlafchad.  He passed away with no sons and five daughters.  At that point, the Torah had mandated that only sons could inherit the land of their fathers.  Accordingly, as things stood, when the Jewish people would enter Eretz Yisrael, their family would not receive a share in the land.  Consequently, they came to Moshe Rabbeinu with a request.  They asked that they receive the portion of their father’s land.  On a superficial reading, this request does not seem out of the ordinary but in reality, they were basically asking HaShem to change the laws of the Torah.  This is incredibly audacious and one could even ascribe to it a level of chutzpah – it almost implies that HaShem forgot to address this point when He gave the Torah laws.  What is equally astonishing is that HaShem immediately agreed to their appeal and instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to amend the Torah laws to allow for daughters to inherit land if there are no sons.

This was not the first time that people came to Moshe with an audacious request to add to the Torah.  In Parshas Behaalosecha, a group of people were unable to offer the Korban Pesach on Pesach and they also came to Moshe with a request: “…We are contaminated through a human corpse why should we be diminished (lamah nigara) by not offering HaShem’s offering on his appointed time among the Children of Israel.”[1] HaShem agreed to their argument and made the new Festival of Pesach Sheini to give those people a second opportunity to do a Mitzva that they missed through no fault of their own.

It is striking that in both accounts, the claimants used the same root word – garah – diminish – in their requests.  They were both arguing that they were unfairly missing out on something through no fault of their own.  However, there would seem to be a big difference between the two episodes.  In Behaalosecha the men were asking to be able to fulfil a Mitzva, whereas in Pinchas, the Bnos Tzlafchad were asking for land.  Yet, Rashi points out that the intentions of the Bnos Tzlafchad were also driven by a love of Mitzvos and not by a base desire for property.  Rashi explains that they loved Eretz Yisrael and wanted a Portion in the land.   Perhaps the identical word usage alludes to the fact that the Bnos Tzlafchad were motivated by spiritual factors just like the impure men.   In both cases, HaShem swiftly and happily acceded to their bold requests and did no less than add Mitzvos to the Torah.[2]

What was the key to the outstanding success of these two requests?  Of course, one can never be sure why HaShem answers some Tefillos in the positive, and others in the negative, but these two accounts give us a clue to effective prayers.  In both cases, the request was not driven by selfish motives, rather it was driven by a burning desire to do Ratson HaShem – to offer a Korban or to have a portion in the Holy Eretz Yisrael.  HaShem wants us to fulfil His ratson and come closer to Him, so when we genuinely ask to do so and asks HaShem, ‘let me do Your will’ then HaShem is far more likely to answer in the positive than if one were to ask HaShem, ‘do my will’.

A prime example of praying in this fashion is Chana.  The verse says that she came to pray at the Mishkan in Shiloh to be blessed with a child: “And she was bitter of soul, and she prayed on (al) HaShem, and she greatly cried[3].” The Gemara[4] notes the unusual use of the phrase ‘al HaShem’ instead of the expected ‘el HaShem’.  The Gemara explains that we learn from here that she ‘hiticha devarim Klapei Maalah’.  The simple understanding of this phrase is in a somewhat negative sense, that she spoke overly strongly to HaShem, however, the Nefesh HaChaim actually explains this as a praise of Chana. 

He explains that Chana prayed ‘al HaShem’, means that she prayed for the sake of HaShem.  This is the meaning of the Gemara that she played ‘klapei Maalah’ – for the sake of the One above, meaning that she did not pray to HaShem to save her because of her personal suffering, but for the sake of HaShem’s pain at her own travails.

The Dudaim Besadeh[5] likewise explains that Chana’s whole kavannah was leshem Shamayim, and that she did not ask for children to have nachas ruach in this world or the next world, rather in order to give birth to children to serve HaShem.  This is proven by her promise that if she would have a son, she would “give him to HaShem all the days of his life[6],” meaning that she would devote his life to Avodas HaShem.  Indeed, she kept this promise, and sent him to serve Eli the Kohen Gadol in Shiloh from a very young age.  Thus, she gave up the normal ‘nachas’ that a parent has in bringing up their child, because her whole kavannah was for the sake of HaShem.  Her reward was a son who was one of the greatest Ovdei HaShem, even on a level of Moshe and Aharon.

