Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Otto Warmbier – Korach and His Congregation (Parshat Korach) – and the Kikayon

Death! A word that conjures up little feelings of excitement – for most. Life – on the other hand, is the very purpose of existence. That word – when expressed in its most fullest manner, takes on feelings of joy and blessing.

What a shock to the entire world to have to see in yesterday's news the death of Otto Warmbier (19 June 2017) – a 22 year old student who had taken a trip overseas to explore life elsewhere, and use it as a stepping stone towards his further progress in life. Here was a young man ready to give of himself to others, only to find it all taken away from him far too early. What exactly happened that lead up to this, nobody will ever know. It seems he had stolen a propaganda sign – though the video footage is by no means clear. Was it clear enough to be certain?

Even if so, has society reached such a low level where theft of a political symbol is worse than the terror we face every day – literal terror – which is rewarded by those sponsoring and furthering its growth continually? Besides all this, does stealing require the punishment of death? Does it require 15 years of hard labour – a punishment that surely lead to excruciating pain resulting in a type of coma state leading ultimately to death? Yet terrorists – real terrorists – are rewarded, praised, valued and publicized on TV and other media with smiles on their faces as the world allow them to continue unharmed?

Korach stood opposite Moshe fighting for his right for power – though Moshe was not only clearly in the right, but offered a path in this world that lead to life. What ever could we imagine the path Korach would have chosen for the Jewish people had he won his right to leading the Jewish people – or at the very least in taking some sort of leadership role? Was he really in it for his interest in the safety of life, the preservation of life, the goodness of life and the well-being of society – or was he – perhaps, only in it for the power and glory he would gain from his position of authority? We’ll never know of course, but one thing is for sure, his plan did not succeed. Apparently God new better!

Moshe stood up for the rights of life making certain that not only would Korach not succeed, but he would be eliminated from the face of the Earth – swallowed into the ground, never to be heard from again. This was the approach taken by Moshe when confronted by the evil scheme that Korach was plotting – because to have a Korach act as a judge of any kind for the well-being of society – would mean that Evil would rule life. Moshe – in full view of everybody – set up a scene that would determine who was truly entitled to the roles of leadership within the Jewish nation.

As society – we need to identify with the wrong. We need to speak about it – actually saying the words that what is happening is wrong. It is unacceptable to simply continue life while seeking pleasure at the expense of life – the lives of others – no matter how or when this occurs. Even more importantly – we need to act to make sure it never happens. It is for each of us to behave in a Moshe-like manner to have no desire to even negotiate it. We never negotiate evil – no matter what it is. We eliminate it. We focus on good. We do good. This never means we have the right to take the law into our own hands. What it means, is to never be prepared to accept the evil ever. It means being prepared to stand against it. It means to keep as far away from it as possible – whenever we can. The Torah approach is one which speaks about keeping close to those who do good – and to staying far from those whose paths in life are its very opposite to it.

It has been a tragic couple of weeks for anyone following the news recently, going back to these very themes – and others! Themes of society and its duties, and themes of cleaving to those who do good, and staying away from those who plot bad.

In one story, a young boy is caught “stealing” a bicycle. Without anybody knowing exactly what happened and whether this genuinely did happen (and again, the stealing and its punishment theme) a tattoo artist took the law into his own hands, inscribing the words “I am a thief and a loser” onto the forehead of the young boy. In addition, he cut his hair short, to make certain none of it would cover his (the tattoo artist’s) “work of art”. As far as I know – having watched the news – the boy has disappeared, never to be seen from again. This is the value of life – where a bicycle can supersede a human life. If indeed the boy did steal, then surely all efforts should be made to have the child disciplined in a manner fitting for the crime – as so decided by the courts. When a person with no knowledge of law and life – is permitted to take the law into his own hands (literally), publicize the event and embarrass a young boy further, it is a statement of society that we are all entitled to embarrass and hurt others whenever we feel like it. Are we then – any better than the boy who stole?!

In yet another tragedy, a young woman encouraged a young man who probably admired her as his “girlfriend” of sorts – to take his own life. With some 20 000 messages exchanged between the two – it seems the only thing she could clearly assist the young man with was getting to value and appreciate that indeed, his life was worth nothing. Death… was far more important than life. Yet again…

Even as he exited his car with the carbon monoxide blowing through in full force – and he sent a message to her telling her of his pain – she encouraged him then and there to go ahead with the “good” deed. She has lost her case in court and will receive her sentence for assisting in manslaughter in just a few weeks time. Was her life more important than his? Was his worth nothing? Are we being taught by our educators and parents about the value of life over death – or have we lowered ourselves to using our technology (which can be used for so much good) to encourage others along any path they feel – even when clearly – it is against the very reason we are here – to live?

