Weekly Dvar Torah
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Friday, December 12, 2014 / 20 Kislev 5775
Keep on Advancing
By: Michael Winner

I had an interesting morning yesterday.

As I was walking to shul, a lady came running up to me yelling, “The shul’s on fire!” I asked her to repeat herself, just to make sure I heard correctly. Thankfully, another person was also going to shul and was right behind me. So, he called the fire department and together we ran towards the shul. As usual, we were the first people to arrive (we like the concept of "early") and saw that the entrance room to the shul was filled with smoke and fire. Since it was past the stage of "raging fire" and it was threatening to crawl up another bookshelf, he and I got to work quickly, taking buckets of water and dousing the bookshelf (with siddurim and chumashim) and the source of the fire itself. I checked the main beis medrash, which was empty of people and fire, but was thick with smoke, and we were able to put out the fire in time for the fire department to come to "save the day."

I came home after davening (in a different location, obviously) smelling of smoke, with a chest-full of smoke, and black hands and face. I changed, ate, and went back to the temporary beis medrash set up in the basement.

In the end, they believe there was an issue with the electricity that started it. I received several “Ah! The hero of the shul!”s from people, for not doing anything so heroic (so, I told them that I found an old lady and her cat on the shul floor and after ripping off my shirt, I carried them to safety). Thankfully, the fire damage was limited to the complete destruction of the front room, but the main shul smells like smoke, and all the books that were in the other room took smoke damage (that’s a couple thousand books). B”H, nobody was hurt and the shul is still standing. The big winner, though? My son. He got to go to cheder and tell all his friends about how Abba ran into a room full of fire and smoke and put it out and got to speak to the police and got to speak to the firemen, and blah, blah, blah . . .

Okay, on to Torah!

“Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan . . . .”

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 106a) writes, “Rebbe Yochanan says, ‘Wherever it says ‘Vayeishev’ (he sat, he settled), it’s only a language of upcoming troubles, as it says, ‘And Israel settled in Shittim and the nation began to do immoral things with the daughters of Moav’, and ‘Yaakov settled in the land . . .’ which turned to the sale of Yosef, etc.”

The lesson here is quite simple. Our goal isn’t to “settle down” and be comfortable with life. We are to be on the constant move, constantly growing and pushing ourselves. I saw recently in one of Rav Pincus’s sfarim that Hashem sends us "incidences" in our lives in order to prod us to daven to him and to grow. However, one can "take away Hashem’s excuse" to send us lessons, by constantly being "on the move." When we are causing our own "growing pains," we are constantly keeping ourselves close to Hashem, and Hashem has little to no reason to send us reminders that He is around.

I’m sure I’ve brought this up before, but I’m a firm believer that General George Patton’s speech to the Third Army is probably one of the best American speeches out there. However, it’s extremely . . . colorful . . . and well . . . shouldn’t be read in front of company. However, his points are very applicable to life in general. One particular line of his always stands out in my mind:

“I don't want any messages saying 'I'm holding my position.' We're not holding a thing. We're advancing constantly and we're not interested in holding anything except the enemy! . . . Our plan of operation is to advance and keep on advancing.”

Personally, I think this makes a great life motto.

Keep on moving, keep on advancing. That is our job in life. Any laziness or desire to simply relax and take it easy, will only invite trials and tribulations.

With that, I wish you all a great Shabbos!

Michael Winner
Friday, December 05, 2014 / 13 Kislev 5775
Being Alone
By: Michael Winner

This morning, Chaim’s first grade had a siyum, a celebration in honour of finishing Parshas Bereishis.

It was a nice event. They asked the boys all sorts of questions on the parsha, sang some songs, listened to speeches, received a certificate from the rav of the city, ate cookies, etc… What was nice was a special award they gave to… the janitor, Moshe.

What’s interesting about Moshe is that I hear his name more than I hear the name of Chaim’s rebbe. Moshe is highly involved in the education of the children of the school, and no, I’m not kidding. He has free reign, and will randomly walk into classrooms during davening and give special treats to those children who are davening well. The teachers treat him as if he was a teacher himself, and all the kids love him. From what I understand, he’s one of the hardest working members of the school. So, it’s nice to see some special recognition going to such a person.

