April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Growing up in Bensonhurst afforded me certain opportunities other boys my age did not have. As an example, immediately after my bar mitzvah, I became gabbai of the Young Israel. The shul had been aging significantly for some time, and I was afforded the opportunity since I had an interest. There was nobody who davened with us who was within 50 years of my age, and “the powers that be” enjoyed the vibrancy of the young blood I represented.

At first I was just the gabbai for laining itself, but in the absence of the shul’s main gabbai, I gave out the aliyot one Shabbat in May. It was a Shabbat that I will never forget. I didn’t know that the minhag of the shul was to give the aliyah in which tochacha (rebuke) is mentioned in Parshat Bechukotai as well as in Ki Tavo, to the baal koreh. I gave the aliyah to an elderly European man who was at first honored that I asked him, but shortly after the aliyah, insisted that I purposefully insulted him. I still remember my embarrassment vividly. I apologized profusely but to no avail. The rabbi of the shul tried to spin what happened so that I and the man would not feel badly, but the damage was done. My relationship with that gentleman was never the same. There was a reason for his extreme sensitivity to what happened. Many shuls have customs surrounding the reading of the tochacha that go back generations. The most common custom is that the tochacha itself is read in a very low voice. The premise for the various customs regarding this particular Torah reading is that the pesukim read, speak of the terrible tragedies and hardships that will befall a person or peoples who do not follow the path of the Torah.

The Chafetz Chaim had a completely different approach to the tochacha and felt that the various customs surrounding its reading were not only overly dramatic but completely wrong. He gave the following parable to explain his position. A person was warned by others concerned for his safety not to walk on a certain path that had been known to be inhabited by wild animals, and whose landscape was dangerous with thorns. The person who was warned appeared to not heed the alarm of others, and proceeded down the path, but did so with a blindfold covering his eyes so that he wouldn’t see all of the danger that he was warned about. This individual obviously missed the intention of the message but now placed himself in even greater danger. The Chafetz Chaim continued by quoting Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei who encourages us to embrace and not shy away from the mussar that Hashem shares with us. There are those who believe that if they don’t hear the words of rebuke, no ill will come upon them. To the contrary, insisted the Chafetz Chaim, those who do not hear the words of the tochacha are placing a blindfold on their eyes and placing themselves in grave danger.

Perhaps this important lesson can be applied to other areas of our lives as well. Exposure therapy is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy that exposes the individual to the stimuli which is causing hardship for the individual on some level. It is most commonly used in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder and other phobias. The reasoning behind the theory is that if the individual is cognitively aware of the stress they experience when exposed to the stimuli or trauma, they will slowly conquer the anxiety and distress associated. The message of the Chafetz Chaim is clear. In order for us to be successful in life, we must confront and conquer the challenges that we face and not avoid them. Avoidance will not help us internalize the message of the tochacha, rather, exposure will. The message of the tochacha is harsh, but its goal is to encourage us to live a life of meaning and structure guided by the laws of the Torah.

By Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler

Eliezer Zwickler is senior rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, NJ. Rabbi Zwickler is also a psychotherapist-LCSW in private practice, focusing on couples therapy. Listen to Rabbi Zwickler’s webdvar on the Nachum Segal Network at 9pm each Motzei Shabbat, or on his YouTube channel (ezwickler). Rabbi Zwickler can be reached at [email protected].

 

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