Chanukah, Vayeishev and Mikeitz

29 11 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Beinush Ginsburg

Chanuka, Vayeishev, and Mikeitz

Why does Chanukah always fall out during the parshiot of Vayeishev or Mikeitz?  The midrash in Mikeitz tells us that Hashem had a master plan. He wanted Yosef to be imprisoned for two years.  Therefore, he caused Pharoh to have a dream, so Yosef would be freed in a natural way. This is contrary to what we would think – that Pharoh had a dream, therefore Yosef was released. Hashem governs hashgacha through natural events, but in reality everything is part of a miraculous master plan. This is a central theme of Chanukah.


On this holiday, the prayer of Modim takes on extra meaning as we thank Hashem for all the hidden miracles we experience daily. The Greeks worshipped science, we worship the omniscient Creator behind it all.  This is what the Alter of Kelm meant when he explained why Chanukah is eight days and not seven. True we had seven revealed miraculous days, but the fact that oil burns at all, is a hidden miracle too that calls for celebration.


Rav Mirsky suggests another connection.  In Al Hanissim we say, “The mighty were given into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.”  Similarly, in Yosef’s dream, the majority deferred to the minority.  In Pharoh’s dream too, the seven thin cows swallowed up the heavy ones.  Just as the small band of Maccabees fought bravely against the Greeks, Yosef stood up alone against the idol worshipping people of Egypt to proclaim Hashem’s sovereignty.


Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz relates a third explanation.  The midrash Yalkut Shemoni explains that although the Arab caravans would normally transport foul-smelling skins, Hashem made them carry sweet-smelling spices with Yosef so he would not need to endure extra discomfort. Rav Shmuelevitz depicts this as a kiss from Hashem to Yosef.  Yosef understood through this sign that Hashem had not completely abandoned him. On Chanukah too, Hashem gifted us with the miracle of the jug of oil to show His love for us. Pure oil was not necessary because the Jews were ritually impure, but Hashem wanted to give them the joy of performing the mitzva in the best possible way.


Rav Nebenzhal explores a fourth connection.  The Gemara in Shabbat discusses Chanukah and the law that a menorah that is taller than twenty amot is invalid for the mitzvah of Chanuka menorah. This is because one cannot publicize the miracle this way. The gemara continues with an analysis of the pit into which Yosef was thrown. “V’habor reik ein bo mayim.” The well was empty of water – but it contained snakes and scorpions. Yosef spoke lashon hara about his brothers. Therefore, he was punished and thrown into a well with snakes. Yet Hashem saved him in the merit that Yosef would later publicize Hashem’s name in Egypt.


As we gaze at the small twinkling Chanukah flames, let us contemplate the secret of our nation’s immortality, our commitment to Judaism, our strength to stick to the truth despite being the minority, Hashem’s extra special love for us, and the miracle of our very existence.

How to Have a Relationship with G-d

18 11 2010

Rebbetzin’s Perspective III: Class #1
Excerpted from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller’s Question and Answer series on

Rebbetzin's Perspective III  Class #1


I’ve been told that Hashem has a personal relationship with every Jew. What does this imply and how do we get closer to Him?



A personal relationship means a relationship of response and awareness. A blade of grass receives its energy from Hashem. It cannot exist for even a split second without Hashem’s Will giving it life. Yet the grass does not have a real relationship because it cannot respond. It receives but all it gives back is its existence. There is no difference between one blade of grass and another. Hashem doesn’t respond to each one individually. There is no such thing as a righteous blade of grass who deserves lots of rain and sunshine, or a wicked blade of grass who has made major life mistakes. This is called hashgacha klalit, which means awareness without any involvement.


In contrast, Hashem responds to every human being differently. A non-Jew who does good deeds may be rewarded and vice versa. However, there is no covenant with the non-Jews. Therefore, they can reach a point where, like a tree or a blade of grass, they no longer have a relationship of awareness and response with Hashem. Contrary to this, due to the covenant Hashem made with Yaakov, Af al pi shechata Yisrael hu, although they have sinned, they remain Yisrael. Every Jew has a spark buried deep within him that remains eternally connected to Hashem. This spark can be so covered up with sin and bad choices that the person may be barely aware of it. This is also referred to as galut hashechina, meaning that the divine part of us is in exile.


Getting closer to Hashem means becoming a more divine-like individual, just like getting closer to another person means developing communication and similarity. The way to come closer to Hashem is through keeping the mitzvot, emulating Hashem’s middot, and attaching oneself to people who are already on the path to greatness.

