Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Quiet Greatness - Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum

Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum is an unusual man. This tall dark-haired 11th grade Rebbe with a warm smile is beloved by so many. His daf yomi shiurim are applauded for their brilliance. This once (and likely still) talented left-handed basketball player has made his mark on the Jewish people at a young age, in an area far from that of athletics. As a bochur, he was known for hasmoda. That was his mark on the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, and the Mir. Friends of his who learnt beside him in the Mir describe Rabbi Kestenbaum showering and dressing for shabbos at 12 pm, and then heading for the beis midrash until shabbos, on long summer Fridays.

Coming from the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, he was educated by one of today’s mussar giants, Rabbi Yechiel Perr Shlita. Rabbi Perr is the quintessential baal mussar, a kind thoughtful talmid chocham who can take the most complicated of human situations and dissect them through the Torah’s lens. When he first came to Waterbury, he gave shiurim and mussar vaadim to the Beis Midrash bochurim – extremely popular ones. His mussar was laced with quotes and stories from Rabbi Perr. He himself came up with many methods of personal growth based upon the wisdom found in s’forim. He laughingly would describe to those in his chabura what it feels like as a bochur to buy a bag of potato chips from the snack machine in yeshiva. “You buy a bag for 75 cents, and you open it to find that it is mostly air, and only three chips! Then a friend of yours comes by and says, he can I have some?” Since this is likely to bother you, explained Rabbi Kestenbaum, you of course should never ask someone else to give you their chips! “Buy two bags,” taught Rabbi Kestenbaum to his students. “Then you will have one to give away and one for yourself!” Indeed he lives his own life this way, and has thus developed into a magnanimous and truly giving person. Anyone who has seen him don his colorful “wedding yarmulkeh,” and proceed to dance before a chosson with abandon, has truly witnessed what he is willing to sacrifice of himself for the pleasure of his fellow Jew.

Built likely from years of mussar vaadim, and even more years of personal mussar study and development, Rabbi Kestenbaum embarked on a daring initiative – he began writing his own mussar sefer. Those who know Rabbi Kestenbaum are aware that, more so than most of his companions, he is known for his very real mastery of Shas – having finished many mesechtos with Rishonim and Acharonim many times over. This makes his choice to publish on mussar all that more surprising. A look at his introduction tells us why he made this choice. In his words, “There are many mussar sforim by giants in Torah and Yirah, who am I to count myself amongst them? However, it appears to me that there is yet a great need for a contemporary sefer that speaks to a person of our times….”

He called his sefer Olam Hamidos, (the intitals M.D. of his first name ‘Moshe Don’ are alluded to in the first two letters of Middos) for it is a work that sets out to “delineate the obligation of ‘middos’ and offer effective advice to develop them.” It bears the haskomos of Rabbi Aharon Kaufman shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury, Rabi Yechiel Perr shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, and Harav Nosson Tzvi Finkel shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir Yerushalyim. Rav Finkel, in his haskoma makes a remarkable statement about the author, when he says, “from between the lines of the sefer, it is evident that the author is a veritable storehouse of Yiras Shomayim.” A school-child might say, “it takes one to know one,” and in this instance, such praise could not come from a more remarkable source.

Olam Hamiddos, the World of Middos, is made up of 8 “worlds,” all dealt with in individual chapters. The first is the “world of middos” which explains the purpose of middos development; then is the “world of truth,” “the world of kovod” (honor), “the world of jealousy,” “the world of anger,” “the world of happiness,” “the world of strength,” and “the world of kindness.” Within the sefer there are so many remarkable though provoking messages that it is daunting to attempt to take a sample, but we shall nevertheless try.

Rabbi Kestenbaum tells of a mystifying quote, attributed to Rav Chaim Vital, the great student of the Arizal; “the character of a person is judged solely based upon how he behaves toward his wife.” Isn’t this unusual, asked Rabbi Kestenbaum, for a man is far more than a spouse! He has dealings with so many people in so many situations! Why are his middos judged by this one dynamic? He speaks of how man desires so deeply to find favor in the eyes of others, that subconsciously he does whatever he can to curry their favor. But that does not exist when one is married. The same kovod is not forthcoming from those with whom we live as from other whom we may impress with a mere glimpse. On a deeper level, he continues, the love and closeness of proximity that marriage demands make it difficult to hide even a hint of anger or dissatisfaction. This is not so with even the closest friend. It thus emerges that the true mettle of a person is only really displayed in his marriage. Whether or not he really is filled with hate and anger or love and compassion is truly something that only his wife can know. This, explained the Olam Hamidos is what Rav Chaim Vital was telling us.

Throughout the course of his sefer, Rabbi Kestenbaum offers both conceptual and theoretical advice in a sincere and down to earth fashion. Quoting from great sforim and Rabbonim, such as Mesilas Yesharim (on p. 184) Rav Yisrael Salanter z”l (p. 26) Yitzchok Hutner z”l (on p. 8) and Rabbi Aaron Wilk shlit”a (p. 25), he weaves a tapestry that is certain to make the reader both a better person and a better Jew. Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury is truly blessed to have Rabbi Kestenbaum in it’s walls.

