Being Friendly and the Meaning of Achdut

21 12 2011

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

Achieving Balance: Class#2


I’ve seen girls that were lumped together and told to be friendly and it backfired badly. It bothers me because it was all in the name of achdut (unity). What is the Torah perspective and where does achdut fit in here?


Our world is enormously complex. Every creation has its own purpose, structure, and reason for being, with the common goal of revealing Hashem’s glory. If you compare a lion to a frog they are different, but they share one characteristic – they affirm Hashem’s greatness. The mission of a Jew is to interpret the world and find Hashem’s glory in every person, creation, or situation he encounters. Every Jew is part of the collective of Klal Yisrael and together we can give interpretation and meaning to existence.

The verse says concerning the Jews, “Becha etpaer,” I take pride in you. When you meet another Jew, ask yourself, How does Hashem take pride in him in a way that is different than how He takes pride in me? How can I really know this person? What is his unique contribution to the world? How can I learn from him?

Achdut can occur when you ask, “Where do I see Hashem’s honor in this person?” His glory may be hidden under layers of pride and sinfulness. Your job is to see through that facade so that you and the person can resonate by tapping into the tzelem Elokim (Divine Image). This is really what achdut means, seeing the spirituality within another person and feeling one with him.

Viewing different sectors within Klal Yisrael and seeing what is unique, admirable, and beautiful, without necessarily feeling you have to be a part of that particular group, is achdut manifested in reality. This is the way true tzaddikim looked at other Jews and this is what we should aspire to.

Chanukah: Sfas Emes Part III

20 12 2011
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Our sages tell us that the physical war against the Greeks gave expression to our spiritual struggle against them. Hashem could have destroyed the Greeks, but He wanted us to fight against them for our own development. This was the same reason that Avraham fought with Terach and Rabbi Akiva battled the Romans. When we won against the Greeks, it wasn’t a physical victory, but a victory of kavod shamayim (honoring Hashem’s name).

Although the vial of oil burned for eight calendar days, the miracle translated into something beyond time. This is intimated by the number eight. The root of the word shemona (eight) is shemen, oil. Just as oil floats above other liquids, the Chanukah miracle was something above our sense of reality. It transformed our way of thinking and experiencing this world to one of sheleimut, rising above ourselves. Similarly, a brit milah takes place on the eighth day and is performed on a baby who is not given a choice. Eight represents submitting to a higher will above our own.

The potential to see the light was there before the war but it was concealed by darkness. The Greeks had squashed all our potential and latent power. When the Macabbees succeeded in defeating them, they were finally able to achieve deveikut (connection to G-d). This is an inspiration for all of us. When we fall spiritually, we may easily come to despair. The miracle of Chanukah strengthens our belief in the power of our higher self, in the love Hashem has for us, and in the eventual redemption.

The Gemara writes that the Chanukah lights are holy and may not be used for our own benefit. Sanctity means dedicating something to Hashem. All mitzvot have holiness, but their holiness is hidden. Yavan with its philosophy of self-contained humanism creates concealment. Faith and following the Torah help us breaks through these barriers to access this sanctity. This is the miracle of Chanukah which can still be found in the Chanukah lights.

After the candles are lit, we sing, “U’menotar kankanim naaseh nes la’shoshanim, with what was left in the little vessel, Hashem made a miracle for the Jews who are called shoshanim (roses). In Shir Hashirim the verse states, “Ani chavatzelet hasharon shoshanat ha’amakim.” The roses that grow in the hot and dry Sharon region are yellow and hardy while those that grow in the shade are red and delicate. There are tzaddikim who are tough, who discover who they are not and affirm who they are. There are those who are more refined, who never faced the impurity of the outside world. People sometimes mistakenly think that the second type of tzaddik is inherently superior to the first. However, the Chashmonaim who battled impurity are called shoshanim.

