Tomer Devora-Examples of G-dliness

22 12 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

Examples of G-dliness

The sefer, Tomer Devora, is based on a verse in Micha, “Mi Kel komocha..”-Who is like you Hashem.  It describes how man should adopt Hashem’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, transforming himself from a mere human to a G-dly individual. This class focuses on the middah of chesed as expounded further in the verse, “Ki chofetz chesed hu..”-Hashem desires chesed.

In the heavens above, there are angels whose sole purpose is to receive and present the chesed of the Jewish people to Hashem, particularly in a time when they are not following the Torah. This chesed intercedes for them and sweetens the judgment. Even terrible sins punishable by death, merit forgiveness through chesed. Why is chesed so significant in the eyes of Hashem?

The Michtav M’Eliyahu writes that giving is the foundation of all mussar and machasava. It is a prerequisite for emunah and avodat Hashem. Chesed is a form of giving. When a person gives of himself, he indicates that he is investing in something spiritual and eternal. The Jewish nation distinguish themselves as being merciful, modest, and kind. We do not pride ourselves on our physical prowess or intelligence.  The Torah tells us “Vahavata l’reicha komocha…” Ahava comes from the root word “hav”-to give. We indicate our love by giving of ourselves. Our goal should be to give without expecting anything in return. Even those who hurt us, should be the recipients of our chesed. This is how Hashem acts with us and this is our basis for emunah.

The text in Micha reads further, “Yashav yerachameihu..”-Hashem is merciful to those who return. When one person sins against another, the level of love and respect for the other person can never be the same. In contrast, when a person does teshuva, he becomes even closer to Hashem. This is the level we should strive to achieve with those who wrong us. While a tzaddik can have a relationship with Hashem, a baal teshuva is in the category of a servant who is even closer to his Master.

The Midrash asks, why is Magen Avraham called Avraham’s bracha? Does it not say Elokei Avraham? Avraham brought Hashem’s existence into the world with his actions. Similarly, when we emulate Hashem’s middot, our divine like aspect comes to the fore. We glorify Hashem with our righteous actions and bring His presence into the world. May our efforts to perfect our inner selves sanctify Hashem’s name and bring atonement for all of Klal Yisrael.

When Its OK to Bend the Truth

16 12 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Permissible Falsehood

There is a common practice for sales people to tell customers the advantages of a product while ignoring its drawbacks. Torah law demands integrity; covering up a flaw is deceitful and forbidden. The gemara in Bava Metzia tells us that a person may not ask a seller the price of an item if he has no intention to buy it. This is onaat devarim (hurting with words). Similarly, asking to see a product in a store when you intend to buy it on the internet at a cheaper price is prohibited.


The Torah says, “Cursed is the person who leads a blind man astray.” This applies to anyone who takes advantage of another person’s naiveté or lack of knowledge.  All of us have our expertise and blindness in certain areas. When we engage in geneivat daat (deceiving the mind), we incur a curse upon ourselves. Lying in the courtroom is not only a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, but is a desecration of Hashem’s name. The Torah writes, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Pursue justice.” The repeated word teaches us how critically important justice is.  Thwarting justice undermines society which is a severe crime.


There are cases in halacha when it is permitted to bend the truth.  When delivering bad news to a patient, a doctor should be careful not to deprive the person of all hope. On the other hand, if the patient is in advanced stages of a terminal illness, then it would be foolhardy and inappropriate for the doctor not to apprise the patient at all. One may lie to a poor person to get him to accept charity or to save someone from embarrassment. The gemara brings many instances of this. One example is the story of Shmuel Hakatan who confessed to something he did not do to save someone from humiliation.  Additionally, the gemara writes that one may lie in three instances: to protect someone from being exploited, for reasons of modesty, and in order to conceal matters of intimacy and personal life. In general, exaggeration should be avoided, but if you are using it to make a point and people will not take it literally, it is permitted.


The prophet Yishayahu tells us, “Tzion b’mishpat tipadeh. Zion will be redeemed in the merit of justice.” May our efforts to live with truth and integrity bring the redemption closer.

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.

Class Spotlight: Honorable Mentchen – Character Pitfalls #2

24 05 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller


This new course introduces a series of mini-workshops on the vital topic of personal character and the implementation of moral sensitivity into our daily lives. Featuring Rabbi Hanoch Teller at his best, these short 20 minute lectures are sure to add an inspirational lift to your day!

Too often, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to change others, when in reality we can change only ourselves. The Mishna in Avot says, “Who is mighty? One conquers his evil inclination.” Western society considers one who prevails over others to be mighty, but our Rabbis emphasize that it is really one who prevails over himself.

