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Rabbi Doniel Staum = Parshas Pinchas 5774 "The Fountain of Youth"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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For a brief period during my late adolescence, I learned in the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, MD.

One of the yeshiva’s greatest assets is its Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Lopianski. Rabbi Lopianski is revered not only for his dynamic lectures which are always full of depth and insight, he is also beloved for his ability to create deep bonds with his students.

On Friday night of one of the Shabbosos I was there, after the Shabbos seudah, Rabbi Lopianski invited me to join him for a conversation on a bench in the park adjacent to the yeshiva[1]. It was a beautiful night and stars filled the sky. Rabbi Lopianski asked me about myself and my family and we schmoozed for quite some time about many various topics.

Although I am recounting a small tidbit of that conversation here, the warmth and listening ear he gave to me that night cannot be recorded in words.

Rabbi Lopianski spoke about the importance of always maintaining a spirit of life and never becoming embittered. He explained that ironically those who struggle and battle difficulties and challenges and are not inhibited by them, are the most vivacious and spirited years later. One who does not learn to deal with the inevitable challenges of life can become stagnant and often embittered.

Rabbi Lopianski pointed to a personal mentor and Rebbe of mine who is also a Rebbe in the yeshiva who had lost his father when he was twenty-one years old. Today, that Rebbe is one of the most energetic and vigorous people I know, with a passion to accomplish and inspire others. That magnitude of determination and spirit resulted from his ability to ‘rise to the occasion’ and not be deterred by the inevitable vicissitudes of life.

He continued that the challenges I was facing and would face throughout my life, would help me understand others and help others deal with their own personal challenges and difficulties. That would in turn help me always maintain a drive to accomplish and grow.

In the years since then I often think about the truth of those words.

In parshas Pinchas the special Mussaf (lit. added) offerings that were offered on the Altar during the holidays are delineated. Our holidays are not merely days of vacation and relaxation but integral times for spiritual rejuvenation. Each holiday possesses its own endemic service, commandments, and spiritual blessing, and each is an opportunity for growth.

When Blia’am was riding on his donkey en route to curse Klal Yisroel, an angel impeded their path causing the donkey to crush Bila’am’s foot against the wall. When Bila’am wrathfully struck his donkey, the donkey miraculously spoke and said to Bila’am, “What have I done that you have struck me these shalosh regalim – three times?”

Rashi notes that the verse uses the word “regalim” not the more commonly used word, “pe’amim”. This is an allusion to the great merit of Klal Yisroel that they observe the great holidays of Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos, commonly referred to as the “shalosh regalim- three festivals”.[2] The message to Bila’am was that he would never be able to destroy a nation which constantly strengthens itself through celebration of the holidays which infuse them with renewed strength and spiritual focus.

The verse describes Rosh Hashana as “Yom Teruah yihyeh lachem- a day of shofar-sounding for you.”[3] The gemara states that on Rosh Hashanah when we blow shofar, Satan becomes frightened that the shofar blowing may be the shofar of Moshiach, heralding the final redemption.[4]

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer zt’l wonders how Satan could be fooled every year. Does he not know that there is a mitzvah to blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah every year? If Klal Yisroel blew shofar last year and it did not herald the final redemption, why should Satan think this year will be any different?

Rabbi Blazer answers that each year Satan is afraid that perhaps this year Klal Yisroel will hearken to the wailing of the shofar and internalize its heartrending message. Perhaps this year they will repent properly and will indeed be worthy of redemption. Despite the fact that each year until now the call of the shofar has gone somewhat unheeded, Satan is still afraid that this year may be THE year.

Rabbi Blazer continues that there is a tremendous lesson to be gleaned from Satan’s apprehension. We ourselves have lived through many Rosh Hashanas and Yom Kippurs. We have made numerous resolutions and perhaps have not fulfilled many of them. Year in year out, we have made commitments to transform ourselves and to live the lives we truly want to live but come up short in our personal aspirations and dreams. We have heard the cry of the shofar so many hundreds of times and yet we have allowed its call to go unheeded. And so we become despondent. We allow ourselves to live the life that happens instead of the life we truly desire![5] But even after so many years and so many squandered opportunities, Satan still fears that we may finally fulfill our potential. Shouldn’t we have at least the same confidence as Satan that perhaps this year will be the year?

Harav Shlomo Freifeld zt’l was an insightful and beloved educator. Once on a Shabbos afternoon, Reb Shlomo was speaking to his students about man’s omnipresent ability to effect change at any time he wholly commits himself to do so. In the middle of his speech he grabbed his gray beard and shouted, “I am the youngest one here.” The message he was conveying to them was that if they were skeptical about their ability to change and improve, then they were old and withered. Being ‘old’ is based on a state of mind more than it is based on a biological clock!

In a discourse during the Ten Days of Penitence, Reb Shlomo recounted a conversation that he had recently had with an elderly woman named Mrs. Gingold. Mrs. Gingold was a Russian woman who was over a hundred years old and living in a nursing home. When Reb Shlomo had gone to visit her, he noticed that she wasn’t eating her lunch. When he inquired about it she explained that she had recently undertaken to fast ba’hab.[6] Reb Shlomo was quite surprised. Those fast days are a stringency undertaken solely only by righteous individuals. It was virtually unheard of for a woman to undertake them, surely not an elderly frail woman.

Mrs. Gingold tearfully explained, “Barbara has been my nurse for many years. She has cared for me faithfully and has always been there for me. One day last week however, she was tired and when she gave me an injection she was somewhat clumsy. She pricked me with the needle and in my pain I shouted at her. She has been my nurse for so long, yet I berated her for making one mistake. Although I apologized to her numerous times I was beside myself that I could have lashed out at her as I did. Therefore, I have accepted upon myself these fasts as a way to repent for my inappropriate behavior.”

When Reb Shlomo finished relating the story he paused and looked around the room before continuing. “Who is old and who is young? You, who are in your twenties but are cynical and mistrustful about your ability to change, are old. Mrs. Gingold, who is still working on herself, is young.” Then he added, “I hope to grow up to be as young as her!”[7]

The fountain of youth is rooted in the desire to always accomplish more. Life is a perennial struggle and one who is ready to undertake the challenge guarantees himself vibrancy and vigor. But one who decides that he has done enough and he rests upon his laurels allowing his life to coast on cruise control, places himself in danger of colliding with apathy and indifference.

“A day of shofar-sounding for you”

Shalosh regalim – three times”

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[1] He subsequently told me that he has had many such conversations on that bench in the park

[2] Although the word ‘regel’ literally means foot, it is used to refer to the three seminal joyous holidays because, in many respects, they are the base and the foundation of a Jew’s spiritual service, just as one’s feet support his entire body.

[3] 29:1

[4] When Moshiach comes Satan will no longer have any purpose and will be destroyed.

[5] Paraphrase of a classic quote from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky

[6] Baha’b are the tri-faceted ‘Monday-Thursday-Monday’ fast days after the holidays of Pesach and Succos. Righteous individuals fast during those days to repent in case they conducted themselves with excessive levity during the preceding joyous holidays.

[7] From the classic book, “Reb Shlomo”

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