Tetzave -“Respect in a Vacuum” Continued: G-D’s Humility

  The last part of this week’s Torah portion of Tetzave discusses the Incense Altar in the Mishkan: “You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke of acacia wood shall you make it” (Shemos 30:1). The Torah goes on to describe the dimension of the altar and where it was placed in the Mishkan, which was right by the curtain separating the Kodesh from the Kodesh Hakodashim that held the Holy Ark, and the process of the incense offering. The Braisa d’Meleches HaMishkan, quoted in the Stone Chumash, says the section of the Mishkan outside the Kadosh Hakedoshim was ten cubits wide and the Altar was placed directly in front of the Ark, at center of the area’s width. The Menorah and the Shulchan were closest to the Curtain, and the Alter was midway between them, but further east. (Click here for a link to photos of the layout of the Mishkan)

The Bechor Shor says the reason for this altar is strictly to burn incense, because the kingship in Heaven is like kingship on earth; just like kings have perfumes and sweet smells all over the palace. The altar for offerings is like the kitchen with its counters and lights, and the kitchens are distant from the throne room of the king. Whereas the Shulchan, Menorah, and incense altar are closer and the Kadosh Hakedoshim, which is considered the room of The King and the place of His throne. Not that Hashem needs this, ‘For Mine is every beast of the forest the Behemoth of a thousand mountains, I know all the bird of the mountains’ (Tehillim 50:10, 11). It also says after that, ‘Were I hungry I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and its fullness’ (there pasuk 12). Rather, Hashem wanted to make the Jews righteous as the sages said, ‘Hashem wanted to bring merit upon the Jews therefore He mounted upon them a lot of Torah and Mitzvos’ (Mishna in Makkos 3:16). This is also why He rested His Shechina (Holy Presence) amongst them, so that fear and trepidation of Him would be upon them. And He enacted to bring offerings for oaths and gifts, and sin offerings and guilt offerings, daily offerings and mussaf offerings to atone for them. For when a person sins and he sees and knows he is atoned for [through an offering] and he knows he is clean [of his sin if he also repented] then he will be more careful to not sin again and dirty himself in sin. But if one would be unaware of an atonement and he would sin today and tomorrow and he would just think I am dirty with sins anyway, then he would not be as careful [to not sin] anymore. So too, the Sages teach us, ‘once a person transgressed a sin and repeats it, he makes it as if it is permissible to himself’ (Yoma 86b). That is why Hashem set into the world the concept of sacrificial offering, as an atonement and Yom Kippur for forgiveness, in order to habituate themselves to not sin. It’s a parable to a person who has cleanly pressed white clothes. As long as his clothes are white, he is very careful not to get them dirty and stained. But once they get dirty, he is not as careful. That is why Hashem commanded us about the Service and sacrificial offerings. And that is what Shlomo says, ‘At all times your clothes should be white’ (Koheles 9:8).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is self-understood why it’s worthwhile for Hashem, by nature of being an all-perfect and all-giving Omnipresent to provide us with tons of mitzvos; so that we can perform them and accrue loads of merits, . It also makes sense that Hashem set up a system for when we do make mistakes, and the sacrificial process was a means to cleanse ourselves of those mistakes and deter us from further sin. However, why did Hashem in essence “belittle” Himself by focusing His Holy Presence, the Shechina, within the Beis Hamikdash in order to instill an extra sense of Fear of G-D into us, and receive the same type of honor and respect as a human king would, to the extent that the Bechor Shor in last week’s Torah portion says that incense was used by kings to make their palace smell nicer, all the more so Hashem, The King Of All Kings, should have incense burning in His palace, and His Shechina would not come down and rest in Holy of Holies until the incense was offered? Isn’t it a contradiction of sorts for Hashem to “belittle” Himself for the sake of instilling us with more fear?

Imagine a king dressed up in fancy royal clothing, fine robes, a jeweled crown, and he comes to visit one of his cities. The citizens come out to greet him and present him with a personalized sports team jersey. He accepts it graciously because he wants his citizens to appreciate and respect him, but he really isn’t sure what he would do with such an item. There is no need for it in the royal palace; he only accepts it to gain a closer relationship with his followers. This is how Hashem feels with the incense burned and menorah lit in the Beis Hamikdash. It’s a sign of respect to the king; it’s not needed for Hashem, but He is willing to accept it in order that His subjects will revere, love, and respect Him.
This is Hashem’s humility, as we find in the beginning of the chapter on Humility in Sefer Maalos Hamiddos: “My Children, come and I will teach you the quality of humility. My children, you should know that the quality of humility is a great quality and honorable in order to reach all the other character traits. For we see that Hashem acts with humility with His creatures. We find this in a medrish (Medrish Tanchuma, Vayera, 2), ‘our sages have taught that in 7 places Hashem dealt with the lowly groups…’ Our sages elsewhere said (Megilla 31a), ‘Having mentioned the haftara read on Yom Kippur, the Gemara cites that which Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you also find a reference to His humility adjacent to it. Evidence of this fact is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings… It is repeated in the Prophets: “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, Whose name is sacred” (Isaiah 57:15), and it is written immediately afterward: “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15)…Meaning, even though ‘I dwell in exaltedness and holiness, with Me is the contrite and humble spirit.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We see from here that Hashem, whom King Dovid said about Him in Tehillim (93:1) “Hashem will have reigned, He will have donned grandeur; Hashem will have donned might,” that He is the only One with the right to be haughty and lofty and still acts with humility and personally deals with, helps, and sustains every living creature, even the lowest of the low. Not only that, but He accepts the honor given to him though in reality it is petty and unneeded.

We can learn a very practical lesson from Hashem’s humility. We too must show humility and be willing to lower ourselves down to whatever level is needed to help others. We must be able to relate to others and have them be able to relate to us so that we can guide them and teach them how to go on the proper path and live a wholesome life. For example, if you are a parent you should be ready to come down to the floor and sit with your little children to play a game or read a book with them. This creates a bond which in time creates a deep love, trust, and emulation of you, the parent, by the children. And when they come home from school and they drew a picture of you and him or her to hang on the wall or fridge you should accept it with excitement and gratitude even though it looks quite silly and it’s a waste of paper and space on the wall. But that’s the child’s way of showing love and respect, and it creates an everlasting bond between child and parent. By doing this we are emulating Hashem!

Hashem in the same way accepts the incense and rested His Shechina in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash after the incense was offered. Even though it’s a waste and unneeded for Him personally. However, it was a display of honor to The King and created a closer relationship between Him and us, His subjects. May it be an example to us all to instill humility into ourselves and apply it, where appropriate, into practice.