The more conscious we are of our weaknesses, the more we can try to curb them before they damage ourselves and others. If we refuse to acknowledge our character failings, we will inevitably rationalize our flaws, and try to demonize and find fault with others. Just as our sages instituted numerous rabbinic prohibitions or fences so that we would not come to transgress Torah law, we must erect fences around our evil character traits to prevent us from stumbling. Rav Yisrael Salanter once said that a person is like a bird. He can fly ever so high but if his wings stop flapping, he will inevitably fall down. Working on our middot is a constant battle and we must be watchful at all times.

The first step to improvement is to admit our wrongs. Instead of correcting their mistakes, people have a tendency to persist in their errors. To quote Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “One who makes a mistake and doesn’t correct it is making a second mistake.” Many times, parents will err with their children and place unrealistic demands on them. They may even see their child suffering and still continue on their ill chosen path.

Time is life and one can literally commit slow suicide by killing time. It is important to have proper priorities and to preoccupy ourselves with doing good for others instead of thinking only of ourselves. We should ask ourselves, “Are we giving our children a feeling of being loved and appreciated?”

Our tombstones will never be inscribed with the epithets, “She had the shiniest floors or he drove the fanciest car.” Instead, people will remember you as, “The good neighbor or the loving mother.” Small acts of kindness, thoughtful deeds, and giving of oneself without thought of remuneration, will remain with us for eternity. The famous coach, Vincent Bardey, was wont to say, “Being the winner is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.” Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Finkelman points out, “Being good is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.”

Sefirat Haomer: Joy & Mourning

16 04 2010

Sefirat Haomer: Joy & Mourning

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Beinush Ginsburg

The seven weeks of sefira connect Pesach to Shavuot. The central goal of Yetziat Mitzrayim was to receive the Torah. We were taken out of Egypt so we would be free to serve Hashem. This is expressed with the mitzva of sefira.

Rav Hirsch explains that on Pesach the Jews primarily experienced physical freedom, which is symbolized by the korban omer. Barley, commonly used as animal fodder, signifies physicality. The shtei halechem, the wheat bread sacrifice offered on Shavuot, symbolizes spiritual freedom. The Jews did not achieve complete freedom until they received the Torah. On the fiftieth day, when they finally attained the pinnacle of spiritual purity, they approach Hashem with human food. Rav Hirsch writes that the day after the Jews left Egypt they began to count sefira. This further demonstrates that the Exodus was only the beginning. It was not the goal.

The Orchot Chaim explains that we do not recite shehechiyanu on the mitzva of sefira because the shechiyanu on Shavuot covers it. The whole purpose of sefira is to count towards Shavuot. Therefore, no separate bracha is required.

Additionally, although there is a special mitzva to rejoice on the shalosh regalim, the Torah does not mention it in relation to Pesach. This is because the simcha of Pesach isn’t complete until Shavuot. The entire goal of Pesach is Matan Torah. The Ramban in Vayikra refers to sefira as chol hamoed. These seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot link the two holidays together. Chazal refer to Shavuot as “atzeret.” Atzeret means to stop and hold on. It is usually used in connection to the closure of Yom Tov where we are exhorted to hold on to the holiness that was gained during the holiday. Shavuot is atzeret because it is the end of the period of Pesach and sefira.

Sefira is both a joyous and mournful time. As we happily anticipate Matan Torah, we mourn the passing of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Why did they die specifically during this time period? The Hegyonei Halacha explains that to properly prepare for receiving the Torah, a person must work on his middot. Indeed there is a custom to study Pirkei Avot during sefira. We need to think about why we are in aveilut, internalize the reason, and work to rectify our failings. The Gemara writes that the students died because they did not properly respect each other. These seven weeks are an opportune time to work on our relationships bein adam l’chavero.

We can learn from the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva the importance of mesora and how we have to be careful to keep it perfectly intact. Rav Aharon explains that if these students would have lived they would have been the future Tannaim and the baalei mesora. Respecting our friends means having objectivity to accept the truth of another opinion even if you did not think of that idea first. Rav Aharon explains that the students had a problem with their learning. They could not put aside their personal ego to concede their friend’s position even if it was true. If they would have lived, their mesora would have been corrupted because they were lacking in middot. Instead of passing on a corrupted tradition, they died.

The lofty weeks of sefira are meant to help us gradually ascend the ladder of self development so that ultimately we can reach the holy day of Shavuot with pure hearts ready to receive the Torah anew.