Published in Yated Neeman Waterbury Page March 2008

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Overpopulation Crisis

Based upon a Shiur given by Rabbi David Lapin

For the most part, Torah observant Jews proudly boast large families. Are they destroying the world as we know it?

Thomas Robert Malthus was the second of eight children. It was a large family, and he apparently resented it. His theories are known as Malthusian ideology. This doctrine sees all major social problems - poverty, hunger, political instability, and environmental destruction - as due to population growth, and posits that population control thus represents a key solution. "In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population…” wrote Charles Darwin in his biography, where he proceeded to describe the great influence that Malthus had on his thinking - particularly on his theory of natural selection. In 1978 a book called “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” placed Malthus at number 80 in this worldwide ranking. Was Thomas Malthus right or wrong? Will large families lead to the world’s demise?

During the reign of King David (Samuel II 24) a devastating mistake was made. David decided to count the Jewish people, and did so in no special way. Halacha tells us that it is permissible to count the number of raised hands in a room, but not the people themselves. (Talmud Yoma 22b, Magen Avraham 156) We cannot count people. But David did. And the Jews were hit with a death wave in which 70,000 (!) men died from one end of the nation to the other. Our sages tell us (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 43) that in fact only one person died. His name was Avishai Ben Tzeruyah, and though he was only one man, he was worth 70,000. It sounds a bit unusual to refer to one person as 70,000; what is the message – and why does Scripture choose to teach us the value of this man especially now?

The Torah tells us that if the Jewish people are counted in an ordinary fashion, it will cause a plague. G-d therefore directs Moses to count the Jews in an unusual way wherein each person gives a coin. The coins will then be counted, and the census with thus be accomplished without pestilence. Why does this solve the problem? And what was the problem to begin with?

It is forbidden to count Jews. The reason is really quite simple; you have no idea what anyone else is worth. One person may be worth far more than another. To count people as equally valuable is simply incorrect. David made that mistake – but he learned his lesson when he lost one man who was worth 70,000. How beautifully does G-d make every punishment fit the offense! We count people based upon what they have contributed to society. That is really what life is about. “He who detests gifts is truly alive,” stated Solomon the great King David’s son. We can count everyone only if they give something – for a gift can be quantified. When Moses counted his people, each one gave something of himself, and that was counted. Thus, nobody had to be taken away.

Avishai’s passing is referred to as “70,000 from one end of the nation to another!” (In Hebrew, “Dan to Beersheba.”) Now that we know that it was one man and he certainly lived in only one city at a time, how are we to understand this statement? The message is the same. God took one man, whose positive influence affected the length and breath of his nation, and taught us a lesson for posterity. One man can span a nation, from Dan to Beersheba. (Biur Radal ibid)

Overpopulation is dangerous in a society of takers. When people consume more than they produce, each new person is just another liability. But when people are innovative, and givers, when people produce more than they consume - the more the merrier! The Torah’s focus is always the obligation, rather than the right. An obligation to tithe is stressed, rather than the Levites right to receive it. Our aim must be to produce a society of givers, and builders. We must fulfill the Torah’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply. After all, it is only when we are fruitful, that our multiplying and overpopulation can truly have any meaning.

Seeing God... on Moshe's Birthday!

“When the lots that Haman had cast landed on the month of Adar, he rejoiced and said, ‘my lots fell on the month in which Moshe died.’ But Haman did not know that while Moshe died on the seventh of Adar, he was also born on the seventh of Adar.” (Megilla 13b)

While it is clear that Haman did not know that Moshe was born on the seventh of Adar, it is evident from the beginning of the gemara that he did know the date of his death. The gemara’s statement that he “did not know that Moshe died on the seventh of Adar, and was born on the seventh of Adar” implies that there was something that he did not know about the death of Moshe as well.

It also behooves us to discover why it was that a man who was so obsessed with the Jewish people, and so knowledgeable of their ways missed the birth date of Moshe, and only knew the day of his death. Midrashim are replete with accounts of Haman quoting verses from the Torah. Like most of our enemies, he knew much about our Torah, and nevertheless combated it viciously. So why then did he never learn of the birth of Moshe?

Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (Divrei Chalomos 20) writes that “the day that a man is born is when his mazel is at its most powerful point. On that day, every year, he need no fear that any misfortune will befall him. When our sages taught us that the righteous die on their birthdays – that is because for those so righteous, death is an elevation of their mazel, and the next step in their spiritual climb.”

“Ki lo yirani ha’adam v’chai,” is normally translated as “no man can see me and survive.” But Abudraham (Mussaf Shabbos - Kedusha) offers an alternative translation. “’Neither can man see me, nor can the Chai,’ referring to the Angels” But our sages have taught us that while no man can see G-d in his lifetime, he sees him in his death! (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 31) In fact, the Chida (D’vash L’fi Mem 24) offers a number of reason that the righteous must die – and his fifth reason is “Ki lo yirani ha’adam v’chai!” At a righteous human’s death, he reaches a higher level of appreciation of G-d than even the highest angel can ever reach!