Teruma – Respect in a Vacuum

The Moshav Zekeinim presents a conundrum which he doesn’t have an answer to in this week’s Torah portion of Teruma, which discusses the measurements of the Mishkan. “One can ask how did Aharon enter the Mishkan to set up the candles and offer incense? Doesn’t it say in Shabbos 92a that the Leviim were 10 amos tall, (which is taller than 15 feet,) but the height of the mishkan was also 10 amos and besides that he also wore the Turban on his head? It says in Sukkah 7b, ‘A person occupies the space of one amah (18.9-22.7 inches) thus Rebbe Yochanan means that the sukkah must have a circumference of 24 amos, 4 amos by 4 amos for how else could they sit in the Sukkah,’ all the more so how can a person who is 10 amos tall enter a building 10 amos tall with his turban still on? If you would want to say he just bent his head when he entered to do The Service, that doesn’t make sense because if a person would not do such a thing in front of a human king, unless his intent is to bow, all the more so it should not be done before the King Of All Kings, and therefore tzarich iyun, (this needs some introspection.)” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Moshav Zekeinim, one of the Baalei Tosfos, can’t understand how Aharon could have entered the Mishkan, because the reality is he would have had to bend down to enter, and not walking upright would have shown a lack of respect to a human king, all the more so to Hashem the King Of All Kings. Bending down is also clearly not a form of bowing, which would have been respectful, and even to do some sort of bow was not what was supposed to be done when coming into the Mishkan ,at least at that point. So that was not a good solution to resolve the issue according to the Moshav Zekeinim; therefore, he was left with a question of what Aharon did.

But why isn’t it possible that Hashem, Who was the architect of the Mishkan and Who is perfect and knew exactly what He was doing when making it, obviously did not make a mistake? So either He didn’t feel it was a lack of respect for Aharon to bend down when walking into the Mishkan, or had forgone the respect He deserved because there was an apparent reason for these dimensions even if we don’t understand what they are. If that is the case, why is the Moshav Zekeinim puzzled?

It must be that there is such a thing as respect in a vacuum. Logic dictates this is the proper way to act, and logic in this case is based on a fortiori, (kal vachomer) which is a plausible way to understand things according to Torah logic. If this is the way to treat human Kings, then all the more so it makes sense that this is the way Hashem should be treated, without any questions.

What’s incredible is that human respect and dignity is taken into account in Divine decisions; but there is a precedent for that as well. Earlier in the Torah portion it discusses the parts and ingredients needed for the building of the Mishkan, one of them being oil to light the menorah. The Moshav Zekeinim asks in the name of the Bechor Shor that the entire list includes what was needed for the building of the Mishkan, even the oil needed to anoint the mishkan was for the mishkan, and the ingredients for the incense were to make the building smell good, but the oil to light the menorah was for the service, not for the building so why was it listed here? The Moshav Zekeinim answers that just as a table and incense is needed for the palace, a fortiori, all the more so from the fact that a human king needs it, so too oil is needed for lighting up the palace. For it is not the way of a king to enter his palace until it is lit. Even though the light isn’t needed [for Hashem], it is still, kavod, honor, to the One On High to have it in his palace, the Mishkan. Therefore, it’s part of the very building, not just part of the service.

We see from here that there are certain things done out of honor for the king, as proper respect in a vacuum due to His status whether needed or not, it is expected to be expected.

Good Shabbos,
 Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Mishpatim -Properly Attuned to Gadlus HaAdam (Greatness of Mankind)

The last section of this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim goes into more detail about what took place around the time of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.
There are a few obscure pesukim in this week’s Torah portion. After the Jewish people said in unison, “naaseh vinishmah,” “we will do and we will listen,” the Torah records, “And Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the G-D of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G-D, and they ate and drank. And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Come up to Me to the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets, the Law and the commandments, which I have written to instruct them’” (Shemos 24:9-12).
One of the opinions brought in the Tur Hashalem is that these pesukim are simply comparing Moshe to the seventy elders, Nadav and Avihu. “’They ate and they drank’ in order to differentiate them from Moshe. For Moshe ‘saw Hashem’ just as they did but he did not eat for 40 days and 40 nights but they saw and ate immediately.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into perspective what Moshe was doing and what the elders and Nadav and Avihu were doing. The Tur says they ate the peace offering that was just sacrificed, at the bottom of the mountain, because a peace offering is normally eaten within the walls of Jerusalem by the Beis Hamikdash. Similarly, they ate the offering right next to the alter they had burned it upon, and not in the camp. They also drank wine because there was a great celebration made on the day of receiving the Torah, as it writes, “And you shall slaughter peace offerings, and you shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-D” (Devarim 27:7), referring to a mitzvah of rejoicing over the covenant with the Torah. It would seem that they were eating and drinking purely for the sake of Heaven, as a mitzvah, to rejoice upon receiving the Torah. This is also done by a siyum, upon concluding the Torah or a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud, and they were eating from offerings sacrificed to Hashem.

The Mesilas Yesharim in fact says in his last chapter, the chapter of Holiness, that it is the highest wrung of spirituality, right before the level of prophesy, which they were on: “The matter of holiness is dual. Its beginning is service [of G-d] while its end is reward; its beginning is exertion while its end is a [divine] gift. That is, its beginning is that which a man sanctifies himself, while its end is his being sanctified…The exertion is that which a man completely detaches and removes himself from the physical, and clings always, at all periods and times to his G-D…Even when he is engaged in physical actions required for his bodily side, his soul will not budge from its clinging on high…However, it is impossible for a man to place himself in such a state. For it is beyond his ability. He is after all a physical creature, of flesh and blood. Thus I said that the end of Holiness is a gift. For that which is in man’s ability to do is the initial exertion, pursuing true knowledge and continual thought on the sanctification of deed…Behold, for the man sanctified with the holiness of his Creator, even his physical deeds become actual matters of holiness. A sign of this is in “the eating of temple offerings”, which our sages of blessed memory said: “the priests eat and the owners obtain atonement” (Pesachim 59b)… But for the Holy man who constantly clings to his G-D, whose soul treads freely among true thoughts in love of his Creator and fear of Him, behold, it is considered as if he is walking before G-D in the Land of the Living, while still here in this world…Such a man is himself considered as a tabernacle, a temple and an altar. This is as our sages said (Breishis Rabba 62:6): ‘and G-D went up from him(Breishis 35:13) – the forefathers are the divine chariot.’ Likewise, they said: ‘the righteous are the divine chariot’…For the Shechina (Divine Presence) dwells within them just as it dwelled in the Temple. Due to this, the food they eat is like a sacrifice offered upon the fire of the altar, for certainly it was a great elevation for those things to be offered on the altar, since they were offered before the Shechina. The elevation was to such an extent that its kind, all over the world, was blessed, as our sages stated in a Midrash. So too, the food and drink which the holy man eats elevates that food or drink as if it had actually been offered on the altar…In this way was all use they made of the things of this world. Since they were clinging to G-D’s holiness, blessed be He, behold, it was an elevation and an enhancement for that thing which merited to be of use to a Tzadik (righteous person)…” 

