Focused Prayer

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayetze

Focused Prayer

No steam or gas ever drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined. -Harry Emerson Fosdick

In the first and perhaps most famous of the Biblical dreams, Jacob sees a ladder that reaches the heavens with angels ascending and descending. The scene has been recreated in art and literature, has been interpreted widely and has served as a metaphor for connecting heaven and earth.

The Baal Haturim on Genesis 28:12 explains that the sound of the righteous praying constructs a ladder for angels to ascend. He further states that we have it in our power to also create heavenly ladders. All we need to do is focus during our prayers. Our focusing completes the ladder. If we are focused during our prayer then he assures us that our prayers will indeed ascend on these spiritual ladders and reach their destination.

And another source as to the benefits of praying:

The influence of prayer on the human mind and body is as demonstrable as that of secreting glands. Its results can be measured in terms of increased physical buoyancy, greater intellectual vigor, moral stamina, and a deeper understanding of the realities underlying human relationships. -Dr. Alex Carrel

May we make the time to pray and when we do so, may we have the ability to focus.

Shabbat Shalom,



Mazal Tov to Nadia and Daniel Kacowicz on their wedding. May their focused prayers come true!

Beware the Peace Offering

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Genesis: Toldot

Beware the Peace Offering

Peace, in international affairs, is a period of cheating between two periods of fighting. -Ambrose Bierce

Because of a famine in the mountains of Canaan, our patriarch Isaac heads to the area of Gerar by the Mediterranean coast. There he gets entangled in a variety of problems with the Philistines in general and their King Avimelech in particular. Isaac has the concern, which echoes the experiences of his father Abraham, that the locals may kill him in order to claim his beautiful wife, Rebecca.

Isaac and Rebecca, following the previous generation’s example, pretend to be brother and sister. However, Avimelech discovers the truth and chastises Isaac for the deception. Thereafter, we see that Isaac is blessed with tremendous economic success despite Philistines sabotaging his wells and Avimelech eventually banishing him from Gerar.

Isaac settles by Beer Sheva in the Negev and continues to flourish. King Avimelech, accompanied by his General Fichol, visit Isaac seeking peace with him. Both Isaac and the Baal Haturim on Genesis 26:29 are suspicious of the sudden amity on the part of Avimelech.

The Baal Haturim explains that Avimelech truly wanted to kill Isaac and only after repeated failed efforts does Avimelech pause and tries the strategy of seeking peace – it would seem more out of fear of Isaac’s growing power than for any benevolence or caring for Isaac. It was purely short-term self-interest. The Philistines would remain mortal enemies for centuries to come.

May we achieve peace despite the efforts of our enemies.

Shabbat Shalom,



To our soldier Eitan on the completion of his training and his assignment.

Afternoon Matchmaking

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Genesis: Chaye Sara

Afternoon Matchmaking

Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate. -W. H. Auden

The shortest, though perhaps the most challenging prayer of the day is the afternoon prayer (Mincha). The morning one (Shacharit) is the longest, but for those who introduce it into their routine, it turns into an excellent start to their day. The night prayer (Arvit) is not too long and is a great way to cap off ones busy day. But Mincha is different. It involves a very conscious decision to stop what one is in the middle of, and set aside some minutes for God.

The Baal Haturim on 24:63 reminds us of the tradition that our patriarch Isaac was the one who instituted the Mincha prayer. What is interesting about the Biblical source for this tradition is that immediately after praying that afternoon, Isaac’s bride-to-be appears.

Was it Isaac’s selfless time for God that earned him the appearance of a wife? Does stopping our personal pursuits and beseaching God for intervention in our lives actually lead to some stronger divine involvement?

The Baal Haturim ends his explanation with the famous dictum, Matza Isha Matza Tov (One who found a wife, found goodness). This perhaps goes against a growing trend that glorifies singlehood.

May those who seek a spouse merit divine intervention and those who have a spouse remember and reinforce the goodness that marriage is meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the single people in our lives. May they find the right partner – at the right time.

Sacred Guests

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayera

Sacred Guests

A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly. -Homer

In some ancient cultures, guests held a sacred and honored role. Once a person entered the tent or home of a host, they were under the host’s protection and cared for in every way.

We see this quite dramatically with Abraham’s wayward nephew, Lot. Lot, apparently attracted to the avarice of the Sodomites, settles his family next to the infamous city. However, he learned at least one thing from Abraham: Hospitality.

