Reviewing: “Rav Yaakov Bender on Chumash 2,” by Rav Yaakov Bender. ArtScroll Mesorah Publications. 2023. Hardcover. English. 300 pages. ISBN #: 9781422632802.
(Courtesy of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications) Rabbi Yaakov Bender has taught 10s of 1000s of Jews: His many talmidim, the teachers he has counseled and guided, the parents he has advised and of course, the many 1000s of readers of his sefarim. He has taught them all about ahavas Hashem, ahavas HaTorah, ahavas Yisrael and yes, how to love themselves as well.
In a new second volume of “Rav Yaakov Bender on the Chumash,” this distinguished rosh yeshiva once again explores many of the Chumash’s timely and contemporary messages of strength, hope and chizuk. He begins with an insight on the parsha, and then shows us how the eternal and holy words of the Chumash are so relevant to us. He gently helps us find our own strengths and reach ever higher.
And he tells stories... So many stories! Rabbi Bender shares personal memories of his illustrious family. He brings us rare and often unknown stories about the gedolim we know and revere. There are “everyday gedolim” as well—people like you and me—men and women who take achrayus (responsibility), courageously face what life brings them and often achieve greatness. And, of course, he draws inspiring life lessons from the talmidim who are so central to his life.
The first volume of “Rav Yaakov Bender on the Chumash” has become a welcome guest at so many Shabbos tables. Now, in Volume 2, we can share even more of Rabbi Bender’s warmth, passion and love for the klal with our families, enhancing both our Shabbos and our lives.
The following is a selection from the book on parshas Va’eira:
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וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם.
And Hashem said to Moshe, “Say to Aharon,
‘Take your staff and stretch your hand over the waters of Egypt’” (7:19).
I was sitting in the middle of the circle, enjoying the nachas and pure simcha of my daughter’s wedding, family and friends dancing all around us, when I saw the radiant face of the elderly rosh yeshiva, Rav Don Ungarischer. I was shocked, because while there had been years when the rosh yeshiva—a cousin of my mother-in-law—had participated in our simchas, but now he was already old and frail. His presence was unexpected. I was honored when he sat next to me, and then Rav Don—the son-in-law of Rav Reuven Grozovsky and grandson-in-law of Rav Boruch
Ber Leibowitz—leaned over.
“Do you know why I am here?” he asked. “Tzulib dein Mammeh, because of your mother.”
As a bachur, Rav Don, his brother and his sister escaped Europe—leaving by ship—their parents meant to follow them on the next ship. Their parents never made it out, rachmana litzlan, and the Ungarischer children arrived in America as orphans. The two boys were welcomed at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, which had a dormitory, but their sister had no such opportunity: Where was she meant to go? It was my mother who took her in, welcoming her to our home—where she spent a significant period of time.
And Rav Don had not forgotten it.
In his comment that night in 2011, he taught me a new “din” in hakaras hatov. The familial relationship had obligated him to a certain extent, and he had joined us for many simchas, but now, old and weak, he was absolved—but the hakaras hatov remained.
It brought to mind the pasuk in this week’s parsha.
“And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Say to Aharon, “Take your staff and stretch your hand over the waters of Egypt and their rivers, and their lakes, and their ponds, and all of their gatherings of water, and it will be blood, and there will be blood in all of the land of Egypt, and in the stones and in the rocks”’ (7:19).”
Why did Moshe Rabbeinu pass this mission onto Aharon? As the leader, shouldn’t he have been the one to strike the water?
Rashi explained: Because the river protected Moshe when he was placed in it, he did not hit it, neither by the makah of dam (blood) nor the makah of tzefardei’a (frogs).
The baalei mussar wondered what difference it would have made to the water—which is inanimate and has no feelings—to have been struck. Would it have cared?
Furthermore—asks Rav Matisyahu Salomon—Rashi told us later on (8:12) that Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the earth for makas kinim (lice), because the earth had saved him by concealing the body of the Mitzri he killed, and so he was beholden to the earth as well. The Mitzri’s death was kept secret for only a single night because, ultimately, Dasan and Aviram told Pharaoh what happened and Moshe was forced to escape. As it turned out, the earth did not end up protecting Moshe Rabbeinu, so why was he forced to be makir tov?
Rav Matisyahu explains that for one night, Moshe Rabbeinu slept calmly, feeling confident that his secret was safe, and such is the nature of hakaras hatov—a person with good middos appreciates each and every act of kindness and sees himself as obligated. Because of that single night when he slept peacefully, Moshe felt unable to strike the earth.
Similarly, says Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the water might not feel it, but a person who strives to embody proper middos is incapable of forgetting the chessed: It is not about the giver, but the recipient.
Moshe lived with this hakaras hatov, and he could not allow himself to forget!
Rav Eliezer Silver was one of the most prominent rabbanim in America during the years of World War II, and from distant Cincinnati, he managed to help and aid new arrivals to the United States.
Along with his gaonus (greatness) in Torah, he was a chessed powerhouse.
One day, he saw a notice in the newspaper announcing the marriage of a new immigrant, Rav Nochum Zev Dessler, the nephew of his rebbe, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. How could he miss this simcha, when the young man likely had few—if any—family members? Rav Silver’s reverence for his rebbe and achrayus for the young man compelled him to travel to Cleveland.
A few years later, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler finally managed to visit his children in America, and he told them that he wished to thank Rav Silver for the warmth he had shown back when they had gotten married.
Rav Nochum Zev obtained Rav Silver’s phone number for his father.
“No,” said Rav Dessler, “I want to go thank him.”
Rav Dessler and his son headed off for Cincinnati, taking the overnight train and arriving in the pre-dawn hours.
In those years, many refugees traveled to Cincinnati, looking for Rav Silver to help them with money, with bureaucratic hurdles or with finding a job.
He greeted the Desslers and asked how he could help them.
“I came to thank you for coming to my son’s wedding,” Rav Dessler replied.
Rav Silver looked at him in disbelief, and then finally asked why a simple phone call would not have sufficed. “Because it is not the same thing,” said Rav Dessler.
Hakaras hatov means to recognize, to truly see and contemplate the depth of the good, and then the response becomes obvious to one ready to accept it.
Great people look directly at what was done for them—even if it might obligate them.
This is what I saw in the face of Rav Don Ungarischer that night. He had not forgotten, and he was ensuring that he would not forget a chessed done more than half a century earlier for his sister.
The debt remains … and the Ribbono shel Olam pays back.
Years after that wedding, I enjoyed the gift of another family simcha, when Malky, the daughter of my son, Moshe, married a chashuve young man named “Rabbi Shua Censor.” His grandmother was “Mrs. Censor,” the sister of Rav Don Ungarischer, the girl whom my mother had welcomed to our home—with the seeds planted decades earlier bearing new fruit.
Hakaras hatov starts with recognizing the glory, perfection and kindness in His Ways; then, the next step becomes obvious.
We say “modeh ani” each morning, and when we think about the words, we become a bit smarter. Then, we continue: “reishis chochmah, with that new insight … one should add a bit more yiras Shamayim, a bit more awe for the King of Kings.”