This is certainly at least the level the Elders and Nadav and Avihu were on, if not a bit higher. Yet Moshe’s level transcended theirs to the point that he went up to Heaven for forty days and forty nights to receive the Torah without eating or drinking. In fact, the Moshav Zekeinim says that when the Torah says in pasuk 1 and 2 “And to Moshe He said, ‘Come up to Hashem, you and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and prostrate yourselves from afar. And Moshe alone shall approach Hashem but they shall not approach, and the people shall not ascend with him,’” Hashem sent the angel Michoel to be the guide to bring Moshe up to Heaven to receive the Torah. It would have been Matatron, the minister of all the angels, but he is very strict in judgement and Moshe asked for someone more merciful to guide him to the Throne of Glory. And in pasuk 16 it says, “And the glory of Hashem rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from within the cloud,” the Moshav Zekeinim says there that the gemara in Yoma 4b says that for those six days when Moshe was already on the mountain, before he ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, he was being emptied of all food from his innards. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish Kitapuach Bi’Atzei HaYa’ar, an obscure medrish which relates Moshe’s first encounter by the burning bush and certainly should apply also when receiving the Torah, says that after Moshe complained that he did not deserve to be leader, Hashem promised he would honor him and said, “’I will give all the ministers into your hands and I will bring you up to Heaven to see My throne of glory, and I will show you all the angels in Heaven.’ At that moment Hashem commanded Matatron, the Internal Minister of Heaven and said to him, ‘Go and bring Moshe my servant up to Heaven and take with you 15,000 angels on you right side and 15,000 angels on your left side with joy, song, drums and trumpets. And you all should sing praises to Moshe my servant. Matatron then said to Hashem, ‘Moshe can’t go up amongst the angels because there are angels who are made of fire and he is flesh and blood!’ Afterwards Hashem instructed Matatron and said to him, ‘Go and change his flesh into torches of fire and strength the might of the angel Gavriel.’ Matatron came to Moshe and when Moshe saw him he was immediately afraid of him and asked, ‘Who are you?’ [Matatron] said back to him, ‘I am Chanoch ben Yered, your great grandfather. Hashem has sent me to bring you up to His throne of honor.’ Moshe said back to Matatron, ‘I am flesh and blood and I can’t gaze at angels!’ Immediately he turned his flesh into torches of fire, and his eyes into balls of stars, and gave him the strength of the might of angels, and his tongue turned into a flame, and then he brought Moshe up to Heaven and with him 15,000 angels on his right, 15,000 angels on his left and Matatron and Moshe in the middle.” This was the awesome greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu which clearly amassed a very great level of closeness to Hashem, more than anyone one else can even truly fathom! So, we clearly see that as great and close to Hashem as the Elders, Nadav and Avihu were, Moshe Rabbeinu was much, much greater. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
However, Rashi has a different opinion of what happened to the Elders Nadav and Avihu. They clearly were on the level described above, for if not they could not have intellectually seen what they saw. But Rashi says on pasuk 10, and they perceived the G-D of Israel: “They gazed and peered and [because of this] were doomed to die, but the Holy One, blessed is He, did not want to disturb the rejoicing of [this moment of the giving of] the Torah. So He waited for Nadav and Avihu [i.e., to kill them,] until the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, and for [destroying] the elders until [the following incident:] “And the people were as if seeking complaints… and a fire of Hashem broke out against them and devoured at the edge (בִּקְצֵה) of the camp” (Bamidbar 11:1). [בִקְצֵה denotes] the officers (בִקְצִינִים) of the camp [i.e., the elders]. -[From Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alosecha 16]. In the next pasuk, 11, Rashi comments, “And upon the nobles: They are Nadav and Avihu and the elders. -[From Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alosecha 16] He did not lay His hand: This indicates that they deserved that a hand be laid upon them. and they perceived G-D: They gazed at Him with levity, while [they were] eating and drinking. So is the [interpretation of] Midrash Tanchuma (Beha’alosecha 16).”
What was the pinpoint error they had done wrong that deserved death, and how could such great people, of such a high spiritual stature, make such a mistake?

Rashi on Bamidbar 11:16 says  “They perceived G-D” (Shemos 24:11), behaving irreverently, like someone munching his bread while speaking to the king, and this is the meaning of “they ate and drank” (ibid.). 
The Mizrachi, a commentary on Rashi, says on pasuk 10 that the staring they did was a vision in their hearts, not physically staring with their eyes, but that they had this vision while eating and drinking, which was rude (and maybe even a bit haughty). The Mizrachi goes on to say that this staring was just a vision in their heart , not physical, for eyes cannot even perceive demons which eat and drink like humans and are mere mortals but they can only see but not be seen as Chazal say in Chagiga and Brachos, and many other places, therefore certainly in spiritual matters, and all the more so in terms of the Shechina (Holy Presence) itself. Since that is the case, they deserved to die because they entered within the inner walls. And from here Chaza”l learns that one should not ask what is above, below, within, or on the other side. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rashi and the Mizrachi are teaching us that the exact sin of the Elders, Nadav and Avihu is that they decided to look too closely into something which they were not on a level to perceive. Though they were on a very high level of spirituality to the point that they were fit to have prophecy, they went too far and crossed boundaries that only Moshe, who was totally void of physicality at the time, was allowed to perceive and engage in. We see in fact that Moshe did ask to “Show me Your glory” (Shemos 33:18), while beseeching mercy on the Children of Israel after the sin of the golden calf. Rashi there says, Moses perceived that it was a time of [God’s] good will, and his words were accepted, so he continued to ask that He show him the appearance of His glory. Moshe was not punished for this request and Hashem compromised and said, “’You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ And Hashem said: ‘Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock. And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen’ (Shemos 33:18-23 see Rashi there).”

