Archive for July 2014

Parshat Devarim Highlights

First Portion: * Rebuke is as popular as a bad stomach ache: no one likes rebuke. Apparently, 37 days before Moshe died, he began rebuking the nation; what a way to go. I tip my hat to Moshe, our leader and Rabbi, how he was able to keep the audience interested and then to come back for more abuse the very next day. There are those who like getting pounded on the head; they would rather receive the stick than the carrot. The Israelites, remarkably, listened for thirty-seven days! How, in the world did he manage that? There are ways of saying things and there are ways of saying things. One popular answer is that he never mentioned the crime, just the crime scene. He mentioned the place where the transgression happened; however, not the transgression. Also in the middle of the rebuke, Moshe starts to bless the people. The sensitivity Moshe showed of smacking one minute and being nicey-nice the next was a stroke of genius.

* The book of Devarim is known to be a review of the previous four, with the exception of a few new commandments like Yibum, which we were introduced in the incident with Yehuda and Tamar in the book of Bereshit, and the laws of slandering a virgin bride, divorcing a woman, conspiring witness, etc. Therefore, many call this book Mishnah Torah – review of the Torah. The commentary, Abarbanel, says the book of Devarim is meant to explain those matters about which doubt had arisen in the minds of the Jews and thus need a special explanation.

Second Portion: * In this section, Moshe emphasizes the importance of a fair and righteous judicial system. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz z”l once pointed out the importance in which both parties should be present when the case is being presented before the judge. The individual not present is at a tremendous disadvantage and the judge, on a subconscious level, would favor the one present in the room.

Third Portion: * Moshe brings up an uneasy memory of the spy incident. The Israelites wanted to be assured that the promised land they were getting was indeed special. So they requested spies to probe the land for reassurance. The spies came back with a tainted, biased, self-centered report in which they instilled fear, paranoia, and doubt in the Jewish nation.

Fourth Portion: * After realizing their mistake with the spy incident, the Israelites insisted to fight an ill-advised war with the Amorites, the neighboring country to the new promised land. Strangely, as Moshe recollects, he compares the incident to getting stung by a bee. Just like bees die after they sting, so too the Amorites after they stung the Jews, they died. Apparently, the Israelites won the war. However, it was a war of nuisance and menacing pain similarly to getting stung and feeling very uneasy. Although it was considered a punishment for the Israelites, getting stung and bruised, nevertheless, they were victorious. G-d wanted them to realize they had sinned. However, he wanted them to feel superior to the enemies and prove the spies wrong.

Fifth Portion: * G-d instructs Moshe not to conquer the land of Amon, Moav, and Seir. This is a reward for Lot, whose descendants are Amon and Moav, for keeping silent and not telling Pharaoh that Sarah is Abraham’s wife. Seir, one of the descendants of Eisav, permitted the Jews to buy provisions from his people. Moreover, G-d rewarded Eisav’s descendants because of the tremendous respect Eisav gave his father, “You should live by the sword”. Furthermore, G-d warned the Israelites not to antagonize and respond to Eisav’s descendants militarily because of the bracha Yitzchak gave to his son Eisav. The Jews should conceal themselves until his wrath subsides.

Sixth Portion: * When G-d says to hold back and don’t provoke, one listens and when G-d instructs us to be the aggressor and fight, by George, we fight. The Israelites went to war with Sichon, King of the Amorites and Og, King of Bashan. However, Moshe was hesitant to fight Og because of his past merits.

Seventh Portion: * Moshe concluded, “I divided the lands on the Eastern side of the Jordan, which we captured from Sichon and Og among Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe. I warned them, “Even though you have received your portions, you may not remain here. It’s preferable you march in the forefront of the Israelite army to cross the Jordan and conquer the land. I encourage my successor Yehoshua. You have seen what G-d has done to Sichon and Og. Have trust that he will likewise deliver the thirty-one kings of the land of Canaan into your hands”.

The reason why we’re suffering so much-Tisha b’Av

 Many of our sages reason that Yom Hashoa which commemorates the tragic deaths of  six million Jews during the Holocaust should not be commemorated on this day. They say we should mourn the deaths of those Jews who perished during that dark period of our history on Tisha b’Av. It is written in many of our holy books that the source of all our problems stems from that tragic day. All our suffering, all the Jewish blood that was spilled through the years throughout the world is connected to Tisha b’Av.

It seems like everybody has their personal Tisha b’Av.

There have been many wars fought by our brethren, in our homeland, over the last 50 years however this war that we’re fighting today has touched a very sensitive cord. When the three boys were kidnapped and killed it was very hard to comprehend what had transpired, especially after  a  rally was held on their behalf and one of the mothers spoke so emotionally. Many people came and showed support. It was solidarity at its best. However, seeing those clips of the rally and knowing now, in hindsight, that those boys were already dead a week before gave  many an uneasy chill.

