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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayishlach 5773 "Life of Growth"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In an article written two years ago, Roy S. Neuberger, noted author and lecturer, related the following story:

“Several years ago, I had the privilege to meet Rabbi Shmuel Berenbaum zt’l, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn. I mentioned my father, who is now over 107 years old[2]! Rabbi Berenbaum cited the well-known Gemora[3] which states “karkafta d’lo manach tefillin… the head that does not wear tefillin” will be judged severely, and told me that I must make sure my father puts on tefillin at least once before he reaches 120!

It wasn’t so easy. Various impediments prevented us from carrying out Rabbi Birnbaum’s advice, but we always kept it in mind. Then, about two and a half years ago, when my third book, 2020 VISION,was published, I brought a copy to my father. I assumed that it would sit around unread, but I was wrong! The next day, I saw that he was reading my book!

He loved it! He read it three times!

“You make religion sound so enjoyable,” he said, “not like a chore.”

My father had always felt that “religion” was the cause of all the world’s problems, but the book seemed to open his eyes.

My wife realized: now is the time for the tefillin.

I asked my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, how to go about this. He told me to bring my tefillin and a second pair to my father’s house. I should put mine on, make the blessings aloud and have my wife instruct my father to say “Amen” to those blessings, while at the same time putting the borrowed tefillin on my father.

So it was that he put on tefillin for the first time in his life a week before his 105th birthday!

A few months later, my wife and I made our semi-annual trip to the University of Michigan, to speak for the Maimonides Program…

So here we were in Ann Arbor again, two years ago, and I told the students how my father had put on tefillin for the first time in his life at the age of 105. In the group that semester was a pre-med student named Jared Spitz, one of those beautiful Jews who always amaze us with their desire to come closer to G-d despite the fact that they are surrounded by mountains of impurity!

When Jared heard that my father had put on tefillin for the first time at one hundred and five years old, he thought to himself, “If a man can put on tefillin at 105, why shouldn’t I put on tefillin today? What am I waiting for? Should I wait until I am 105?”…

The morning after I had told the story of my father, Jared ordered a pair of tefillin! He has been faithfully wearing those tefillin six days a week for the last two years! He is now completely observant and is planning to take next year off to learn in Israel between college and medical school!

My father’s tefillin changed his life!”

“Rachel died, and was buried on the road… Yaakov erected a (מצבה) monument over her grave; it is the monument of Rochel’s grave until this day.[4]” The verse relates that Yaakov erected a single stone as the monument which would serve as a memorial to Rochel’s grave. Indeed that site remains hallowed as Kever Rochel to this day.

In Chumash Devorim, when Moshe instructed Klal Yisroel about how to properly serve G-d and remain faithful to Him, he told the nation, “You shall not erect for yourself a (מצבה) monument which Hashem your G-d hates.[5]” If one wants to offer a sacrifice to G-d he must do so atop an altar, constructed out of many stones. But to offer a sacrifice atop a monument consisting of one stone is an abomination to G-d, because such was the practice of idol-worshippers. Rashi notes that although during the days of the patriarchs an offering brought atop a monument was ‘beloved before G-d’, since then it has become abhorrent.

Why is a single-stone altar - a matzeivah – so abhorrent to G-d?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l explained[6] that something which is constructed out of many stones symbolizes continuous building. One can continue adding layers to it without it altering its identity. It will remain an altar no matter how many additional layers of stone are added to it.

A matzeivah constructed from a solitary stone however, cannot be enlarged, for doing so will change it from being a matzeivah into a full-fledged mizbayach. In that sense a matzeivah symbolizes a single accomplishment, while a mizbayach symbolizes continuous accomplishments.

Before the Torah was given to Klal Yisroel, if someone observed any mitzvoh, he did so on his own volition. Every time one of the patriarchs observed Shabbos or ate kosher it was a great testament of their love and devotion to G-d. Every individual act was precious. Therefore, it was laudable to offer a sacrificed atop a matzeivah which symbolized single acts of growth.

After the Torah was given however, it became a long term binding commitment. One who performs mitzvos but then slackens in his observance is spiritually deficient. Every mitzvah performed is not done in isolation, but is another brick of our personal spiritual growth. Therefore, after the Torah was given our observance is symbolized by a multi-stoned mizbayach, symbolizing continuous building of the same structure. At that point the single stone matzeivah symbolizing individual isolated mitzvos, became abhorrent.

When a person dies the custom is to erect a ‘matzeivah’ above his kever (burial plot). Prima facie, it is difficult to understand why we would erect a matzeivah when the Torah mentions how abhorrent a matzeivah is in G-d’s eyes.

Based on Rabbi Feinstein’s aforementioned explanation, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman[7] explained that throughout a person’s lifetime he must pursue a path of constant growth. A stagnant life is a wasted life, for life is about growth through struggle and striving. Therefore, during one’s lifetime the symbolism of a matzeivah is antithetical to his pursuit of greater growth. When one has died however, he has completed his mission on earth and can no longer accrue merits through personal fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos. At that point it is apropos to erect a matzeivah to symbolize the completion of the deceased’s mission. This is also why it is customary to etch an epitaph into the matzeivah which briefly describes the accomplishments of the deceased.

Rabbi Reisman added that perhaps this is why it is customary that when one takes leave of a grave he places a small stone atop the matzeivah. As mentioned, the matzeivah symbolizes the completion of a lifetime of accomplishment. But in truth departure from this world is not an end to the opportunity to gain merits. If during one’s lifetime he deceased taught others, even if only be example, and they were inspired by him to improve their own observance, he can continue to accrue benefits in Gan Eden. The actions he performed in this world continue to benefit him even after he has departed.

As we take leave of a grave we place small stones atop the matzeivah to symbolize that the soul of the deceased is continuing to ‘build’ as he garners more merits based on his previous actions. The person may be physically gone but his legacy and example lives on.

Life is an opportunity for growth, not only during one’s lifetime but even after he has departed from this world. We are constantly building, so that others will be able to continue to build above the foundations we have erected.

“Yaakov erected a monument over her grave”

“It is the monument of Rochel’s grave until this day”

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[1] Based on derasha given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayishlach 5771

[2] Roy Rothschild Neuberger (1903 – 2010) was an American financier who contributed money to raise public awareness of modern art.

[3] Rosh Hashana 17a

[4] Bereishis 35:19-20

[5] Devorim 16:22

[6] Darash Moshe chelek 1, parshas Shoftim

[7] Parshas Vayishlach 5771

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