Honorable Mentchen II: Appropriate Criticism

17 11 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Honorable Mention II: Appropriate Criticism #1

In his Shabbat Shuva drasha, Rav Chaim Brisker would say, “Chaim is speaking to Chaim, but if you wish you can eavesdrop.” A very productive way to give criticism is to accept part of the blame and admit that you too have the same problem. This makes the perpetrator far less ashamed of doing wrong, and moves him towards rectifying his flaws.


Confine your criticism to a specific act. General criticism demoralizes people. It’s important not to make unrealistic demands. Suggest small steps and ways to improve.  A good way to offer criticism to a miser would be, “Maybe this year you can give one percent more.” Increase the amounts little by little and soon the miser will turn into a generous donor. It is forbidden to shame someone in public. However if by remaining silent you will condone unethical behavior, you may speak out. In fact the gemara in Avodah Zarah says that if you don’t rebuke a sinner, you bear responsibility for the sin as well. If someone is speaking lashon hara and circumstances make it difficult to stop him, try to change the subject. If that fails, get up and leave.


The quintessential example of proper criticism is the story of King David and Natan Hanavi.  The prophet approached the king after he had sent Bathsheva’s husband to his death. He came in the guise of one soliciting advice. There were two men, one wealthy and one poor, who lived in the same city. The rich man had many sheep while the poor man had one small lamb. One day, a guest came to call at the rich man’s house. The wealthy host took the poor man’s lone lamb and prepared a meal for his guest. The prophet then asked the king, “What should be done to this wealthy man?” King David immediately answered that he deserved death. Natan Hanavi then told David that he was the man.  By depersonalizing the rebuke, the prophet was able to make King David view the act in its moral simplicity and indeed he had no choice but to admit and repent.


Think about all the times you were criticized and didn’t change. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm would say, “Don’t become angry if you can’t make people be the way you wish them to be, because you too can’t make yourself the way you wish to be.” Confront the person himself.  It’s very tempting to share our resentment of someone with others. However, the obligation is to rebuke the person himself, not destroy his good name. Give him an opportunity to defend himself. Before criticizing someone, ask yourself the following questions: Am I being fair or am I exaggerating?  How can I express myself without inflicting too much pain? How would I feel if someone criticized me this way? Am I enjoying criticizing this person? Is my criticism confined to a specific act or trait? Are my words non-threatening and in part reassuring?


In Parshat Kedoshim, the verse says, “You shall rebuke your fellow man and do not bear sin because of him.” Rashi explains that rebuking should be done with sensitivity. Do not publicly embarrass the offender. It is both ineffective and immoral, and only puts the sinner on the offensive. In addition, you will have lost the opportunity to bring about change. The Sefer Hachinuch notes that criticism should be delivered privately, with tact and refinement.


Mastering the art of constructive criticism takes thought and insight.  Let’s invest the effort to do it right.

Ahavat Chesed: Why Can’t I Just Be A Good Person

16 11 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Beinish Ginsburg

Why Can't I Just be a Good Person

The Chafetz Chaim wrote Ahavat Chesed when he was close to fifty years old and already well regarded in the Torah world. Normally authors much younger and relatively unknown will gather approbations for their work.  Yet the Chafetz Chaim solicited haskamot for Ahavat Chesed, including one by the noted Torah scholar, the Netziv, which will be discussed here. The Netziv had his own angle on chesed that fits perfectly with the approach developed in Ahavat Chesed. The Chafetz Chaim had two themes in mind when he wrote his work. First, to teach us the technical details of the mitzva including what is prohibited and permitted. Second, to emphasize that chesed is not just a thoughtful act but an actual mitzvat asei in the Torah. These two points are interconnected, because the fact that chesed is a mitzva, impacts the details of the halachot.


Hashem created man with an intrinsic need to do chesed. Kindness is built into human nature. The Torah describes Hevel as “achiv,” the brother of Kayin. Why does the Torah emphasize this? Of course Hevel was Kayin’s brother. The Netziv writes that Kayin felt a natural brotherly love for Hevel and wanted to do chesed with him. Indeed, at the beginning he gave Hevel some of his produce. The Torah makes special mention of the story of Sedom and how they were decimated to teach us that lack of chesed corrupts our basic human essence.


