Archive for October, 2010

Israel’s Oldest and Greatest Museum

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

What is the purpose of having a Holocaust Museum? Why do we build a place like Yad Vashem? Mostly, it is to remind people of the evil that was committed so that humanity learns a lesson from the history and never let it happen again.

There is a museum (figuratively) in Israel that speaks to us from almost 4000 years ago. No, it’s not the Kotel, that is only 2200 years old! I’m talking about the Dead Sea.

Hashem destroyed the Dead sea in such a way that it remains a lesson and monument that speaks to us until today.The Torah tells us that the Dead Sea area was inhabited by Sodom and Gomorrah. The area was the most fertile land in Israel “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the Garden of the Lord (Genesis 13:10).” Sodom was the most luxurious, wealthy and naturally irrigated area in Israel. It had Beverly Hills’ prosperity with the best natural conditions one could ask for.

Unfortunately, the people of Sodom took all that wealth and success and created the most selfish, immoral society possible with it. They created a constitution that forbade helping any stranger in need with penalty of death! The motto of Sodom was (according to our Rabbis) “What’s mine is mine and yours is yours”. Life was about how much you collected, not what you did with it. In other words, they became incredibly spoiled and self centered from being on “easy street”.

Hashem created destruction so powerful that four thousand years later, nature hasn’t recovered. It is still the Dead Sea (contrast that to the speed that the Gulf of Mexico has been cleaning itself of the oil spill) totally barren and dead! That was and is a monument to speak to the Jewish people in Israel “Look where unbridled materialism ends up. Look what happens when you take the blessings of Hashem and think that they for you only!

Unfortunately, the danger of Sodom life still exists. It is easy for a person to think that their luxuries in life are more important than helping others and sharing. “Charity begins at home” is a very easy phrase to abuse. It is probably not referring to one’s winter home in Vail.

It is Ok to enjoy the blessing Hashem gives us as long as we remain aware of the lessons on Sodom and make sure we don’t become spoiled and selfish in the process. 

How easy is it to be simple?

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

How easy is it to be simple?

Sometimes the simplest route is really the most profound. It just requires us seeing the depth of the simplicity.

My father in law, Yossi Berkowitz A”H, passed away suddenly on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. He seemed to live a very Poshut (simple) life. Yet the more I look and hear, the more I realize there is a lot to take notice of. Perhaps it is a lesson, seems it isn’t so simple being simple.

Dozens of people came to the bais avel, saying the same basic message, with different variations “We loved Yossi; he drove us to the airport three or four times a year when we went to Israel”. Really? A guy drove you to the airport (not as a favor, rather for pay) a few times a year and he was a close friend because of that?! He did some deliveries for you and you’re now in tears from his passing?

How did a man living in the sea of Jews in Brooklyn, seem to touch so many people? He didn’t have money, didn’t have community clout, yet so many felt close to him. For the past decade he drove a car service, a seeming mundane job, yet he became friends with people all over the world, used his job to do constant chessed and connected to Hashem with the way he did it.

As Chazal say about certain individuals that they were mechayiv others (like Hillel took away any excuse from poor people not to learn). One could perhaps say that my father in law was mechayiv all of us to find a way to maximize our avodas Hashem, no matter what the job we have is!

Nate Segal, the national Askan for Torah Umesorah, was standing outside the funeral chapel when I pulled up. He gave me a hug and said “He was a nice guy, he was a nice guy”. Perhaps this is the first part of the answer to our question. Simply put, my father in law was a nice guy, a mentch. It can be easy to underestimate the power of just being a nice person.

The second part of the answer is the chessed that he did. Constantly taking advantage of his knowledge of people making trips to Israel, he would send along medications and other needed items to families in Israel and have his customers be a part of the chessed he was doing. If someone didn’t have money to pay for the ride, he’d let them send money later, or if they were going to Israel, drop it off at his daughter’s apartment in Israel.

Olam Chessed Yiboneh.

Most importantly, in the answer is based on a famous piece from R Dessler that I said at the funeral. Chazal tell us that Chanoch connected to Hashem on the deepest mystical levels while he made shoes as a shoemaker. R’ Yisroel Salanter explains how one connects to Hashem on the DEEPEST level while being a shoemaker. He says that Chanoch put every effort in the shoes he made that they should be the best for the customer. He concerned himself that they should fit, be comfortable and last a long time for his customers. Not so that he could sell more shoes, rather because he cared that he was always giving 100%+ effort and quality. In that way he connected to Hashem, the ultimate giver who gives without his concern for what he will receive.

I believe this summed up my father in law perfectly. He cared for those he worked for. He didn’t just take you to the airport, he made sure your luggage wasn’t overweight and he did all he could to make your experience better. Although he needed to be paid to make a living, it wasn’t ABOUT being paid. It was about doing the best for the person he was helping.  His engine ran on giving not taking. That is the ultimate way to be like Hashem and it is the greatest way to create love between others.


That is how a “simple” car service driver and community member touched so many.


It was this same middah that made him such a special Sabba to his grandchildren. He always gave all his unconditional love to them and they understood that. When my wife told my six year old. Shabsie, that his Sabba had loved him (in an effort to console him) he said honestly, “I know”. As far as my children knew he was the wealthy, because he always got them something special that they didn’t need and he always sent a special treat to them when he could.


Hashem judges us, not on the circumstances he puts us into, rather on what we accomplish with what we have.  My father in law squeezed every opportunity to be all he could be with the cards he was given. In retrospect, that’s far from simple.