Both categories of tzaddikim can reach the same level of greatness because the oil, their core emunah, remains. Our sages tell us, “Al tistakel b’kanakn eleh b’mah she’yesh bo.” The outside is really a garment for the inner self. Many times we may look at people and wonder where Hashem is with them. This is true of secular Jews, and about those among us who have failed. We must learn to focus on every Jew’s inner essence. The word for world in Hebrew is olam, which is related to the word he’elem, meaning hidden. Hashem is there within every form of concealment. Someone who may appear so far from Judaism really has faith buried deep within him whether he is aware of it or not. Hashem’s malchut (kingdom) is hidden in this world. Every so often He lifts the curtain and we see miracles. We realize that He was there all along.

The kankanim (containers) that conceal light are the different forms of exile. Some of us are victims of the Greek exile, which perceived everything in terms of human perceptions. Others are victims of the Persian exile, which espouses that only material exists. And still some of us are victims of the Babylonian exile where control and force dominate. We are all victims, but inside of us is a pure light which we will rediscover at the time of redemption. All of us go through stages of terrible concealment, failure, and despair. We have all sorts of things that enslave our hearts and emotions. It’s up to us to liberate ourselves. On Chanukah we renew our sense of Hashem’s kingship. We can take on many enemies and defeat them. We can discover our own capacity for light and attain purity. Then we can come to a higher point of perceiving malchut shamayim, not only in this world and in other people, but in ourselves.

On Chanukah, we read the parsha of the nesi’im and their contribution to the sanctuary, which was completed on the 25th of Kislev. The twelve tribes parallel the twelve different angles of a cube that meet at the same center. They each reflect a different soul power, treading a different path to reach the same goal. The Zohar says that Yaakov blessed each of his twelve sons individually because he recognized that they were unique. They were each born in a different month under a different astral sign which reflects the different channels through which Hashem‘s energy flows down. Likewise, Hashem‘s name, yud keh vav keh, has twelve different ways of arranging the letters. Each tribe sees Hashem echad through its own prism. His binding force is aroused even when there is a partial redemption. This awakening of the Chanukah miracle rekindled our own light.

The Torah says there was a river that flowed out of Eden. When this river left Eden it divided into four different tributaries. Eden represents unity and the four streams correspond to the forces of estrangement represented by the exile. In Kohelet it is written, “All of the rivers go into the sea.” We can take any exile back to its source. We can face the evil and uplift it. Our defeat of Yavan brought us to a new level of redemption that we had never experienced before. The river Chidekel represents Yavan – chad v’kal – sharp and brilliant. The Greeks used their incisiveness to describe reality in their own terms. We can take that power and use it for holiness.

In the blessing on the Chanukah lights, we say, “Bayamim haheym ba’zman hazeh.” At all moments of liberation, we have an opportunity for redemption as individuals too. Chanukah is liberation from the Greek mind-set, whose root is the sin of the golden calf, whose underlying was the desire to see everything on our own terms. On a personal and collective level, this is a time of elevation.

We are like someone standing on a giant’s shoulder reaching upward. All of the merits of the previous generations give us the strength to chart our own course. As we tread the path mapped out by our forefathers, we create our own unique way.

May we merit to experience the miracles, to see our unity as purposeful, and to find the light within ourselves.

Jewish Calendar II #16-Mehadrin Min Hamehadrin

19 12 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Chanukah is a unique holiday in that the Gemara delineates two extra levels of hiddur mitzvah (enhancing the mitzva) when lighting the candles. The basic mitzva is for the head of the household to light one candle each night for the whole family. However, there is a level of mehadrin where each family member lights a light every night. In mehadrin min hamehadrin each family member lights the corresponding number of candles for that night.