All in all, we had a nice time (had to keep myself from falling asleep a few times), and I hope that this should be the first siyum out of many in Chaim’s life.

Okay, on to Torah!

“Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him” (Bereishis 32:25)

We learn that the “man” who wrestled with Yaakov was Eisav’s angel, or the angel that represents Edom. The Gemara (Chulin 91a) states that “Their feet threw up dust all the way to the Throne of Glory.”

Rav Shimshon Pincus notes that the time Edom attacked fiercely was when Yaakov was alone. What’s so special about being alone?

Being alone is a time when our true essence comes out. When we are surrounded by people and an opportunity to sin comes, we are not so likely to do such a sin. Why? Others are around! However, if we were alone and nobody could see or notice? Let’s say there was a 0 percent chance of anybody's knowing that you did a certain sin . . . would you then do it? If not, chances are you would have a huge fight with your Yetzer Horah first.

When my wife was single she was speaking to her rav about marriage. He asked her why she wanted to get married. She answered, so she can work together with somebody in her spiritual growth. He corrected her saying, “A person is always alone. Don't ever fool yourself into thinking that you're growing with other people. It always between you and Hashem and that's it."

What was the defining moment for the Jews in Shushan in the Megillah? Not when Haman made his decrees, because they knew they had an ally by the throne (Esther). It was when, after three days of fasting, that Esther turned around and instead of asking for clemency for the entire nation, she invited Haman to a celebration. At that point, the Jewish people were at their lowest; they felt betrayed and they were alone. It was at this precise moment that they did complete tshuvah.

There are times that we need to be alone. Sometimes we put ourselves in that position and sometimes the position is forced upon us. The important thing to know is that it is at this precise moment we are being given a chance to grow exponentially.

Have a great Shabbos!
Friday, November 28, 2014 / 6 Kislev 5775
Learning from the Har Nof Massacre II
By: Michael Winner

My wife’s friend went to Har Nof to one of the homes that were sitting shivah from the killings last week. She said it was surreal to see one street full of people walking and openly crying. Four families lost fathers and husbands, leaving around 20-30 orphans all together. What caught her attention at the home was a women, clearly not Ultra-Orthodox, with her little children. She was watching them, wondering who she was and why did she bring her children to this shivah house. Finally, the woman got to the front and said to the widow, “My name is so-and-so… we just got up from shivah ourselves yesterday… our daughter was the one who was stabbed to death by an Arab terrorist last week…. We’re now sisters in blood”. At that point, the whole room erupted in another round of tears.

My wife made a good point the other day. If there was a shooting in a church somewhere in Russia… “Okay… fine… it’s sad…” would be the reaction of the world. However, when four Jews are killed in a shul… the entire Jewish, especially the frum community, feels the pain.

This past week, Rav Barcley from Neve Yaakov spoke about the tragedy. He spoke briefly, but very powerfully on what we can learn from the murders.

In this week’s and last week’s parsha, along with Parshas Lech Lecha, we see that Sarah, Rivkah, and Rochel were all barren. Rabbeinu Bechaya questions one of the opening pesukim in last week’s parsha. It says, “His wife was barren, and Yitzchok pleaded with G-d for her sake”. If anything, says Rabbeinu Bechaya, it should say, “Yitzchok pleaded with G-d for her sake, because his wife was barren”. The wording of the Torah makes it sound like that the tefillah of Yitzchok was the main issue (hence mentioned last) and Rivkah being barren was a secondary thing. Rabbeinu Bechaya explains that this in fact is the truth. Hashem desires our tefillos (prayers) and in order to “squeeze” them out of us, he sends “issues” into this world. Hashem desired that Yitzchok and Rivkah daven properly, therefore Rivkah was barren. Being barren wasn’t the main point and the tefillos simply helped; rather the tefillos were the main point, and being barren was merely a way to get it out. He brings in further proofs from the parsha, but we learn from this incident, that 1) Hashem desires our tefillos and sends us ‘issues’ to get them 2) Our tefillos have the ability to change nature itself 3) Our tefillos have the ability to change Hashem’s “cruelty” to that of kindness.