We have seen three examples of the pure prayers of great people and how they were positively answered.  Of course, reaching this level of purity in intention is difficult, but a person should not feel down if his natural intentions are not totally pure.  Rav Chaim of Volozhin in his commentary on Pirkei Avos writes that if one’s motivations are loh lishma, he should at least have the intention to get to lishma.  This means that he should want to want to do Mitzvos for the right reasons, even if he is not fully there on an emotional level.  In this vein, Rav Akiva Tatz suggests that when one prays, he should ask HaShem to want to want for the right reasons.  So, for example, if one wants parnassah for various reasons, he should ask HaShem to help him want parnassah so that it will help him in his avodas HaShem.  May we all merit to pray in the right way.

[1] Bamdibar, 8:5.

[2] Based on the article, “Lessons from the Daughters of Tzlophchad” by Rabbi Daniel Loewenstein, alaphbeta.org.

[3] Shmuel Aleph, 1:10.

[4] Brachos, 31b.

[5] Quoted in Mishbetsos Zahav, Shmuel Aleph, p.28.

[6] Shmuel Aleph, 1:11.


Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen On Pirkei Avot – Chapter 2 Mishna 5 – “And Do Not Judge Your Friend Until You Reach His Place.”


In this clause of the Mishna, Hillel tells us not to judge our fellow until we reach his place.  This seems to be telling us not to judge our fellow man in all circumstances unless we reach his place, which may be impossible, as we will discuss.

This seems to contradict another Mishna in Avos that tells us to judge every man favorably – here the Mishna does tell us to judge others, albeit in a positive manner.  Indeed, the Torah itself tells us, ‘b’tzedek tishpot es amisecha’ – to positively judge our fellow, yet here, Hillel seems to be instructing us not to judge in most, or maybe even all, scenarios.

It seems that there are two general areas in which we can judge our fellow: One is with regard to whether they actually committed the action that they seemed to have done. For example, if it appears that a person committed a sin, such as eating non-kosher food, I can judge him to say that he actually did not commit a sin at all because he was allowed to eat the food in order to save his life.  This is the kind of judging that is referred to in the Mitzva of ‘b’tzedek tishpot es amisecha’ 

The second area is where he unequivocally committed a sin or did something wrong, yet there is still the choice of how we look at the person – do we say he is a bad person or do we try to find mitigating factors that make his mistake more understandable at least?  It appears that this Mishna is referring to the second type of judging – even when it is clear that a person either sinned, erred, or expressed a negative character trait, there is still a requirement to view him in a fair manner, understanding the numerous factors that have led to the person acting in this way at this time.

In this vein, the Mishna comes to tell us that we cannot properly assert how guilty a person is for his actions, unless we know his ‘place’.  The question arises as to what exactly does ‘his place’ refer to?  One possibility is that it refers to the situation he was in at the time that he sinned – for example, he may have had a strong temptation at that time or may have been feeling spiritually weak to fight the yetser hara.  A broader approach is that ‘his place’ refers to all the numerous factors that have come together to contribute to who he is at this time.  That includes his whole life background, his family and peer influences and even his genetic leanings.  It would seem impossible to accurately gather all this information.  Therefore, according to this understanding, some commentaries hold that when the Mishna says the one should not judge his fellow until he reaches ‘his place’ it means that this is indeed impossible to ever be a fair judge of a person’s actions.

The commentaries also cite a Gemara[1] that gives an example of how we cannot judge others from different backgrounds or times.  When learning the Mishna that discusses the evil Kings who worshipped idols among other grievous sins. One of the great Amoraim, Rav Ashi described Menashe, one of the evilest of all the Kings, as his colleague, implying that Menashe was on a similar level to him in learning.  That night, Menashe appeared to him in a dream and noted that Rav Ashi called him a colleague.  Menashe then asked Rav Ashi a certain question in halacha, to which Rav Ashi did not know the answer.  Menashe exclaimed that he did not know the answer, and yet he calls himself a colleague of Menashe?!  After telling him the answer, Rav Ashi asked him why he worshipped idols if he was so learned.  He answered, “If you had been alive then, you would have raised the hem of your coat to run after them.”  The next day, Rav Ashi referred to the evil Kings as “our teacher”.  Rashi explains that the yetser hara to idol worship was so powerful at that time, that it was extremely difficult to withstand it.  Menashe was telling Rav Ashi, that someone of his generation would not have been able to withstand the desire to worship idols and would have done it with even more exuberance than he did.

This Gemara teaches us that a person cannot judge another person from a different generation who had completely different challenges and yetser haras.  And each person can have no sense of certainty that he would react any differently than the other person unless he was placed in that exact situation, which is an impossibility.


[1] Sanhedrin, 102b.