Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

The song “It's Geshmak to Be A Yid” has become a staple at camps and on summer programs. It's a fun, upbeat, leibadik niggun, and the message is beautiful.

Literally, the word “Geshmak” means “tasty” or “delicious”, and I find myself wondering: Is it really Geshmak to be a Yid all the time?

Undeniably, there are parts of being Jewish that are not always Geshmak. Sometimes, the Torah asks us to do things that are tough. Sometimes, the Torah tells us not to do things that we enjoy. Of course, intellectually, we believe that Hashem's Torah is objectively wonderful. But “Geshmak” doesn't mean logical – it means that we enjoy it, and there are certainly parts that are less agreeable to our Western palates.

How do we chew and swallow those elements that taste bitter to us? How do we feed them to our kids? Do we have faith that they will eventually digest into something that makes us feel good?

As a parent, Rabbi and teacher often consider how my Torah, Mitzvos and Yiddishkeit tastes? How does it make my children, community and students feel?

Broadening the scope of this question: Does our observance of Yiddishkeit make us feel satisfied, satiated and nourished? Or perhaps there are aspects of our religious and cultural life that make us feel sick, bloated and nauseous? What are the flavors and feelings that we trying to cultivate for ourselves, our families and our communities?

Most importantly, on an existential level, many of us wonder if there is a version of Jewish life that routinely tastes and feels good? What might it take to achieve it?

Most often, these questions hover around thirty-thousand feet. They percolate in different ways on the back-burners of our minds, popping up as frustrations, but rarely coming into view consciously. But this time of year demands that we address them, for two reasons:

Firstly: As the school year begins, we need to evaluate our goals, plans and intentions regarding our children. What do we answer our kids when they say that they don't enjoy keeping mitzvos or learning Torah?

Secondly, this Shabbos is Shabbos Mevorchim Elul; and there is no more poignant time in our calendar to carefully consider our own relationships with Shul, Learning, Torah, Mitzvos and Hashem. In the coming two months we will find ourselves engaged in the rituals and rhythms of our religion with far more intensity. What are our own intentions for the Yamim Nora'im? Are we trying to pass them by as quickly and painlessly as possible? Or are we planning to engage with renewed dedication?

It is worth noting, however, that this is not an isolated conversation. Yiddishkeit is not the only place where such struggles exist.

Consider the challenge of healthy eating: Some foods taste amazing, but make us feel awful. Some taste horrible, and make us feel horrible too. (Kale, I'm looking at you 😊.) And then there are rare delicacies, that taste delicious, provide us with nourishment, and leave us feeling satiated and reenergized.

This same scale can be used to measure and evaluate all of our habits, hobbies and experiences. Some provide enjoyment, but leave us feeling regretful, lonely, angry, saddened or ashamed. (These areas are the playground of our Yetzer Hara, temping us to do things we know will not feel good later.) Others, are painful and clearly disastrous from beginning to end. These are the activities that we hopefully learn to avoid.

Then there are those that occupy the sweet spot of experiences: They are thoroughly enjoyable in the moment, as well as deepening and enriching our lives. These are the ones that taste good and feel fantastic.

Our interpersonal relationships can, likewise be defined as: Those that are fun, those that inspire growth, and the rare and most precious relationships that achieve both.

With a little investigation and introspection a common denominator emerges: The parts of our lives that that bring us joy as well as long term positivity, take time and effort to achieve.

For example:

  • It takes time and maturity to appreciate that overall, steak is better than cake. (A fact that is currently lost on my own children.) Quite literally, it's an acquired taste.

  • It takes months or years of practice before one develops enough skill to truly enjoy playing the piano, going to the gym, or running a marathon.

  • Cultivating the relationships that we would like to experience in marriage, business and family all require discipline, empathy, vulnerability and humility. None of it comes easily or automatically.

To our earlier point: It takes some considerable effort until observing mitzvos, davening and learning can be as enjoyable as they are meaningful. In order to truly declare “It's Geshmak to be a Yid,” we need to develop the acquired taste.

What is the road-map for acquiring this taste? How do we ensure Yiddishkeit transcends obligation and becomes an opportunity?

The Malbim explains that the Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the instructions, and placed it in our Parsha:

Step One: Understanding

We begin (י׳:י״ז) with an understanding that Hashem is real, true and has expectations. At our first encounter with this truth, is jarring, terrifying and demanding:

הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד The Great God, the Mighty, and the Awesome, who doesn't play favorites and cannot be bribed.

Step Two: Submission

Once we recognize the awesomeness of Hashem, we are left with only one rational conclusion (י׳:כ׳):

אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ תִּירָא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד You should fear Hashem your God. You shall serve Him.

Since Hashem is real, and cares about what we do, there are consequences to our actions. To that end, we fear Him, and serve Him.

It is at the this stage of religious growth, Yiddishkeit is not Geshmak. This is the stage of tension, pushback and rebellion. No-one likes to be a slave. No-one wants to live in fear. No-one wants to be told what to do, and any action taken under these conditions is swallowing a very bitter pill. In previous generations, people were able to live with this discontent; today, abandoning Torah is far more common.

Step Three: A Relationship Emerges

The goal is not submission and fear. The conclusion of the Pasuk that instructs us to fear and serve Hashem tells us: וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק – Cling to Him. Here, Moshe is telling us “even though you are initially motivated by fear, don't ever be too afraid to reach out to Him, don't be afraid of the relationship.”

Despite the weight of duty, the awe, reverence and fear, cling to Hashem, don't run, don't hide. Remember how He has always been there for us, how He created us, and constantly wills us into existence. At the core of our relationship, even if we cannot feel or understand it, Hashem loves us. If we keep working at it, keep pushing, growing, learning, doing, something will change.

Step Four: It's Geshmak to Be A Yid

Finally, eventually (י״א:א׳):

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וְשָׁמַרְתָּ מִשְׁמַרְתּוֹ וְחֻקֹּתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו You will love Hashem your God, and keep his instructions, and his statutes, and his ordinances, and his commandments, forever.

This Pasuk the Malbim explains, is not a directive. It is a description of what we will achieve:

שתעבדנו מאהבה ושמרת משמרתו וחקותיו מאהבה ובזה יצויר אהבה במקום יראה We will serve Hashem out of Love, and observe His mitzvos out of love, and love will replace fear.

With enough training and investment, the bitter can become sweet. We can learn to enjoy the challenges, restrictions and obligations of the Torah. Much like the experience that after many weeks and months of training, it is more enjoyable to go for a run than to sit on the couch. With enough dedication, eating healthy tastes better than eating junk food, and it feels better too.

The response to “I'm not feeling it” is to not to quit; it's to reengage, try again, reach out for advice, push a little harder.

With enough time and practice, tefillah in a minyan, learning the Daf, singing zemiros, giving tzedaka and doing chessed can all be more enjoyable, more Geshmak than any other activity. The things that were once chores and tasks can and will eventually taste amazing, and they'll make us feel even better.

As school begins and we ring in the month of Elul, this is our Avoda for the weeks ahead: To push ourselves and each other a little harder with empathy, humility and dedication.

With Hashem's help, our lives, schools, shuls, businesses and homes will be filled with Avodas Hashem; our Yiddishkeit will feel incredible and it we will finally declare, it's Geshmak to be a Yid!

It's 7:45am on a Tuesday morning; I've just gotten home from Shachris. As I walk through the front door, I hear a crash, then a scream, and then crying. Looking for the source of the commotion, I see that two of my kids are busy eating breakfast. Except that one of the is on the floor, quite literally crying over their spilled milk (and cheerios). As I make my way into the kitchen, I ask both kids to help clean up. The one on the floor begins to collect their cheerios. The other child, however, is standing, staring, defiantly declaring “Abba! It's not my fault!”

“No one said it was your fault.” I explain. “But that doesn't mean we don't all have a responsibility to help clean up. After all, we all want to live in a clean home...”


