Wednesday, May 24, 2006


The Torah Umesorah convention which closed this past Sunday was, once again, a memorable, extraordinary event. For the past 50 years, the organization founded by Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and guided from its inception by Gedolei Torah, has designed an annual inspirational weekend to uplift the spirits and enrich the lives of our children’s rabbeim and moros.

The convention is like no other in Jewish life. Selling out weeks in advance, participants eagerly rush from session to session in a drive to soak up as much information and inspiration as possible. Everyone present is there for the same purpose—to enable themselves to grow in their mission of transmitting our heritage to the next generation.

The feeling that lingers post-convention is that I wish I was a kid in school again. Yes, it’s great to be a child, carefree and full of innocence. But I am referring to something more than that.

The day after the convention, I found myself imagining I was a little boy in school again. I pictured how it would be to have a rebbi who was present at that convention and returned to class energized, armed with tools and inspiration for his chinuch mission.

No, I have no complaints against any of the rabbeim who taught me when I was in school. They were all giants dedicated to their task and charges. They were motivated by their life’s mission and were successful in raising a generation of good people. But if I was a school child again, how I would want my rebbi to have had the benefit of being present at this year’s convention!

I was there and watched rabbeim from across the country react with emotion, as their minds and hearts absorbed the words of inspiration and guidance coming from some of today’s leading Roshei Yeshiva, rabbonim and mechanchim. When asked how they were enjoying Shabbos, people tried to put their feelings into words and choked up, overcome with emotion.

The moving welcome for Rav Aron Leib Shteinman set the pace for the entire weekend, which was essentially a gathering celebrating and invigorating mechanchim. In his humble, unassuming manner, he addressed several questions pertaining to chinuch. One was most touching. The question posed was how one should deal with a child who is a mechutzaf.

His response was most telling. He said that “children don’t want to be bad; every child wants to be good.” Sometimes they are in pain or reaching out for attention and affection, and they act out improperly. It is the teacher’s job to see into a student’s soul and use positive methods to reach and impact the child, he said.

Everyone listening knew these words came straight from the heart; you could almost feel the great love in Rav Aron Leib’s response.

The urge — and knee-jerk reaction — is to smack down a misbehaving child, but any rebbi who was present at that session will forever reach out with love and understanding. Every time he is faced with a discipline situation, he will undoubtedly recall the image of the venerated sage as he spoke so warmly, softly addressing thousands of mechanchim from across North America.

The next time a child talks back insolently, the rebbi will remember Rav Aron Leib telling his listeners to treat their students with love and care. He will remember him saying that one must never publicly embarrass a child. Those children also have feelings. Like everyone else, they need to be inspired and uplifted.

The speakers’ words will ring in their listeners’ ears each day as they set out to perform their avodas hakodesh. True, their task is demanding and at times frustrating but gatherings such as the TU convention fortify the sense of mission that led them to this profession to begin with.

There is much we can learn from the way these dedicated individuals aim for self-improvement. They teach by example, as well as by action and deed. People at the convention marveled at the sheer will to shteig these energetic mechanchim demonstrated. Let us hope that their own drive to learn and improve will carry over to our children and to us, as well.

At the Sixth Knessia Gedolah which was held in Yerushalayim 25 years ago, Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Shach zt”l addressed moros of Chinuch Atzmai schools.

He expounded on the posuk in Doniel, 12:3, V’hamaskilim yazhiru k’zohar harokia umatzdikei horabim kakochavim l’olam voed.

The Gemorah in Bava Basra 8b explains that the maskilim referred to here are the gabbaei tzedaka, for it requires great intelligence to know how to distribute charity in a manner in which the recipient is not embarrassed to accept the needed assistance. The posuk says these gabbaei tzedaka will be rewarded for their efforts and will shine like the stars of the heavens.

The second part of the posuk refers to melamdei tinokos, and the posuk says they will forever shine like stars.

