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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Toldos 5778 "Value System"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The following story was published in HamodiaTuesday, August 9, 2016:

Under the circumstances, the very fact that such a conversation even took place is astonishing.

On a cold day in the fall of 1944, in the constant shadow of terrible death surrounded by unspeakable horror, when Aviezer Burshtyn whispered to Yossel Friedenson, “We have been presented with a great mitzvah,” the latter was all ears.

The two inmates of the Auschwitz extermination camp were close friends, and both had been assigned to a crew whose job it was to clean barracks and collect garbage in various parts of the huge death camp.

Aviezer related that he had been sent to one of several women’s camps to clean. There, he was approached by a young girl, 15 or 16 years of age, who asked for sweater. Though it was only September, it was already quite cold in that part of Europe, and the malnourished girl, wearing only the thin concentration camp uniform, was shivering.

“You have a wife in the women’s camp,” Aviezer told Yossel. “Perhaps you can obtain a sweater for her?”

Both were aware that acquiring a sweater in Auschwitz would be very difficult, if not impossible. Only twice during the entire time he was in Auschwitz had Yossel been able to visit the women’s camp where his wife was held. To obtain an article of clothing in that section, smuggle it into the men’s camp and then sneak it back to where the girl was being held seemed like an unrealistic challenge.

The following day, however, they were assigned to clean an area where clothing was stored. Aviezer was able to get his hands on a ladies’ sweater, which he hid under his own clothing. Then the two young men waited for the first opportunity to bring it to the girl. A few days later, Aviezer was able to join a cleaning crew assigned to work in the camp where the girl was held.

When Aviezer returned, his eyes were filled with tears. “She didn’t want a sweater!” he emotionally told Reb Yossel. “She wanted a siddur!”

When he tried to give her the sweater, the girl had begun to cry. “I asked for a siddur, not a sweater! It is soon Rosh Hashanah. I need a siddur or a machzor,” she told him. “I heard by the men there are siddurim…”

The young girl refused to accept the sweater, fearing that if she took it, the men would no longer try to bring her a siddur.

Both men survived the war. Rabbi Aviezer Burshtyn, z”l, moved to Eretz Yisrael, where he served as a menahel and noted author, and Reb Yossel Friedenson, z”l, became a pre-eminent Holocaust historian, Agudah leader, and the legendary editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, a publication he established in a DP camp in 1946 and proceeded to publish for nearly seven decades. Neither of them, however, knew the name of the girl who asked for the siddur, and her fate is unknown to this day.

When the Torah introduces Eisav it uses the adjective ‘ish – man’ twice. However, in regard to Yaakov it says it only once. “The youths grew up and Esav became a man who knew hunting, a man of the field; but Yaakov was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents.”[1]

Rav Chaim Kaufman zt’l[2] related that when the idea of sending a man to the moon first began circulating, years before it actually occurred, Rav Shalom Shatz zt’l declared that it could never happen because the pasuk says “The heavens are for Hashem, while the earth He gave to mankind”. Beings placed on earth cannot be in heaven.

Shortly after the Apollo-11 landed on the moon in July 1969, Rav Kaufman met the Biala Rebbe and recounted Rav Shatz’s statement. The Rebbe replied that Rav Shatz wasn’t wrong. In order for the astronauts to ‘walk’ on the moon they needed to transport and encase themselves within a tremendous amount of equipment, which included oxygen. They were surrounded by a makeshift suit which contained the basic elements that a person needs for survival on earth. Essentially an enclosed piece of earth walked on the moon. Rav Shatz meant that it is impossible for an earthly being to become a permanent resident of the heavens because he was created for an earthly existence. In that sense he was correct.

Rav Kaufman continues that the underlying message to us is that the place from where one draws his strength and energy that is his true ‘place’ which helps define him. Conversely if he cannot live somewhere that is not his place. This idea is true in the spiritual realm as well. If one’s energy in life emanates from the time he spends in the Bais Medrash learning Torah, that demonstrates that his place is the Bais Medrash. Although he may not be able to spend his entire day there, since that is his life-source it is still considered his place.

Regarding Yaakov Avinu the pasuk says that he was “a wholesome man who dwelled in tents”. Since Torah study was his ultimate passion, he was defined by his Torah study in the Bais Medrash. Eisav however, had a dichotomous personality. On the one hand, he was ‘a man who knew hunting’, which Rashi explains means that he knew how to dupe his father by presenting himself as a Torah scholar. But on the other hand, he was a ‘man of the field’, who dwelled far from the tents of Torah in the fields of iniquity and immorality. The pasuk uses the adjective ‘man’ twice regarding Eisav because he was defined by both paradoxical extremes.

What genuinely defines a person is inextricably bound to what motivates and energizes him.

Under the direction of his mother, Yaakov is instructed to usurp the berachos from Eisav. The Torah relates: “He drew close and kissed him; he smelled the fragrance of his garments and blessed him; he said ‘See, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of the field which Hashem has blessed’.”[3]

In Ateres Mordechai, Rav Mordechai Rogov zt’l, notes that right after fruits are plucked off a tree they are fresh and delectable. But as time goes by the fruit begins to lose its freshness and desirability. After some time has passed, a storeowner will have a hard time selling those fruits. He will have to resort to tactics that make the fruits look more appealing than they really are.

There are people who never lose their zest and vibrancy for life. No matter how old they become and how challenging things are they always seem to possess an internal vitality and a spring in their step. Such people are able to maintain the excitement of their youth by preserving their youthful vigor. The Torah that they learned in their formative years remains their driving force and ultimate passion.

But then there are others who have a vastly different life experience. The vicissitudes of life wear them down and they become bitter and rancorous. They are unable to maintain that connection with the spirit of their youth, and the tempests of life leave their insidious mark.

Just prior to giving Yaakov the blessings, Yitzchok remarked, “See, my son, the smell of freshness and vibrancy of the field that you now possess. Realize the passion and vigor you feel as you dwell in the tents of Torah. It is your deep connection to the source of purposeful life that gives you that scent. Never allow it to fade despite the vagaries of life.

Yaakov and Eisav, twins who emerged from the same womb, set out on such diverse paths. Throughout all the challenges and difficulties encountered throughout his life, Yaakov maintained the passion of his youth. His heart always remained connected to Torah. In the worst of times, Yaakov was comforted by his faith and his learning. Eisav cast off the yoke of his father and grandfather, and chose a path of spiritual anarchy and lawlessness. His legacy couldn’t be more different.

Maintaining a sense of youthful exuberance is of the greatest blessings one can merit.

“She didn’t want a sweater… She wanted a siddur!”

“The youths grew up… Yaakov was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah

Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

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[1] Bereishis 25:27

[2] Mishchas Shemen

[3] Bereishis 27:27

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