I've been working hard on instilling this idea in my children, in my students and in myself for a number of years. Recognizing this truth has been a major factor in my own personal growth, weight loss and health journey. It took a long time for me to finally understand that while it might not be my fault (or anyone's) that I grew up with unhealthy habits, the responsibility to change them is still mine, and mine alone. Because, ultimately, the exercises of assigning blame and determining who is really at fault, do very little to solve the problem at hand.

Chazal (ירושלמי יומא א:א) thus explain:

כָּל־דּוֹר שֶׁאֵינוֹ נִבְנֶה בְיָמָיו מַצֲלִין עָלָיו כְּאִילּוּ הוּא הֶחֱרִיבוֹ Any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is considered as if they had destroyed it.

These are heavy words, but Chazal are making a clear point: Even though our generation is not at fault for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, we are most certainly responsible for ensuring that it is rebuilt.

The Yismach Moshe (כי תצא יב) spells out this responsibility: If we do Teshuva, fixed out actions and affect, the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt, and if we don't, then it won't. That's what's at stake. That is what is possible. But developing that mindset from the despair Tisha B'Av is difficult.

Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin suggests that seven days after Tisha B'av is the day that we celebrate taking this responsibility. He writes that this day – Tu B'av – is designated to the day when we will one day rebuild the Mikdash.

But when the Talmud describes the celebrations of Tu B'av, however, the explanations seem to be someone confusing. There are six reasons given, but it is the final one which we will focus on, since the Izbitzer writes this reason is the one which encompasses them all:

רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו יום שפסקו מלכרות עצים למערכה (תניא) רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר מחמשה עשר באב ואילך תשש כחה של חמה ולא היו כורתין עצים למערכה לפי שאינן יבשין. אמר רב מנשיא וקרו ליה יום תבר מגל מכאן ואילך דמוסיף יוסיף

Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: The fifteenth of Av was the day on which they stopped chopping down trees for the arrangement of wood that burned on the altar, as it is taught, Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: From the fifteenth of Av onward, the strength of the sun grows weaker, and from this date they would not cut additional wood for the Alter, (Rashi: as they would not be properly dry, and they would therefore be unfit for use in the Temple.) Rav Menashya said: And they called the fifteenth of Av the day of the breaking of the axes, as from this date onward no more trees were cut down. The Gemara adds: From the fifteenth of Av onward, when the days begin to shorten, one who adds to his nightly Torah study will add years to his life.

There are many questions to ask on this Gemara. Why is stopping to chop wood for the Mizbeach a cause for celebration? The lengthening of the night and the heralding of winter a cause for celebration? Furthermore, why break the axes? Are we not going to use them next year? Isn't this Ba'al Tashichis?

To understand this, we need understand the dichotomy of axe anatomy, as the Talmud (סנהדרין לט ב) explains: מיניה וביה אבא ניזיל ביה נרגא. “From the forest itself comes the handle for the axe.”

The Medrash (בראשית רבה ה י׳) tells us the whole story:

כיון שנברא הברזל התחילו האילנות מרתתים. אמר להן: מה לכם מרתתין? עץ מכם אל יכנס בי ואין אחד מכם ניזוק

When Hashem created steel, the trees began to tremble. Said the steel to them: “So long as none of you serve as my handle, no tree will be harmed.”

The Maharal (חדושי אגדות סנהדרין לט) explains what Chazal are teaching us in these Midrashim:

כי רגיל הוא שפורענות יבא על האדם מצד עצמו Most of the calamities that happen to us, also happen through us.

That is to say, the person most likely to cause damage to us, is ourselves. It might not be the wood's fault that other trees are cut down, but allowing oneself to become a handle is evading essential responsibility.

In almost every situation in our lives, we are both the subject, the actor, as well as the object, the recipient. Which means that there are only two ways to live life. Either as victims of our circumstance, or as captains of our ship.

This decision effects every part of our lives, from our careers, to raising our children. From marriage to davening. From success to failure. This decision effects the way that we look at everything – is this a failure, a setback, or a trend? Is this challenge a speed bump or a road block?

As Henry Ford put it: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.”

It is possible to see children growing up and complain about the late nights and early mornings. It is possible to see the sun rising and gripe about getting too little sleep. It's possible to see our community grow by leaps and bounds, and get upset about not getting enough herring at Kiddush.

Those that live as victims, get stuck in perpetual cycles of negativity. Those that live as captains, guide the ships of their lives over the challenges that Hashem sends our way.

Optimism doesn’t mean everything is great, it means we can respond to everything with greatness.

So how should a Jew respond to the aftermath of Tisha B'av, where the night is growing longer, and the world is growing colder? Where we can no longer dry out the wood for the mizbeach?

There are plenty of reasons to be upset. Plenty of reasons to throw our hands up and say that the task ahead is too formidable, that we didn't have enough time; that the weather is too unpredictable.

But there is another way. We could look at the lengthening of the night, and the coldness of the world, and say “Wow! This is a great time to dive deeper into Talmud Torah. This isn't an obstacle, it's an opportunity.”

The celebration of breaking the axes was a display of abandoning the self destructiveness that led us to the Churban in the first place. It was a bold declaration that we won't the cause of our own demise. It doesn't matter whose fault it is, the milk and cheerios need to be cleaned up, so we might as well get a mop.

This Shabbos, Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us (4:29):

וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וּמָצָאתָ...

But from there you will seek Hashem you God; and you will find Him...

The Baal Shem would teach: “There” means that wherever you are is the place from which you should seek Hashem. In essence, be a captain of your ship.

Rebbe Nosson writes (ליקוטי הלכות הלכות ראש חודש ו:יא):

וּבָזֶה טוֹעִים רֹב בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁכָּל אֶחָד אוֹמֵר אִם הָיָה לוֹ פַּרְנָסָה הָיָה עוֹבֵד ה'... רַק יֵדַע וְיַאֲמִין שֶׁבְּחִירָתוֹ תְּלוּיָה דַּיְקָא בְּאֹפֶן זֶה,... So many people are mistaken in this area; “If only I was wealthy, I would serve Hashem! ... But know and trust that you have the ability to choose your own path specifically in this situation.

This perspective of taking responsibility was a pillar of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's life, and indeed, many of his talmidim and chassidim. Lord Rabbi Sacks tells the story:

“Many years ago, I came to the Rebbe’s residence in New York, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done. He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in? I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I replied: “In the situation in which I find myself…”

The Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.” And Rabbi Sacks concluded: “That moment changed my life.”

Hashem should help us to break the axes of self destruction. To see the opportunities and not the obstacles. To be captains and not victims. To, Be'ezras Hashem, bring ourselves, our families and each other into a world of Geulah, to build the Mikdash, speedily in our generation.

Every year the great Nine-Days machlokes grows stronger: To Siyum or Not to Siyum.

Frum-Twitter lights up with meat and memes, comedians weigh in, and Rabbanim address shaylos like “does Pirkei Avos count?” (All the while, of course, Sephardim are happily BBQ-ing on the front lawn.)

It certainly seems that people feel a guilty pleasure eating meat at a nine-days siyum. It feels disingenuous; a little sneaky. But then again, Yiddishkeit has all sorts of loopholes, right? After all, we all our sell Chametz, right? Why not enjoy a delicious steak dinner, so long as there's a little Torah thrown in? Enough people seems to be OK with it... so there's gotta be some opinion that says that this is allowed, even if it's not ideal, right?

Well... Not really, sort of. Maybe. Some background is needed.

The Rama (ס׳ תקנ״א ס”י) does allow for the eating of meat at a Siyum, but restricts the attendees to those who are “Shayach” to the Siyum. During שבוע שחל בו ת״ב, the week in which Tisha B'Av falls out (and when Sephardim also refrain from meat and wine) the guest list is further limited.

The Mishna Berura (ס׳ תקנ״א ס״ק ע״ג) adds that one should certainly not speed up or slow down a regular schedule of learning to make such a Siyum, but that if it happens to work out that you finish during the nine days, and you usually make a Siyum, then you may invite the guests that you would usually invite.