Rav Shach explained that every morah has a responsibility to understand the issues their students are confronting and to assist them. “The teacher should be able to tell from the expression on a child’s face if she has a problem, and should then deal with it. Some students have the confidence or courage to come forward and seek help with a problem, but others are too embarrassed. Every morah and madricha must develop the intuition to enable them to understand their students, and must find the means to help.”

You have to bear in mind that the consequences of your actions and how you deal with your students lasts for generations, Rav Shach said. If the student does not resolve her issues, they will often manifest themselves in successive generations. But if you rise to the challenge and help her work it out, your positive influence will affect not only her, but her children and her children’s children, exactly as the posuk states, “kakochavim l’olam voed.”

A child is forever; the way we treat children has everlasting impact. People may feel that since a child is young and immature, they can take certain liberties with him. Nothing could be further from the truth. A child has to be treated as the bearer of a Yiddishe neshoma. Anything that we would not do to an adult we should not do to a child. The consequences can be irrevocable. Those stars will remain forever. If we light up their little hearts, they will sparkle for generations, as will the mechanech. If, however, we don’t reach into the child’s soul, the black mark will be eternal.

Regrettably, the financial rewards available to those who choose a career in chinuch are nominal. But the spiritual rewards are of a completely different caliber. Who besides the dedicated mechanech can exert such a profound and everlasting influence on continuing generations?

Similarly, the impact of a 91-year-old gadol who traveled half way around the world to be mechazeik the mechanchim will also be timeless. Even had he not said one word, his very presence would have been enough. The mere sight of a person of his spiritual stature encompassed by an other-worldly aura was a lifelong lesson in gadlus ha’odom. The sight of someone so elevated yet so humble overwhelmed people to the point of tears.

There are times when words are not necessary. There are even times when they detract.

A dear friend of mine once related to me that his son, who was a specially gifted and well-behaved boy, decided one day to take advantage of his father’s absence to see if he could drive a car. He sneaked the keys out of the house, inserted them in the ignition and shifted into gear. Expert driver that he wasn’t, he drove the car right into the house. A neighbor had to be called to extricate the boy from the mess.

The boy was petrified about what his father would do to him when he came home. But he was wrong. When the father returned late at night, he didn’t say a word to the boy. The son was in his bed but couldn’t sleep, fearing his fate. He was anticipating a severe tongue lashing and the beating of his life. But it didn’t happen; the father didn’t say a word.

The next morning, with head bowed, he sheepishly faced his father but no words came out; he was too ashamed and scared. The father simply hugged him and said, “I still love you,” and that was the extent of the conversation. The boy never forgot that incident. He says that he will never forget the lesson of his father’s love as exhibited that day. The silence drove the message home much more forcefully, louder and longer lasting than angry shouting could have.

Let us follow the words of the wise and learn how to reach children and adults so that our stars and theirs will shine forever.


Recently, my wife and I celebrated the bar mitzvah of our fourth son, Eliezer. Boruch Hashem we have much nachas and wish you the same from your children and families.

Prior to the bar mitzvah of our son Yitzchok Elchonon, I went to the local Grapevine wine store to buy some wine and schnapps for the simcha. I made my selections and watched as they were rung up on the cash register. One bottle rang up quite high. Seeing the price, I asked the gentleman behind the counter to please remove the bottle from my order; it struck me as extravagant.

A serious baal teshuva, he looked at me with sad eyes. “You’re making a simcha, obviously, aren’t you?” he asked. I nodded and he continued, “Look, Hashem has blessed you, he gave you a simcha to celebrate. Show Hashem you appreciate what He has done for you.”

He was so serious and so genuine I didn’t have the heart to say no to him, so I bought it.

The story surfaced in my mind as we discussed Eliezer’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and the man’s words came back to me. What if it had taken us ten years for Eliezer to be born? What if he would have been our only child? What if we had encountered difficulties in his upbringing? Wouldn’t we want to hold a special simcha and proclaim our happiness to the whole world?

Why downplay the blessings of a wonderful, nachas-giving bar-mitzvah boy? Why should we approach this milestone in his life with any less of a desire to hold a special simcha and proclaim our happiness for Hashem’s kindness?