Rav Nissim Gaon explains that everyone is obligated in logical mitzvot. How can he possibly say that non-Jews are obligated in chesed if it is not one of the Seven Noachide Laws? The gemara in Sanhedrin answers that these seven laws only include the “don’ts.” The “do’s” include many more. Everyone, including non-Jews, is obligated in chesed because it is part of being human. Jews have a double obligation because it is also a mitzva in the Torah.



Hashem promises that one who fulfills the mitzva of shiluach haken will achieve long life anywhere in the world. However, with regard to kibud av, which is harder to fulfill, the Torah promises reward, long life “al ha’adama,” in Eretz Yisrael. What is the difference? The Rambam explains that a Jew receives more reward in the land of Israel because it is Hashem’s palace and His Divine Presence is more closely felt there. Therefore, the verse says, “al ha’adama” to teach us that a person receives more reward in Israel even for a logical mitzva like kibud av, because it is a mitzva in the Torah. Chesed too, though it is an easily understood mitzva, is a mitzva in the Torah and therefore, comes along with all its ramifications. The Netziv notes that even though a logical mitzva makes sense in general, its details may not because Hashem’s standards are higher than normal human standards. It is not dependent on common sense or feelings. Rather, each mitzva includes its myriad halachot.


The Chafetz Chaim wanted to highlight the significance of kindness, and that it is a mitzva and not just a thoughtful act.  May our studies of his monumental work help us reach ever greater heights in middat hachesed.

Parshat Vayeitzei: A Holy Nation

11 11 2010

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Vayeitzei: A Holy Nation

If we examine the lives of Avraham and Yitzchak we find that they overcame many challenges and then Hashem blessed them. However, with Yaakov, it seems like things happened in reverse. Yitzchak blessed him and then Yaakov embarked on a long journey filled with difficulties and struggles. What was the difference between Yaakov and the other avot?


In Tehillim it says, “Ashrei shomrei mishpat oseh tzedaka b’chol eit. Praised is the person who protects justice and does charity at all times.” The Zohar links this verse to Yaakov who combined chesed and gevura.  Mishpat is internal justice between one Jew and another. Tzedaka is spreading knowledge of Hashem to all four corners of the earth. The Shem MiShmuel explains that during the first stage of the development of Eretz Yisrael, the Jews were led by the shoftim. The shoftim merely enforced justice within the land but did not lead the people to war to expand their boundaries. However, during the second stage of transition, when the kings ruled, they transformed Israel from a nation completely focused on itself to a nation that expanded outwards to influence other foreign countries. This teaches that first we must be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. We must strengthen ourselves spiritually. Then we can become a mamlechet kohanim, a model nation whose mission it is to spread the word of Hashem to the world.


Similarly, this was the story of Yaakov’s life. In the beginning he was an “Ish tam yoshev ohalim,” a shofet Jew sitting in the tents of Torah, fortifying himself to face the challenges ahead. Then Hashem led him to Charan as it says, “Vayelech Charona.” Charon means anger and strife. The world outside Israel was mired in sin and wickedness. Yaakov went to live with Lavan who was the essence of evil. Lavan wanted to uproot the faith of Yaakov. Yaakov, with his own power and that of the Avot, succeeded in overcoming him by building a Jewish family and bringing Torah and mitzvot into Charan itself. He achieved the mission of a king.  Subsequently, Hashem commanded him to return. At that point, by facing Lavan and overcoming his challenges, Yaakov had advanced spiritually to the point that he could defeat Esav, something he could not have done before.


When Yaakov overcame the angel of Esav, the angel called him Yisrael. Yaakov implies a narrow focus while Yisrael connotes openness.  A Jew must maintain a dual focus. Sometimes it is microscopic, such as focusing detailed attention to halacha. Sometimes it is telescopic, assuming the responsibility of spreading Hashem’s word to the world. In Parshat Yitro, when Hashem commands Moshe to speak to the women, He said, “Thus you should speak l’bait Yaakov, to the house of Yaakov” because women are meant to focus on the internal part of Torah.  The rest of the Jewish people are Yisrael. As much as Torah is for us, we need to influence others externally through our example and teachings.


Let us take strength from Yaakov’s victory over the angel of Esav and over the Lavan ideology. As we face the myriad challenges of life, may He grant us the power to be a Mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, to become the spiritual giants and moral leaders of the world.

