Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Rav Moshe Weinberger's Guidance to Me on Responding to Tragic News in the Community

The daughter-in-law of an acquaintance of mine in the community just passed into the next world two days ago, on Monday. They discovered that she was suffering from oso hamachla 8 weeks ago, when she was 7 months pregnant. They caused the birth of a baby girl 4 weeks ago and operated at that time. A tremendous number of people in the community and around the world have been davening for her recovery. But in the end, she passed away anyway. She was 31 years old and left behind a husband and 3 daughters under 7 years old.

Because I wanted to support the father-in-law in this incredibly difficult time, I worked from home yesterday and attended the funeral, which was obviously very hard.

After mincha/maariv last night, I mentioned to Rav Weinberger that I had been at the funeral and that it was‎ very difficult. I think because he knew that I did not have a very close personal connection with the family, and I was not a close relative, this is what he said:

"It's very hard, but there is also such good news. Chanan (a member of the shul) just had a baby boy. So many other babies have come into the world in the past couple of days. Misha and Estee (other members of the shul who were in a serious car accident Sunday night) have seen tremendous miracles in their recovery‎. There is so much to be thankful for."

Rav Weinberger was giving me gentle mussar and teaching me an important point. There is bad news all over the world and I (and i'm sure many other people - that's why i'm posting this) focus excessively on that or feel that I'm not feeling other Jews' pain if I don't dwell on tragedies. 

‎It's important to note that the nifteres here was not my sister, best friend, or sister-in-law. Accordingly, this was not my pain. It was a question of feeling other Jews' pain. So Rav Weinberger was showing me how someone in my position should view tragedies. I should not put such an inordinate focus on them to the exclusion of other Jews' joyous occasions and smachos. ‎It shows that I don't truly connect to other Jews if I fail to focus on their celebrations and only notice tragic news. That lopsided focus only empowers the Kingdom of Sadness.

May I and the rest of us merit to rejoice in other Jews' much-more-numerous happy occasions and not place an inordinate emphasis on the sad times.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Rabbi Yoni Levin's Innagural Drasha as Assistant Rabbi at Aish Kodesh, Woodmere - Parshas Balack 5775

This past Monday (a week ago today), Aish Kodesh in Woodmere held an all-membership meeting at which Rav Moshe Weinberger and the board announced that Rav Weinberger had selected Aish Kodesh's first assistant rabbi: Rabbi Yoni Levin. Rav Weinberger spoke very, very highly about Rabbi Levin and his Rebbetzin, Randi. He definitely has a very impressive background, as you can see from his biography on the YUTorah page where his shiurim are posted:

Rabbi Yoni Levin is currently the assistant rabbi at Congregation Aish Kodesh and a rebbe at Yeshivas Lev Shlomo, in Woodmere, NY, an affiliate of HALB. He graduated from Yeshiva College with a B.S. in Mathematics and a minor in Business from the Sy Syms School of Business. He received semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, and was a fellow at the prestigious Beren Kollel Elyon at RIETS. Rabbi Levin also studied in Israel for a year and a half at Yeshivat Hakotel. In addition, he has written scholarly Torah articles in Yeshiva University’s annual publications, Beis Yitzchak and Kol Tzvi. Rabbi Levin has participated in numerous Yeshiva University Communtiy Kollelim, including the DRS High School kollel in Long Island and others in the New York area. Rabbi Levin has also spent time in the workforce at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the actuarial department. Rabbi Levin and his wife Randi currently live in Woodmere with their five children, Batsheva, Yocheved, Yeshaya, Zev, and Yisroel Meir.

This past Shabbos, parhas Balak, Rav Weinberger was away and we had the zechus to hear Rabbi Levin for the first time as our new assistant rabbi. And he used the opportunity not only to give a drasha, but to share some feelings about beginning his formal role with the shul. This time, it was not me who wrote up the drasha. Rather, Rabbi Levin himself wrote the following, just as Rabbi Norman Lamm did. It is my privilege to share the following drasha with my readership, which Rabbi Levin was kind enough to permit me to reproduce here:

Rabbi Yoni Levin
Parshas Balak 5775

This is a most humbling honor.