There are many more nuances and subtleties to discuss, but this is the mainstream approach of standard, straightforward Halacha. Of course, there are many justifications offered for more expansive understandings of the how's, who's and when's of a Siyum. Some note that the definition of “usually” is dependent on time and location, and that during the summer at camps and on vacation, people have larger gatherings in general. Others point to the value of increasing Ahavas Yisrael and Talmud Torah. (Rabbi Gavriel Zinner lists many more in the footnotes of נטעי גבריאל הל׳ בין המצרים ח״א פרק מא).

But far beyond the questions of technical permissibility, there are deeper question of appropriateness. Does eating meat at a nine-days siyum subvert the spirit-of-the-law? The Aruch HaShulchan (תקנ״א כ״ג) certainly thought so, as he writes:

ודע שיש שמניחים הסיום מסכת על ימים אלו, כדי לאכול בשר. ודבר מכוער הוא And you should know that there are those who plan a Siyum in these days for the purpose of eating meat. This practice is despicable.

He takes issue with the abandonment of communal customs, the totally disregard for mourning over the Destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and goes so far as to question our ability and desire to control our base urges, explaining:

איך לא נבוש ולא נכלם? הלא הרבה מהאומות שאין אוכלים הרבה שבועות לא בשר, ולא חלב, ולא ביצים; ואנחנו עם בני ישראל, שעלינו נאמר “קדושים תהיו” – לא יאבו לעצור את עצמם שמונה ימים בשנה, לזכרון בית קדשינו ותפארתינו? How are we not ashamed? Is it not true that many of the nations of the world have many weeks where they refrain from meat, milk and eggs? And we, the Jewish People, about whom the Torah says “You shall be Holy” are not capable of holding ourselves back for eight days in the year in memory of the Beis HaMikdash?!

His mussar is well taken. If his generations over a century ago were getting too hedonistic, I think we're in trouble.

A friend and colleague recently noted to me that there is a basic theme behind so many of the questions he is asked in Halacha. They reduce to a simple request: “How can I live the unrestricted, pleasure-filled life that I want to live, and still feel like I'm keeping Halacha?”

Perhaps that take is overly cynical, but there is a painful truth to recognize. We desperately want to ensure that Halacha does not interfere with our lives, and this Yetzer Hara is easy to understand.

For starters, the concept of being an Eved Hashem is foreign in Western Society, and we are culturally conditioned to reject restrictions and authority. Holding back from a desired menu choice for religious purposes is about as un-American as it gets. That's true year 'round regarding Kashrus.

During the nine-days, however, the emotional requirement is far worse. This week we are asked to restrict ourselves for the expressed purpose of reducing our happiness. All of this is to focus on the loss of our Ancient Spiritual and Cultural Center two millennia ago. Simply stated: There is nothing here that resonates as a value in contemporary western society at all.

This is the battle that we (and the Aruch HaShulchan), are fighting in general. We are fighting it for ourselves, our kids and the future of Torah Judaism. This issue is the front line of ensuring the relevance and continuity of Torah values for ourselves and our future generations.

It seems then, that while there might be technical loopholes to arrange a “meat-eater siyum” there is no justification to utilize these loopholes outside of extenuating circumstances.

But perhaps there is more to the story...

After Rabbi Meir Shapiro's untimely passing, Rabbi Aryeh Tzvi Frummer, known as The Kozhiglover Rav, was appointed to be the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Throughout his life and Sefarim, he attempted to find a “לימוד זכות” – a meritorious defense – for some of our more perplexing practices. As such, in his Sefer on the Parsha (ארץ צבי דברים תרפ״ה), he addresses our question, and takes up the defense of learning a Masechta and arranging a siyum for the exclusive purpose of eating meat in the nine days. He writes:

The Talmud (שבת פח ב׳) quotes Rava as saying:

לַמַּיְימִינִין בָּהּ סַמָּא דְחַיֵּי, לְמַשְׂמְאִילִים בָּהּ סַמָּא דְמוֹתָא. To those who are “right-wards” in their approach to Torah (and engage in its study with strength, good will, and sanctity) Torah is a potion of life, and to those who are “left-wards” in their approach to Torah, it is a potion of death.

The normative interpretation of this teaching echos what we have been discussing. If we are proper in our study of Torah, then Torah is the elixir of Life. But utilizing Torah to undermine and subvert Ratzon Hashem turns the Torah into a dangerous poison.

But the Sfas Emes (לקוטים פרשת וישב) understands Rava differently, in light of the Chazal's well known principle in Avodas Hashem (פסחים נ׳ ב׳):

דְּאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: לְעוֹלָם יַעֲסוֹק אָדָם בְּתוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ. Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake. Through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

If this is true, that learning Torah with alterior motives is still positive, then how can the Torah ever be a poison?!

The Sfas Emes answers by re-explaining Rava: When we learn Torah ״לשמה״, for its own sake, then Torah is an elixir of Live, adding to the quality, profundity and beauty of our lives. But sometimes we engage in Torah for some other purpose. On such occasions, the Torah does not add to our lives, but still protects us from sickness, pain and death. Talmud Torah is always good. It is always positive. Done right, it adds life, but even when done wrong, it prevents death.

With this in mind the Kozhiglover explains: During this time of the year, when the darkness of the Churban is so overwhelming and and pain of exile is most palpable, we should encourage any and all Torah learning, even for the wrong reasons. Even if it's just for the purpose of enjoying a good steak.

The power of Torah is that it can hold back the darkness, and we need all the help we can get.

Who is right; The Aruch HaShulchan or the Kozhiglover? The choice that each of us make here probably says a lot about the way we look at the world in general. But allow me to offer my own understanding: It appears to me that both are true. We are living in a generation that is walking the tight rope from exile to redemption.

From this precarious precipice, it is possible to tumble into Western hedonism and lose ourselves to the rat race, where all we yearn for is endless power and pleasure. Fall in this direction and the values of Halacha, Jewish History and the Beis HaMikdash will fade tragically into obscurity.

But it is also possible for us to collapse into loneliness, doubt, despair and depression. Fall here, and we conclude that we are never truly deserving of pleasure, and certainly not of redemption. We are fakers, imposters and charlatans; barely a shadow of the greatness of yesteryear. Nothing we do will ever be good enough, nothing is meaningful enough, nothing is potent enough to turn the tide and change the world we live in.

There are days that I feel I need the Aruch HaShulchan, and days that I need the Kozhiglover. There are values to both approaches, as well as pitfalls, and I'm grateful that our Mesora is broad enough to help steer us straight.

Is there a way to have your steak and eat it? Perhaps.

If we learn to navigate this tight rope, with empathy, thoughtfulness and intellectual honesty, we might merit that Hashem should help us to ensure that the question is never relevant again.

In the words of Rebbe Yehuda HaNassi (מגילה ה׳ ב׳): הואיל ונדחה ידחה – Since Tisha B'Av is pushed off this Shabbos, it should be pushed off forever.

This past week, I was zocheh to spend some time in Eretz Yisrael, together with some incredible educators from Yeshiva High Schools across the country. It was an eye opening trip, that focused on learning how to teach the complexity of the Modern State of Israel in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict and world opinion. (There are so many parts of the trip that will require processing so be prepared for some future posts...)

But being that this week heralds in the month of Menachem Av, I thought, perhaps to zoom out a little, and think about where we are in the context of Jewish History. To a certain extent, all of this is brand new, and yet, in the long arc of the history of our people, we've been here before.

It brings to mind the story of a family trying to navigate their way on vacation:

The story is told about family, who, after a long year, decides to take a summer road trip. Carefully following the his GPS, the father, who is in the driver's seat, arrives a road with a large sign that read, “Road Closed. Do Not Enter.”

“But Waze says that this is the way to go! Going around will take hours!” He remarked.

