Jerusalem: Echoes of Lament- Why Cry?

11 07 2012

Based on a shiur by Hanoch Teller 

It is possible to go through the fast of Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur without feeling any pangs of hunger if we focus on the key motifs these days. On Yom Kippur, when the fate of all of Klal Yisrael is hanging in the balance, thinking about something minor as food and drink seems superfluous. Likewise on Tisha B’av, if we really sense that deep aching longing for what we’ve lost, all mundane trivialities fall away.

There’s a famous parable of a gifted artist who climbed a steep mountain in order to paint his magnum opus. His work of art far exceeded his expectations. He was so overwhelmed by the beauty of his accomplishment that he took a few steps back to view his work better. Unbeknown to him he was almost at the edge of the cliff about to plunge to his death. A mountain climber spotted him and began shouting. But the artist paid no attention. Left with no other choice, the climber dashed over and ripped the artist’s canvas to pieces. The artist then snapped out of his trance and yelled, “What have you done?” Then the climber showed him where he had stood. Prophet after prophet warned Klal Yisrael not to commit the same mistakes of the past. But the Jews did not listen. In the end, Hashem was left with no choice but to destroy the Beit Hamikdash to save us.

We have become desensitized. Most of us don’t realize what we’re mourning, what it means to have lost the eretz tiferet, the beautiful land. Eretz Yisrael should be foremost in our thoughts. We should take time out to think about what the land means to us, what it was, and what it could be if only Mashiach would come. Then we can begin to appreciate the dimension of our loss.

The Navi recounts how the Almighty castigated the Jews, “Mi bikeish zot miyedchem? Who asked this of you? Of what use are all your needless sacrifices. Your ketoret are an abomination. I despise your holidays. I cannot listen to your prayers any longer.” These words reflect a serious breach between the Jews and the Almighty. We have been cast out and rejected.

There are three cardinal questions we will be asked when we reach the next world. Among them will be, “Tzipita l’yeshua?” Did you await the salvation? It’s not enough to believe. We have to yearn for the redemption.

According to the Mesilat Yesharim, awaiting the geulah is an element of ahavat Hashem. If someone you loved very dearly was in pain, you’d feel his agony and try to do everything you could to alleviate it. Klal Yisrael is suffering and our pain is borne by Hashem. If we love Hashem and don’t wish to see Him bear our misery we must yearn for the redemption.

In order to properly understand the idea of awaiting the redemption we have to better understand the scope of the churban and Divine Presence in exile. We’ve lost so much. Observing the kohanim while they performed the service in the beit hamikdash was a great catalyst for teshuva. Although we believe that a tzaddik can possesses a modicum of Divine inspiration, it cannot compare to the holy spirit of Hashem that existed in the time of the bayit when the Sanhedrin could decide matters of life and death.

The incredible assimilation of today is also a consequence of our exile. Had we remained in Israel the phenomenon of the vanishing Jew would never have happened. Our desire to imitate the non-Jews is a result of our living among them. All the countless suffering, tragedies, and travails we’ve experienced throughout the long years are a result of losing our bayit.

The beit hamikdash was destroyed because of the three cardinal sins and because of baseless hatred. We must strengthen ourselves in these areas. Hashem welcomes all of our efforts, especially in these auspicious weeks. May we merit to see the rebuilding of the beit hamikdash speedily in our days.

Love Your Neighbor- To What Extent?

14 05 2012
Based on a series by Rabbi Hanoch Teller: Honorable Mentchen II

Chesed is normally translated as loving kindness, but it’s more. A secular government can legislate laws such as not speeding or not killing. It cannot, however, expect people to act in a conjointly sense of ‘we’ on behalf of the community.

The Rambam teaches that “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” (Loving ones fellow Jew) means caring about someone’s monetary possessions. The mitzvah also includes praising others. However, the Chafetz Chaim cautions us to be careful as excessive praise is likely to generate negative comments.

It can be hard to feel happy for someone when their fortune soars and to feel sad when their situation plummets. To fulfill the mitzvah of V’ahavta l’reicha one must work on obliterating his feelings of jealousy.

The Baal Shem Tov explained this mitzvah to mean that your behavior towards someone else should be based on the other person’s likes and dislikes, not your own.

The Gemara explains a pasuk in Chabakuk, “V’hatznea lechet im Elokecha.” You shall walk modestly with Hashem. This refers to burying the dead and helping a bride get married. At some weddings the focus is not on the other person but on yourself. What do they think about me? How do I look? V’haznea lechet teaches us that we are there for the other person.

Loving ones fellow Jew includes being hospitable to guests. We should do more than just providing a meal. We should look out for their needs, correct someone for doing something people would consider odd, chastise someone for sinning, lend money or other articles, pray for those in need, save someone from injury, greet people with a happy countenance, teach Torah, and share good news. A craftsman fulfills this mitzvah when he has in mind to do his best work for the benefit of his customer. A doctor fulfills this commandment when he heals someone.

On one of his travels Rav Moshe Leib Sassover entered a tavern. He heard a Russian horse trader say to his companion, “Igor I love you.” Igor tearfully replied, “No you don’t. If you really loved me you’d know what I am lacking.” Rav Moshe Leib learned a great lesson. True ahavat yisrael means being concerned about what the other person is missing and truly caring about them.