On behalf of my wife, I would like to begin by expressing our gratitude to the רבונו שלום for this very special and unique opportunity to be part of this קהילה קדושה, a קהילה that has been founded on חסידות, פנימיות, לימוד התורה, personal growth, growth in learning, drawing close to one another, drawing closer to Hashem.
During the past 2 years of giving the morning daf yomi shiur, I have been met with only positive encounters.  This is a קהילה filled with warmth, care, and a קהילה that possesses an extraordinary powerful desire to learn, grow, and spread Hashem’s Torah.

I have had the great זכות in participating in the various shul-wide events many of which have been led and organized by יצחק מרדכי Feder.  Each event filled with singing, Torah, rebbe, and אחדות.  The חנוכה מסיבה at the Lawrence’s, the ט"ו בשבט סדר at the Shuckmans, the Purim Chagiga at the Gelmans, and the ultimate ל"ג בעומר celebration.  In addition to the בני מחשבה טובה chaburahs that have been organized by Reb Yirmi Ginsberg and hosted by the Gelmans, Perkels, Lerners, Rosens, Hoenigs, and the Horowitzs.  

Recently, under the guidance and initiative of Efrayim Nudman, Shaul Harari, and Yaakov Meir Cohen, the shul has begun several new programs.  The one that I personally have been involved in, is the Sunday morning Chabura.  It has been quite a success as a great way to begin our week with in-depth learning.  I very much love the interactions that I have which each one of the participants and it’s inspiring to see the tremendous amount of enthusiasm as the Kol Torah echoes through the upstairs Beis Midrash. 

What is unique about these events is that each one of them has been initiated by one of you.  Each one of you has an overwhelming רצון to create more events, to infuse more learning, and host these various events. 

We can’t forgot the women who are either allowing, encouraging, or even pushing their husbands to come out and learn on Sundays, or early mornings, Shabbos afternoons, or late nights.   

It is our hope that my wife and I can assist in any way possible in fulfilling the mission of this קהילה קדושה.

It is our dream that we can help every member, every family grow in learning, grow in Avodas Hashem each at his or her own pace and level. 

Prior to my joining of the shul 2 years ago, I had never met Rav Weinberger shlit”a.  Yet quickly, Rav Weinberger turned into rebbe.  Even though I am being forced to sit up front, I am a talmid, a congregant of rebbe just as much as any of you are. 

I thirst rebbe’s Torah like any of you. I try to guess at which Shachris minyan rebbe will be davening just to catch a glimpse of the tzadik that we are so blessed to have among us. 

I have had many rebbeim throughout my years in yeshiva and still stay in touch with many of them.  But I have never had a rebbe like ours.  A master of all trades – a master in נגלה, a master in נסתר, a master in עיצה. 

It is with much gratitude to Rebbe for giving me this wonderful opportunity, to work with him in serving this wonderful קהילה קדושה.  I thank him and you, the קהילה, for placing trust in me and look forward to an amazing year as we strive to fulfill our mission as a unit, as a קהילה until the coming of משיח when we will continue this very mission in ירושלים במהרה בימינו אמן! 

There is an astonishing gemara that appears in Berachos (12b).  The חכמים had a fleeting thought to insert the entire פרשת בלק smack in the middle of קריאת שמע.  Could you imagine saying שמע ישראל ה' אלקינו ה' אחד and then go off on a tangent in reciting the entire פרשת בלק?! 

And the only reason why they held back, was because it would be a טירחא דציבור, an extreme burden upon the קהילה, having to recite the entire פרשת בלק twice a day in addition the rest of davening.

So what was the reason in the first place if this idea inserting פרשת בלק in קריאת שמע, the height of our תפילה, interrupting our קבלת עול מלכות שמים? 