“But honey, if the sign says it's closed, then maybe we shouldn't risk it?”

But despite his wife's protests there was no turning back for the persistent captain of his RV. After a few miles of successful navigation, he began to boast about his brilliance. His proud smile was quickly replaced with a humble cold sweat when the road led to a washed-out bridge, with no possibility of passage. He turned the car around and bashfully retraced his tracks to the main road.

When they arrived at the original warning sign he was greeted by large letters on the back of the sign “Welcome back, stupid!”

Every year, I teach a short crash course in the history of Tanach to my incoming students. We open google maps and follow the geographic History of our People. It's a funny story – effectively bouncing between Mesopotamia and Eretz Yisrael half a dozen times, before the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. Since then, we've spread to every corner of the globe, enduring the worst of what humans are capable of doing to each other.

It's been almost two thousand years, and we're finally back home, with a big sign the reads “Welcome back, stupid.” Of course, we're not entirely back yet. Not all of us, and not completely. We still have a long way to go before the pain of Tisha B'Av is reversed. But without doubt, the month of Av in our generation is different from what it was once before.

We are not living in the world of destruction, but we are also not quite in the world of redemption. We're somewhere in between. The Radak writes that L'chu Neranena was the Tefillah that was written for our generation. It's a description of how we will feel at the beginning of Geulah. The Tefillah thus reads:

Come with me! We're going to say thank you to Hashem. It's been so long since we've had a chance to be together in Yerushalayim. We're going to sing, we're going to bow, we're going to thank Him for everything He has done for us...

But then we pivot sharply: אַל תַּקְשׁוּ לְבַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָה – Each person will turn to his or her friend and say: “Don't get frustrated and belligerent like we did in the desert. Please, let's not mess it up like we did before...” Whatever it was before, can it be over now? We've blundered every national opportunity since we came out of Egypt, maybe we can hold onto this one?

The Vilna Gaon would daven every day that “Mashiach Ben Yosef” shouldn't die. The Kol Mevaser explains: Mashiach Ben Yosef is the natural return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. It's a trajectory that could succeed; transcending all of history, and taking us towards a world of Malchus Hashem. But it could also fail, thrusting us in the darkest of pain and exile until a miraculous redemption rescues those who remain.

The Vilna Gaon prayed that the State of Israel should continue to succeed.

The way that we look at our history, however, has an immense impact on the way we envision the road ahead. To that end, the Torah instructs us this Shabbos to take a look at the stops we've made along the way.

For our ancestors in the Midbar, their forty year detour is coming to an end this week and Parshas Masei is the end of the narrative of the Torah. It is the final installment of the story of the generation that left Mitzraim. From Devarim until the end of the Torah is Moshe's last speech.

This final Parsha begins with אלא מסעי – these are the journeys, the detours that we took. The Torah then lists forty-two stops from slavery in Egypt to standing at the entrance to Eretz Yisrael.

Why do we need such a summary? Rashi explains that it's all to teach us that Hashem looked after us at every point in the long journey. And while the Ramban accepts Rashi's explanation, he adds:

והנה מכתב המסעות מצות השם היא מן הטעמים הנזכרים או מזולתן ענין לא נתגלה לנו סודו The writing of these journeys were a command from Hashem, perhaps for the reasons we mentioned, or perhaps their secret has never been revealed to us.

That is to say, that fundamentally, even in the retrospective, we don't know why this was the way that it needed to happen. Sometime, hindsight simply isn't 20/20.

The Degel Machaneh Efraim, explains, in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that likewise, each and every individual traverses their own wilderness, each one with their own stops along the way:

כי כל המסעות היו מ”ב והם אצל כל אדם מיום הולדו עד שובו אל עולמו ולהבין זה כי מיום הלידה והוצאתו מרחם אמו הוא בחי' יציאת מצרים כנודע ואח”כ נוסע ממסע למסע עד בואו לארץ החיים העליונה וכמ”ש ע”פ ה' יחנו וע”פ ה' יסעו

These travels of the Jewish people are the journeys of each and every Jew from the day they are born – their personal Yetzias Mitzrayim. And they continue, from journey to journey until they come to the Land of Eternal Life.

Of course, there are some places along the way where it's obvious why Hashem wants us to visit. Places like קברות התאוה – where we failed as a result of giving in to our base desires; and תבערה – where we got carried away with our emotions. But mostly, we just don't know.

Reb Dovid of Lelov used to say that at the end of time Hashem will sit down with each of us, and learn through the פרשת מסעי of our lives. We'll finally understand the hows, whats and whys of our journey.

But perhaps our current lack of clarity is exactly the point. We have no explanation for how we have arrived at the places we are. All that we know with certainty, is that our personal and national narratives don't make sense, even to us. We have no natural explanation as to why any of us are who and where we are. The odds of any one of us being committed, connected, Jews today is so infinitesimal, it is practically miraculous. The odds of our national return to Eretz Yisrael under Jewish sovereignty is a shattering of all of the rules of history. And yet, here we are.

As Menachem Av begins, the Torah is asking us to note that the journey we have each taken is the journey that Hashem knows is right for us. Somehow, this is the way that it needed to be. The failures and detours were somehow part of the route. It opens the door to forgiveness, acceptance and empathy; a perspective that invites us to get over our differences, knowing that Hashem has curated a trajectory for each of us.

Perhaps this is how we ensure that we don't mess it up again. The humility to accept that Hashem has always been the Tour Guide, enables us to look ahead without the confusion of the journey obscuring our vision.

Hashem should help us to look ahead, to see the shining future just over the horizon, so that this year, Menachem Av will live up to its name, finally entering a world of comfort.

Growing up, I remember teachers telling us to “pay attention.” It's a strange phrase. How does one “pay” attention? Enter 2022 where attention is a multi-billion industry. In many ways, paying with our attention is the cost of living in the modern world.

Quite literally, every moment, someone is making money off of mine and your attention. This is no secret to any of us who have been repeatedly badgered to “like and subscribe”. We know that the accounts and profiles we follow are gaining from our engagement. “Good for them,” we think. “If an advertiser wants to pay them for my clicks and views, that's no sweat off of my back. I have the choice to disable notifications, mute my devices and unsubscribe whenever I want.” But while there is no harm in subscribing and engaging, there is most certainly a cost.

More often than not, we are completely unaware of the price we pay when we give our attention away. That's the brilliance of this industry: When we give our focus away, we are giving away the very ability to notice what else we are giving up.

Please note: I am not here to rant about phones, social media and the internet. While these tools have certainly made distractibility easier, the problem is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, the question of focus and attention is central to our Parsha. To understand it, we'll need a quick recap:

Bilaam has been recruited to curse the Jewish people, and despite knowing that Hashem might not let him get away with it, the money is too good to pass up. He leaves home accompanied by the nobleman of Moav, but along the way, his donkey is acting up, veering from one side of road to the other.

Unbeknownst to Bilaam, there is an angel of Hashem blocking their path. In his rage, Bilaam begins to beat the animal until, miraculously, Hashem opens the mouth of the donkey who protests: “Why are you beating me?!”

Bilaam, yells back “Why am I beating you?! You're making making a mockery out of me in front of all of these people! If I was holding a sword, I would've killed you by now!”

The donkey, replies “Seriously?! In all the years that you've ridden me, have I ever done anything like this?”

“No”, Bilaam acknowledges, but before the conversation continues, Hashem opens Bilaam's eyes and he sees the angel in his path. The angel admonishes Bilaam, who quickly defends himself before resuming his journey and mission.

By all standards, this is a strange story and there are many questions that the narrative demands. But a number of years ago, one of my students remarked, half-joking, there is no point where Bilaam exclaims: “OMG! A Talking Donkey?!”

He shows no pause, takes no break, shows no recognition that he has witnessed a singularly miraculous event.

It's a good question, one that the Anvei Nezer addresses (שם משמואל תרע״ו).

