Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

#RoshHaShana #תשפב

Good Morning, Good Morning! Really quite exciting to see you all here for orientation. There have been a lot of applicants for these positions and I guess I should begin with congratulations. It's been quite a process getting you all here and placed...

Oh! You seem a little confused. I apologize, that was a little abrupt. No one has filled you in on who I am and what this is all about. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rael, and I was asked to be your guide for orientation today. We should start at the beginning...

Let's step outside of ourselves for a moment and see where, what and who we are.

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#Nitzavim #RoshHaShana #תשפא

They tell a story of a soldier who was drafted into the army against his will, with his whole life and career ahead of him. Angry and frustrated, he did everything he could to avoid the draft, but his conscription was inevitable. After hugs and tears, the day arrived. He packed he bags, and reported for duty.

Training was brutal. Officers would wake him before dawn, to run and fight, and clean and lift and polish and wait. He hated every minute. Generals would lecture him on the importance of national security, of teamwork and camaraderie.

“Give me a break” he would mutter under his breath. “Our country has not seen a battle in generations. Why should I give up these years, in the prime of my life to defend a place that doesn’t need defending?!”

But the army has it way of getting results. Slowly, over many long days and weeks and months, this pampered young man became a solider. He learned discipline, agility and marksmanship. He learned how to fight, how to spy and how to disappear into the night.

But despite his training, he could never shake the feeling that time was being stolen from him.

And so it was, in the blackness of night, camping out on a training mission, this soldier packed his meager belongings, and fled from the army camp.

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#KiSavo #תשפא

Before moving to Boca, Aliza and I spend many summers taking NCSY public school teens to Israel. It was always eye opening to witness a kid experience Yiddishkeit for the first time.

One of the activities we would do from year to year was a program called “draw a Jew.” We challenged kids to draw a picture of the best Jew they could imagine.

Take a moment, and try it for yourself, in your own mind. Imagine you were drawing a picture of your best Jewish self.

What are you doing? Who are you with? What are you wearing? What day is it? What time of day? What are you saying? What are you thinking?

Now ask yourself: Could I be that person? Is that attainable?

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#KiSeitzei #תשפא

In a few days time, many of our children will file into their new classroom. They'll meet their new teachers, Rabbeim and Morot. Syllabi will be distributed, schedules will be negotiated. Learning will recommence, and along with it, all of our academic anxieties will return in full force.

But for those of us engaged in Chinuch, there is a concern far deeper than grades, skills or classroom participation. We want our talmidim to emerge from this year with greater connection to Hashem and His Torah, to Mitzvos and Yiddishkeit, Eretz Yisrael and The Jewish People.

This goal is daunting and cannot be taking for granted. But it cannot be dismissed as too overwhelming to tackle. I often think about my own classmates – the guys that finished high school along side me. I invite you to do the same. Ask yourself: which of my friends are still committed, connected and passionate about their Yiddiskeit? Are there any upsets? Any surprises?

Undoubtably, things didn't work out for some of the kids in your grade. Just like they didn't all work out so well for the kids in my grade. I have friends that haven't put on Tefillin in years. Friends that are unquestionably “off the Derech”.

This is not a point we should be willing to concede. There is much work to be done. But when things don't go well, naturally, parents will blame schools and schools will blame parents. Eventually, a few years later, everyone will blame the children themselves. But those children most often tell a different and far more specific story.

For every kid that “goes off the Derech” there were pivotal moments that drove them to that point: A dismissive comment from a Rebbe, emotional neglect from a parent, or a teacher that didn't value them. (This is without mentioning the truly devastating effects of abuse, trauma and substance abuse.)

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#Shoftim #תשפ״א

A number of years ago, a friend of mine and his brother received an inheritance from their grandfather. Amongst the assets was a sizable amount of shares in a media company, that had purchased a major Catholic publication.

As they considered this inheritance, they realized that practically, in some way, they were making “money from avoda zara”. And thus began their debate.

One argued that owning shares in the company was so far removed from the publication and its messaging, that there was certainly no prohibition in holding onto their shares.

The other disagreed. No matter how distantly connected, it is categorically unconscionable for a Jew to profit from the dissemination of such material.

Back and forth they argued, until they resolved that they would each speak to a posek of their choice, who could advise them on the matter. A week later they reconvened.

The brother who thought that they should sell the shares began: “I spoke to a posek, who told me to sell my shares. So that's what I'm going to do.” The other brother countered: “The posek that I spoke to told me that I can hold onto my shares, so that's what I'm going to do.”