Parshat Toldot: Approaches to Evil

5 11 2010

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Approaches to Evil

The intriguing story of the blessings of Yitzchak plays a paramount role in this parsha. As the Torah writes, Yitzchak wanted to give the brachot to his firstborn Esav, but Rivka intervened and Yaakov received them instead. At the time, a firstborn was meant to carry on the leadership of the family. Avraham passed the bechora on to Yitzchak and Yitzchak planned to do the same for Esav.  Firstborn status meant not only financial responsibility but setting the tone and direction of the spiritual development of the family. In this case, the bechor would also define the path upon which the eventual Jewish nation would embark.


We know from the detailed description of our Sages, that Esav was a very wicked person. This was obvious to Rivka. Why did Yitzchak not know his own son?   How could he entertain the thought that Esav would build the holy nation of Israel?


The Shem MiShmuel explains that Yitzchak had deeper considerations. He knew that Yaakov was more spiritually developed, but he could not battle evil because he had never come in contact with it. Esav, on the other hand, was a fighter and a hunter, he would know how to overcome evil, and would be able to develop the Jewish nation and conquer the land of Israel.


There are two ways of battling the evil inclination. Chassidut teaches that all evil energies can be turned around for the good.  There’s a potential within evil for elevation. However, there is a constant battle between good and bad to find the point of rectification and then to channel it positively. A second path is to completely subordinate the evil, so that it becomes one’s servant, to the point that one does not need to struggle with it anymore.


This was the difference between Esav and Yaakov. When Esav came to his father, he presented himself as a talmid chacham. Therefore, Yitzchak thought Esav was one who fought evil constantly and was able to conquer it and get rid of it. This would make him a natural leader as he would be familiar with the passions and temptations of the common masses. On the other hand, Yaakov had already converted his evil side to goodness. He would not be able to relate to the daily struggles of the Jewish nation.


During the six days of the week there is a constant spiritual battle between our good and evil temptations.  On Shabbat, according to the Zohar, the yetzer hara turns sweet and is converted to good. There is no evil inclination on this day. The Torah says, “Vayivarech Elokim et yom hashivi. Hashem blessed the seventh day.” Chassidut teaches that Shabbat itself, which is completely good, is the source of blessing for the week. A blessing is applicable when there is a possibility for evil.  The bracha affirms that evil will not have power and will be defeated.


Yitzchak thought that Esav needed the brachot so that his good side could vanquish his evil side. On the other hand, Yaakov was like Shabbat, he had no evil side, and therefore the brachot were unnecessary for him. Esav was being defeated by evil, it was conquering him. He showed Yitzchak a facade and his father did not know he was being deceived.  Rivka symbolically put Esav’s clothing on Yaakov so that the ideal part of Esav, the one conquering evil, should become Yaakov. In turn, Yaakov acquired a new personality. He had to leave the ivory tower of Torah to confront evil head on.


The Torah says that when Yaakov came to Yitzchak, “Vayarach et reach b’gadav. And he smelled the scent of his garments.” Chazal teach us that “b’gadav” can be read as “bogdov,” meaning traitors. Some of Yaakov’s descendants would be apostates and rebellious blasphemers. Yaakov was not really perfect and needed the blessings to overcome evil. Indeed after he received them, his life took on the life Yitzchak thought Esav would live, struggling with evil, vanquishing it, and elevating it for the good.

Spiritual Meaning in Everyday Life

3 11 2010

Excerpted from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller’s Question and Answer series on

Achieving Balance:  Class #4

Question: In one of your classes, you discussed how every physical thing is “hevel” because it will eventually end. I feel that most of what I can perceive and experience in this world is physical. If this is so, how can I develop myself? What can I hold onto?


Spirituality doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from the physical world. On the contrary, it is what you introduce into your interaction with this world.

My daughter volunteers for an organization called Zeh L’azeh. The woman who heads it is an incredible person. On chol hamoed Sukkot she arranges a “fantasy day” for widows and orphans.  The magnificent experience ends with a Simchat Beit Hashoeiva where the “Who’s Who” in the Torah world attend, such as Rav Chaim Kanievski, the Gerrer Rebbe, and many other distinguished personalities. This huge undertaking involves hours of physical work including countless phone calls, shlepping boxes, and cleaning up. It’s gashmiut (physicality) all right, but it’s gashmiut concretized into action. This is genuine ruchniut (spirituality).

If you’re cooking dinner for your family, think of it as a chesed. They are just as hungry as strangers would be. If your intention is to build a home of loving kindness where you want to fulfill people’s needs, and create a healthy environment where people can draw closer to Hashem, this is ruchniut. Don’t let anyone ever deceive you into thinking anything other than that.