The truth is that every time a young man becomes mechuyav in mitzvos it should be a major cause for celebration. Think about the evil forces trying to wipe the Jewish people off the map, trying to uproot our way of life. Look at all we have gone through, and still we are alive and flourishing. Every young man who takes on the sacred responsibility of Torah and mitzvos testifies to our immortality - is that not cause for more than a minimal celebration?

A few months ago, I made a last-minute decision to make a trip to Eretz Yisroel. An incident happened at the airport that triggered in me a thrill of pride in the fact that our Bnei Torah are, indeed, our most celebrated asset.

At 6:00 p.m., I made a reservation for a 9:30 flight that same evening. I left the house, arriving at the airport at 8:00. I got on the line and the bitachon (security) guy motioned to me to come over. Here we go, I figured, the usual questions. But there was a hitch in the routine procedure because I couldn’t produce a ticket when asked to. I explained that I had just made the reservation and didn’t have time to pick up the ticket. Frowning, he started to grill me.

“Which flight are you on?” he wanted to know. I said that all I knew was that the plane was taking off at 9:30. His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean you don’t know the flight number?” he demanded. “How can you come to the airport not knowing the flight number, without a ticket, not even an e-ticket, or a confirmation number?”

“Kacha, mah ani agid lecha. This is how I came, I made up my mind at the last minute and threw some things in a bag and ran out of the house.”

The security official went to make some inquiries. When he came back, he finally calmed down and returned to the routine questions. “Mah matarat habikkur? What’s the purpose of your visit?”

I told him that I had a son learning in Yerushalayim and I was going to visit him.

“That’s all?” was his skeptical response.

I told him I had a second son who wants to go learn there and I was going to try to get him accepted into the yeshiva.

He looked up at me and smiled. “Achshav ani agid lecha b’eizeh yeshiva lamadetah u’b’eizeh yeshiva haben lomeid. Now I will tell you which yeshiva you learned in and where your son is learning.”

“Come on, “I told him, “you’re fooling around and I’m going to miss the plane.”

“Brisk. Yeshivat Brisk,” he announced triumphantly. I wondered if he had checked it out on his computer. Is it possible that their information was so incredibly detailed that they record which yeshiva one’s son learns in? He didn’t even ask me my son’s name!

I was amazed and asked him how he knew.

After some kidding around, he told me that his job is to profile people.

“When you told me you had a last minute reservation which didn’t even show up on the computer, you had no ticket, and you didn’t know which flight you were on, all types of alarms went off in my head. I had to size you up, to profile you and judge if you were a security risk - that’s my job. I can tell which yeshiva a person studied in by asking a few questions and I can tell which yeshiva his children go to, as well.

At Eliezer’s bar mitzvah, I repeated this story. I wanted him to absorb the idea that a person’s essence should characterize his exterior as much as it defines his interior. I told him that everyone who looked at his grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, for whom he is named, knew that he was special. Anyone who spoke to him could instantly recognize that he was a representative of Kelm. There was no doubt about it; he was an aristocratic figure. A true Ben Torah, a rov, an odom hasholeim. He looked and conducted himself the way Hashem meant for all Jews to conduct themselves.

People wonder where Gan Eiden is. People wonder if Gan Eiden exists in this world. Rav Leizer Levin’s home was Gan Eiden. No one who was ever in his home ever asked where Gan Eiden was, because they knew.

He was so calm and serene, a cross or bitter word never crossed his lips. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what the world is really about; it wasn’t that he was naïve. But he knew that nothing was served by discussing the negatives. When necessary, he would sum it up in a word or two and move on. He was smart and learned, in a way people of our generation are not familiar with.

The tranquility that prevails in most Jewish homes on Shabbos filled his home the whole week. And on Shabbos his home was like Gan Eiden.

