In Memoriam — Rabbi Ephraim Oratz z”l

b92860e65887faf3c6b5b12489ceb912How do you start to describe the one person most responsible for launching you on the path that has defined you for nearly a quarter century?

I never had any great desire to be a classroom teacher until I found myself under the tutelage of Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, whose unparalleled pedagogic genius and vast reservoir of Torah knowledge inspired me to embark upon my career as a rebbe.  Whatever I have accomplished in the field of Torah education is primarily because of him.

Rav Oratz was — if I may be permitted to use the term — the ultimate Torah-Renaissance man.  He possessed the passion of the Amshinover chassidim, theyekkishe precision of the German Jews, the academic discipline of the Lithuanian scholars, and the worldly nobility of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, all rolled up — as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz would say — into one selfless, total servant of the Almighty.

Rav Oratz was truly of the old school, with countless stories about growing up in the post-depression years, about learning and teaching in the old American day school system, about playing stickball on the streets of New York.  He told me once how his father had to go out every Monday morning to find new employment, because his Sabbath-observance cost him his job time and time again.  More incredibly, Rav Oratz didn’t learn of this until years later; his parents kept the children in the dark so they wouldn’t feel insecure.

In our coddled generation, that kind of mesiras nefesh — self-sacrifice — is almost entirely forgotten.

Coddling was one term absent from Rav Oratz’s educational lexicon.  He understood with every fiber of his being that self-esteem is not given, it is acquired by learning discipline and discovering the joy that comes from struggle and success.  He never acknowledged good work with exuberant cries of excellent, fantastic, or well done.  Instead he responded with a silent nod, a quick smile, a short nu, nu or, on one extraordinary occasion, with not bad, not bad at all.  That was high praise indeed.

Rav Oratz would arrive exactly two minutes before each class, replace his hat with his yarmulke in one smooth, practiced motion, then look inscrutably around the room, which was usually less than half full when it was time to begin.  On one occasion, when there were only two of us present on time, he looked at me and asked, “Is something else going on this evening?”

I shrugged my shoulders.  Rav Oratz shook his head.  “Just one of those things I guess I’ll never understand,” he said.

There weren’t many things Rav Oratz didn’t understand.  In two years of classes I never heard him unable to answer a question, although he could hold his tongue indefinitely when he wanted us to come up with the answers on our own.

“Wouldn’t you have hated to have him as a rebbe?” a member of the Ohr LaGolah leadership-training program once commented — after Rav Oratz was safely out of earshot.

“Wouldn’t you love to have had him as a rebbe now?” I shot back.

There’s nothing more inspirational than witnessing a true master do something as well as it can be done.  Watching Rav Oratz teach made me want to be a teacher.  That was it.  My course in life was set, without prompting, without a sales pitch, with just enough encouragement to convince me that I could succeed if I put my heart into it.  And I wanted nothing more than to do what he could do, even if I did it only half as well he could.

Read the whole essay here.


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Recovering the Crowns of Wisdom

By Merav Munk
Class of 2015


imagesWe are all aware that when the Jewish people received the Torah they said “na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do and we will listen.”  Rav Simoi taught that right before they said nishma, 600,000 malachim descended from heaven and placed two crowns on the head of every Jew — one for na’aseh and one for nishmah (Shabbos 88a).

Ultimately, the Torah is an expression of Hashem’s will; and, because Hashem is infinite, so too His Torah. However, since people in this world have limited intellect, we cannot fully grasp Hashem’s will and therefore have to trust in His infinite wisdom.

According to human logic, it would have made more sense to say nishmah before na’aseh. But had the Jews done so, it would have revealed that they wanted to decide with their limited intellect if Hashem’s infinite wisdom is good for them, and only then accept it.

By saying na’aseh first, the Jews accepted Hashem’s Torah before they had the opportunity to understand it at all. Only afterward did they say nishmah, showing that they were and are ready to open their hearts and minds to understand Hashem’s will and trusting that Hashem would help us succeed in doing so.

But where did the Jewish people conjure up the strength to say na’aseh before nishmah? Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l tells us that they learned this from Avraham Avinu.