We learn a very important lesson from here, that we have to know ourselves and know what level we are holding on, and must not try to jump the gun and attempt to understand or perceive things which we aren’t ready for or deserving of understanding yet. For example, I have a tradition from my rebbeim that a person should not even think about learning kabbala until he is at least forty years old and knows all of Shas. It takes knowledge and experience to start learning the depths of Torah that are extremely complex and esoteric. To start learning about it beforehand could be dangerous and devastating. Also to expect to find answers to questions like what exactly did the world look like before creation, or what will happen after 6000 years, or by the resurrection of the dead, or what does Gan Eden or Gehenim really look like are things that one might ponder but cannot and should not expect to get clear and precise answers about. One has to be on an extremely high level, like Yaakov Avinu was at the end of his life, to know what will be at the end of days, or before creation, and beyond this physical world in the seven Heavens.

One cannot just demand answers and expect to understand things which are beyond one’s scope of understanding and to pretend one can be on the level when they aren’t can be devastating physically and spiritually.

Yisro – How to Appreciate Every Jew

This week’s Torah portion of Yisro has the most important event of the Jewish People, Matan Torah – Hashem giving us the Torah on Mount Sinai. Before the Torah was given to the Jewish People, Hashem made a proposal to them, “You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I have borne you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me. And now, if you hearken well to My voice and observe my covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all people, for Mine is the entire world. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:4-6).

The Maalos Hamiddos, by Rav Yechiel ben Yekusiel ben Binyamin the doctor, who lived over 700 years ago, uses this as a basis of showing how Hashem loves the Jews and therefore each Jew should love his fellow Jew. The question is why this is so and how does this help one love his fellow Jew?

The Maalos Hamiddos says, “And just as one is obligated to love His Creator, so to each man has an obligation to love his friend. This is because the Jews are beloved by Hashem more than all the other nations. And because of this love He calls them His children, as it says ‘You are children to Hashem your G-D’ (Devarim 14:1)… And because of this love they are called kings and holy as it says ‘And you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation etc.’ (Shemos 19:6). The Rabbis (Vayikra Rabba 24:8) made a parable about this of the citizens of a country who made 3 crowns for the king. What did the king do? He put one crown on his head and two on his sons’ head. So to every single day the angels serenade the king with 3 expressions of holiness as they say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the G-D of Legions, His honor fills the entire land’ (Yeshaya 6:3). What does Hashem do? He crowns Himself with one and gives the other two to the Jews, as it says, ‘And they will declare Me holy and you will be holy (in plural) because I am holy’ (Vayikra 11:44). The Jews get two “holies” and Hashem one. And because of this love Hashem gave them the Torah which is a potion for life and as long as they are all involved in it no nation can control them. This is a parable, told by the Sages, likened to a king who had an only son from his queen. He also had children from concubines. The king sensed that the children of the concubines were jealous of his son and sought to harm him. The king said to himself, if G-D forbid it will happen what they wish to do to my son, what will be with my kingdom? What did the king do? He got up and brought his son close to him and put an amulet around his neck, so even if he is captured by them, they can’t hurt him. He also put together a kit of food, drink, clothes, medical equipment and even a wagon, so that no poison could cause damage. So to as long as all the Jews are involved in Torah learning, no nation is able to control them.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Maalos Hamiddos goes on for another page and a half proving in even more detail how much Hashem loves the Jews. Why is this a reason for each Jew to love his fellow Jew? It can’t be because the Torah says each Jew has an obligation to love his fellow Jew like himself, for he mentions that later, “Since Hashem loved the Jews so much, each Jew must then love each and every Jew like himself, as Moshe warns the Jews, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18)”…” Rather, it must be that Hashem is telling us there is a separate obligation for a Jew to love his fellow Jew because Hashem loves us. This seems to be because we have an obligation to emulate Hashem, so just as Hashem is merciful we should be merciful, just as He is gracious we should be gracious, so too just as Hashem loves the Jews we should love our fellow Jew. If that is the case, then why didn’t the Maalos Hamiddos just say that? Why did he go into so much detail about how much Hashem loves us?

The point was for us to analyze how much Hashem loves the Jews and to appreciate how to understand to love our fellow Jew. Let’s analyze the two examples from the Torah portion. Hashem could have only considered us servants of Him, and being servants of the king is pretty important; but how does one servant relate to a fellow servant? However, now that Hashem views us as his children and like kings, that means each one of us are royalty, princes and princesses to the King Of All Kings. Indeed, He is very valiant and treats us with even more respect than Himself by crowning us with two crowns of holiness and Himself with just one. Most people prefer to associate with important people because they are of higher stature and status, so now it’s easier and more realistic to be able to love such special people as ourselves. We aren’t just servants of Hashem we are princes and princesses, people who we would want to associate with and love.

Furthermore, Hashem out of His ultimate love and care created a forcefield around us that we can use at will to protect ourselves from bad influences and control by the outside world. The fact that Hashem went out of His way to make such a thing for His children is quite amazing and unique. It shows how much He cares for His children and again, the realization that each one of us was given this medical kit, or forcefield to protect ourselves makes us very special. People want to appreciate positively special people, especially if we all have the same objectives and goals, all together, which makes us unique. Therefore we see how Hashem has made it easier for us to love our fellow Jew.

Beshalach – A Deeper Level of Kindness

The manifestation of Hashem’s abundance of kindness and benevolence is clearly shown by the splitting of the sea in this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach.The whole world knew there was a miraculous event taking place, as Rashi (Shemos 14:21) says, “and the waters split: All the water in the world. — [from Mechilta & Shemos Rabbah 21:6].” The Yalkut Meam Loez (See Rav Baruch Chait’s Haggadah pages 113-115) enumerates the many miracles and kindnesses that took place for the Jewish people. “The water froze then split. The frozen water formed into twelve tunnels, one for each tribe. The paths in the sea formed a semi-circle. The Jews exited the sea the same side that they entered. The walls of the tunnel were hundreds of meters high. The waters of the sea on both sides of the tunnel rose up very high like the highest mountains and were visible from a great distance. As the Jews advanced, the sea split. In places where the seabed was deep the waters froze so that the solid floor that was formed was at the same height as the shoreline, thus the Jews did not have to climb down when entering or climb up when going out of the sea. The seabed then became solid like marble floor with a palatial, mosaic design. The tunnel walls were transparent like pure diamonds, so each tribe was able to see the other. The Pillar of Fire lit the tunnels like a room filled with many candles. The sides of the tunnel were lined with fruit trees for the people to eat. The air smelled of incense. The many flocks of animals ate the vegetation that grew from the floor. The frozen salty sea was drinkable like fresh, sweet, spring water. When people wanted to drink, the frozen water melted, then refroze like an icicle when they had finished.” Also, the Medrish Tehillim (136) says, ‘There were opening in the walls so they could communicate with one another and sing the praises of Hashem together.’