Rav Barcley continued and brought in Pirkei D’Rabbeinu Eliezer (32:1) which states that there were six people who received their names from Hashem before they were born. One of them is Yishmoel (the father of the Arabs). The generally accepted view is that his name comes from “Yismah Kel”, “Hashem heard”, as in Hashem heard the cry of his mother when she fled from Sarah, “for G-d has heard your prayer” (Bereishis 16:11). However, Pirkei D’Rabbeinu Eliezer says that “Yishmah Kel” is in the future tense, and he writes, “Why is he called Yishmoel? For in the future Hashem will hear the groaning of [His] nation, because of what Yishmoel will do to them in Eretz Yisroel, near the end of days”

Do I need to repeat that last line? Okay…

“For in the future Hashem will hear the groaning of [His] nation, because of what Yishmoel will do to them in Eretz Yisroel, near the end of days”

There’s no need to elaborate on this really. But it’s clear that Yishmoel is going to torment the Jewish nation, which will cause us to cry to Hashem. Couple that with what we learned above from Rabbeinu Bechaya, we see that (one reason) Hashem is sending Yishmoel is in order to “squeeze out” our tefillos, which is the lifeline between us and Hashem. Being so, if we daven BEFORE, perhaps we will not need to go through such suffering at his hands.

And finally Rav Barcley asks, “Why specifically Yishmoel? There are plenty of other nations out there!” He answers that it’s because Yishmoel is a nation which is strong in tefillah. They daven five times a day, starting before dawn. They daven in public with no embarrassment. They daven to Hashem (who also hears their prayers). So, now we have Yishmoel and his power of tefillah, going into a place of tefillah, and overtaking Jews known for their tefillos.

I think “the writing is on the wall”, and most of us have ignored it and unfortunately, will continue to ignore it.

There are two ways one must improve his or her tefillos. All of us have plenty of room to improve one’s concentration. By either taking some time to properly learn about the tefillos or slowing down to make sure one understands what he is saying, etc… there are plenty of ways to improve and it’s a lifetime of work. Again, all of us need to work on it.

MOST (not all, thankfully) need to work on something even more basic. COMING ON TIME. You CANNOT work on concentration and meaning of the tefillos, if you do not come on time. The Mishnah Berurah states, that one should come early to shul to be able to say all of one’s davening with proper intentions and concentration. That INCLUDES Pesukei D’Zimrah.

Unfortunately, most shuls suffer from this issue. You can have a full room at the time of “Baruch Hu” (end of Pesukei D’Zimrah), and a near empty-room at the beginning of davening.

Simply put: There is no reason that a person should regularly be late to davening!

Davening is our “lifeline” to Hashem, our direct line of communication. But showing up late on a regular basis, you are throwing that lifeline away. And THEN, you are “forcing” Hashem to “force” us to daven properly.

It’s an embarrassment that we should ignore such obvious warnings and refuse to improve on such an important issue, and then, when G-d forbid, there is another incident, cry out “WHY?” What right do we have to cry out “WHY?” when we refuse to learn from the past?

Whether women have an obligation to kick their husbands out of the house on time, I don’t know, and probably not, for the sake of peace in the house. However, they are certainly obligated to refrain from keeping them home or making them late (without good cause). Additionally, while there is a mix of opinions concerning women and their obligations to daven, there is no question that it is a worthwhile thing for a woman (especially in these times) to do, even if it’s only the minimal amount.

For men, if Pesukei D’Zimrah starts at 6:30 am at shul, they are OBLIGATED to show up early so they have time to put on their tallis and tefillin, and say brachos properly. Personally, I recommend 10-15 minutes early for most people. To show up late on a regular basis, is not only insulting to Hashem, and not only disturbs and weakens the minyan, but it also can cause great tragedy for the Jewish people.

Something so important and so central to the Jewish nation cannot be brushed off as easily as it has been in the past. We’ve seen that Hashem sends Yishmoel to teach us to daven. We see that the terrorism and troubles in Eretz Yisroel are directly related to our lack of tefillos. If we work on our davening first, then perhaps Jewish lives could be saved in the future.