I would ask him to tell me about his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim, and he would always say, “Az min hut nit gevust hut min gurnit gekent zehn.” If you didn’t know it was the Chofetz Chaim, you wouldn’t recognize anything extraordinary about him. But if you knew he was the Chofetz Chaim, and you would observe him, “hut min altz gekent zehn,” you would notice greatness in his every move and utterance.

And that’s how Rav Leizer Levin was; if you knew him, hut min altz gekent zehn.

And that is how we all should be.

Strong and determined, without feeling the need to make a statement.

So many challenges beset us; we are constantly put through the wringer. Often we have to ignore the obstacles and simply move on; we are not strong enough to carry too much excess baggage.

Greatness means letting go. At times, greatness means ignoring slights and indignities. Sometimes you have to make believe you didn’t hear, sometimes it means forgetting.

And sometimes it means just the opposite.

We shouldn’t do things in an attempt to become popular; we must aim to be ehrlich and to stubbornly insist on doing what we know to be right.

We pray that the young Eliezer will grow in his grandfather’s path of gadlus in Torah and mentchlichkeit.

We pray that in seven years, if Moshiach has not yet come, when Eliezer stands on that airport line, the bitachon guy will take one look at him and will say, “I know where he’s off to. He’s going to learn l’amitah shel Torah.”

Dear readers, let us pray that as all of our children mature and grow, Hashem will help them achieve their fullest potential, and we will all have much nachas from them, veyiroo ki sheim Hashem nikroh aleihem.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


After weeks of preparation, we finally are ready for the Pesach Seder. We sit like kings and queens around a festive table and begin the recitation of the Haggadah.
At the beginning of Magid, we hold up the matzoh and say in Aramaic, “Ha lachmoh anya d’achalu avasana b’arah d’Mitzrayim, This is the poor man’s bread that we ate in Mitzrayim.” Rashi explains that the slaves were fed matzoh in Mitzrayim because it digests very slowly and thus keeps the person who ate it full far longer than other foods do.

This would seem to indicate that the reason we eat matzoh on the Seder night is because this food recalls our degradation as slaves in Mitzrayim.

However, the Haggadah later refers to matzoh as the food of redemption. “Matzoh zu she’anu ochlin ahl shum mah….” The reason we eat matzoh is because the dough our forefathers took out of Mitzrayim as provisions for the journey did not have time to rise because Hakadosh Boruch Hu redeemed them so quickly. The dough was therefore baked in its flat state as matzoh.

Which is it? Do we eat the matzoh because it recalls the slave fare we were fed in bondage, or does matzoh symbolize the bread we tasted as free men?

Perhaps both reasons are correct. Indeed, it is the dual symbolism of matzoh that seems to lie at the heart of the lessons of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

As we begin the Seder, we identify the matzoh as the bread of affliction we ate as slaves. After recounting the saga of our slavery and redemption, we proclaim that the very same matzoh which a little while ago was lechem oni, has now become lechem geulah.

The same exact matzoh which was a symbol of avdus has been transformed, so to speak, into a symbol of cheirus.

It is noteworthy therefore that this passage of Ha lachma anya is said in the language of the exile and, according to the Ravan and Ravyah, was composed in Bavel. It is not mentioned in the Gemorah and unlike the rest of the Haggadah is not recited in Hebrew, because it is an expression of the exile; it is the way matzoh is perceived before the redemption.

This dual nature of matzoh speaks to all of us. Many times in life, the very things which are a source of torment and tzaar are actually strengthening us and preparing us for greater challenges which lie ahead. Years later, we look back and realize that had we not endured this or that painful experience, we wouldn’t have acquired the toughness and training to excel in what we are doing now with our lives.

Remember how, when we were in school, we loathed the teacher who made us labor over compositions? It was only later on in life that we appreciated that teacher for teaching us how to formulate our thoughts coherently and communicate them effectively. We look back and thank that teacher for forcing us to acquire the skills that helped us to succeed.

The matzoh highlights the concept that the very same experience that brings affliction also brings redemption.