The Medrish Tanchuma (parshas Beshalach, paragraph 10, see Etz Yosef there) spells out and proves ten miracles that took place at the sea.

  1. The waters split.
  2. After they split, they formed a tunnel.
  3. The land was not muddy but rather it hardened, and they walked on dry land.
  4. The path for the Egyptians was muddy and their feet stuck in the muddy ground.
  5. The waters didn’t freeze like one big slab of a wall but formed into layers like bricks.
  6. The waters when frozen hardened like stone, so when they collapsed on the Egyptians’ heads they broke on top of them.
  7. The sea split into the exact number of paths needed for each tribe, so that each tribe had their own path.
  8. The waters were made into piles and stood vertically, like a wall.
  9. Sweet water came out of salty water.
  10. When the water froze it was transparent like glass so that the tribes were able to see each other from their own paths.

These are all wonderous miracles that made running to safety easy and comfortable for the Jews, without worries of any kind. However, the Anaf Yosef quotes the Alshich, one of the first Achronim who lived in the 1500s, who asked why the sea had to be split into 12 paths, one for each tribe? Why wouldn’t just one path for the all the Jews to pass through and the Egyptians drown in be enough? The Alshich answered, “Hashem did this as a kindness to the world, so that they will recognize the Divine Providence, and the world wouldn’t be lost (destroyed). If you look intently, Chaza”l says 12 paths were created and not 13, even though the tribe of Ephraim and the tribe of Menashe should have been separate. But He combined them in order so that Jews would not make a mistake and cause the world to be lost and go to waste. The problem was that the statue of micha (this was the statue later to be used when sculpting the golden calf, see Rashi on Shemos 32:4[DM1] ) crossed the sea with the tribe of Ephraim. If they all would have crossed through one path there would be room for the evil inclination (Satan) to cause a foolish and vulnerable person to think that G-D forbid the statue infused with (the idol) micha split the sea for them. Therefore, Hashem orchestrated that each tribe would have their own path and that the tribe of Ephraim would share a path with the tribe of Menashe to hint to the fact that The One Who split the path for each of the other tribes whom did not have a statue their, split the path for Menashe, and Ephraim just happens to be going along with them. Whereas if Ephraim would have had their own path [it could have been mistakenly attributed to the statue micha making it.] This means the reason for splitting the sea into so many paths were also a kindness to the world and the world would not be destroyed in their potential mistake if it would have split into one path for the entire Jewish people.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
As we saw above, there was so much detail put into the splitting of the sea to make it comfortable and as anxiety-free as possible for the Jews to cross safely. The whole world knew what was happening, either because every water in the world miraculously split at the same time or because they saw mountains of water streaming up from that area at the Sea of Reeds. Was this added kindness needed to impress upon the Jewish people the love and care of their Beloved Father In Heaven who cared so much for them? The answer must be yes, so that no foolish person will make a mistake and propagandize that this was not Hashem’s doing but rather the statue micha, who has the powers to perform such miracles. We all know how propaganda can be spread even by the most irrational of people!

However, one can ask that if people can be convinced that the statue micha had such powers as to perform the miracle of splitting the sea into one path, why couldn’t he do it into 12 paths? Hashem is All-Powerful and able to do anything; why wouldn’t a statue with superpowers be able to do the same thing?
We must say that this is another facet into the element of Hashem’s kindness, to ensure the continued existence of the world. That by definition no person, no matter how crazy and foolish a person is he or she would never give real Divine powers of infinity and perfection to any statue or god. No matter what they make up it will be finite to an extent and will not be able to function the same way as the Real and Only Creator functions. That is part of the point and make-up of an idol or multiple gods. And that is part of the frailty of the human mind, for if he would attribute perfection, infinity, and oneness to the idol he would just arrive at G-D’s existence and would not needs idols! Therefore there was no mistaken thought that the statue micha could have made 12 paths, one for each tribe.

Hashem’s kindness to His world is very profound and perfect.

Good Shabbos Shira,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Anchor[DM1]a molten calf -: As soon as they had cast it into the fire of the crucible, the sorcerers of the mixed multitude who had gone up with them from Egypt came and made it with sorcery. [See commentary on Exod. 12:38.] Others say that Micah was there, who had emerged from the layer of the building where he had been crushed in Egypt. (Sanh. 101b). In his hand was a plate upon which Moses had inscribed “Ascend, O ox; ascend, O ox,” to [miraculously] bring up Joseph’s coffin from the Nile. They cast it [the plate] into the crucible, and the calf emerged. -[from Midrash Tanchuma 19]

Bo – Helping Each Other All Together

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On the of the 15th of Nissan the Jews sacrificed the Korban Pesach. By Hashem’s command they took its blood and smeared it on the door posts and lintels of their houses, this being the sign that would protect them from the coming plague of the firstborn. That night they ate the Korban Pesach with matzah and maror, rejoicing in their Impending redemption. The Egyptian firstborns were killed by Hashem himself, not through an angel or any other heavenly force, as the Haggada relates (adapted from Rav Baruch Chait’s Haggadah, page 112).

However, the Torah in this week’s portion of Bo proclaims, “Hashem will pass to smite the Egyptians, and He will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and Hashem will pass over the entrance, and He will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses to smite [you]” (Shemos 12:23). About this the Ramban explains, “AND HE WILL NOT PERMIT THE DESTROYER TO ENTER YOUR HOUSES. This means the angel that brings destruction in the world at the time of a plague, similar to that which it says, And He said to the angel that destroyed the people: It is enough; now stay your hand (Shmuel Beis 24:16). It is not, however, a reference to the One Who brought the destruction in Egypt, since it was the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Who smote them.” Similarly, Rashi on the previous verse points out, “that once the destroyer is given permission to destroy, he does not discriminate between righteous and wicked. And night is the time that destroyers are given permission, as it is said: “in which every beast of the forest moves about” (Tehillim 104:20). — [from Mechilta].” Therefore, no Jew was permitted to leave their house that night.

In preparation for the first seder night in Egypt, the Torah relates that Hashem told Moshe, “Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is nearest to his house shall take [one] according to the number of people, each one according to one’s ability to eat, shall you be counted for the lamb’” (Shemos 12:3, 4).