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.”


Engaging in Kindness

29 11 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Rachel and Leah In secular society, chesed (kindness) is considered a positive attribute but it is not something regulated or legislated. In Jewish tradition kindness is a significant value. In fact, the Chafetz Chaim wrote an entire book called Ahavat Chesed, in which he codified the numerous laws pertaining to this middah.

The Gemara in Suka mentions that engaging in chesed is superior to charity in three ways.  Charity is done only with money, but kindness can be performed with money and with one’s body. Charity is only given to the poor but kindness can be given to rich and poor alike. Charity is dispensed only to the living, while kindness can be done with the dead as well. It is called chesed shel emet (true kindness) because it can never be paid back.

The Mishna in Avot tells us that the world stands on three pillars, Torah, avodah (serving Hashem),and gemilat chasadim (kindness). Kindness holds up the world. The Gemara in Yevamot says chesed characterizes a Jew. In fact, being kind is such an intrinsic Jewish attribute that the Gemara says that if a person is ruthless one should investigate his lineage. The Midrash Rabbah asks why Megilat Ruth was canonized in the Bible if it contains no ritual laws. Rav Zeira answered that it was to teach us the great reward for those who do acts of kindness. The prophet Micha teaches that the three primary obligations of a Jew are to do justice, walk humbly with Hashem, and to love kindness.

The Rambam stresses in three of his eight levels of charity the importance of anonymity. We should always look for opportunities to do chesed whether we are acknowledged for it or not. Small acts of kindness that count big in heaven include picking up trash from the sidewalk, giving up your seat for an elderly person, helping someone cross the street, allowing another car to pass you, listening with your heart to someone down on their luck, giving your used clothing to the needy, praising someone for their good deeds, encouraging your children to donate their old toys, and initiating a dialogue at a social gathering with someone who appears left out,.

There was once a mitnagid who set out to prove that Chassidut was not all it was made out to be. He came to a Chassidic town and asked the townspeople where the Rebbe was. They answered that he had gone to say Selichot (the penitential prayers) in heaven. The mitnagid was determined to disprove their foolishness. The next morning he ambushed the Rebbe’s house and observed him walking out dressed as a lumberjack. He headed for the forest, chopped some wood, lugged it to the home of an old sick woman and lit a fire for her. When the mitnagid saw this he humbly admitted, “Surely he is in heaven, if not higher.”

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.

Parshat Vayigash – Confronting Ourselves

8 12 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

When Yosef imprisons Binyamin, Yehuda attempts to arouse the compassion of Yosef by depicting the unbearable pain their father would experience upon hearing the news. Yosef then reveals himself by declaring, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” The verse reads, “His brothers could not answer him because they were disconcerted.” Why did Yosef ask if his father was still alive if Yehuda had just spoken of him? The Midrash says, “Woe to creation on the day of judgment. Woe to creation on the day of admonishment.”

The Bait Halevi explains that there are two distinct days, the Day of Judgment and the Day of Admonishment. When the soul reaches the world to come after 120 years, he will be shown a film of his life split in two screens. One screen will ask him why he did
not give charity. The soul will answer he did not have any money. The other screen will show him buying a fancy chandelier and flying away on an expensive vacation. The soul will be pitted against itself. You may be able to answer anything in the world but you
cannot justify your own self. This is what happened with the brothers. They attempted to arouse Yosef’s mercy out of concern for their father but when Yosef confronted them they had nothing to say. They realized the magnitude of their misdeed and how they
had hurt their father with the sale of Yosef. It was a moment of truth. Our moment of truth awaits us too. Let us be sure to repent
before it is too late.

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.

On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves, “Where am I?”

16 09 2010

Path To Teshuva-Part I
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Path To Teshuva-Part I

The Chafetz Chaim once said that the telephone was invented to teach us that what is said here can be heard there.  When a person speaks lashon hara or uses bad language, it’s all heard “up there.”  A train teaches us the value of time. If you arrive a second late you’ve missed it. A telegram teaches us that every word counts. Credit cards also impart a valuable lesson.  In life, you can get anything you want, but eventually you’ll have to pay for it.

There is a way out, though. During the Ten Days of Repentance in Shmoneh Esrai we say, “Zachreinu l’chaim…l’manecha Elokim chaim. Remember us for life, for Your sake.” If you’re working for the Big Boss, it’s a company expense, otherwise it’s charged to your account. If you buy a new dress in honor of Yom Tov, the bill’s on Hashem. If you buy it for your own honor, the bill’s on you. If you build a big fancy house to knock people’s eyes out, you’re going to have to pay for it. If it’s to do hachnasat orchim, Hashem foots the bill.

The Torah termed Esav, ish sadeh, a man of the field, because even when he was in the Beit Midrash, his head was in the fields. In contrast, Yaakov was called yoshev ohalim. Wherever he found himself, his head was in the Beit Midrash. This is the question we need to ask ourselves on Yom Kippur, “Where am I?” Is my mindset that of Esav or do I identify with Yaakov?