When the two disguised angels arrive in Sodom, Lot rushes to greet them and basically forces them to come as guests to his house.

The Baal Haturim on Genesis 18:5 explains that Lot was actually pained when he did not have guests and that the opportunity to host someone gave him great joy.

We see afterwards that Lot takes his hosting responsibility to such an extreme that he is willing to allow his own daughters to be harmed by a mob rather than permit anyone to touch his guests.

I don’t know if we need go to such lengths to make our guests feel comfortable, but there is something special in the bond that is created when people break bread together.

May we have occasion to enjoy both hosting and being hosted by members of our communities.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Adrian Weiszman for spearheading the initiative of organized regular Shabbat meal hosting in our community. For more information contact


First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Genesis: Lech Lecha


Count your blessings. Once you realize how valuable you are and how much you have going for you, the smiles will return, the sun will break out, the music will play, and you will finally be able to move forward the life that God intended for you with grace, strength, courage, and confidence. -Og Mandino

After the failures of Adam, Noah and successive generations we are finally introduced to the first Patriarch, the founder of our nation, Abraham.

He was an outstanding personality. He rose to a higher calling against all opinion, pressure and odds. In return for his loyalty, his courage, his goodness and his example, God blesses Abraham.

The Baal Haturim on Genesis 12:2 enumerates seven blessings with which Abraham was graced:

  1. Abraham will become a Nation
  2. Abraham will receive great wealth.
  3. Abraham will receive a new name (Abram was switched to Abraham)
  4. Abraham himself will be considered a blessing.
  5. Whoever will bless Abraham, God will ensure that they in turn are also blessed.
  6. Enemies will be cursed.
  7. All families of the world will be blessed by Abraham.

May we live up to the example of Abraham and also participate in his blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Gabriel Boruchovas for going over and above the call of duty in making sure the Uruguayan Shabbos Project was a major success.




Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Community Power

October 25, 2014

Community Power

As idealistic as my job forces me to be, some corner of my heart has the dark cynicism of a New Yorker. A part of me expected people who attended The Shabbos Project events to come more for the experience and to remain unscathed from any palpitations of observance.

The Friday night prayer service, Kabalat Shabat, was filled past capacity. More than 400 people filled the beautiful, but barely suitable Hillel building. In the back of the first floor, there is a beautiful rectangular hall that is perfect for 120 people. We squezzed close to 200 women in that hall. The front of the first floor has an expansive hall, with a big beautiful curved bar counter dominating the left side, a pool table on the right far corner and low-hanging modern chandeliers across the length of the hall. More than 250 men arrayed themselves in the insufficient chairs (we only had 350 chairs total). The place was so full that I saw many people enter the hall only to turn back and leave, hopeless to find a comfortable place to stand or sit.

The men sat facing the women across a short narrow corridor connecting the two halls. That is where I placed myself and our extraordinary Hazan, Rabbi Oved Avrech.

There was an incredibly strong showing from the Bogrim (alumni) of all the Tnuot (youth organizations). There were also leaders and members of all the synagogues and communities.

Interspersed throughout the prayer, we invited different people to give short introductions to the different parts of Kabalat Shabat. Speakers included Alicia Perl of NCI, Rabbi Eliyahu Galil of the Sefaradi Community, Sergio Gorzy, President of Central Committee of the Jewish community, Michel Grauser of Macabi, and Israeli Ambassador Nina Ben-Ami.

In the large halls, with many participants unfamiliar with the prayers, I found myself reverting 25 years in the past, to my days as an NCSY Youth Advisor, when we regularly held such events. I was walking up and down the hall, showing people the place in the prayer book, quieting talkers, encouraging people to partcipate and getting those familiar with what we were doing to do the same.

I was pleasantly surprised by the relative decorum and the high level of participation of people for many of whom this was their first Kabalat Shabat.

The singing was loud and emotional and we even managed to dance a few steps in the narrow passageway that was left to walk.

I gave a very short sermon, as is my custom, or perhaps even shorter than usual and I asked, challenged and dared congregants one thing: Turn off your cellphone until the end of Shabat. As a former salesman, I think I gave a good pitch – but you never know.

We had a festive kiddush after the services with delicious food provided by both the kitchens of Kehila and Yavne.