The Beit Yosef discusses a question whether a person who made a blessing on the wrong number of candles must make another blessing when he remembers to light the additional candle(s). He answers that if there was a significant break (approx. 1-2 hours) after the first lighting, one would make another blessing. This is surprising, because in normative Jewish law one doesn’t repeat a blessing on a hiddur mitzva. From this we learn that the mehadrin factor inherent in neirot Chanukah is unique in that it is related to maaseh hamitzva (performance of the mitzva). While there is great importance attached to beautifying a mitzva, such as making a blessing on a fine etrog or tallit, it is only related to mitzva objects with which the person fulfills the fundamental mitzva regardless if the item is beautiful. Therefore, no further blessing is recited. However, when one adds more Chanukah candles, the performance of the mitzva is radically enhanced, it’s intrinsic to the mitzva. It’s not just lighting the candles, but also pirsumei nisa – publicizing the miracle. Therefore, another blessing is recited.

Similarly, the poskim explain that although the basic mitzva of ner ish u’baito, (the father lighting for the household) has already been fulfilled, other family members can still make their own blessing because they are adding to the fundamental mitzva, which is pirsumei nisa.

Can a child who has reached the age of chinuch and is obligated in Rabbinic mitzvot, be motzi (intend to include) an adult with a mitzva d’rabanan such as megilah or neirot Chanukah? The Shulchan Aruch rules that a child cannot be motzi megilah but he could be motzi neirot Chanukah. Rav Soloveitchik explains that megilah is a chiyuv gavra – an adult obligation. Neirot Chanukah is a chiyuv bayit – an obligation on the household. It’s not a transfer from one person to the next. Since a child has an obligation he can automatically be motzi the household.

There’s an old custom to sing Haneirot Halalu as the Chanukah lights are lit. This seems like a hefsek (interruption in the performance of the mitzva). The reason it is not is because it is part of publicizing the miracle.

Chumash In depth: The Sale of Yosef

18 12 2011

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles 

What is the connection between the end of Parshat Vayishlach, which speaks about the lineage of Esav, and Parshat Vayeishev, which describes the difficult incident of Yosef and his brothers? Rashi explains that although Esav’s background is mentioned briefly, the Torah focuses on the story of Yaakov and the twelve tribes. It is compared to a precious stone that fell beneath the sand. After finding the stone, the debris is discarded and attention is focused solely on the stone. Similarly, Hashemsifted through all the generations until He found Yaakov, the bechir h’avot (the chosen one), and then focused on him.

Rashi tells another parable about a coal dealer who came to the market to sell his coal. After his arrival, another merchant arrived laden with straw. The coal dealer worried that there would not be any room now for his coal. A wise person said one spark released from your coal will decimate the entire wagonload of straw. When Yaakov saw all the generals of Esav, he worried how he would overcome them. Therefore, the Torah says, “Eleh toldot Yaakov, Yosef.” These are the children of Yaakov,Yosef. Sefer Ovadaya states, “Vayaha beit Yaakov aish u’beit Yosef l’hava u’beit Esav l’kash. (Yaakov is the fire, Yosef is the flame, and Esav is the straw.) One spark of Yosef can destroy the entire camp of Esav. The Netivot Shalom notes that Esav represents our negative inclinations. Hashem said, “V’haya beit Yaakov l’aish, your passion, desire, and yearning to do the will of Hashem will outweigh all the evil of Edom.

Rabbi Tatz explains that straw symbolizes the nations of the world who believe that the more material a person has the better off he is. Esav said, “I have a lot,” while Yaakov said, “I have everything.” What really counts is spirituality. Life is not about having, but about appreciating what one does have and elevating it for Hashem. Although Esav’s lineage seems impressive compared to Yaakov, Yaakov is central in the narrative of the Chumash.

What role does a close and supportive family play in Judaism?

14 12 2011

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

Achieving Balance: Class#2


What role does a close and supportive family play in Judaism? Is it in the spirit of Torah for a child to settle in Eretz Yisrael if the parents who stay behind will feel resentful and unappreciated?