The Ralbag learns a lesson from these two pesukim, that: “among the family they should be as close as possible in order so that one can attain from the other any help that is needed. For this reason, the Torah commanded that each family should take a sheep for themselves to show that the people of each household were sitting with each other. For the Pesach [Lamb] in Egypt were in the house of the people who made it and not one person left from the entrance of their house the entire night. And for this also they were strict about the Pesach [lamb] in Egypt, that if the family was too small to eat the entire sheep, then they would combine with their neighbors closest to them to take the sheep and eat it to ensure the quota of people will all finish up [the Pascal lamb offering].” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

What exactly is the lesson the Ralbag is teaching us from these pesukim? It cannot be that family comes first and each family has to have an inseparable bond in order to help each other because, as the pasuk and Ralbag continues, a family has to be ready to combine with their closest neighbor to share in the korban pesach if they are too small to eat it themselves. Furthermore, what was the concern that night, that the Torah had to make sure that each person felt as close as possible to each other to ensure they stayed in their houses and performed the first Pesach seder properly. As we saw above, they were probably too afraid to wander anywhere that night anyways, because of the destructive forces wrought on the Land of Egypt that night.

The Ralbag in his verse-by-verse commentary also points out on these pesukim that the Torah is teaching us proper manners; that it is proper for people, when getting together for a meal or other event,  to get together with the people from their family. The Torah is teaching us this by showing how many people who needed to eat the Paschal lamb got together with their entire family to partake in eating it. However if the family was too small it was not befitting for the Paschal lamb to be slaughtered if not everyone in the family would be able to finish it, lest the uneaten leftovers would become invalidated and would have to be burned. As the subsequent pesukim say, only those that were originally counted in the group were allowed to partake in that Paschal lamb. Therefore, if the family was too small they would have to partner up with their next-door neighbors to ensure that the entire offering was eaten, and did not have to be wasted and burned. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

There was a clear and present danger outside, and inside they just needed to make sure to finish all they were required to eat, and granted family comes first, but if family wasn’t enough then neighbors must get involved. So what exactly is the Ralbag coming to learn from here about making sure that we as a family, and if need be extending it to neighbors have to be as close together as possible in order to help each other? They were probably too scared to walk out of the house anyways, and were overly excited for their impending redemption; of course they were rejoicing and feasting indoors! All they had to do was eat meat with matzah and maror, and be sure all of it was finished; how hard could that be? Why was help needed to ensure that everything gets done properly, if all that was needed was to be sure there were enough people beforehand to make sure everything got eaten up?

However it would seem that if the family, and neighbors if need be, were not as close as they should be, even with all the fear and excitement of what was happening around them and what was about to transpire, even such a simple task as they had that night could have gone wrong. Therefore the Ralbag sees a lesson for all generations from this moment in the Torah; that the only reason everything went smoothly was because everyone bonded together, as close as possible, and for that reason were willing to do whatever it took to help one another. And that is the only reason why everything went smoothly for the Jews on the first Pesach night.

Bonding together to be as close as possible, even for a family, isn’t natural; it requires effort, but in the end is the only way to ensure the proper help is given.

Vaera – What was Pharaoh thinking?!

Any logically thinking individual without biases must logically conclude that there is a G-D, because everything must start from something. Anything that exists has to come from someone or something and somewhere; it is impossible for something to appear from nothing. What caused this whole universe to appear out of nowhere and unfold, if not for the fact that there is a G-D? And since G-D created this magnificent existence, He must be Omnipotent, i.e. all powerful, all knowing, and perfect in every way. By definition this perfection means that there is only one G-D, that has every single positive characteristic, what’s needed and more, to be able to create such a complex system with all its details as the earth and the universe surrounding it. Indeed, to keep the existence of the universe going as it is He must be constantly involved in its upkeep at every moment.
Since this is true then it is astonishing to think that the Medrish Rabba (Vaera 8:2) and Medrish Tanchuma (Vaera 9) in this week’s Torah portion of Vaera lists Pharaoh as one of 4 people who declared themselves a god. The other 3 being Chiram, Nevuchadnetzar, and Yoash.

The Torah states, “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh, and Aharon, your brother, will be your speaker’” (Shemos 7:1). The Medrish Tanchuma says that “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘The evil Pharaoh made himself into a deity, inform him that he is a nothing. I will make you a master over him.’ How do we know that [Pharaoh] made himself into a deity? As it says, ‘My river is my own, and I made myself.’ (Yechezkel 29:3). Therefore, show yourself off to him and he will proclaim this is the lord.”

The Etz Yosef explains the goal of Hashem bringing the ten plagues upon Pharaoh and Egypt, “that Hashem, chas vishalom, did not leave room for Pharaoh to think that he should worship Moshe as a god but rather His intent was to rule over him to the point that [Pharaoh] would say about [Moshe] that he is a lord, after he made himself into a deity, and he will realize that [Moshe] now rules over him… For when he sees the miracles, the opposite of nature, he will recognize that you [Moshe] can be above nature and he will praise you with lordship greater than his [self-proclaimed] godliness.”

However, the Anaf Yosef “wonders about ‘Pharaoh being one of four people declaring himself a deity,’ that these people, granted were negligent and sinners but they were not fools, and how can they deny G-D On High and think such stupidity? But rather one can say that these people thought that this entire lowly world is in the hand of the campaign, and therefore when they saw a person successful because of his wisdom, acclivity, or wealth, which stemmed from the zodiac, they thought that they must show him godly respect, meaning that one should not withhold his greatness since his zodiac is helping him. One shouldn’t oppose his zodiac. This was Pharaoh’s mistake, for because he was successful due to his river and made it an idol to worship because he thought that the star that influenced it was the ruler, ‘and it’s not for me to oppose it.’ Since that was the case, he that was given the permission and control to rule in this area was [obviously] influenced by this zodiac and therefore he made himself into a deity. This was similarly the mistake of the 3 other people.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Pharoah and these others thought they were all playing a part in a show, which had winners and losers. One level influences the next level, and if the higher level influences the lower level the lower level feels honored and demands respect from those below it. Essentially, there is an expectation of showing gratitude towards those that help others. In this case, the heavenly bodies of the Zodiac influence earthly figures like the Nile River which then, in Pharoah’s eyes, deserved to be worshiped out of respect, and since Pharaoh was the king and in control of the Nile, he proclaimed himself a god of sorts. That was his logical thought process, based on the concept of showing gratitude.

But why didn’t he realize that there was an All-Powerful Being who runs the entire world and universe, and gives the ability for one thing to influence the other? The chain of influence should not transfer respect down to the earth, but rather the honor and respect should only be directed towards the source! (Granted, one should feel gratitude towards the means that helps support and nourish a person, but they are only messengers of Hashem, On High, and should be viewed only as messengers, not as the source). What went wrong with Pharoah’s logic?