Thus, Haman did not know that not only did Moshe die on the seventh of Adar, but that death was really a birth as well, just as was his first birth. He may have even known the dry information about the day that Moshe was born from an entry in the Encycolpedia Persian-ica. But Haman did not truly understand the Jewish purpose in this world – why Moshe was really born. He therefore could not truly understand why Moshe died, and how that death was a birth to another world. He did not know that Moshe’s death was just another rung in a ladder that begins here on earth, and reaches into the heavens.

(It was only some time after this suggestion was written that the author found this very pshat in this gemara in the sefer Chomas Anach on Koheles 3:2. The Chida there quotes his fathers Rav, R. Avraham Itzchaki, who offers a remarkably similar pshat.)

Published in The Jerusalem Life Adar II 2008

Dav Dalin forces Arab professor to resign

Sapir College’s film professor, Nizar Hassan is a famous documentary film-maker. This “celebrity” must apologize by Thursday to Israeli Army reservist Eyal Cohen, for refusing to allow him to be part of his class while he was in uniform. A day before the deadline, two groups took to the Sderot campus to debate and protest.
In early November, Eyal Cohen, a second-year film student, came directly from his Military Intelligence reserve duty to his film class, given by Nizar Hassan. He was wearing his uniform and as a result Hassan refused to teach him. When he would not leave the room, Hassan ignored him entirely and would not allow him to speak. Hassan also reportedly kept interjecting the phrase "Yes, sir" in reference to Cohen and refused to allow him to respond until he came back to class in civilian clothing. Students referred to Hassan’s demeanor as “childish and vindictive.”
A committee organized by the College President Ze'ev Tzahor looked into the incident. They decided that Hassan had one week to write an unequivocal apology to Cohen making it clear that he respected the IDF uniform, and stating that he would teach anyone wearing one. He was told that should he fail to do so, he would be fired. Until he did so, he could not teach at the college. If he did apologize, but then acted in a similar manner in the future, he would also be fired, the panel decided.
Etti Livni, Hassan's lawyer, told the committee, "Hassan acted with good intentions, as someone who just wants to see human beings in his class - not soldiers, not Jews, not Arabs - and he did not mean to humiliate anyone. Just seeing a uniform is enough to frighten and intimidate him. They represent violence for him. He reacted to the student appearing in uniform out of fear.” Nizar claimed he thought the student was armed.
The panel rejected Livni and Hassan's claims. They said that they suspected his motives to be purely nationalistic. The report harshly criticized Hassan for failing to uphold academic values, despite his reputation as a devoted teacher.
"We do not think 'artistic freedom' justifies a lenient posture toward those who cross all red lines," the committee wrote.
Shai Dashevsky, a fellow student of Cohen's in the film department, was one of the organizers of the protest in support of academic freedom. "We protested in support of free speech. We did not rally to support Professor Hassan. We didn't even mention his name once," Dashevsky told reporters by phone Wednesday evening. Almost 20 people from across the political spectrum showed up, Dashevsky said, and professors also stopped by in between classes.
"It was a humiliating letter [from the committee] to Nizar," Dashevsky said, "We want to be able to make up our own minds without dictates from outside." "Professors are scared now," they worry that what they say might get them fired, Dashevsky continued. He said that he believed that Eyal Cohen had in fact been humiliated by Hassan, and that he should receive an apology for the personal affront, but that there should be open debate on campus as well.
Dov Dalin is a kind and brilliant third-year student of Business Logistics. His vibrant personality and passion for his beliefs are noticeable immediately. He told The Jerusalem Life of how he organized a counter-protest, with participants coming from the Left and Right. Even far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir put in an appearance. Dalin told the Jerusalem Life in an exlcusive interview that he put together the protest to call for Hassan's unequivocal dismissal.
"I think that [the committee's decision] was the wrong response. They should have told Hassan: 'No, you can't teach here anymore," Dalin, who made aliya from Venice California in 1998, said Wednesday evening.
"As a reserve soldier myself, it is not a good message to send to the country that we tolerate someone like him. He attacked something we hold near and dear - the army," Dalin said. Dalin also indicated that the counter-protest was aimed to reverse the image of Sapir College as a hotbed of radical leftists who "even wanted to invite Tali Fahima to come speak." (Tali Fahima served two years in prison for sharing classified information with the head of Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin.) Those at the rally do not represent the majority of students, he said. The college's Student Union said in a statement: "We view severely any insult to a student and will not allow discrimination of whatever kind within the college. We view Nizar Hassan's behavior as insulting.
Professor Hassan has hopefully learned his lesson, but not without a price. His failure to issue an apology has lost him his job. Dalin was interviewed on National Television and Radio in a relatively successful attempt to discredit Hassan. He artfully debated Hassan’s lawyer in an impressive display of cunning and sharp rejoinders. The story appeared in Maariv, The Jerusalem Post, and most major every media outlet in Israel. It is certainly not the first time that a venomous man has hurt a good Jew for being faithful to his country – but it may be the last time for this professor; assuming that he wishes to keep his next job.

Published in The Jerusalem Life Adar II 2008