Family is unquestionably a Jewish value. The whole concept of Am Yisrael developing into a nation only began when there were families. When Yaakov and his children descended to Egypt, the Torah describes them as, “Ish u’veito,” man and his household. From that point on, the Jewish people were counted as families. There were no more individual censuses.


Rav Hirsch explains that different family roles are designed by Hashem to bring tikun (rectification) to each family member. A man gains more by being a father, husband, son, brother, and grandchild, than he would ever gain by just being an individual. Therefore, family is very important. Even people who cannot put this into words know this intuitively. The low assimilation rate in observant communities is the direct result of our emphasis on family. In other communities, the assimilation rate is high, because people develop a sense of wanting to belong somewhere in order to gain that feeling of connection that family should provide.


Family is a means for tikun, not a substitute. Therefore, if tikun can be achieved by moving away from family, that is what the person should do. Our tikun is defined by the Torah. While family closeness is more of a hashkafic value, settling in Eretz Yisrael is a mitzvah that outweighs it.   

Honorable Mentchen: Wedding Joy

13 12 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller  

One of the prime expressions of chesed (kindness) is the mitzva of attending a wedding. A wedding is not about having a good time but rather about bringing happiness to the bride and groom by your presence. This is accomplished by speaking and endearing the bride and groom to each other.

If the bride and groom are orphans or impoverished the mitzva is compounded. The Mishna says that there is no limit to the reward for someone who provides assistance to a needy bride. In fact, in Jewish law it is only permitted to sell a Torah scroll for two reasons: to support Torah study and to help an impoverished bride marry.

Rabbi Sacks relates a story that highlights the phenomenal power of chesed. In 1956, an eleven year old black boy moved to a white neighborhood in Washington with his family. He sat on the stoop outside and passersby neither smiled nor glanced at him. He felt very unwanted.

And all of a sudden a white woman walked up to him and said, “Welcome.” She returned shortly again with a tray of drinks and sandwiches. That moment changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging and a warm feeling that someone cared. That young boy was Stephen Carter, who grew up to become a professor of law at Yale University.

He wrote a book called Civility which begins with this story. He writes, “She was a religious Jew and in Jewish tradition such civility is called chesed, acts of kindness, which derives from the teaching that humans are created in the Divine image.”

Chesed requires giving to others in hard times as well as in good times. It’s a love which grows stronger over time. Rabbi Sacks writes “Chesed is the poetry of everyday life written in the language of simple deeds.” It is love that begets love, a gift of self to self. Chesed humanizes the world. Avraham and Sarah brought Hashem into the world without any arguments or theological proofs. It was their acts of kindness which spoke volumes. Avraham didn’t know his guests were angels, yet he welcomed them hospitably. This is how a person becomes angelic, by treating people as if they were angels.

Avraham’s essence was chesed. Therefore, when he sought a wife for Yitzchak, he looked for chesed too. Chesed creates a relationship, a conjoined we. Material things diminish as they are distributed, but chesed keeps growing and growing and is never given in vain.

We cannot see Hashem face to face but we can see Him in the face of other people. The holiest vessel in the Temple was the ark which had two keruvim (cherubs) at the top. The Torah emphatically admonishes us not to fashion images. In addition the commandment to create the vessels of the Tabernacle came in the aftermath of the debacle of the golden calf. Yet Hashem took a risk by commanding us to fashion the cherubs to teach us that He would only appear when the keruvim were facing each other. When there is unity, the Divine Presence can rest among us.

A chasid once asked his Rebbe, “Why is Mashiach not here yet? “The Rebbe answered, “I will tell you a great secret. We are not waiting for Mashiach. He is waiting for us.” Then the Rebbe asked, “What would you do if Mashiach did arrive. Would you not greet him as a long lost friend?” “Of course,” replied the chassid. The Rebbe then said, “I will tell you what you must do and teach others too. Regard every person as if he might be the Mashiach. If we could do this, we will find that without our realizing it, Mashiach has already come.”