He explains: It is entirely possible for a person to encounter the most incredible wonders of reality, and walk away from them completely unfazed and unchanged.

The human capacity to concurrently focus our own agendas and ignore all else, gives us ample room to feel cynical, disenchanted and uninspired regardless of the opportunities and events around us.

The Kotzker explains this tragic truth in the Pasuk describing Matan Torah (Shemos 20:14):

וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת... וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the voice of the Shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood a far away.

Apparently, it is possible for a person to see sounds, hear lightning, experience the call of shofar and see the mountain ablaze before us. It is even possible to tremble in awe and fear, and yet, to still stand far away.

It is possible to have a full conversation with a talking donkey and fail to notice the sheer miraculousness of the event. When our attention is zoomed in on our own narrow thoughts and screens, we are effectively giving up the possibility of noticing anything else.

What else is there to notice? Everything.

So much of our Halachik experience is designed to draw our attention to things that we might otherwise ignore. We make brachos on thunder, lightening, new fruit and dozens of other irregular experiences. But we also take note of the miracle of opening our eyes in the morning (ברוך פוקח עורים) and express our gratitude in putting on shoes (ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי).

It is essential to note, however, that we are not trying to focus on everything and certainly not everything at the same time. That would be impossible and naive to attempt.

Instead, the goal of the Torah is curate our attention, to train us on which aspects of existence to focus on so that we can lead elevated and enjoyable lives.

The narrative of my life and yours is told to us, by us. But by focussing on details in one direction or another, the stories we tell ourselves can diverge wildly.

In one version the stranger's kid having a melt down in aisle seven is “badly behaved”. Naturally, there are things we could focus on to explain that conclusion. But in another version of the same story, that great kid is having a really rough day, and there is evidence for this conclusion as well. Which version is true? I have no idea, it all really depends on which details we choose to focus on. But I know what I'd like you to think if it were my kid; so I should try to do the same for you.

That's our Avoda. To try to see the details that explain how the world is good, how everyone is doing their best, and perhaps how we could lend a hand.

This is the essential message of our Parsha. Everything that Bilaam saw as negative, Hashem forced him to see as positive, to see from the perspective of a loving friend:

לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב... ה׳ אֱלֹקיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ Hashem has not seen sin in Yaakov, or perverseness in Yisrael. Hashem his God is with him and the Teruah of the King is within him.

Rashi comments here: וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ – לשון חיבה וריעות. The word תרועה is an expression for love and fellowship. If you love someone, you choose to see the good in them. That's the part to focus on.

If time is a limited resource, then focus and attention are even more so. The charge of the Torah is to choose how we use this single most powerful resource.

Hashem should help us in this fight to reclaim our attention, to focus only the goodness of the Torah, each other and ourselves.

Summer is a peculiar time for Avodas Hashem. For kids, teens and young adults, the summer offers a change of pace and place from regular scheduled schooling. This often enables opportunities for meteoric growth, and indeed, I've seen many talmidim come back from a great summer reinvigorated and reenergized.

But for adults, for whom the responsibilities of life are sometimes slowed, but not paused, the change of pace of family life can contribute to feelings of lethargy and disinterest. Effectively, for many adults, the summer is a Ruchniyos Recession.

I vividly remember my first major Ruchniyos Recession in Yeshiva. It happened the day after Rosh HaShana in my second year in Kerem B'Yavneh. I was flying high the whole of Elul; pushing later and later hours in the Beis Medrash. My chavrusa and I were covering more ground than ever before, we were even doing Chazara!

In retrospect, I should've known that my relentless sleep deprivation was unhealthy and unsustainable. But Rosh HaShana was a few days away, and after all, that's when Hashem is judging us. I wanted to make a good impression. My davening that Yom Tov was soulful, uplifting and exhausting.

... And it all came crashing down the morning of Tzom Gedalya. I simply couldn't get out of bed. I was tired in a way that sleep doesn't fix. I wasn't feeling sick, I was burned out. I didn't want to open a Siddur. I certainly didn't want to open a Gemara.

More than anything, the guilt was overwhelming. I has soared my way up to Rosh Hashana only to flake out during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva?! What a fake, what a fraud! I imagined Hashem's disapproval; His judgement and disappointment. I was upset with myself for not foreseeing this crash, for failing so hard. I questioned everything I had ever achieved, all of my hopes and dreams for my time in Yeshiva.

Needless to say, most of those feelings were unnecessary and unduly exaggerated.

Later that week, I approached Rav Blachman to ask for advice. He listened carefully to my predicament, and then gave a hearty chuckle and explained casually: “You're young. You'll learn. You can't expect to fly upwards forever. It takes time; and each time you'll get a little better. There will be many more Eluls and Rosh HaShanas to work up to.”

In the past week, speaking to chaverim, members and colleagues, many have expressed deep fears about the market, the economy and the future of this country. I'm not an economist, and talks of an impending (or current?) recession are disconcerting. But on the other hand those who are much smarter and more experienced than me know that fluctuation is normal, and that we should learn to expect the ups and downs.

I can certainly understand that as a market grows, it experiences natural ups and downs. In the short term, however, the highs are extraordinary and the lows are devastating.

I would like to suggest that the same long game perspective is true in our Ruchniyus as well. We all experience periods of heightened growth, excitement and inspiration. And we all experience setbacks, frustrations and failure. Perhaps, the greatest commonality between economics and Ruchniyos is the need to understand that there are forces outside of our control, and choices that are within our control. Differentiating between them requires humility, empathy, maturity and perspective.

So what do we do in a Ruchniyus Recession? What is our Avoda when we don't feel connected or inspired? What do we do when we feel like we've already failed?

In many ways, I think that that this was the final challenge of the Dor HaMidbar. Those great Jews who survived slavery, followed Moshe into the desert, walked through the sea on dry land, and stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. After everything that they achieved, ultimately, they failed. They would not see their dream to completion, they would never enter Eretz Yisrael.

Consider how Moshe Rabbeinu might have felt, knowing that he was facing 38 years of funerals. Imagine the pain of learning that he too would not be allowed to step foot in the Land of Israel, that he too would die in the desert.

For an entire generation, there was no “We want Moshiach now!” campaign. There was no geulah; they wouldn't ever see the Land that Hashem had promised. How did they survive that spiritual recession, and what can we learn from them?

Chazal (תענית ט א) tell us that there were three great leaders in the Midbar: Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. In their merit Hashem gave us three miracles: Manna from Heaven, Annanei HaKavod to protect us from the elements, and water from a rock.

But this Shabbos, Aharon and Miriam die. What happened to those great miracles? How would we ever survive? No problem, the Talmud teaches, חָזְרוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם בִּזְכוּת מֹשֶׁה – the Clouds and the Water returned in Moshe's merit.

The Ksav Sofer asks: If all three miracles could happen in Moshe's merit, why did we need Miriam and Aharon at all?!

He explains: At the beginning of the forty year exile, those miracles could only have been in the merit of Miriam and Aharon. But forty years later, Moshe Rabbeinu had also grown. Now, as a greater version of himself, Moshe could achieve more on behalf of his people.

We don't often think of Moshe's personal growth. Much like a kindergartener doesn't think that their teacher could ever been seen at a the mall. But Chazal are telling us that Moshe also continued to grow; and all of this during a national Ruchniyus Recession.

Rabbi Nachman (ליקוטי מהר״ן ו׳) writes:

וּכְשֶׁרוֹצֶה אָדָם לֵילֵךְ בְּדַרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה, צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת בָּקִי בַּהֲלָכָה, וְצָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ שְׁנֵי בְּקִיאוּת, הַיְנוּ בָּקִי בְּרָצוֹא, בָּקִי בְּשׁוֹב Now, when a person wants to walk the pathways of repentance, he must be baki (expert) in Halakhah. This demands that he have two types of expertise: baki b’ratzo (expert at “running”) and baki b’shov (expert at “returning or retreating”).