In yet another tragic event, a matador is gored by the bull he is fighting. A sport which speaks about the value of an animal life in comparison to a human life. The animal – in this case – is here for all and sundry’s pleasure to watch and delight in – as it jumps about in frustration while the matador prepares to kill it. Then every so often, things do not go according to plan and the animal wins! Then it is a tragedy again. How could the animal win?! “We have lost a true sportsman” – the world will say. A society devoted to pleasure. A society devoted to death. A society that has lost its morals of the beauty of creation – favouring money and power as means of enjoyment – so long as it is someone else who dies. It is that same society that will criticize (and even ban) the laws of slaughtering according to Jewish law – involving just one cut to the animal’s throat with a perfectly sharp knife so as to cause the animal the least amount of pain as possible at the time of death. The next bull fight will be showing in not such a long time – with the arena full… and the animal forced to suffer – all with the permission of the state, yet the country will ban Jewish Shechitah (slaughtering of animals according to Jewish law) considering it to be cruel.

The bullfighting won’t stop. The pranks of children on their classmates won’t stop either. The bullying of elders (who know “what’s right”) over children will continue. Corrupt governments will continue onwards. Everything will always look squeaky clean with all those involved wearing the smartest of clothing, using the most modern devices (because we just must keep up with technology), using the most sophisticated arenas to house all the “evil-doers” to watch while others’ lives are at stake – as long as it isn’t them! It will all continue.

Korach and his crowd “rose from the dead” just as soon as they went down to encourage the world along such paths. They will all continue – unless we change. Every single one of us. Never to allow the most minimum of evil – ever. Never to support it, no matter how fun it looks. Never to encourage it. More – to continue to separate from it – never to even get close to it.

As we enter the summer months, we begin to feel the Chagim (the Jewish festivals) approaching. As we recite Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) each Shabbat afternoon, we surely consider the value of life – realising that just some 12 weeks away – we will all be judged – for our very lives – for this world, and the next. Then it’s Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, when it will be our final moments to repent and pray for our lives and to pray for life! Here, we consider life! Will we live, or will we die? What is the value of our lives? We read the Haftarah of Yonah (the book of Jonah in the Prophets).

Yonah is asked by God to go to the city of Ninveh and to tell the inhabitants that they are to do teshuva (they must repent of their evil ways). If not, God will destroy the entire city. Life is not worth anything, when it is filled with evil. When it is filled with good, however, then life is worth something; even Evil can change its ways – and it must! Then that death state becomes one of life – and then life is worth living. Yonah, however, is reluctant to do as he is bidden to. For various reasons, he does not want the city to repent. They are evil people who should be destroyed (much like the Generation of the Flood) – he thinks.

God does not think the city should be destroyed. To God, life is the most important thing – right here in this world. He wants a world of life, a dwelling place below – and he wants a world of good. It does not count that the bad is there. What counts now, is turning the darkness into light. Getting things right! Yonah is hesitant and runs away from his mission. Ultimately he is swallowed by a large fish – where Yonah begins to reconsider the value of life. He is spat out onto the dry land and finds his way into the city, announcing to all the importance of improving their ways. The city does the repentance required, changing their behaviour and all the people are saved. Yonah is disappointed – to say the least – in the results. God asks Yonah if he really cares. Is he grieved by the fact that an entire city of living people and industry can be destroyed – “just like that”?

Meanwhile, after his hard work, Yonah lies down to take a rest. God causes a Kakiyon tree to grow where Yonah is resting, providing him shade and protection. The tree grows immediately and Yonah rejoices in its protection from the harsh sun! He is ecstatic now that he is protected! The next morning – God sends a worm to eat the shady, leafy tree, and the leaves wither, leaving Yonah with no shade at all. The harsh sun burns down on Yonah, and unable to deal with the extreme heat asks God (again) to let him die! God asks him yet again the same question asked before, “Are you grieved by the Kikayon Yonah? (the fact that it has died)” Yonah tells God that indeed he is grieved. He is grieving at the loss of the wonderful tree that had provided him shade and life!