I wish you all a great Shabbos.
Friday, November 21, 2014 / 28 Cheshvon 5775
Learning from the Har Nof Massacre
By: Michael Winner

Well… it’s been a rather emotional week. It was a tad harder, since my wife knew one of the people killed in the attack. It then gets harder when you start hearing of more attempted attacks than I’m sure the news is not reporting. Heck, all around our city the Druzim and the Arabs are going at it, putting each other in the hospitals, and you just don’t know when some Arab is going to attempt to run you down, stab you, shoot you, etc.

There is a pasuk in Yeshaya (Isaiah) which describes what to do when things are getting dangerous, specifically in these times:

“Go, my people, enter your rooms and close your door behind you; hide for a brief moment until the wrath has passed” (Yeshaya 26:20)

Rashi explains that “rooms” means the shuls and batei medrashos (study halls).

So . . . this made me wonder . . . what do you do when THOSE are no longer safe?

Obviously, nobody knows exactly why Hashem does things, but we are obligated to look inwards and ask what the possible lessons are that need to be learned. Why specifically was an Ultra-Orthodox shul in Har Nof targeted? Why specifically this particular minyan? Why were these particular people killed and wounded? We’re not talking about a shul in a settlement (which “makes sense” from an Arab point of view), we’re talking about a shul which is not Zionistic. The minyan itself was not full of people who were standing outside and talking; it was a well-known minyan comprised of very serious bnei Torah. And the people themselves who were killed and wounded are/were known for their yearning for growth. What could possibly be the message?

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yaakov is described a “man who dwells in tents.” It’s interesting to note that the Torah uses the plural, “tents,” rather than just, “tent.”

My Rosh Yeshiva would note that the tent he lived and learned in was “double-wrapped.” Just as food which is double-wrapped, can be heated in a non-kosher oven and does not become non-kosher, so too did Yaakov “double-wrap” his tent to keep it from being exposed to the outside world.

Rav Pincus, on the pasuk from Yeshaya, teaches a very similar lesson. In times of great danger, our job is not only to run to the beis medresh, but ALSO to close the door behind us.

People become so wrapped up with the news and everybody’s great ideas on how to solve this huge problem or that huge problem. But people fail to look and see what Hashem has “suggested.” It’s very easy to pound one’s chest and demand that we stop supporting stores that hire Arabs, or that we need to launch this military operation, or we need to . . .

None of those will do anything, because it’s not addressing the core problems that we need to fix.

So, what do we do? Enter your room and close the door behind you.

Cut down on spending time watching and talking about the news. Cut down on keeping up with the latest trends or topics that the world is fixated upon. Cut down on listening to the radio. Cut down on focusing on things that are REALLY not important.

Then, increase the amount of time you spend in the beis medresh. Increase your concentration and time spent on prayer. Increase your mitzvah observance.

My wife just told me something she heard in a shiur, I believe in the name of Rav Ovadia Yosef. It used to be that we would bring korbonos (sacrifices) in the Beis HaMikdash. In it's place, we have davening. However, if we are not fulfilling our duty to daven, then Hashem chooses His own korbonos.

Why was a well-known shul, and why were well respected bnei Torah, targeted? Perhaps to teach us that we are failing in this aspect, in which they worked so hard to perfect. While we are “entering our rooms” to daven and to learn, we are failing to close the door behind us.

When we go to shul, we need to shut off our phones and not talk about the outside world. We need to focus on the only two entities currently residing in the room, Hashem and ourselves.

Friday, November 14, 2014 / 21 Cheshvon 5775
Giving Children Room to Grow
By: Michael Winner

My wife and I were talking about the “holiday seasons” that we were brought up with. The sounds and smells of X-Mas. The television specials. The stores and homes all decorated with lights and toys. The snow. . . . That beautiful white snow (which we haven’t touched in years . . . though I did see it on top of the mountains last year during that big fall we had) . . . . It’s something you REALLY enjoy as a kid. And it’s something our children will know nothing of. We were discussing how weird that this “basic” experience that we had will not even be a thought in the heads of our children.