There are times in our lives when we are “Running”, growing by leaps and bounds. These times contain their own challenges; obligating us to make the most of our opportunities, and not to succumb to complacency.

In the times of “retreat”, however, we are challenged by maintaining slow consolidation of our achievements. Building personalities of stable Avodas Hashem, and diligent Emunah. The world of בקי בשוב is the deep work of understanding that setbacks and failures are part of the process, on the micro and macro scales of our lives and Jewish history.

Our Avoda is to respond to our the economics of our Ruchniyus with careful planning and consideration. To set goals, weigh up options, and to ensure that the next steps we take are moving forwards. We need to ask ourselves: “Ok, I don't have the time, money or energy for 'X', but what can I do? In what way can I become closer to Hashem? What can I change today?”

Hashem should help us to weather every storm – in Gashmiyus and Ruchniyus – and to ensure that we emerge as greater people, with loftier middos, stronger connections, and deeper understanding of Hashem, His Torah and ourselves.

Once again the USA is embroiled in a Machlokes. This week it's about abortions. Naturally, everyone believes that their argument is L'Shem Shamayim – “for the sake of Heaven”. And of course, everyone is strongly of the opinion that the “other side” is not L'shem Shamayim.

Tragically, it seems that there has never been a year that Parshas Korach is not relevant. But before we point fingers at who the “Korach” is, we need to ask if we are arguing L'Shem Shamayim.

Chazal (אבות ה:י״ז) teach us:

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים. סופה להתקיים. ושאינה לשם שמים. אין סופה להתקיים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים. זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו: Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.

I've always been bothered by this Mishna, I am fairly certain that if we would have asked Korach “Are you fighting for the sake of Heaven”, he would have answering a resounding “Yes! I want to be able to serve Hashem better!”

In the history of disagreements, we'd be hard pressed to find a single individual who truly believes that their fight is unjustified. Of course, I hope that we are all OK with apologizing for losing our cool during small fights, and lapses of judgement. With a moment of clarity and hindsight, we can appreciate that we all make getting it wrong sometimes. We all make mistakes in the world of daily frustrations.

But the major moral, ethical, philosophical questions of our time? That's where we are convinced that we need to stand our ground. After all, we're not arguing for our own sake, so we must be fighting L'shem Shamayim!

This orientation makes it impossible to determine if any Machlokes we are involved in is indeed truly L'Shem Shamayim. How do we know if our fight is for the sake of Heaven if everyone is convinced that their fight is?!

At this point, it's worth asking what difference it makes at all. Perhaps we're not arguing L'Shem Shamayim? What's wrong with that? Can't we simply have a good old fight?

It's not so simple. The Medrash (במדבר רבה י״ח) notes that מחלוקת is an acronym:

מַחֲלֹקֶת: מ' מַכָּה, ח' חָרוֹן, ל לִקּוּי, ק' קְלָלָה, ת' תּוֹעֵבָה. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, תַּכְלִית, כְּלָיָה מֵבִיא לָעוֹלָם.

Violence (מ), anger (ח), punishment (ל), curse (ק), and abomination (ת). Some some that the ת׳ is for תכלית – end, since Machlokes destroys the world.

Machlokes is the single most destructive force in humanity, and the only Heter to getting involved in a Machlokes at all is when we are arguing L'shem Shamayim. Resolving whether or not our disputes are in this category is now crucial. Quite literally, everything is at stake.

Here's the litmus test. The Zohar HaKadosh (חלק א׳ י״ז ב׳) explains:

At the core of every Machlokes there is a driving emotion: Either love or anger. An argument for the sake of Heaven is one that is driven exclusively by love. An argument fueled by anger is, by definition, not L'Shem Shamayim.

When Chazal tell us that a מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים – A Machlokes for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure – this is the criteria, in and of itself. In order to know if our disagreement is for the sake of Heaven, we need to ask: Do I want this to endure? Do I love the person, or people on the other side? Is this argument making me love them more? Is it making me love the truth more? If yes, then it is for the sake of Heaven. If not... perhaps it's time to get off the pedestal. Even if you are 100% sure that you are right.

Case in point: Hillel and Shamai wanted their disagreements to continue. Korach wanted Moshe to drop dead.

It's important to note here that Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai weren't simply debating the best toppings for pizza. They argued about the personal status of individuals in their communities, the legitimacy of marriages and the children born from them. These are amongst the highest stakes in Halacha and yet, the Mishna (יבמות י״ג ב׳) tells us:

אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵלּוּ אוֹסְרִים וְאֵלּוּ מַתִּירִין, אֵלּוּ פּוֹסְלִין וְאֵלּוּ מַכְשִׁירִין — לֹא נִמְנְעוּ בֵּית שַׁמַּאי מִלִּישָּׂא נָשִׁים מִבֵּית הִלֵּל, וְלָא בֵּית הִלֵּל מִבֵּית שַׁמַּאי. Although Beis Hillel prohibit and Beis Shammai permit, and although these disqualify these women and those deem them fit, Beis Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beis Shammai.

The Talmud debates how Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel navigated their disagreements. Perhaps one side was outvoted and then followed the others opinion, or perhaps they were careful to only suggest shidduchim to each other that worked for both.

Regardless of how they resolved these massive issues, their approach is codified in the Mishna:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁחִיבָּה וְרֵיעוּת נוֹהֲגִים זֶה בָּזֶה, לְקַיֵּים מַה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ״ This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and peace”

The Meiri, in his commentary to Mishlei (ט׳:ח׳) writes:

שהאהבה קירוב הדעת ושיווי הרצון, והחולקים בחכמה הוא מצד חקירת האמת, ומתוך המשא ומתן יבררו האמת ויסכימו לדעת אחת, ויאהבו זה את זה. Love is drawing thoughts together, and aligning desires. Those who argue in wisdom do so for the sake of investigating the Truth. Through the give-and-take of intellectual debate, they will arrive at a mutual conclusion, and will love each other.

I am an optimist. I believe that most people on both sides engaged in this Machlokes are well intentioned, good people. But that bar is too low for an Eved Hashem. Having good intentions is not the same as arguing and living L'Shem Shamayim. For that, we need to be absolutely, completely clear that there is no malice, anger, resentment, frustration or negativity that we carry into the fight. It's an Avoda of checking our egos at the door and asking “What does the Ribono Shel Olam want of me?”

Of course, there is much to be said about the abortion in Halacha. (In the Shuir this Shabbos afternoon we'll be learning some of this material.) As usual, the Torah is far more nuanced, sensitive, broad and subtle than could ever be contained in a slogan or on a bumper sticker. Torah Jews are not bumper sticker people, we care too deeply about Ratzon Hashem to dumb it down.

However, while Halacha is complex, our emotions, our relationships and our care for others should not be. In all of those areas, the Torah is clear: Love, Truth and Peace. Only then can we being to plumb the depths of Ratzon Hashem.

Hashem should help us all to inspire ourselves and each other, to upgrade the national conversation from anger to Ahava, to live L'shem Shamayim.

Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner was amongst the most prolific and creative geniuses of the 19th century. Aside from being the Radziner Rebbe, he was also autodidactic in biology, chemistry and Italian. All of these studies were in pursuit of rediscovering and reintroducing Techeiles – the royal blue dye that once colored the tzitis of our ancestors.

Once he had made his discovery, however, he faced steep opposition from all of the Gedolim in Europe, which necessitated his publishing of seforim and articles on the topic. But knowing that nothing is more powerful than face-to-face conversations, the Rebbe took to the road, traveling from community to community to garner support for his techeiles. Each Rabbi and Rebbe engaged him in lengthy debate and discussion. Some of whom he successfully convinced, others remained skeptical.

Among those he approached was The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach, who, upon simply seeing the dyed wool, turned him down and denied his approval.

The Radziner was taken aback, and attempted to engage in learned debate, but the Belzer Rebbe refused.

