Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

#LechLecha #תשפב

Once, during a trade fair, a number of rich merchants gathered in an inn. They were all Chassidim of various courts, and of course, each of them told stories of the wonders and miracles done by their particular Rebbe. Reb Shmuel Gurary, a Chossid of the Rebbe Maharash, was present as well. When it was his turn to tell a story, he said:

“Once, someone offered me a serious business proposition in timber harvesting and sales. It would require an enormous investment, but could generate a tremendous return if all went well. The risk was great, but so was the potential reward. Of course, I sought the advice of the Rebbe Maharash. The Rebbe told me to invest, and that’s what I did. Not long afterwards, the investment fell through and I lost everything I had put into the venture.”

Waiting for a miraculous punchline, the others were surprised that with these words, Reb Shmuel concluded his tale and fell silent.

“Well... What was the miracle?” they asked.

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#Noach #תשפב

In honor of the social media crash this week, I'd like to offer you a Facebook-style personality test. Yidden come in different flavors: What kind of Jew are you?

Mind you, I'm not talking about the color of your kippah, the length of your sleeves or your Hashkafa (whatever that means). I'm not even talking about your choice of cuisine. I'm talking about what excites you, what animates you and what drives you in the world of Judaism

In general, I'd like to suggest, there are three primary primary flavors of Jews. Each one exemplified by the emotions in the Jewish calendar. Each Jew, to a certain extent, embodies one of these three – or perhaps a combination.

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#Bereishis #תשפב

I have a confession to make. I am not the Talmid Chacham that I once dreamed of becoming. I have not (nearly) mastered the texts that I wanted to master. I have not completed the seforim I planned on completing. And from speaking to many chaverim, rabbonim, and chevra in the community, I don't believe I am alone in this guilt. If we're honest with ourselves, it doesn't feel so good – and this week in particular, it feels worse.

During the Yamim Noraim, we spend hours engaged in lofty pursuits – davening, learning, spending time with family and friends. Our lives were filled with mitzvos, while the pressures of the working world could be (somewhat) ignored.

But now the Chagim come to a close. The needs of our careers and occupations come back stronger than ever, and with it there is a sadness. For many of us who spent time in Yeshivos and seminaries, we once again begin to carry with us the weight of not having learned as much as we once dreamed.

At a some point in the past few years, the Seforim shelf that was once a point of pride (look at all my seforim!) becomes a point of shame (look at how much I haven't learned...) As the dust collects, there is an ironic and painful knowledge that some shelves have never needed to be cleaned for Pesach. And it seems likely that the big dreams of becoming talmidei chachamim worthy of the title seems further and further away. Time constraints and obligations increase as our self confidence wanes.

Of course, we all know that none of these feelings should hold us back from trying harder. None of this should convince us not to attend a shiur, set up a new chavrusa, or open a new Sefer. But the knowledge that we are missing not days or weeks, but perhaps years or more from our once-held goals, is deeply demotivating.

Truthfully, this is the challenge of Shabbos Bereishis – it is the oldest and most insidious Yetzer Hara.

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Inside the Sukkah of the Lodz Ghetto.

#Sukkos #תשפב

That was the question posed. Or rather, the statement. In truth, it was a challenge.

Please ignore, for the moment, the impossibility of unpacking the notion of Chareidi or Modern Orthodox. I don't really know what any of that means. What was clear to me was that this young father was simply giving societal names to varying perceived levels of insularity and integration. He was not concerned with the philosophies of “Torah U'Madah” vs “Torah im Derech Eretz”. Nor was he wondering about the values of secular education.

This question, which is a real question, is, simply put: If I want my children to have the best chance of becoming committed, connected, passionately Jewish adults, which community will best serve those outcomes?

For those who are in a more insular community, their answer is clear. They have chosen to protect their interests by engaging less with the outside world. At least as this pertains to external cultural expressions.

But after many conversations with friends and colleagues, I have a growing suspicion that as COVID introduced dozens of internet connected devices to “chareidi” homes, the gap between the “inside” and “outside” world has all but disappeared.

Which means that this question – how to best prepare our children for the “outside world” – is now universal. There is no community in which one can hide their children away from the “Outside”.

How then should we proceed?

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#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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