God tells Yonah the message of life. He tells him – Yonah, there you have it. You grieve over a plant (much like society may do…) that provided you shade. It only lived a night and a day, but still you grieved over it. Yet with all this, can you not imagine how much I would grieve by losing an entire population – an entire city?! Human beings – who represent the purpose of creation. They must surely be able to do good – when they choose to. And this is their purpose! When they come right – they do good. I want them to do good, because I grieve over these creations – who live many years – providing so much to My world. There were indeed 120 000 people. Not only that, but there were even animals there too…

You – Yonah – grieved over a plant. You forgot the humans. You forgot the animals. You forgot life. You were so concerned over death all the time, that you couldn’t sit back and see what life was all about. Life, Yonah – says God – is what I want.

Embarrassment, senseless death… pleasure at the expense of an animal – or even the loss of life at the expense of the pleasure of those watching the death, or the death of a young boy at the hands (literally as the fingers type the message) of a girl – are not want I (God) want in my world.

“For man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). Every human being has the potential to bring shade to others. Every human being – a Kikayon for someone else – to bring joy and happiness to them. Let us never forget the words in Pirkei Avot (4:3), “There is no man who does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.” Our duty is to see that in everyone – all the time. There is no person that does not have the ability to turn his life to good, to encourage others to do good, and to love good over evil. It must – however – be done.

It is up to us to learn the lessons, because we are here to create a world of life where all can smile and laugh, where all delight in the beauty of what life actually is. We must learn from the stories we read.

Otto’s short life – or perhaps his bitter death, should be a wake up call for all telling us that something is wrong in society and it is for us to avoid these mistakes in life that lead to the death of anyone. No matter how fun, pleasurable, or innocent, something might appear, if it contains within it the potential to cause another harm, we must flee from it immediately – and encourage others likewise. Many don’t know, but Otto also had a connection with the Jewish community. I am not sure of the particulars of his interest in Judaism (or something I do not know about his ancestry etc.) but he had taken part in the Birthright Israel as well as lead (as I have heard it) some Pesach Sedarim. His loss is a loss to the world of good.

I have included a video of Otto which I hope the readers of my blog will find meaningful and that it will serve the purpose of encouraging us to be better, do more good, and live life as it should be – life… not death. Stop all the judgments. Stop the criticisms. See the little good of the other – and do everything to make it greater. There is a Kikayon tree waiting to grow and to give shade and shelter to someone else.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Children From Divorced Homes and Halachah

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times
(Posted on this site with permission)

Their mothers live among us and are relatively invisible. They have children who have no one to take them to shul. They have no one to take them to father & son learning programs. Rarely do they get a Shabbos meal invitation. Their social lives are awkward at best.

They are the divorced women who live in our communities – a group whose numbers are growing dramatically. And true, there are fantastic people – the Rabbi Dovid Greenblatts, the Rabbi Yaakov Benders, the Dov Wolowitzs of the world, and others, but somehow it is not enough.They bear an almost unbearable burden. Most are financially insecure and have their hands full just making it through the week. Often they experience such legal strains and financial stress that the strongest among would buckle under the pressure.


What does halacha say about these women and their plight? The psukim in the Torah tell us about orphans, widows and converts. But what about the growing number of divorcees? And if, in fact, the answer is that we should devote more resources to this invisible group.

A few years ago, one such woman approached a number of Gedolim in Eretz Yisroel about the plight of divorcees an obtained a remarkable letter. Because there was a slight factual miscommunication in the recipient of the letter – there was a delay in the publication. The three Gedolim? Rav Aron Leib Shteinman Shlita, Rav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita, and l’havdil – Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz zt”l. The letter is translated below:

To the Honorable Organization..

We have heard of the remarkable acts of chessed that you do with widows, rachmana litzlan, in a most befitting manner. Now you approach with a question in regard to divorced women:
Do they have the same a similar halachic status in regard to Tzedaka and in the manner in which to deal with them on an equal basis?
Our opinion is that the circumstances and situations are equal in their importance.
May the Holy One Blessed Be He enable you to continue in your blessed handiwork.

One who signs with wishes of blessing,

[Rav] Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, Bnei Brak 5769 [zt”l]
We too join with what has been mentioned above,
[Rav] A.L. Shteinman
[Rav] Chaim Kanievsky


There is a pretty famous verse in the Torah whose true meaning has eluded the vast majority of people – Zeh Kaili v’Anveihu. Most people only understand it to mean that when it comes to items involving a Mitzvah, we should spend to buy the fancier and better one.