After the conversation, I turned to the table, and saw a giant poster that my daughter had been working on, with the lines of “Hamalach HaGoel Osi” and “Shema Yisroel” (what we say before bed), with night time decorations all around it.

I then thanked G-d for being given the opportunity to raise our children in such an environment.

Okay, on to Torah . . .

The Chizkuni (Bereishis 24:13) teaches that when looking for a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer did not want to go to the house of the girl to check her out, rather he wanted specifically to see the behavior of the girl when she was outside of the house. The way a child behaves outside the house does not necessarily equal the behavior inside the house.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes that parents must not only guide their children in the house and teach them what is proper and not proper, but it is also important to give them decisions for themselves to make on their own. Through these decisions, the children will be able to put to practice the education they received inside the house, and strengthen that foundation.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe believes that even within the house, children need to have their own space to make their own decisions. If they are never given their own decisions to make, they will be like robots, preaching only what their parents want.

It reminds me of a time we had somebody’s child over when his mother went to the hospital. When we asked him what he wanted for dinner, he thought, and replied “ice cream.” We told him that it wasn’t a viable option in our house and gave him a list of real options. When my wife related this to his mother, his mother said, “You give your children options on what they can eat? I simply make what I make and give it to them. If they don’t like it, they don’t eat it.” She was baffled at the idea of her children’s making choices on their own. But what was the casualty? Her son didn’t know HOW to make choices. We were always taught that when children are old enough to make choices in their lives (such as what clothes to wear, what to eat, etc.) they should be given that choice to make (within certain rules or a set of choices, of course).

Rav Aryeh Brueckheimer writes that this week’s parsha is often read on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the month of Chanukah. “And with Chanukah, there are many parallels to the halachos of the menorah and education. For example, one of the laws of Chanukah is that one may not remove the shamash from the wick until the newly lit candle can burn on its own. Only then has one fulfilled the mitzvah. Similarly, in education, we must give over a strong foundation to our children, but the education isn’t complete until they are capable of applying on their own the values and ideals that we have instilled in them.”

Have a great Shabbos!
Friday, November 07, 2014 / 14 Cheshvon 5775
Prophecy vs. Prayer
By: Michael Winner

One of the joys of raising children is seeing them take an interest in what you have an interest in. For me, that is the Holy Shabbos Chicken Soup. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for chicken soup on Shabbos. So, too, now have the children. In fact, we keep it on the hotplate and have some on the next day. So, with the longer winter nights and more chicken soup being eaten, I called a War Council of the Chicken Soup Elders to discuss and decide if we were to use the standard pot and risk not having a lot for the next day or make it in a bigger pot and risk having it too watery on Shabbos night.

A tough decision, I know. Hence the war council.

Chaim immediately voted for a larger pot—not surprising, since he is a man and “thinks” like one. Rochel Leah, on the other hand, threw me for a loop and said, “We should use the regular pot because the celery is shmittah and will cause the whole pot of soup to be shmittah, and if we don’t eat it all, we’ll have to leave it out in the pot until it gets disgusting, before we can throw it away.”

That sort of thinking was NOT expected.

It gives me hope that we’re doing something right in this house.

Okay, on to Torah!

In this week’s parsha, Hashem informed Avraham that He will be destroying the city of Sodom, and Avraham, in turn, pleaded for Sodom to be spared.

“. . . and Avraham was still standing before Hashem. Avraham came forward and said . . .” (Bereishis 18:22-23)

Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman said that we learn the awesome power of prayer in these two verses. When Avraham, was “standing before Hashem,” he was in the middle of prophecy. Rashi explains that “came forward” means “coming forward to prayer.” That being Avraham left the mode of prophecy and ascended to that of prayer. Translation: while prophecy is high, prayer, even a simple prayer asking for one’s needs, brings you closer to Hashem.

When we stand in prayer during Shachris, Mincha, and Maariv, we are bringing ourselves to an unbelievable closeness to Hashem. We are literally in front of Him and have His complete attention. Let us keep this in mind right before we start to daven every day. Perhaps we’ll slow down a little bit, stop looking around so much, etc., etc.