Matzoh’s essence goes even deeper. At the seder, the matzoh we eat is lechem geulah and a cheftzah shel mitzvah - even though all year round the very same item has no special significance. This is what the Haggadah refers to when it says, “Matzoh zu she’anu ochlin ahl shum mah, ahl sheim shelo hispik betzeikom shel avoseinu lehachmitz ad sheniglah aleihem Melech Malchei Hamelochim Hakadosh Boruch Hu uge’alom miyad.” The matzoh we eat on the Seder night may look like any other matzoh, but it is totally different: having been formed in the desert as a result of the haste of the redemption, it is therefore a lechem geulah.

Consequently, it may be that for this reason we are forbidden to eat matzoh on Erev Pesach. The Rambam [Hilchos Chometz U’Matzoh 6: 12] rules that one who eats matzoh on Erev Pesach is given makkos mardos ad sheteizeih nafsho. The Maggid Mishnah explains that this is based on the moshol brought in the Yerushalmi. Perhaps we can understand that one who is standing at the threshold of geulah and partakes of a food which resembles avdus is not worthy of redemption and deserves to be beaten.
Perhaps this is also why we are not allowed to eat anything after the matzoh of afikoman. The Rambam says [ibid 8: 9] that the reason it is forbidden to eat anything after the afikoman is to keep the flavor of matzoh on our palates. And yet, the flavor of the matzoh is a fleeting one. Even tastier food rarely lingers more than a minute or two. But if we understand that the matzoh of the Seder is lechem geulah, then it follows that we should not eat anything after the matzoh so that the flavor and idea of cheirus, freedom, should remain on our tongues and in our hearts. Having partaken of the food that symbolizes the redemption, how can we eat anything afterward?

The Rambam [7: 3] paskens that it is an obligation to make changes during the evening of the Seder so that the children will notice and ask why this night is different than all other nights, thereby giving us an opening to tell them what transpired. As examples of changes in routines, the Rambam suggests that we give children foods like klayos and egozim, - foods they enjoy but would not usually receive in the middle of a festive and formal meal. We also move the table away, we grab the matzoh from each other and do similar things to provoke children to question why this night is different.

I have a question. Why do we have to perform acts specifically to provoke questions? Isn’t every aspect of the Seder night already strange and mystifying enough to prompt our children’s curiosity? We sit at the table wearing kittles, with all sorts of strange items before us, and everything we do is outside our normal routine. We sit differently, eat differently, drink differently, and wash differently. Almost nothing is the same. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to provoke the young and unlearned ones to ask what is going on? If they haven’t caught on that this night is different by the time they are seated at the Seder table for a few minutes, is distributing nuts any more likely to elicit the questions that can lead to an explanation of Pesach?

The Rambam appears to be saying that there is a special din to perform actions at the Seder strictly for the purpose of getting the children to ask questions. We are not yotzeh that chiyuv by doing everything else that we do at the Seder. Drinking wine, washing hands differently, the ka’arah, the matzoh - their purpose is to fulfill other obligations, not to induce questions. There is an obligation to deliberately perform certain actions for the express purpose of stimulating questions from the youngsters.

The question-and-answer framework is central to the Seder and is not limited to children. If there are no children present, the adults must ask each other questions. If a person is conducting the Seder by himself, he directs both the questions and answers to himself. Perhaps that is because only one who is interested enough to ask a question will actually hear the answer.

Chazal instructed us when telling sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim to begin b’gnus and culminate b’shvach, to start with the shame and end with the glory. So many of the things we do at the Seder are performed in a manner to express cheirus. Why, then, does the Haggadah hearken back to the period of g’nus? Once again, we encounter the dual message of bondage and redemption.

Every person is obligated at the Seder to envision himself as if he had been released from bondage in Mitzrayim. “In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had exited Mitzrayim,” the Haggadah states. As we begin the Seder, we also recite the chapter that testifies that if our forefathers had not been released, we would still be subservient to Paroh in Mitzrayim.

How do we know that a revolution or other world events leading to the eventual overthrow of Paroh would not have set the Jews free? Paroh and his institutions are but a distant memory today. How, then, can one assume that the Jewish people would still be subservient to Paroh in Mitzrayim?