For the sake of curiousity, they asked each other, which posek each had of them had asked. To their surprise and amazement, they discovered that both had asked Rav Schachter!

And then they began to wonder how it could be that Rav Schachter had given such divergent answers. Until they realized: Rav Schachter had simply answered the question that each had posed. One brother had asked if he should sell his shares. (Yes, that's a good idea.) The other had asked if it was permissible to hold on to them. (Yes, it is permissible.)

What is true in Halacha is just as true in life and relationships: The way that we address a question, a person, a situation or a problem, will significantly impact the outcome of our engagement.

This truth holds within it enormous potential for positivity, as well as the possibility of immense destruction.

Consider for a moment, a well known episode in our Parsha:

The Jewish army are preparing for battle. The air is thick with tension. The soldiers are nervous. The battle field ahead is eerily still. Officers of the Army stand before the troops and announce: “Anyone who has just built a house, planted a vineyard or gotten married... go home!” But just before the young men begin to pick up the weapons and bid their comrades farewell, the officers continue:

מִי הָאִישׁ הַיָּרֵא וְרַךְ הַלֵּבָב יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ Any man who is fearful and fainthearted – Let him go and return to his house!

Rashi here famously quotes from Rabbi Yossi HaGelili: This is war! Everyone is afraid. So who is the Torah referring to? הירא מעבירות שבידו – One who is afraid of their sins. What kind of sin should one be fearful of? The Talmud (סוטה מד ב) explains: Even one who speaks between putting on the hand Tefillin and their head Tefillin.

That's an incredibly high standard! Imagine the Chayal waking up before dawn to prepare for war, desperately doing Teshuva; hoping, yearning, praying that he might achieve forgiveness for his minor infractions.

But this picture of petty is shattered by Rashi two pesukim earlier. Before the officers announce that ineligible soldiers must be sent home, the Kohen appointed to the battlefield makes a speech of his own:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתֶּם קְרֵבִים הַיּוֹם לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֵיכֶם אַל יֵרַךְ לְבַבְכֶם אַל תִּירְאוּ ... כִּי י״י אֱלֹקיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם “Hear, Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies: don’t let your heart faint; don’t be afraid... Hashem goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”

Rashi here quotes from the Talmud:

אפילו אין בכם זכות אלא של קריית שמע בלבד, כדיי אתם שיושיע אתכם. Why does the Kohen begin with שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל? He is announcing that even though you have no other mitzvos other than saying the Shema you deserve Hashem's Devine assistance in battle.

The contradiction is obvious. Is the Jewish army filled with lofty soldiers who are free from even minor infractions? Or is the army filled with soldiers who have no fear because despite their issues, flaws and failings Hashem will be with them? Is it really true that all they need is to say the Shema and prepare for victory?

Rabbi Yissochar Dov of Belz explains: There is no contraction. It all depends on who is asking the question, and what question they are asking.

The officer addressing the troops asks “Has anyone here ever done anything wrong?” Well, yes certainly. We all make mistakes. If I am asked to think of my faults and failings, we'll be here all day, so I best pack up and go home. But the Kohen asks “Did you get a chance to say Shema today? Take a minute and think about how much Hashem loves you! All you need is to say Shema and He'll take care of you.”

The simplicity and profundity of this idea cannot be overstated, especially in the heat of the flame wars of our generation. When we attack each other with accusations we encourage defensiveness, animosity and resentment. Whereas the very same question, when posed with curiosity, empathy and concern will result in conversation and connection.

This is true in the world of husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, chavrusas, business partners, clients and customers.

The Chozeh of Lublin once asked his student, the Yid HaKadosh, if he had any students that he felt were genuinely God fearing, real Yarei Shamayim. The Yid HaKadosh answered: There is one young boy here, Mendel from Tomashov who wants to be a Yarei Shamayim.

Many years later, that Mendel became the Rebbe of Kotzk. He noted about this story: “At that point I still didn't know if I really wanted to be a Yarei Shamayim. But when the Yid HaKadosh said I did, I decided that I could.”

This is perhaps the greatest superpower that Hashem has given us: The ability to uplift, inspire and change the lives of the people around us. All of this is achieved with a simple reframing of our role in their lives: Do we live to poke holes and point fingers or to give a hug and lend a hand? Are we officers or Kohanim?