However, Rabbeinu Ephraim, a Rishon that lived over 800 years ago said by the pasuk of “And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand, that there will be no mixture of noxious creatures there, in order that you know that I am Hashem in the midst of the earth” (Shemos 8:18),  “Pharaoh thought that Hashem only ruled over the upper heavens.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This pasuk is by the plague of wild beasts. Rashi (Shemos 8:17) says that all types of animals, birds, reptiles, and insects came together to attack the Egyptians. The Yalkut Meam Loez (Vaera 12:13) points out that animals who were natural enemies joined together to attack the Egyptian. The Medrish Hagadol (Vaera 8:17-20) says that even domesticated animals attacked them, but none of the animals attacked the Jews. The Yalkut Meam Loez (Vaera 12:5) also points out that each animal came with its climate and natural environment so that it would feel secure and attack the Egyptians more ferociously. According to what Rabbeinu Ephraim is saying, this all fits in beautifully with what was mentioned above, in the Medrish Tanchuma. Hashem wanted to make sure that the message was clearly presented that Pharoah wasn’t a deity, and the source of his mistaken thinking was that he thought Hashem had no control over the earth, only the upper heavens, “His realm.” Using this logic, everything on a level below Hashem’s realm demands its own respect, and he, Pharoah, being the ruler of the Nile and the last link in the chain of command, also deserved to be worshipped as a god. Therefore, Hashem proved his power and control over the earth as well, with all of the plagues but especially with the plague of wild beasts, as described above.

If only Pharoah would have realized that Hashem is the All-Powerful, King Of All Kings, Master of the Universe and everything within it, who is constantly recreating existence every moment of the day and if He would pause for one moment, everything would cease to exist, and therefore everything in creation is simply a puppet or messenger of His command and will, Pharaoh would then have properly directed his gratitude towards Hashem and never have made such an outrageous error of declaring himself a deity.

A misdirected sense of gratitude could go a long way to mess everything up!

Shemos –

In modern society, curiosity is viewed as a negative trait, as the saying goes, “curiosity kills the cat;” It evokes the image of Curious George, the troublemaking monkey. However the trait of curiosity has the potential to bring a person close to Hashem, as we see in this week’s Torah portion of Shemos, as the Ralbag relates by the incident of Moshe and the Burning Bush.

The Torah states, “An angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed. So, Moshe said, ‘Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?’ Hashem saw that he had turned to see, and G-D called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, ‘Moshe, Moshe!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’” (Shemos 3:2-4)!

The Toaliyos HaRalbag learns from this– “that it is befitting for a person to put in effort into investigating as much as possible the reason behind things that one comes across, and don’t  shorten [the investigation]. In this way one will figure out the wisdom of Hashem by as much as possible focusing on what one comes across and the manner of how it works, and this will be a cause to reach towards Hashem as much as one can. This is because we achieve from Hashem according to what is possible for us to achieve courtesy of the means that are the results of what we attain from Him, and then put them into order, and direct them. We see this from Moshe Rabbeinu, immediately when he saw this strange concept of a bush set a flame, but the bush was not burning. This actually showed that this was how he always acted, meaning that he already had a drive to know as much as possible the reasoning behind things. In this way [Moshe] was able to reach such a height as he reached.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Ralbag is teaching us that it is very healthy to be inquisitive and always investigating the world around us. This is the means to be able to know Hashem, understand how He works, and figure out how to grow close to Him. That is exactly what Moshe did when he eyed the “Burning Bush;” he didn’t simply take note of something interesting and continue walking. He stopped to observe what was really going on, tried to make sense of it, and then Hashem started talking to Him. This is a clear proof to the lesson that the Ralbag says the Torah is trying to teach us.

But why did the Ralbag say that this was how Moshe always was, as if to say that if Moshe wasn’t always curious and investigative then he would not have stopped to look at the amazing sight in front of his eyes? Wasn’t it quite unimaginable? Wouldn’t anyone have done a doubletake and stared in total amazement at such a miracle, a bush on fire but clearly not being consumed? Why did it require Moshe to have been so ‘inquisitive’ in order to have noticed and investigate such an occurrence?

It would seem that there are people who would possibly make a point of seeing something amazing and simply walking past, go about their business without putting too much thought into what they had seen. These people don’t probe, they don’t think with too much depth or imagination, and it’s hard for them to really expand their mind. Even something so amazing, unearthly, and supernatural as this would not phase them. However, because Moshe Rabbeinu already had a knack for being curious and investigative, he therefore had his eyes open to try to find something new and unique, to probe and get to the bottom of it, to try to figure out how and why it was working that way. This searching and thinking, and obviously appreciating the profundity of what was in front of him, is what made Moshe come to be so close to Hashem, and to reach heights that no other human being has ever attained in their physical lifetime.

(I have to assume this type of curiosity and inquisitiveness only works to get close to Hashem if one’s attitude is to want to have a relationship with Hashem. A typical atheist scientist, for example, no matter how curious and investigative he or she is, will never find Hashem with their anti-G-D attitude. Unless they are open to change that attitude).