Perhaps these statements are alluding to how a person should deal with times of challenge.

We all have our ups and down, sad times and happy ones, triumph and success, as well as defeat and despondence. When all we see is doom and gloom, we can easily fall prey to confusion and despair.

The Seder speaks to us, shakes us out of this negative mindset and helps us put everything in perspective.

We begin b’gnus, recounting that we were lowly slaves in Mitzrayim. We think about the tears we have shed over our own problems and humiliation that we have had to endure. Our minds wander as we think about our own Golus Mitzrayim, and the things that afflict us.

And then we are mesayeim b’shvach. The Haggadah continues and recounts how G-d kept his pact with the Avos and redeemed the Jews from the misery of Egypt. The darkness and gloom came to a radical and abrupt halt. The slavery ended, the decades of being enslaved to an evil master were finally over. We were out of Mitzrayim, free and triumphant.

The Haggadah proclaims to every Jew to never give up. The Haggadah reminds every Jew that all that transpires is part of a Divine plan. The plan is not necessarily evident to us as we live through the downside, but often times when the period of torment is over, with the benefit of hindsight, the entire picture becomes clear. The light at the end of the tunnel shines upon what transpired and gives one a more complete picture and understanding of what happened and why.

“Bechol dor vador chayov odom liros es atzmo k’illu hu yotzoh m’Mitzrayim.” Everyone has to reflect upon the departure from Mitzrayim and transpose that epic event to his own life. Every person has to see that just as he was freed from Mitzrayim, he will be released from the crises weighing him down in this golus.

At the Seder, we say Vehi She’amdah which proclaims that in every generation the Jewish people are targeted for death, but with Hashem’s help, they eventually triumph. In every generation, in some part of the world, there is a Paroh who seeks our annihilation, but G-d foils his plan and rescues us.

So too, in our personal lives, there are times when things seem hopelessly tangled and headed for disaster. We feel thwarted at every turn. At times we feel utterly lost.

We often are bothered by questions. Why does it have to be me? Why is this happening? Why don’t my plans succeed? We keep the questions bottled up inside of us, afraid of asking them and perhaps afraid of facing the answers.
But questions can lead us to better understand life as well as our mesorah and the yesodos of emunah. Those are the questions that we are taught to ask on the Seder night.

We are taught that every question has an answer. Although we may not be privileged to attain or comprehend the answer, there is one. That is why we recite the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim in question and answer format, for our own lives parallel the tale of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Previously we translated lechem oni as being the bread of affliction and poor people. The Gemorah in Pesachim [115b] offers another explanation. It teaches that it is called lechem oni because it is “bread upon which we recite many words [at the Seder],” “lechem she’onin olov devorim harbeh.”

Perhaps in this usage of the word onin, from the root word anah, to answer, there is an allusion to the question-answer theme that runs through the Seder.

Matzoh is the bread upon which we answer many questions as we sit at the Seder. Therefore, it is referred to as lechem oni. And why do we answer many questions in the presence of the matzoh? Because matzoh is lechem geulah, eaten because Hashem rushed us out of Mitzrayim, symbolized by the hastily baked matzohs. Eating this food generates an internal understanding about the connection between hardship and spiritual growth. Lechem oni is the “answering” bread - a powerful spiritual “vitamin” leading us to a higher dimension of awareness.

As we eat the lechem geulah and recognize that this same lechem was just a little while ago lechem avdus, our eyes are opened to some liberating truths: events that appear to sap our strength and lead us to despair can actually open the door to recovery, redemption and success.

No matter how bad things seem, as long as there is life there is hope. Ki bechipazon yotzosah mei’Eretz Mitzrayim. In great haste you left Mitzrayim… In the twinkling of an eye, the bread of affliction becomes bread of resurgence.
May we all be zoche to go mei’avdus lecheirus in our personal lives as well as in our destiny as a klal. Venodeh lecha shir chodosh al geuloseinu v’al pedus nafsheinu.