Netivot Olam I: Starving The Yetzer Hara #5

12 12 2011
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Netivot Olam  The seven names of the yetzar hara (evil inclination) share a common factor in that they all connote lack. Humans are created imperfect We are drawn towards evil because it resonates with us. The more whole a person is, the less the yetzer hara can dominate him.

The Gemara says that the yetzer hara didn’t rule over the Avot because they reached perfection. No doubt they worked very hard to reach greatness, but they had to be guided by Hashem in this direction because each one of them contained, like a hologram, the total of their future descendants. Because of this, their definition of self had to be complete. They couldn not be defined by chisaron (lack).

The yetzer hara appeals to a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) more than anyone else because his self-definition is his sichliut (intellect). Truth isn’t transient. Therefore, there is a certain sheleimut (perfection) in sichliut . However, the person learning has to apply the truth to a world full of flaws. Sichliut can be reduced to being defined by the imperfections of the world.

The verse states, “The righteous walk with it (the Toarh) while the wicked stumble.” It is compared to a potion that gives a person energy. Where a person goes with it is up to him. It could take him to his death or to higher levels of elevation. Sichliut is enormously powerful. It could lead a person to holiness or to ruin. Great intellectuals veered off the path not just because they were ignorant of Torah but because they used their mind to serve their emotional agendas. Their devoted their intellect to chisaron rather than to elevating it.

The nefesh is divided in two: the animal, instinctive soul and the spiritual soul. The nefesh habahamit of the Jewish people is made from the earth of Eretz Yisrael, while the soul of the non-Jews is made from the earth of other countries. Eretz Yisrael is about elevating the physical. Other countries cannot be uplifted. Our mitzvot force us to interact with the world. In contrast, the non-Jewish perspective views anything physical as an enemy to spirituality. Because Yisrael has to interact with the world, the challenge of being drawn into it is very real. Sin drives away the intellect. The righteous rule their hearts while the wicked are ruled by their hearts. The heart has to draw its energy from chochmah, but ultimately chochmah must control the heart.

Our deveikut (connection) to Hashem is imperfect as we continue to search for Him. Other nations don’t feel the gaping lack as much because they have less potential. Virtually every mistake we have made as a people was ideological. We were aiming towards perfection and somehow veered off. The symbolism of the golden calf and the symbolism of the mishkan both reflected the desire to draw closer to Hashem. However, the difference was that one was an act of self-nullification on Hashem’s terms, while the other was ultimate egotism on human terms.

Although a person may seem more whole and complete if he fulfils his desires, it’s really an illusion. The more a person feeds his evil inclination, the hungrier it gets, because desire is a chisaron. If it is contained and controlled it diminishes. Filling your desires accentuates the part of yourself that is lacking. Starving the yetzer hara eliminates it. A person can sublimate his desires by elevating it, not giving in to it.

The yetzer hara first appears as a guest and then becomes a host. The non-Jews see the yetzer hara as external but in actuality it can easily become a part of our essence. When we make wrong, it becomes habit, which creates desensitization. At the beginning the yetzer hara doesn’t have much force because there is an inner mechanism that is shocked by sin. Once desensitization happens, the drive to sin is so strong it becomes almost inescapable. Because of this, the first step, which may not even be a sin, but just filling our inner void with something that isn’t holy, could be the decisive step that could lead a person off the right path.

Achieving Balance Class 8

1 12 2011

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

Achieving Balance: Class#2


I feel frozen because of all the critical comments I keep getting from people. What can I do to feel free enough to be myself without worrying about all the people who are watching or judging me?




Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can be anonymous in this world. You are constantly being observed and evaluated. The one who is watching you is Hashem. Once you internalize this, the fact that other people see you and pass judgment on you becomes insignificant.


I recall the time when I was first asked by students if they could tape my classes. At first I was hesitant, but then when I remembered that I would see and hear all this in the end anyway, I realized it wasn’t all that bad if other people heard it too. Don’t be so overwhelmed. They cannot see what is not there, and you will have to account for anyway in the end for what is there.