Of course, prayer does not just mean davening three times a day. It means anytime one speaks to Hashem to ask for something, he is bringing himself to stand in front of Hashem Himself.

Have a great Shabbos!

Michael Winner
Friday, October 31, 2014 / 7 Cheshvon 5775
Fixing the World
By: Michael Winner

Does anybody know anything about lemons?

We had to repaint our home two years ago (had several leaks) and the painter had to cut a lot of our lemon tree. Since then, it has produced one whole lemon, which is still hanging there. Just yesterday, I went out and found three more lemons. I could have sworn that before Rosh HaShanah, those lemons were not there. Usually, lemons don’t start growing during this time of year, nor do they usually grow so quickly. Had it been any other year, it wouldn’t have bothered me, but now, I have an interesting situation.

Since its a shmittah year, any fruits the begin to grow on the tree after Rosh Hashanah, have the status of shmittah fruit, and have to be treated with special care. Plus, one is not obligated (nor allowed) to take trumah and maiser (tithes) from it. However, if it began to grow before Rosh HaShanah, it has no special holiness to it, and is obligated for trumah and maiser.

I took some pictures of the lemons and will be finding a frum professional gardener to tell me what he thinks. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started growing only a month ago, since Shmittah stories like this happen quite often.

Okay, on to Torah!

Last week, we spoke about the two different levels of Noach and Avraham. Noach represents the concept of strengthening and shielding oneself from the outside world, while Avraham represents the concept of going out and helping others in the world. We concluded that in order to properly reach Avraham’s level, we first need to perfect Noach’s level, which is no easy feat.

With your permission, well, frankly, even without your permission, we’ll discuss a little bit about the level of Avraham and how it can be applied safely, by all of us, even before perfecting the level of Noach.

After last week’s dvar Torah, Rabbi Gershon Seif emailed me the following on Rav Hirsch’s “take” on Avraham:

“Rav Hirsch writes that while Avraham Avinu did a lot of outreach, he actually did it while keeping his distance. He went ‘between the mountains’ never living within the cities he was reaching out to. He lived in the outskirts of town. People had to come to him where he was busy calling out in the name of Hashem.”

We see that even Avraham, who challenged the world’s belief system, did so in the spiritual protection of his own home.

My Rosh Yeshivah was very much against the idea of people learning in kollel for a few years and then heading out into a spiritual wasteland with his family to do outreach. The dangers of the negative effect on the individual and the family were too great and too risky. However, when my friend accepted an offer to work in an outreach beis medresh in a frum neighborhood, whose focus was to work with those who are beginning to learn about Judaism, my Rosh Yeshivah was happy. He was happy that my friend was going out to help other Jews, all while being able to live in a healthy Jewish environment.

My Rosh Yeshivah also pushed members of the yeshivah and the kollel to donate a certain amount of time per day to help out other members who are weaker in learning.

There are plenty of ways of “helping the world” while not putting oneself at risk. Perhaps it’s not as glorified, but there is no point in helping others while causing loss to ourselves and our families.

Another aspect of Avraham comes with the famous Medrash where Nimrod, the ruler at the time, threw Avraham into a furnace for his heretical beliefs. Hashem performed a miracle and saved Avraham. At that point, the entire world saw and understood, “Hashem – Hu HaElokim” (Hashem – HE is G-d). Hashem’s miraculous intervention made it clear that He was in charge and that He was with Avraham. This is why, according to halachah, one, at minimum, needs to have proper concentration during the first brachah of the Shemoneh Esrei. What is the first brachah? “Magen Avraham” (the shield of Avraham). When Hashem protects and keeps the Jewish people alive and acts as our shield, He is saying, “I am still with Avraham.”

When a Jew walks down the street wearing Jewish clothes, he is saying to the world, “We are still here, and Hashem is still with us.” I think about it nearly every day when I walk down the street in my hat and jacket. Despite the attempt of local or national politicians, we are STILL here.

Just by dressing and acting in public, like a Jew should, one is acting like Avraham, and showing the world “Hashem – Hu HaElokim.”

Have a great Shabbos!

Michael Winner

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