In the deepest way, it is we who create the worlds we inhabit and the relationships we build. As we inch closer to Rosh HaShana, Hashem is offering us a chance to shape the year ahead. How should we relate to this opportunity? As officers or Kohanim?

Hashem has an opinion: ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים – And you should be for Me, a kingdom of Kohanim, lifting each other up, giving a hug and lending a hand.

#Eikev #תשפא

They tell of story of the Chiddushei HaRim who was approached by an irreligious Jew. The man challenged the Rebbe: “Rebbe, I don't believe that Torah the is true. The Torah tells us in the second paragraph of Shma (in our Parsha) that:

If you listen carefully to my Mitzvos... I will give you rain and wealth... You will eat and be satisfied.

But Rebbe I don't keep any of the mitzvos! I don't keep shabbos, I don't keep kosher, no Yom tov, no Tefillah, no Tzedaka, no Massim Tovim. And look at me – I have a beautiful and successful life!”

The Chidushei HaRim looked at him with astonishment. “How do you know that this is what the Torah says in the second paragraph of the Shema?”

“Come on, Rebbe. I'm not a fool. When I was younger, they taught me the Shema in cheder. I said it for many years before learning the truth.”

“Wow,” said the Chidushei HaRim “Consider for a moment that it is the value of your Kriyas Shema that is the reason for all of your brachos. Imagine if you would choose to do more today...”

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#Vaeschanan #תשפא #AhavasYisrael

In the aftermath of Tisha B'av, the Torah begins with the most heart wrenching of pesukim:

וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל ה׳... אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן

I begged Hashem at that time... Please let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan.

On this pasuk, the Medrash Rabba (ב:א) famously comments:

שהתפלל משה באותו הפרק חמש מאות וחמשה עשר פעמים

Moshe prayed five-hundred and fifteen prayers at that time (The numerical value of ואתחנן.)

We are used to the idea that Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisrael. We are all aware of his desperate and repeated plea to be granted entry. But even a moment of consideration leaves us with the pain of Moshe's raw emotions. Surely Hashem loved him? Surely Moshe did Teshuva? Surely it was not beyond Hashem's capacity to forgive His most loyal and dedicated servant? This Parsha is theologically and emotionally challenging.

But the Medrash finds it challenging for a different and far more disturbing reason. On two occasions in Sefer Devarim, the Torah tells us that Moshe was hinting something much worse; something that his people did not understand:

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#Devarim #Moshiach #תשפא

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Moshiach; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming.”

It is one of the thirteen principles of our faith. The bedrock of our belief system. We say, we sing it, we pay homage to it, and we teach it to our children. But if I'm being real with myself for a moment, I have a hard time actually believing that Moshiach might very well come at any moment.

He certainly isn't coming to the generation of My Unorthodox Life, and good Jewish boys playing Major League Baseball on Shabbos.

I suspect that you might feel the same. Most of us don't actually anticipate abandoning our homes and jobs and lives and marching off to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. We might anticipate it in theory, but practically, we're not actually expecting Moshiach to arrive at any moment.

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#Matos #תשפא

One of the deepest desires of parents is to keep our children shielded from the tragedies of life. We don't want to expose our kids to the horrors of pain, illness and death. We don't want them to think about Surfside or Meron or the worst effects of COVID.

Aliza and I certainly didn't want to tell our children that their Zeida, Aliza's dad, passed away last week.

Most of that discomfort was our own. Our children were saddened by the news. But they knew that Zeida was sick. They knew that mommy had gone to visit him two weeks ago, and they knew that he didn't recognize or remember any of us. We had not denied our children the knowledge that, despite our tefillos, his terminal illness most often ends in death.

Our kids asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know about when or why Hashem chooses to take a Neshoma back to Shamayim. They wanted to know why people die at all.

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#Pinchas #תשפא

It's a disturbing question: What, if anything, should we learn from Pinchas? How are we supposed to understand the sheer violence of this Parsha?

By all standards, Pinchas' zealotry stands as the total and complete antithesis of what we would call Jewish Values.

Of course, some might protest that my question arises from a misunderstanding of the Torah and Jewish Values. There are those who have suggested that the peace-loving pacifism that colors our perspective today is inauthentic – a veritable distortion of the Torah. Perhaps, they argue, the political orientation of Yiddishkeit is, at its core, more zealous, violent and aggressive than our modern sensitivities can stomach? Perhaps we only recoil from such acts as a result of many long years of exile?

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