It’s not enough to hear the shofar, it has to move us to action. When we move the clock back, people always exclaim, “Great! An extra hour of sleep.” Do we stop to think what we’re saying? Sleep is one sixtieth of death. We’re grabbing on to the tree of death. Can we ask Hashem for life if we’re squandering it on sleep?  Why waste time sleeping if we can fill those very hours with Torah and mitzvot?

Before Ne’ila on Yom Kippur, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would make a deal with Hashem. He would offer his sins in exchange for forgiveness, life, sustenance and children; life so that he could continue to thank and praise Hashem, sustenance so that he could have strength to bless Him, and children so that they could engage in Torah and mitzvot. Let this heartfelt prayer be on our lips as we earnestly beseech Hashem, “Give us life, l’manecha- for your sake – so that we can extol and glorify your name.” May it be a blessed, sweet, new year.

Parshat Ki Tavo

26 08 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Parshat Ki Tavo:  Parsha Journeys

Parshat Ki Tavo discusses the blessings that were given on Har Grizim and the curses that were given on Har Avel. While both mountains were situated near each other and enjoyed the exact same climatic conditions, Har Grizim was lush and verdant while Har Avel remained barren. Rav Hirsch explains that this is a timeless lesson in free will. Two people can be given identical capabilities, yet one will go in one direction while the other may go the opposite way. You can choose to be the mountain of blessing or the hill of curses. It’s all up to you.

The essence of life is choice.  As our choices diminish, our lives become less meaningful. Human nature is to avoid difficult decisions, but if we don’t proactively choose life we inevitably choose death.  The legendary Sara Schenirer would say, one should live a life of chayim sheb’chayim, every minute should be thought out, not lived perfunctorily. Choosing life means seriously considering how to raise our children, treat our spouse, and fill our days. What stands high on our priority list? Is it career advancement, shopping, fitting in, or tikkun hamiddot and spending more time with our family? A meaningful life is a collection of meaningful moments. People who don’t view life as a choice never change or grow.

In the tochacha the Torah states, “You will bear sons and daughters but they will not be yours, because they will go into captivity.” The Chazon Ish explains that this refers to our generation. Millions of our brethren who have grown up entirely ignorant of Judaism are the tinokot shenishbu referred to in the Torah. Why have we suffered these great losses? The parsha continues, “Tachat asher lo avadata et Hashem Elokecha b’simcha. Because you did not serve Hashem with joy.” If we fail to show our children that living a Torah lifestyle is a wondrous, delightful experience, we will lose them. Indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein noted that even those who sacrificed their livelihood to keep Shabbat in early 20th century America, lost their children to assimilation because they would so frequently sigh, “Oy siz shver tzu zein a yid. It’s difficult to be a Jew.”  Each of us in our own way can reach out and bring our brethren closer to Torah.

We find many mitzvot in the Torah that command us to bring our “firsts” to Hashem. This includes the first of the shearing, dough, children, and animals. Why did Hashem ask for these “firsts” rather than the best?  We find the answer in Kohelet. “Tov achrit davor mereishito. A good end emanates from the beginning.” The “first” is the root and foundation of all that follows. Just as a hairline crack on a building’s foundation can endanger the entire structure, an imperfection in the root of holiness will manifest all that follows. That is why we immediately dedicate our first gleanings to Hashem.  Similarly, Elul and the High Holy Days are an opportune time to grab the moment and repent, because whatever we become on the first day of the year will very critically affect our entire year.

The Three Weeks

13 07 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

The Three WeeksThe gemara relates the story of Rabbi Akiva who was walking with several sages when they saw a fox emerge from the site of the destroyed Beit Hamikdash. The Chatam Sofer explains that a fox represents crafty slyness. In exile, we are less afraid of physical death and more afraid of our oppressors’ devious use of enticement and warped philosophy to pull us away from Torah and mitzvot.

Chazal tells us, those who mourn over Jerusalem will merit to see its restoration. This is written in the present tense to teach us that the purpose of aveilut is to recognize consciously what we have lost and to realize what we can regain. Looking at the causes of the destruction can help us correct the failings that led to the churban.  The first Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of idol worship, adultery, and murder.  Our tikun is to strengthen ourselves in emuna, to work on our modesty in thought, deed, and action, and to guard our lives from any needless danger. The second beit Hamikdash was destroyed due to baseless hatred. This can be rectified through kindness and charity.

Rashi in Parshat Vayeishev notes that Yaakov continued to grieve for Yosef because as long as a person is still alive, one cannot be completely comforted. As soon as the person dies, mourning gradually diminishes. The collective soul of Klal Yisrael knows that we have yet to achieve our former glory. We know there is a gaping void in our lives. We continue to mourn for Jerusalem every day in our prayers and it remains a living force within our hearts.

As we leaf through the tear stained pages of Jewish history, we see firsthand that even though Hashem has punished us, he still loves us. He has made us suffer for our own good because he cares. King David tells us in Tehilim, “Shivtecha umishantacha heima yenachamuni. Your rod and your staff comfort me.” The rod of retribution is Hashem’ s form of healing. May the travails of exile serve to elevate us to higher realms so that we may ultimately merit the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.