Where is there room in שמע when we are in the midst of being מקבל קבלת עול מלכות שמים to insert the story of בלק and בלעם, the story individuals who wanted to destroy כלל ישראל? 

The answer is found in the gemara. The גמרא explains that we would have read the entire פרשת בלק just for the sake of one פסוק.  There is this one פסוק that finds its appropriate placement smack in the middle of  קריאת שמע and that פסוק is: 

כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו – “He will crouch and lay down like a lion, like a young lion – who then can stand up against him?” 

It doesn’t come across as a very powerful statement – not earth stretching by any stretch of the imagination.   This is the pasuk that was but so close to being  inserted in שמע?  What does the pasuk even mean? 

Rashi explains that this pasuk is similar to the words that appear in שמע of בשכבך ובקומך that הקב"ה watches over us when we get up, when we are awake and when we sleep.   Just as we describe in קריאת שמע how Hashem protects us all day and night, so too this פסוק from פרשת בלק describes this very same concept that Hashem protects us.  For this reason, for this similarity, there was a thought to include פרשת בלק within קריאת שמע.

The truth is, this is the theme of all of פרשת בלק.  As כלל ישראל was innocently journeying through the מדבר their enemies were plotting against them as they always are.  And without us knowing, הקב"ה as always, protected us, ensured our safety.  He is constantly fighting our battles, He is forever protecting us from our enemies.   

When we are כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו – even when we are sleeping who can stand up against us with the protection of Hashem. 

During many of such occurrences, we find ourselves in a deep slumber completely oblivious to the details of the behind the scenes, but when we recite קריאת שמע, when we read פרשת בלק, we are reminded that even though we don’t see and even though we don’t hear of these ניסים, we know that הקב"ה is forever protecting us. 

והיא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו שלא אחד עמד עלינו לכלותינו הקב"ה מצילנו מידם

This is the message of קריאת שמע, this is the message of פרשת בלק, this is the message of the פסוק -    כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו.   Hashem is forever watching over us. 

But there are times when we do forget this and we don’t realize that Hashem is watching over us.  When times are good, prosperous there is a tendency to forget the source of everything.  We speed through קריאת שמע, we don’t internalize this concept, we tend to forget that Hashem is watching over us. 

Today is שבעה עשר בתמוז, the beginning of the 3 weeks, the beginning of בין המצרים.  It is a תקופה where we feel distant from Hashem, when we recognize the lack of the בית המקדש, the disconnect from Hashem, from ארץ ישראל, from ירושלים, and feel almost forgotten just as we have forgotten Hashem.  We are in a period of very intense אבילות which underscores the distance we are feeling from Hashem.

How are we supposed to react to this distance?  How do we draw closer when feel the we are drifting further and further? 

A few months ago, I sat in a lecture from Rabbi Motti Berger in Aish Hatorah in the Old City.  He gives a very intense and engaging lecture.  He had presented 2 scenarios asking which would bring a person closer to Hashem - someone who won the lottery and would have no financial worries or someone, as he described and apologize for being so extreme in this example, who was on the top floor of the World Trade Center as the plane hit the building below.  The undisputed answer was that the one experiencing the fear, pain, and threat would sooner acknowledge and draw closer to Hashem. 

During these trying times, when a person is helpless, there is nobody to rely on except for our Father in Heaven, אבינו שבשמים.  We are being cornered, we are being forced to recognize Hashem.

Hashem is twisting our arm, making us so uncomfortable through this period of 3 weeks until we scream “mercy”.  Until we realize that there is nothing but Hashem Above.

But the Magid of Mezeritch explains differently.  He gives a positive spin to this period of 3 weeks.  The idea is not that we are being shoved into the center of the circle to dance with the Choson, but instead the Choson is coming out to greet us.   Hashem is coming closer to us. 

Allow me to explain. 