  Over the course of history we’ve always had bad luck the weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av.  One of the reasons why we’re suffering so much is the result of what  transpired during the second Temple era.  The Temple  was destroyed due to baseless hatred which stems from not giving people the benefit of the doubt.

 Life is a learning experience and there was an incident where I learned a very valuable lesson about people. I guess one can say my maturity level  increased a few notches that very day. As a high school student I always felt that I was never understood by my teachers and Rabbis.  Some students were  not able to relate to the Rabbis of  our high school who came from old Eastern European, Israeli Sephardic  and American born but with religious Boro Park  backgrounds.    We were very proud to be born and bred in America and found the authority figures to be lacking in the culture we students were accustomed to.  Although our parent were  Israeli Bukharian, Persian and many from Eastern European    immigrants, we students were seeking a connection to the seductive American culture. As a result, perhaps deep down we were hurt that our needs were not addressed by the school faculty. Therefore, we  rebelled and did not take the learning curriculum or its teachers & administrators seriously.

 However, one particular day things changed just slightly. It was Yom Hashoah and the entire school was  asked to attend the ceremony. It was mandatory, as almost everything is in high school. The auditorium was filled but I did not see the guest speaker. That’s because there was no guest speaker. One of the old eastern European Rabbis, Rabbi Fiefer, was going to address the crowd.  “Wonderful”, I sighed;’ what is he going to speak about?” I said to myself with sarcastic annoyance.

As he got up to the podium, with his thin high pitched voice and thick accent, the short pudgy Rabbi began to speak. “Boys I am a holocaust survivor

I was married and had a young daughter when the Nazis YEMACHSHEMAM took us all away to the camps. I never saw my wife and daughter again. They perished in the camps”

 The students were stunned. We never knew  Rabbi Fiefer was married before and had a daughter. We knew he had one adopted son who actually attended our school. I was taken aback by the hurt this man must have experienced losing his family. I was imagining the Rabbi playing with his daughter and the next moment having to say goodbye to her abruptly, with tears in his eyes, as she was being pulled away with her mother by the Nazi monsters. This Rabbi went through hell and actually, in a sense, still was. One thinks “oh he’ll just pick up the pieces and move on”. However I’m sure his daughter’s laughter and tears are memories going through his mind constantly. We have to believe that it was G-d’s plan and it was designed that way. I’m sure that heshmulps us cope with any tragedy and it most likely helped him. Nevertheless, we’re human and its difficult. We never had experienced such atrocities living in our safe haven of Queens with our parents. I couldn’t imagine how this man was able to put that memory aside and teach a class.

 Although we still couldn’t relate to Rabbi Fiefer and learning was always difficult in his class, we had a lot more respect for him. No one misbehaved anymore. We did not want to get him upset in class because perhaps it might jar some other difficult memories. Yom Hashoah was a learning experience that year.

 My  learning experiences didn’t end when I graduated. Rabbi Jack Zucker was the executive director  of finance of the school. We, as students, always thought he was very aloof. He rarely smiled and never  interacted with the students. Some of the student found the slight coldness as offensive and they would make jokes about it. Boys will be boys especially high school boys and the jokes can be immature and at times vicious.

 One of the boys who was a good number of years older then me worked for Rabbi Zucker  after he graduated in the school finance office for a year or two. His parents and mine knew each other.

 Tragically this boy later on in life, in his thirties, married and with kids, was murdered.  Many of us from our community attended his funeral.  One can imagine it was a very sad funeral. However we did not anticipate what we saw next. Yes, it was difficult to see the kids crying “Daddy”. That was predictable. However, we kept on hearing loud weeping from the far corner of the Shul. After a while we realized it was Rabbi Jack Zucker. He was crying  uncontrollably. The friends who went to our high school were surprised to say the least by the uncharacteristic display of emotions of Rabbi Zucker over his former employee.  Perhaps Rabbi Zucker was  a father figure to the boy; apparently the boys father past away at  a young age.   It seemed like the tin man actually had a heart. One never knows what kindness one does and how he does it, as he did with this boy. We judged him completely incorrectly. Later on I met Rabbi Zucker’s sister who said “Jack wasn’t at all like that, (cold) when you got to know him. He has a good heart and a great sense of humor”.

So much for high school legends

 Rabbi Ilan Feder  a high school Rabbi at Yeshiva Chofets Chaim once  experimented with his class by giving each member a Waldo puzzle and asked each student to circle one item in the picture that they find most interesting. (American Puzzle Factory produced a series of Where’s Waldo? jig-saw puzzles between 1989 and 1991. They ranged in size from 100 pieces to 550 pieces. These puzzles were releases of classic Waldo scenes from Where’s Waldo?, ) Astonishingly,  very few students picked the same item.  Considering these student come from the same background. Most of their parents are Rabbis living in Queens. There are all the same age.  One would figure  perhaps out of a class of 20, 12 or 13 would choose the same figure.  However, we see how each individual is different and one can not judge their fellow because they’ll never be in his shoes. We’re designed to be different

One of the aspects of judging one favorably is preventing one from speaking bad about someone (lashon harah).