When Hashem promised Avraham that his own children would be inherit his legacy, He took Avraham outside and told him to count the stars. When Avraham did as he was commanded, Hashem then asked, “Are you able to count them?”

Why would you even attempt to count the stars, a job clearly impossible for a human being? But this is what Hashem meant:  Just as you, Avraham, tried to fulfill My will no matter how impossible it might seem, “So shall be your offspring.” This alludes to na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do even before we know why were doing it, even if there seems to be no way we can succeed.

A Jew cannot possibly accept the Torah on the condition that he understands it.  But if we are ready to accept the Torah with no questions asked, then Hashem will open our minds and hearts to his will and bless us with true understanding.

With Hashem’s help, we will merit to have those crowns returned to our heads as it says,”Those redeemed by Hashem will return and come to Tzion in song, and everlasting happiness upon their heads.”

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An Army of “One”

By Atara Ozar
Class of 2015

Parshas Bamidbar

Members of the Armed Forces Honor Guard march in unison during the departure ceremony for former president Gerald R. Ford in Palm Springs, Calif., Dec. 30, 2006.  DoD personnel are helping to honor Ford, the 38th president of the United States, who passed away on Dec. 26th. Ford's remains will be flown to Washington, D.C., for a state funeral in the Capitol Rotunda and a funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral, followed by burial services in Michigan.  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. AlecKleinsmith) (Released)

Why did Hashem command Moshe to take a census of the Jewish People?  And why at this specific moment, in the emptiness of the Sinai desert?

Rashi explains that Hashem counts Bnei Yisrael because they are dear to Him. Just like a person who owns a special collection will count each item in it again and again, Hashem counts His people frequently out of love.

Ramban, on the other hand, explains that Hashem instructs this counting in anticipation of the wars the Jews would have to fight when they entered Eretz Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael would have to know how many people would be in their army in order to apportion the different jobs and responsibilities necessary for an army to succeed. The number of counted men comprised “everyone who goes out to the army in Yisrael” (Bamidbar 1:3). Together, the answers of Rashi and Ramban teach us a valuable lesson important to keep in mind as we experience the Festival of Shavuos.

In davening we say v’sein chelkeinu b’Sorasecha, “and grant us our portion in Your Torah.”  We must strive to realize that we each have individual “portions” in Torah — each person in Klal Yisrael has an individual purpose and place in Torah and serving Hashem.

Sometimes a person may compare himself to others and mistakenly think he is inferior, or can never reach the level that the others have reached. This can cause people to feel negatively about themselves, and lose confidence in their ability to become close to Hashem.

But in reality, Hashem gives each person the individual tools he needs to serve Hashem properly. When we daven to Hashem to grant us a portion in His Torah, we are asking for help in using the tools He has given us to fulfill our individual purpose in serving Him.

According to the explanations of Rashi and Ramban, this week’s parsha brings out this idea beautifully. Rashi says Hashem counts us all the time because He loves us. He loves each and every one of us, and though it may seem that others have it better than we do, in truth Hashem takes care of us individually and gives us everything we need to serve Him. According to the Ramban, just like Moshe counted the men to determine each person’s specific unit and position in the army, Hashem gives each one of us a specific job in His “army” with the special tools he needs to properly fulfill his unique mission.

During the Festival of Shavuos, the time of the giving of our Torah, each of us should focus on recognizing how to fulfil his individual portion in Torah. It is a time to look at our strengths, weaknesses, and every aspect of our lives and calculate how we can direct them toward serving Hashem and performing His will.
Adapted from a dvar Torah by Rav Ginsburg.

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Preparing for the Season Ahead

By Rivki Levy
Class of 2017

Parshas Behar/Bechukosai

AntGrasshopperAmong the agricultural laws the Jews have to observe upon entering the Land of Israel are the prohibitions of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year in which the land may not be worked in any way. As implied by its name, there must be some connection between the Shemittah year and Shabbos.  But how are the two related?