The Pasuk in Eicha says that "כל רודפיה השיגוה בין המצרים".  The Magid explains that כל רודפיה, anyone who is רודף י-ה, one who chases Hashem will be משיג him, will catch him, will come to close him, specifically during the period of the בין המצרים.   

But how is it that during this time period when we feel so distant, we don’t see the light, is it possible to draw closer to Hashem?  How does that make sense to draw closer when we are missing the main vehicle to שמים?  We don’t have the בית המקדש, we don’t have קרבנות, we have no way to connect. 

I recently had taken my kids to Disney World, the Magic Kingdom.  I need to thank Hurricane Sandy and the insurance company in helping build up credit cards points to pay for the trip. 

Now in Magic Kingdom, the king is Mickey Mouse.  As you can imagine there are many long lines throughout the park and to take a picture with Mickey is no different.  Well for the most part.  Waiting to see Mickey is a bit different.

The line for just taking a picture with Mickey begins outside this large building towards the front of the park.  And as you move inside the building, you go through this door and you think you are there ready to take that photo you’ve been waiting for.  But then you pass through another door… and you are still not there, until you pass through one final door where you find yourself in the innermost chamber but still waiting behind a few more families to meet the king. 

The palace, the guards, the glory, make for a beautiful picture, it instills fear, honor, and respect.  But imagine if there were no palace, imagine if the king were to be walking through the streets with no place to hide.  There would be no honor, there would be no glory, but it would make for a more accessible king, it would allow us to see him, come close to him, build a relationship. 

Says the Magid, that this period of time when we commemorate the destruction of the בית המקדש among other Jewish calamities, there are no walls, no guards, no barriers – Hashem is completely accessible.  We can approach him, we can build a relationship, we can draw closer to Him.  This is an incredible opportunity for us to draw closer.

Embedded within בין המצרים is a tremendous amount of potential to come closer to Hashem. 

The שו"ע paskens that one should not recite שהחיינו since it is a period of אבילות, one should not say a ברכה of שהחיינו which express ones thanks and gratitude, one’s שמחה with the purchase of a new house or new fruit.

The גר"א, however, argues that this is an unnecessary חומרא and one may recite a שהחיינו.  Perhaps the idea is that in fact reciting שהחיינו is not contradictory to this period of time.  Although on the surface בין המצרים is a period of mourning, but in its פנימיות there is שמחה, Hashem is closer than any other time of the year, there are no walls and no barriers. 

This is why on תשעה באב itself, which would seem to be the lowest day of the year, we don’t recite תחנון, because in פנימיות as חז"ל tells us, תשעה באב  is actually a מועד, it’s a day of celebration.  Not on the surface, but in its פנימיות and we therefore omit תחנון.

Perhaps this is what is meant by the פסוק in פרשת בלק

כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו – “He will crouch and lay down like a lion, like a young lion – who then can stand up against him?”

When we are down and hurting, sleeping like a lion, destroyed and distant, sad and mourning, מי יקמינו, who can stand up against us? 

Our closest connection is specifically during times like these, the period of בין המצרים.  That is when Hashem draws closer to us.  That is when we draw closer to each other, that is when we have אחדות like we saw just a year ago with the 3 boys in Israel.

The גמרא tells us that when something bad happens we say ברוך דיין אמת but לעתיד לבוא we will say a טוב המטיב because even the bad is really good.  We don’t realize it because on the surface it appears to be bad, but everything is really good.  Even the 3 weeks are very good.  In פנימיות everything is good, its only in the external that things appear otherwise.

It is my hope and תפילה, that we come to the point soon of recognizing everything as טוב,  where we can take every opportunity, every event, every milestone as an opportunity to draw closer to Hashem and draw closer to each other, as we grow as a community, as a קהילה led by our leader, rebbe,  with our common goal, our common mission.

Again, I thank you all for this most humbling honor and most remarkable opportunity.  I look forward to getting to know each and every one of you in the upcoming year.


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