The Chofetz Chaim says that most occurrences of Lashon Harah happen because the violator did not give the benefit of doubt (lo danu l’kaf zechut) to the person about whom he spoke. The root of the problem thus does not start with one’s mouth. The problem ultimately begins with a negative assessment. A person makes a judgment or assessment about someone and the problem is in the assessment. If, writes the Chofetz Chaim, people would always take the trouble of giving their fellow man the benefit of the doubt, Lashon Hara would not begin.

 Rav Chaim Shmuelivitz points out that the punishment of the Spies for speaking Lashon Hara against Eretz Yisrael was “a year for each day” — forty years corresponding to the forty days that the spies were in the Land of Israel. But that calculation is problematic. They did not speak Lashon Hara for 40 days. They only spoke Lashon Hara one day, the day they returned from their 40 day mission! The Lashon Hara that they spoke is covered in a handful of pasukim. At most, it could not have taken more than 10 minutes to speak those words. So why were they punished with forty years? The answer is that the punishment did not just come for the speaking of Lashon Hara — it came for the negative judgment as well. The negative assessments and perceptions that they developed during the 40 days of travel in the Holy Land caused them to be punished 40 years for 40 days. This, says the Chafetz Chaim, is where the battle lies. The battle lies in training ourselves not to jump to negative conclusions. Lashon Hara is not merely a crime of speech. It is a crime of perception. The distance between character assessment and character assassination is very small.

 An important note is that sometimes one is so careful to judge his fellow favorably that he is taken advantage of. Sympathy is tremendous but it should be practiced with intelligence. At the end of the day misplaced sympathy is dangerous as we are witnessing in the current Gaza war.

  There is a practical advantage that a person accrues by judging his fellow man positively. The way in which a person treats and judges his friend is the way that he will be judged in Heaven. The Mishneh [Avot 3:16] teaches that “Nifrain min ha’Adam m’daato v’shelo m’daato” a person receives his punishment in ways that he knows about and in ways that he does not know about. The Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760) explains the idea that a person will be punished without his knowledge (shelo m’daato) as follows: If a person witnesses an incident involving his fellow man and jumps to the conclusion that his friend is a thief, a liar, a wicked person – the “witness” will be judged similarly in the World of Truth. Rav Pam cites a famous story of Dovid HaMelech [King David], who took Bat Sheva as his wife. Bat Sheva had previously been the wife of Uriah the Chittie. (Uriah was in the army of David and the practice back then was that soldiers going out to battle would first divorce their wives.) Despite the fact that she was technically not a married woman, our Sages note that this was an unbecoming act on the part of David HaMelech. Natan HaNavi [Nathan the Prophet] came to David and told him a hypothetical story of a rich man and a poor man. The poor man had only one little sheep, while the rich man had everything. The rich man, however, came and took this sole possession of the poor man away from him. Natan asked the King for a ruling in this situation. “David became very angry and said ‘As G-d Lives, this man who did this is deserving of death!'” [Samuel II 12:5]. The prophet then responded “You are that man.” He declared that David would be judged according to his decree in the hypothetical case. “The very same sword that you proclaimed upon him will come back to haunt you and your household.” The Baal Shem Tov says that this dialogue between David HaMelech and Natan HaNavi is exactly how it will happen to each of us in the World of Truth. We will come before the Heavenly Court and we will be given a ‘hypothetical case’ to judge. We will be told “There was this person and he did such and such. He desecrated G-d’s Name; He was not honest; and so forth. What is his fate?” We will show righteous indignation and offer all the appropriate condemnation of such a person. We will proclaim him deserving of harsh punishment. And then we will be shown that we, in fact, committed all of these sins and that we just declared our own fate.

That is the result of being unwilling to give people the benefit of the doubt. Such an attitude will eventually come back to haunt us. This is the meaning of the Mishnah that says that a person will be punished “without his knowledge”. We would not have imagined that this particular trait of ours would come back to haunt us and seal our own fates.

The Gemara [Shabbath 127b] records that “One who judges his fellow man favorably, will in turn be judged favorably”. This is more than “measure for measure”; this is just the way it happens. The way we ‘rule’ (pasken) about others – the same words, the same approach – is the way that we will be judged.

The next time that we have a doubt about someone, let us not immediately jump to conclusions. It is well known that people often like to jump to conclusions, specifically regarding the more distinguished members of the community – the Rabbis, the Torah Scholars, the leaders of the community. The “bigger” one is, the more people are apt to jump to the opposite conclusion rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. However, one day this tendency will, Heaven forbid, come back to haunt us.

Perhaps the solidarity that was shown at the rally for the murdered boys was  a slight push forward toward reconciliation with our brethren toward  a more everlasting unity. Perhaps G-d will see us merging together more often and end the Tisha b’Av incidences. Perhaps Rabbi Fiefer z’l and people like him will not be separated from loved ones, perhaps no one will shed tears of grief anymore, only tears of joy….Amen