We see from the Gemorah in (Shabbos 133b) an entirely different explanation of it. Rav Yitzchok Isaac Sherr zatzal explains (Leket Sichos Mussar p.76) that the pasuk of “Zeh Kaili v’Anveihu” teaches us the obligation of feeling and understanding that the performance of Chessed brings us closer to Hashem.

This is on account of the Gemorah’s understanding of the word “Anvehu” to mean “Ani v’hu – I and Him.” The meaning of this Pasuk is therefore, “This is my G-d, and I shall bind myself to Him. I know that I can accomplish this binding through the notion of performing acts of Chessed.” The consequences of this particular Pasuk are an obligation of thought: It is something that we must think – Chessed binds us to Hashem – Ani VeHu.

The existence of this group of people then, provides us with an opportunity similar to that of a shul. What is one of the main purposes of davening? It is to form a close bond with Hashem. Chessed does the same thing, and according to this Gemorah in Shabbos – it is a halachic obligation of thought to realize this.


One very important point that we must have in mind is that it is the greatest chessed for chessed not to be done as if it is chessed. All people have what to contribute, in conversation and in social activity. Our obligation is to realize that everyone is created B’Tzelem Elokim in the image of Hashem and that there is depth to who they are as people. Their social contribution, their thoughts and opinions matter and they are enjoyable company.

There was a famous bakery owner in Williamsburg. Mr. Gelb, who not only gave needy people Challah and cake for Shabbos and Yom Tov, but also gave them change so that their self-esteem would remain intact. An even higher level that can sometimes be achieved is to actually render any assistance in such a manner that even we do not detect or perceive it as chessed per se.


So, practically, what does this mean? We can help in two ways. Boruch Hashem one of our askanim, Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt has created an excellent organization called, “Sister to Sister.” This organization is a remarkable way in which one can lend assistance to this invisible group.

A second way, however, is to seek out members of this invisible group and actively help them. Boruch Hashem, some of these divorcees have an ex that cares enough about his children to provide for them even more than the court-mandated child support. Others often get a pittance and some not even at all.


We must also not forget that divorced men, as well, need to be welcomed in our homes and need emotional support and assistance. Often men are perceived as the evil ones when, in fact, they too have suffered enormously. Whatever happened in a marriage is not our concern. Ahavas Yiroel and Chessed must be applied to all parties – these Mitzvos are gender neutral.


When helping them, it should, of course, be done in the most tznius manner as possible, and with the contributions of both the husband and wife. There are many ways to do this. It should also be done in a manner where they do not feel that you are doing it as a chessed.

• Learn with the child
• Notice kids in shul
• Offer to take the children out with yours on an outing
• Help keep up with the homework
• Shabbos invitations – realize that often their families cannot take them back
• Extend invitations earlier rather than later
• Occasional financial help or a gift
• Offer to babysit once a month
• Ask if they need anything at Costco
• Offer to build them a Sukkah – or to use yours
• Ask in general, “Is there anything specific I can do for you?”
• Just call to say hello
• Share your husband’s flowers with her
• Get to know their favorite food items and that of their children
• Suggest shidduchim when possible and appropriate
• Suggest shidduchim for their children
• Help them deal with fixing the house
• Help them deal with fixing their car
• Help them deal with the IRS
• Help them in general negotiations
• Help them ensure that their kids have friends
• Sheitels – look out for a new one for them.
• Avoid avoiding them
• Don’t be judgmental
• Don’t stigmatize
• Don’t say things in a pitying way
• Be sensitive to call them back
• Avoid saying insensitive things or asking insensitive questions


The posuk in Micha (6:8) states, “..What does Hashem require of you? Merely to do justice and love Chessed..” The idea is that we must foster and develop a love of Chessed. Rav Sherr explains that there are three elements to this love:

1] To love doing acts of Chessed ourselves.

2] To love and appreciate a situation where Chessed is being performed by others – either for another or for others.

3] To love the existence of opportunities for Chessed in the world.

The Chofetz Chaim writes (Ahavas Chessed 2:1) that not only must one love Chessed but one must stick to this character trait and always go beyond the measure of what is required. He give the analogy of a parent. A loving parent gives more food and clothing than the child requires, so too must we do likewise in sticking to the Midah of Chessed.


The dramatic rise in divorces provides us all with an unprecedented opportunity for chessed. These opportunities should be done, when possible, with the utmost consideration and thought for their self-esteem and self-perception. These are the sons and daughters of Avrohom Avinu, Yitzchok Avinu, and Yaakov Avinu, and should be treated in lie with their stature.

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