Six days you shall labor, says the Torah.  In order to have food for Shabbos, we have to prepare through the whole week before Shabbos; in the same way, if we want to have food for the Shemittah year, we have to have been planting and working our fields for 6 years. The six days before Shabbos correspond to the six years before the Shemittah year, and Shabbos — the seventh day — corresponds to Shemittah — the seventh year. We learn from the Shemittah year and the Shabbos day that if we want something done, we need to prepare beforehand. We can’t be lazy; we need to get up and get everything done that needs to be done.

This same idea can be found Mishlei 6:8, when Shlomo HaMelech says that “she prepares her bread in the summer and collects her food in the spring.”  Here Shlomo is referring to the ant, whose diligent work ethic contrasts with the indolence of a lazy person.  The ant works all year, collecting her supplies in the spring and storing them away throughout the summer so she’ll have them in the winter, when there is no food to be found.

The Malbim explains that just as the ant collects raw materials in the spring, so too we should collect for ourselves Torah knowledge while we’re young. And just like the ant finishes preparing the food in the summer, so too we should develop the Torah knowledge of our youth so that it grows into wisdom and understanding as we get older. Finally, just like the ant prepares all her food for the winter, when food is no longer available, all our Torah learning prepares us for the World to Come, a place where there is no further opportunity to perform mitzvos or earn eternal reward.

Of course, most of us don’t spend every moment of the week planning for Shabbos, and the double-portion promised before the arrival of the Shemittah years seems to make it unnecessary to prepare any food at all.  According to the Malbim, therefore, it must be that our preparation during the six work days is to remain focused on the goal of Shabbos and the work we do for six years is to be able to merit the miracles of Shemittah.  Like anything good in life, only the effort we put into something makes us appreciate how valuable it is.

Both of these examples show that we are in this world only for the purpose of preparing for the next. If there were no World to Come, there would be no reason for this world to exist at all.  Our purpose in this world is to do as many mitzvos and learn as much Torah as we can so that we can enjoy the spiritual reality of the next world. Just like the Midrash says, there is no anteroom if there is no ballroom, because the anteroom only exists to lead into the ballroom. So we all have to try our best to remember that nothing in this world has any real value except when we use it to prepare ourselves for the true reality of the World to Come!

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A Walk to Eternity

Parshas Acharei/Kedoshima55890a2d0f1ca0eed7092c2ad10105d

By Adira Weisel
Class of 2016

“My ordinances you shall do, and My statutes you shall observe, to walk with them, I am Hashem, Your G-d.” (Lev. 18:4).

Our question is, what does it mean to “walk with” Hashem’s statutes?

According to Rashi, this phrase means to “toil in Torah.”  Involvement in studying and observing the will of G-d is not a matter to be taken lightly.  It is not a pastime, not a hobby, not even a second job.  We should value the opportunity that Torah provides us to the degree that it becomes a passion that infuses every aspect of our lives and constantly occupies our thoughts.

The Ksav Sofer adds an additional layer of interpretation: to “walk with” Hashem’s statutes obligates us to advance continuously from one level to the next, always going up spiritually. Every day we have to try to reach a higher level than the level we were on the day before.

In other words, when it comes to spiritual growth, we can never say that we’ve reached a level that’s high enough, must never believe that we don’t need to grow more. Just the opposite, we should welcome challenges and difficult tests that come our way, for without these we won’t even remain where we are but will slip backward bit by bit.

The Sfas Emes explains that this is why spiritual levels are called madregos — literally, “steps.”  LIfe is like a staircase, we go up step by step, and the moment we push ourselves up to the top of one step, we are immediately at the bottom of the next one.  We never really reach the top, since every challenge leads to another.

By keeping this in mind, we will “walk with” the mitzvos by observing Hashem’s Torah to the fullest and achieving everything we can achieve.


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Parshas Kedoshim Podcast

Finding the Extraordinary within the Ordinary

imgresWhat does it mean to be kadosh — “holiness” and “sanctity” are concepts that don’t register in modern society.  If we think that holiness requires us to retreat behind the walls of our study halls and places of worship, the Torah says otherwise.

Click here for a 5-minute audio lecture.

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