“Let me explain my refusal,” Rav Yehoshua said. “If you wish to argue with me using your Talmudic skills and erudition, you will surely defeat me because we both know that your intellectual prowess in Torah is certainly superior to mine! However, I will tell you a story why I simply cannot agree with you.”

“Once, when I was a child, my father, the Tzaddik, the Great Sar Sholom of Belz, woke me early at dawn and asked me to come outside with him. In the haze of that early morning, he pointed upward to the heavens and said, “Do you see the color of the sky right now?””

“Yes”, I replied. “Good” my father said. “This,” he pointed, “is the color of techeiles.”

The Belzer Rebbe turned to the Radzier: “Reb Henoch, I have no doubt that you have extensive proofs to your Techeiles, but unfortunately, the color you show me here does not match the color my father showed me. Which means, of course, that this is not Techeiles, and I cannot approve of it.”


How do we raise children with a sense of clarity and resilience? How can we teach our children as the Sar Shalom did “This is Torah”?

Recently, I've heard from a number of deflated and dismayed parents, arguing that in the craziness of our generation, it's not even possible to raise committed kids. I firmly disagree, and moreover, I think it is simple enough that we could all achieve it, and this summer is a perfect time to start.

Our curriculum begins with the Siddur:

Every morning, before a Jew says Shema Yisrael, before we acknowledge and proclaim the unity of Hashem, we make two brachos. The first is יוצר אור ובורא חושך – Hashem who forms light and creates darkness. The second is אהבה רבה אהבתנו – Hashem, You love us with the greatest Love. Why do we need two brachos before saying Shema?

The Baal Shem Tov explains: When we reflect on the beauty, brilliance and majesty of the natural word, we are using our intellect to appreciate Hashem. This is immensely valuable, but ultimately refutable. All it takes someone smarter or more knowledgeable, and an entire lifetime of understanding Hashem can be lost in a semester with a charismatic atheist professor (רמחנא לצלן).

In these moment, the second bracha – Hashem who loves us becomes paramount. No intellectual rebuttal can convince me out of an emotional relationship.

If so, then why do we need the first bracha at all? Why not focus exclusively on the emotional component? The Baal Shem Tov continues: There will come a time in everyone's life that we don't feel Hashem's love. In these tougher times, we need to appreciate that He still runs the world.

Education both of these understandings is essential to our religious mindset and well-being.

But it's not all about discussion and texts. These ideas; intellectual appreciation and emotional connection must filter into actions.

There is a big lie that we all tell about education: We like to pretend that every class, every shiur, every drop of information is essential to our learning and growth. The truth is, we all know that it's not. Because if we're honest, as adults, very few of us can recall specific lessons from our years and years of schooling. Indeed, it is never the “lessons” that make an impact at all – it's the experiences. Intellectual exposure alone has little chance of permeating our being. Information doesn't naturally soak into our bones.

The part of school that makes the greatest impact on our growth is the total experience. The thoughts, feelings, words and actions that together coalesce into an experience.

I've been thinking about this a lot with regards to my students and with regards to my own children. Nothing would give me more nachas than for my students and children to master vast amounts of disciplines and texts. I would love for them to be proficient in all areas of Torah, the sciences and the arts. But mastery cannot be taught, it must be pursued; and the only reason that anyone would willingly pursue mastery is if they believe it to be valuable.

Effectively, this understanding distills all of chinuch to one singular enterprise: A multi-year, multi-faceted demonstration of the values we cannot live without. Sure, there are important skills to acquire, important facts to memorize, but in its truest sense, Yiddishkeit, Talmud Torah and learning in general, are all experiential.

This is the opportunity that presents itself to us this summer: Look for simple, practical ways to make Torah relevant in your kids lives. These need not be contrived, they need not take much planning, and they certainly don't need to cost a lot of money.

For those looking for ideas; think about the most crucial values to our Yiddishkeit. Take your children along to do Bikkur Cholim in a local hospital, or call up a nursing home and ask when you could come bring a smile to lonely face. If you're traveling, choose a Sefer or a limmud, and challenge your kids and family members to see how many different places you could learn Torah over the summer. Or as Mori V'Rabbi Rav Blachman recommends: Buy a telescope and marvel at the Hashem's creations together.

All it takes a moment of thought, a proactive minute, to give our kids that experience of “I know the color of Techeiles; my parents showed it to me.” Those are the moments and memories that define our childhood, that inspire our families and futures.

Hashem should help us to raise ourselves and our families to deeper relationships, greater clarity and more passionate Avodas Hashem in everything that we do.

Someone once wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a state of profound sadness. The letter read as follows:

“I would like the Rebbe's help. I wake up each day sad and anxious. I can't concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I feel that life has lost its joy and is pointless. I need help.”

The Rebbe wrote a wonderful reply without using a single word. He circled the first word of every sentence in red, and sent the letter back.


It is no coincidence that the rise of individualism in the Western World correlates with the rise in depression. This is not simply anecdotal. Multiple studies have discovered that the more one identifies as “I”, the more susceptible one becomes to depression, loneliness and self-destruction.

But this is not a new problem, we've been dealing with it since the inception of our nation. The Torah begins this week to describe the decent and failure of Klal Yisrael in the Midbar. For the past two weeks (Bamidbar and Naso) the Torah explained how our nation coalesced under a series of banners, surrounded the Mishkan, rallied together and built an army. In that moment they were prepared to leave Sinai and march directly into Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe Rabbeinu famously declares:

קוּמָה ה׳ וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ. “Rise up, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered! Let those who hate you flee before you!”

Everyone is standing, ready and prepared to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people... Except that they are not; at least, not everyone.

So the Torah continues it's cautionary tale:

וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאזְנֵי ה׳ וַיִּשְׁמַע ה׳ וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ... The people were complaining in the ears of Hashem. When Hashem heard it, his anger was kindled...

Wait a minute! We can't go into Eretz Yisrael yet, and all of Jewish destiny is put on hold.

What were they complaining about? What was the big problem? The Torah doesn't tell us. But they were certainly unhappy. One wonders what they might've been so upset about.

Moshe Rabbeinu, however, diagnoses the problem a short while later:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ Moshe said, “There are six hundred thousand people that אנכי – I, am amongst.”

Meaning: There's six hundred thousand אנכי's. That's a lot of “I”'s. There's not a lot of “we”, and certainly not nearly enough of “You, Hashem”. Because if it's about me, then it's not about You.

Why does the Torah not tell us what the people were upset about? Because there wasn't a singular reason. Everyone had their own little issues, that together combined into a general feeling of discontent.

Rav Hirsch explains:

כל זה היה חסר ערך בעיניהם ולא נראה להם כתמורה ראויה. הם לא הרגישו שזכו בדרך חיים נעלה ומאושרת יותר The entire enterprise of being Jewish, of conquering Eretz Yisrael, of building Klal Yisrael, didn't seem like a fair trade for the life they were giving up in exchange.

Each person felt like they were getting a raw deal. In the moment that they realized that the vision of Yetzias Mitzrayim was, against all odds, actually coming to fruition, they got nervous. They began to question: Do I really want this life? What does it mean to be a committed, connected Eved Hashem?

They got upset, they complained, and the future of our nation was stalled for generations.

Of course, the Torah does not tell us this story for us to be upset with our ancestors, but instead for us to fix those middos within ourselves.

So we ought to take a moment and consider: What exactly a life of “We” and “You” mean. What is it that the Torah asks of us? What is the life that Hashem wants us to live? Torah? Mitzvos? Tefillah? Chessed? What's the goal of this Jewish enterprise?

Ultimately, the goal of everything that we do is כבוד שמים – to bring a little bit of Hashem into the world. But there is no way to bring Hashem into the world without making space for Him. To be a Jew requires that we give up a little bit of “I” for the bigger picture – “You” – be realized.

This sacrifice manifests in a myriad of ways: Finding a minyan on vacation. Ensuring that the food we eat is up to standard even when we're with non Jewish colleagues. It means not listening to the story that someone is telling you, no matter how juicy. It means not getting angry on a WhatsApp or on the highway – even if it's warranted. Even when they're wrong. Even when they deserve it.