After most of the crowd left, about 100 youths moved up to the second floor to have a community dinner. Also oversubscribed. We had closed the booking at 70 people but somehow managed to squeeze everyone in and feed everyone well. Also great mix of people, a visiting chayal, travellers, Jewish student leaders, college students with no connection whatsoever to any Jewish institutions, and a broad spectrum of religious observance and identification. We were also joined later by Rabbi Mendy Shemtov of Chabad, who enhanced the evening.

The young shlichim and shlichot organized an entertaining game for the dinner which complimented the singing and words of Torah. For a percentage of participants who had never experienced a Shabat prayer or dinner, it was an eye-opening event.

We had also placed a number of individuals, groups and families in the homes of hosts and encouraged others to invite people who wouldn’t have had a Shabat dinner otherwise. I estimate that at least 100 people were invited out for Shabat dinners, if not more.

In Yavne, the following day, we had a communal lunch, with 180 participants split up between two halls. While the majority were regular synagogue attendees there were a number of notable newcomers who participated in the meal. Throughout the day and the night we also had multiple occasions to celebrate Tamara’s birthday. She probably has never had so many people sing and wish her a Happy Birthday in her life (I estimate that throughout the 24 hours, over 500 different people managed to sing to her.)

The Shabat ended with the Havdala Event.

This was conducted in the outdoor grounds of the Integral School. We must have had over 300 participants. There was a strong showing from the Macabi youth group as well as that of communal leaders who weren’t able to attend the other events.

Rabbi Oved Avrech led the Havdala ceremony in the engaging Carlebach style. Then the school band played an excellent medley of four songs. The only one which I recognized was the Beatles’ 8 Days a Week.

Then the Macabi group, the winner of the recent “Noharia” (competition between the different Jewish youth movements) finished the event with a recreation of their prize-winning play. I’m not sure I understood a lot of it, but what I did was very interesting, thought-provoking and very well done. These kids have futures as thespians.

However, the absolute highlight for me were the reports and accounts that came in afterwards. How moving or meaningful someone found some aspect of one of the events. How enjoyable being hosted for Shabat dinner was. One woman confessed that she kept her phone off for the entire Shabat. One attendee admitted that for the first time in his life, he closed his store for Shabat. One man blushingly relayed that he kept Shabat in its entirety.

For each one of these, the entire effort was worth it. And I am sure there are many more stories and events that I haven’t heard.

This was a massive effort that spanned all the communities, utilized the resources of the two main Jewish schools and the Hillel center and required the cooperation of multiple organizations. No one institution could have done this alone, nor would it have been nearly as successful. More than the feeling or observence of Shabat that this event engendered it demonstrated the power and strength of community unity.

In my Havdala talk I said that when we are united, we are invincible. We need to remember that, not only during troubles, not only during rare events. We need to remember that when we are united, we are invincible – every day.

Perfidious Friends

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Genesis: Noach

Perfidious Friends

When being dishonest, people can still tell the truth. Be mindful of the treacherous that do not lie. -Eric Parslow

The generation that God decided to destroy by flooding the land was considered particularly evil. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 6:11 gives an example of their behavior: Ruben would ask his friend Simon to guard his money as well as a persimmon. Helpful Simon, wanting to take good care of Ruben’s belongings would dig up the hiding place of his own treasure and place Ruben’s money and persimmon together with his own hard-earned possessions.

Later that night, Ruben would explore the grounds around helpful Simon’s property. Ruben would then detect the faint but unmistakable smell of the persimmon. Ruben, with his handy shovel, proceeds to dig out his money as well as all of helpful Simon’s treasure.

Now Ruben did not do anything that was “illegal”. There is nothing wrong with asking his friend to guard his belongings. There is nothing wrong with going around digging in public property. If by digging one should incidentally discover something of value, strictly speaking, it is ownerless and free for the taking. There isn’t even anything “illegal” with arranging things to work out that way.

However, what is patently clear is that Ruben abused and took advantage of his friend’s kindness in a most horrible way. He might have done it legally; he might have never told a lie, or gone against any laws – but it is clearly, horribly wrong.

God looks beyond the letter of the law. God doesn’t care if we follow the laws perfectly if we corrupt the spirit. God wants the heart. God wants the soul. There is an innate morality and good that is beyond what is written in any book and He wants that as well.

May we have occasions to understand and reach the spirit of the law.

Shabat Shalom,



To all the volunteers, contributors, organizers and participants in the Uruguay Shabbos Project. It is already a huge success and I look forward to together enjoying the fruit of our labors. Yasher Koach!