Sometimes peoples’ responses may be limited because they see us from a different angle than we see ourselves. For example, if someone comments on your religious level, let your inner life be your guide on that. It is unlikely that people will see you with more scrutiny than the Shulchan Aruch or theMussar masters. You have to grow to be who you want to be. But if you find yourself constantly offending other people, you have to ask yourself, “Am I doing this right?” “Am I being a ba’al machloket (argumentative) or acting insensitively?”


When faced with criticism, be strong and ask yourself, “Is this true?” and if it is, internalize it, fix it, and move on.

Vayetzei: A full day’s pay, a full day’s work

1 12 2011 presents this parsha shiur by Rabbi Beinish Ginsburg


Yaakov Avinu worked very hard as a shepherd for Lavan. The Rambam1 refers to Yaakov when he discusses the proper way an employee should work for his employer. He writes as follows.

But a worker may not do his own work at night and hire himself out for the day or thresh with his cow in the evening and hire her out for the day. Nor may he starve himself, giving away his own food to his children because by doing so he weakens himself physically and mentally and renders himself incapable of exertion in his work, thus depriving the employer of what is due to him.

A worker is supposed to try to keep himself healthy in order to be able to produce for his employer. The Rambam continues,

Just as the employer is enjoined not to deprive the poor worker of his hire…so is the worker enjoined not to deprive the employer of the benefit of his work. By idling away his time, a little here, a little there, just wasting the whole day deceitfully, indeed the worker must be very punctual in the matter of time. Seeing that the sages, Chazal, said we’re so solicitous in this matter that they exempted workers from saying the fourth bracha of Birchas Hamazon. The worker must work with all his power, seeing that Yaakov hatzadik said ‘ki b’chol kochi avad’ti es avichem.’ And therefore, Yaakov received the reward even in Olam Hazeh “vayifrotz ha’ish m’od m’od.”

This is a famous Rambam describing that when you work for someone you have to put in a full day’s work. You are not supposed to cut corners here and cut corners there. Yaakov worked very hard for Lavan. It is actually striking, Yaakov says (Breishis 31,40), “For these years that I worked for your father, vatidad she’nasi mei’einai” – that means he barely slept. This is in contrast to what we find in Chazal, that during the fourteen years in Yeshivas Sheim V’Ever, Yaakov barely slept because he was learning. And now for these twenty years working for Lavan, he barely slept because he was working so hard.

Rav Baruch Simon shli”ta quotes2 that the Midrash says that Hashem rewarded Yaakov because of how hard he worked for Lavan. The pasuk teaches us that Hashem came to Lavan in a dream and said don’t start up with Yaakov at all. What zechus did Yaakov have that he merited this special protection from Hashem? Chazal say, “mikan anu l’meidim shezechus m’lacha omedes b’mokom she’ein zechus avos yechola la’amod.” It was the zechus of Yaakov’s working that protected him even more than the zechus avos from Yitzchak.

This is an important lesson for us. A person has a job, he has an obligation to put in a full day’s work and Jews should be known for how carefully they honor their commitments and obligations. Rav Simon points out further that this is especially true for someone who works in Klei Kodesh, someone who is involved in Chinuch or Rabbanus. The Gemara writes that a teacher of students has to be extra careful in his work. If a person is fortunate enough to have a job, he should work hard at his job. One reason is this is a form of hishtadlus to keep his job, and secondly this is a Halachic obligation, as the Rambam describes.

Rav Simon points out that the Rambam here refers to Yaakov as ‘Yaakov hatzadik’ in connection with the fact that he was yashar, was scrupulously honest in his work. We can learn form here that if a person wants to achieve the special status of being a tzadik, he has to be very careful in putting in a full day’s work, and not cutting corners at the expense of his employer.

Good Shabbos,

Beinish Ginsburg