These are all the same challenge: Making my agenda less important that Yours, Hashem.

Naturally, the greatest Yetzer Hara in the world of “I” manifests in Avodas Hashem. No one gets more angry than Jews fighting about minhag and nussach and shul leadership.

To this the Kotzker would say:

Everything must be done Lesheim Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), even the actions done Lesheim Shamayim.

The moment that we realize our frustrations are simply a misalignment of priorities, we can begin to fix them.

Rabbi Nachman (שיחות הר״ן מב) explains the root of our discontent:

עַצְבוּת הוּא: כְּמוֹ מִי שֶׁהוּא בְּכַעַס וּבְרֹגֶז, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמִּתְרַעֵם וּמִתְלוֹנֵן עָלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ ח”ו, עַל שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה לוֹ רְצוֹנוֹ. Sadness is like anger and rage. It is like a complaint against God for not fulfilling one’s wishes.

A few years ago, Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab Corporation, shared his unique style of job interview.

Before every new hire, Bettinger takes candidates out for a breakfast. But what the potential employees don't know is that every time, Bettinger shows up early and asks the restaurant to purposefully mess up the order in exchange for a handsome tip.

For an employer like Bettinger, character is everything. He told the Times that his “wrong order” test is meant to gauge how prospective hires deal with adversity.

“Are they upset, are they frustrated, or are they understanding? Life is like that, and business is like that,” he said.

“It's just another way to look inside their heart rather than their head.”

Hashem should help us to stop complaining, to finally fix the malady of our history. To see ourselves as part of the great dream and purpose of Klal Yisrael, and march to Geulah together.

It was my last night in Eretz Yisroel, three years ago. The flight was leaving from Ben Gurion at midnight, and I wanted to catch Maariv at the Kosel before heading to the airport.

I pulled up a chair, a Sefer Tehillim, and began to Daven while waiting for a Maariv minyan to start. Moments late, a young man, a holy Yerushalmi Jew sat next to me, opened his own tehillim and began to daven with amazing intensity. I looked up from my own tefillah to take in the sights and sounds.

Just then, I remembered that Chazal (ב״ק צ״ב א׳) tell us that whoever davens for someone else, and they need that thing, they are answered first.

I had no idea what this Yid was davening for, but my chutzpah got the better of me and I wanted to join in with his tefillah. So I turned to him and asked: “What are you davening for? I want to daven with you.”

He turned to me and explained that he has been in Yeshivos for a number of years. He told that he had finished Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi multiple times. He's holding in Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Medrash and Zohar. But Hashem hasn't yet giving him a Shidduch, and it's getting hard to for him to stay hopeful.

I told him that I had no answers for him, no solutions, even as I wish I could take the pain away. But I could be there with him. I told him that it would be my honor to daven with him and so for the next fifteen minutes we davened together.

The first Maariv minyan was about to begin. I told him it was soon time for me to leave and catch my flight.

Just before I left, he turned to me and asked me a question that has haunted me since: “Thank you for davening with me, it means so much. I was feeling so down on myself, so upset, and you lifted me up. I want to return the favor. Tell me, what's one thing that you want from Hashem? Just one thing, and I'll daven for that for the rest of my life.”

I was taken aback. That's a great offer. A Talmid Chacham in Yerushalayim davening for me for the rest of his life? What should I ask for? What's the one thing that I will always need? Dozens of ideas floated through my head in second. Should I ask for Parnasah? Refuah? Success in Torah and Mitzvos? Truthfully, all of these are too limited. Who says I will outlive this holy Jew? What do I want him to daven for, forever?

In that moment I realized that ultimately what I was being asked was to think of the ideas, ideals, values, dreams and tefillos that transcend me and my own life. Which of my tefillos are bigger than me? Which of my tefillos are more important than me? It was an eye opening and humbling experience.

What would you have asked for?

Nowadays, I try to come back to these questions regularly. All too often, our perspectives are little more than tunnel vision. So we daven for small things. Of course, even the smallest of things warrants a Tefillah, but how high are we truly aiming? Are we dreaming of comfort and success or perhaps something greater.

Dovid HaMelech says in Tehillim (קט:יד):

תַּחַת־אַהֲבָתִי יִשְׂטְנוּנִי וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּה In return for my love they are my adversaries; But I am all prayer.

Rav Moshe Dovid Vali (the Talmid of the Ramchal) explains that what Dovid HaMelech was saying וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּה is that even when Jews hate me, I'm davening for them. Because the world that I want to build and develop is bigger than me. וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּה means that my life is defined in service of something greater than myself.

The Gra teaches (אבן שלמה ט:ח) that the primary focus of all Tefilla is for Klal Yisrael. And Reb Chaim Volozhiner (נפש החיים שער ב פי״א) explains that even when davening for our own parnassa and refuah and hatzlacha we should ultimately be davening “Hashem, please help me to fill your world with Kedusha and Tahara. This is what I'll need to achieve it...”

The Baal Shem Tov (בעל שם טוב בראשית פרשת נח קכו) explains similarly that at its core, tefillah is not for the individual at all, but for the absence of Hashem in this world to be cured.

These two kinds of Tefillah – myopic vs universal – are two ways to live our lives. The Torah (ד:מז) tells us in our Parsha of that these two ideas are reflected in kinds of work that the Levi'im were appointed to do in the Mishkan:

...כׇּל־הַבָּ֗א לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּׂ֖א בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ Everyone who entered in to do the work of service, and the work of bearing burdens in the Tent of Meeting.

Rav Aharon of Karlin (בית אהרן פ׳ נשאofKarlin%2CNumbers%2CNasso.2?vhe=BeitAharon,Brody,_1875.&lang=bi)) notes:

There is work called עֲבֹדַת עֲבֹדָה. Work for the sake of work. This is work that needs to be done. Earning a living so that we can support our families, eating so that we have the energy to serve Hashem. Learning Torah so that we can fulfill the mitzvos.

But there is another kind of work, עֲבֹדַת מַשָּׂא – the work of lifting up, of raising up. This work is externally indistinguishable from עֲבֹדַת עֲבֹדָה. It's the same going to work, eating dinner, taking out the trash, paying taxes and packing the kids' bags for camp. But this raises us, it elevates us, gives meaning and substance and purpose to the experience.

It's possible for a person to be fulfilling every detail of the Shulchan Aruch and still live a life of עֲבֹדַת עֲבֹדָה. And it's a possible for a person that doesn't know the difference between kiddish and kaddish to be being living a life of עֲבֹדַת מַשָּׂא – raising themselves up.

It is this theme that begins the count of the Jewish people throughout Sefer BaMidbar, שאו את ראש – raise up the heads of the Jewish people. And our Parsha begins with:

נָשֹא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם־הֵם... “Take a census of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ houses, by their families;

The Abir Yaakov writes, that this pasuk invites all those that are the “Sons of Gershon” those who are “מגורשין – distant”, from Hashem to be raised up. To experience the aspirations of בני עליה, to become people who are growing. Quite literally, נָשֹא אֶת־רֹאשׁ is a directive to us to start looking upwards once again.

This raising up is not confined to the world of looking. The Torah this week teaches us about ברכת כהנים – which, in Halacha, is formally referred to as נשיאת כפים- the raising of the hands.

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the Kohen lifting his hands to bless the nation harkens back to the war between Klal Yisrael and Amalek where Moshe sat atop the mountain and raised his hands to inspire the nation to place their trust in Hashem as they raised their own hands in battle. The job of the Kohen, thus, is to inspire us to lift out own hands, to climb to the next rung of the ladder to Shamayim.

Hashem should help us this week, this summer, to look up again. To discover Him in everything that we do, to find the tefillah that's greater than ourselves, and to daven that He raises us all up to become Bnei Aliyah.

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