Vayechi -The Threat of Potential Hatred

After Yaakov was buried towards the end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayechi, the conclusion of the Book of Breishis, the Torah relates, “Yosef’s brothers realized their father was dead and they said, ‘Perhaps Yosef will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they instructed that Yosef be told, ‘Your father gave orders before his death, saying: Thus shall you say to Yosef: “O please kindly forgive the flagrant offense of the servants of your father’s G-D.”‘ And Yosef wept when they spoke to him” (Breishis 50:15-17).
  The last Medrish Tanchuma in the Book of Breishis concludes by explaining what exactly the brothers saw that informed them that their father had passed away. Didn’t they just bury him? “What did they see now to make them afraid? Rather they saw that when they were coming back from burying their father, they saw that Yosef went to make a blessing at the pit his brothers threw him in, just as any person is obligated in making a blessing at the place a miracle was performed for him by saying, ‘Blessed is Hashem who did a miracle for me at this place’. When [the brothers] saw this, they said that now that our father is dead Yosef will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us for all the evil that we did him.’ So they instructed that Yosef be told, ‘Your father gave orders etc.’ We searched and could find that Yaakov actually made this command. Rather, come and see how great the power of peace is, for Hashem wrote in His Torah these words for the sake of peace.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 It would seem that the brothers suspected that Yosef might be harboring hatred in his heart for what they did to him many years before, and was waiting until their father died to take revenge on them.So they rightfully lied for the sake of peace, to prevent any harm.
 The Full Commentary of the Tur on the Torah, after quoting a part of this medrish, explains what the brothers meant about Yosef nursing hatred in his heart, “meaning, if only Yosef will nurse the hatred in his heart and not take any action; and if he wants to take any action against us and punish us for what we did he should look at the results, that we caused him to become king (viceroy) over Egypt through selling him.” The Tur then explains why Yosef cried, which was because “it sounded like Yaakov was suspicious of him [that he would take revenge]. From here we see that Yosef never told Yaakov about his sale, for if Yaakov  had known then  he himself would have commanded Yosef to appease and forgive his brothers. The Medrish (Pesiksa Rabasi 3:2) in fact says that Yosef made sure never to be alone with his father once he came down to Egypt, so that his brothers won’t think that he told Yaakov that they sold him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 Yaakov and his family had been living in Egypt with Yosef taking care of them for 17 years., Yosef was overjoyed after he saw that his brothers completely regretted what they had done and he revealed himself to them. Now, after their father’s death it has been about 39 years since he had been sold by his brothers. Besides the fact that Yosef is known to be uniquely righteous, i.e. he is called Yosef HaTzadik, if that is the case, it has been so long and it seems he had no hatred in his heart, certainly none that would potentially come to fruition through exacting punishment on his brothers,  then why did the brothers suspect him after their father’s burial, to the point that they lied for the sake of peace and the Torah even agrees that it was the right thing they did?

 It would seem that the potential threat of hatred lurking in anyone’s heart is so complex and dangerous that even for the greatest of the righteous there is a rightful concern that it might be lurking there and taken into action. So proper precautions are allowed to be taken to protect oneself from potential revenge based on hatred, to the extent that one is allowed to lie for the sake of peace, and to quell hatred.

 Because in the brothers eyes this threat was potentially there, then Hashem attests that they took proper precautions to protect themselves even though the reality was Yosef had already completely forgiven them and was not harboring one ounce of hatred in his heart.

Vayigash –  Segregation

The Shulchan Aruch in the beginning of the laws about Pas Yisrael (Yoreh Deah 112:1) says that the rabbis forbade Jews from eating home-baked bread made by a non-Jew, even if all of the ingredients are kosher and made in clean pans, because of intermarriage. Even if a priest dedicates himself to celibacy, and therefore does not have children, a Jew may not eat his bread because the Rabbis are concerned that if we get too friendly with them (i.e. sharing food or even buying and selling home bake goods) then we might come to marry their daughters or their acquaintances’ daughters. There is even an argument in the Shulchan Aruch on this topic as to whether we can eat from commercial bakeries owned by non-Jews, assuming everything is kosher. Most people are lenient and do in fact eat from non-Jewish-owned commercial entities because there is a disconnect between the seller and buyer, so there are no concerns about intermarriage. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

 The source of this rabbinic decree might have come from this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash according to the Sforno. After Yoseph reveals himself to the brothers and sends for his father and the rest of the family to move to Egypt, “G-D spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, ‘Yaakov, Yaakov.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘I am the G-D, G-D of your father. Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there…’” (Breishis 46:2, 3). The Sforno on pasuk 3 explains Hashem message to Yaakov, “I, Who told your father to not go down to Egypt (Breishis 26:2), tell you… If you remain here your children will intermarry and become absorbed by the Canaanites, but in Egypt they will not be able to do so, because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews (Breishis 43:32); therefore they will be a separate, distinct people, as our sages state, The pasuk ‘And he became there a nation’ (Devarim 26:5), teaches us that they were distinguished there.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Sforno gives a very fascinating explanation of why Hashem told Yaakov not to be afraid about going down to Egypt. His family would be better off there, because there would be no need to worry about the issue of intermarriage and assimilation since the Egyptians would not want to mingle with them as it says in last week’s Torah portion of Miketz, “They served him separately and them separately and the Egyptians who ate with him separately, for the Egyptians could not bear to eat food with the Hebrews, it being loathsome to the Egyptians.” The Sforno explains there that Yosef “sat in his own room so that his brothers should not sense that he was also a Hebrew and because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews therefore, he did not eat with his brothers, nor did he or his brothers eat with the Egyptians.” As a result, when Yaakov and his family came down to Egypt there was no concern of intermarriage because the Egyptians stayed away from them, and the Jews became a distinguished nation, to that effect as the Sforno concluded, quoting what we read in the Pesach Haggada. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

However, in the Pesach Haggada there is a different interpretation by various commentaries as to what it means that ‘they were distinctive there.’ The Kol Bo says all the Jews lived in one place, Goshen (which Pharaoh had in fact given to their great great grandmother, Sarah Immeinu many years back). They also wore their own style of clothing so that they wouldn’t mingle with the Egyptians. The Ritva in fact says that they wore tzitzis, and the Abarbanel adds that they kept their Hebraic names, spoke Hebrew, and dressed in their usual garb. If that is what kept them apart from the Egyptians and stopped assimilation, why couldn’t they do the same just living in Canaan? Why did they have to move to Egypt (barring the decree of exile, which the Sforno ignores anyways)? They could have lived in a ghetto in Canaan, spoken only Hebrew, have only Jewish names, distinctive clothing and even wear tzitzis to remind them of Hashem’s mitzvos. Their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents instilled this in them the emphasis of no intermarriage, which Avraham and Yitzchak went out of their way to emphasize is a big no-no; so why did they have to go to Egypt to escape the threat of intermarriage? (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We see from here how grave of a threat and temptation intermarriage is, even for the grandchildren of our forefathers. So much so that Hashem had to reassure Yaakov that the best thing for him and his family would be to move to Egypt. What then is the solution?

We see from this Sforno that the best solution is not to just dress, speak, act, and live differently from the non-Jews, because they still might be attractive to us and find a way into our society. The best thing is segregation. When they feel they can’t be close to us, that keeps them away, and makes us distinguished and distinctive. From the fact that Hashem assured Yaakov that segregation was the best thing for him and his family, it must mean that that was not a reason for anything bad to happen to them in Egypt, i.e. that was not the cause for the Egyptian bondage. On the contrary, we saw with Yoseph that the Egyptians and Hebrews were able to get along quite fine, even if they could not eat together. The slavery was a Heavenly punishment that was discussed already previously in parashios; therefore we see that segregation, the attitude that Jews and non-Jews can’t mingle with each other, not that it is negative but the acknowledgement that we are different, might very well be the best way to stop the threat of intermarriage.

Good Shabbos and easy fast of Asara b’Teves,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder