Tetzave – Levels of Peace in the World

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“Shalom, peace, is one of the most exalted character traits in existence, for it is one of Hashem’s names, as it says: ‘And he called to Him Hashem, Shalom’(Shoftim6:24).” The Maalos Hamiddos also says: “Any place peace is found, fear of Heaven can be found, and any place peace cannot be found, fear of Heaven cannot be found” (Maalos Hamiddos, chapter 24, ma’alas HaShalom).

If one Googles the definition of the word peace he will find: peace [pees] NOUN
1. The normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.
2. (Often initial capital letter) an agreement or treaty between warring or antagonistic nations, groups, etc., to end hostilities and abstain from further fighting or antagonism: the Peace of Ryswick.
3. A state of mutual harmony between people or groups, especially in personal relations: Try to live in peace with your neighbors.
4. The normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community; public order and security: He was arrested for being drunk and disturbing the peace.
5. Cessation of or freedom from any strife or dissension.

Yet Rashi says in this week’s haftorah for the Torah portion of Tetzaveh: “I found the following: The second Aliyah to the Holy Land through Ezra was merited to be like the first entry through Yehoshua, to come about by force and through a miracle, as expounded (Berachos 4a, Shemos 15:16); ‘until…pass.’ This building [of the beis hamikdash] would then have been fit for them as of then, when they emerged from exile, to an everlasting redemption. But their sin caused this not to happen for their repentance was not suitable, i.e. they did not resolve to stop sinning. Therefore, they emerged to freedom only through the sanction of Cyrus and his son.” (Rashi on Yechezkel 43:11) (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

According to Rashi, the world could have been a totally different place if the Jewish people would have repented 100% and would have decided with complete resolve to not sin ever again; Moshiach would have come. It would seem that the dimensions of the beis hamikdash would have been different than the way in which the second beis hamikdash was actually built. The dimensions described in Yechezkel, the Radak and others say, were that of the third beis hamikdash, may it come speedily in our days. But, in fact, if Moshiach would have come and this would have been the final, perfected version of mankind, then the architecture of the second beis hamikdash would have been, as Yechezkel describes, the third. The process of returning the Land of Israel would have been different as well; instead of Cyrus and his son peacefully allowing the Jewish people to return to their homeland after 70 years of exile and rebuilding the beis hamikdash, Ezra and the rest of the Jewish people would have conquered the land by force, presumably from the Persians, with open miracles, just as Yehoshua and the Jewish people did when conquering the land back in their day.

If peace is so important that the Mishna in Pirkei Avos says: “On three things the world exists, on judgement, on truth, and on peace” (Avos 1:18), and the Maalos Hamiddos further says: “My son, come and see how great the power of peace is, that even the enemy, Hashem says, one should offer them peace, as it says, ‘When you come close to a city to wage war upon it, and you shall first offer it peace’ (Devarim 20:10),” then why was Hashem ready to take back the Land of Israel by force with miracles in order to set the stage for the final redemption and the coming of Moshiach, if Cyrus and his son were willing to peacefully hand it over to them, as they in fact did?

It would seem that there are two states of peace, which by definition means there are two definitions, or levels of peace. One is a compromise, a state of being where there is officially no fighting, no violence, all is serene and peaceful; but it is not necessarily permanent or guaranteed.

However, Hashem in His Divine understanding and with ultimate goals, has another peace in mind, one which we in fact pray for at the end of our Shemone Esrei in Sim Shalom and conclude as we take 3 steps back: “He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us,and upon all of Israel.” Peace in Hebrew, Shalom, comes from the root ש.ל.מ., complete or full, i.e. perfection. Hashem’s ultimate state of peace is perfection, a time when the entire world will be ready to embrace Him as The Creator of the Universe, King of all Kings, The Holy One Blessed Be He.

It would seem that there are certain times in history when it is more opportune for this state to come about, though it is possible at any moment. One of these times could have been the rebuilding of the second beis hamikdash, but in order for this perfect state to exist, (A) the Jewish People had to have fully committed themselves to a state of perfection, not to sin ever again. (It would seem that at the time they reached a level possibly higher than what was reached at Mount Sinai when they reaccepted the Torah out of pure love of Hashem after the miracle of Purim as it says in Shabbos 88a, but on some tiny, tiny, minute level they must not have fully accepted to not sin ever again, therefore they were not deserving of the ultimate redemption). However, (B) hand in hand with the ultimate redemption and a state of completion in the world, everyone else, all the non-Jews would have to be ready to accept this yoke of Heaven, in their own right. It would seem that if Moshiach and a new advent in history was ready to take place then being under the control of the Persians and then being let go back to our home land to rebuild the beis hamikdash would have been a sign of their control and power, with all their viewpoints and ways that would have clashed with the ultimate state of perfection. Therefore, force and miracles would have to have been taken to annihilate any other power and to show the world that Hashem is in reality the only Truth.

It would not seem that Hashem would generally advocate violence; on the contrary, the harmony of everything in nature is run through peace, and order, night, day, land and oceans, stars, planets, galaxies even the angels all need peace in order to be unified and not to collide or swallow up each other, but this is only part of the perfection of the world which Hashem has created. Hashem is waiting for us to join this state of peace and perfection and on the contrary Hashem is very deliberate with His ways and would prefer all of humanity to acknowledge and live by the knowledge of His existence and Oneness but if the time comes and humanity as a whole is not ready to accept perfection then with calculated force and miracles, not brutal violence, Hashem’s greatness will shine and be made clear throughout the entire world, may it come speedily in our days!

Teruma – A Clearer Picture

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In this week’s Torah portion of Teruma we discuss the preparations and blueprints needed to build the Mishkan and the vessels inside. The Aron, the Holy Ark, was placed in the most Holy of Holy part of the Mishkan.

The Rabbeinu Chananel says that the Aron alludes to a righteous sage; his insides [intentions] must be like his outsides [actions], just as the Aron was plated gold on the inside and outside [with a layer of wood in the middle]. Similarly, just as the floor of the Aron was 2.5 amah by 1.5 amah (which is 4 amos squared minus a quarter: 2.5×1.5=3.75), so too a righteous person should limit himself regarding the four foundations of his body and add to his righteousness and good deeds. And just as the height of the entire box enclosure of the Aron was a square of 12 amos [1.5x (1.5+2.5+1.5+2.5) =12] because the long walls were 7.5 amos [1.5x (2.5+2.5) =7.5] and the wide walls were 4.5 amos [1.5x(1.5+1.5)=4.5], so too the righteous person should fulfill the 12 conditions spelled out in Tehillim perek 15. A level above a righteous person is a prophet and the covering on the Aron is a hint to the prophets being a level higher than the righteous. Just as the covering was completely gold so too a prophet was completely righteous, as it is written: “All the sayings of my lips are with righteousness” (Mishlei 8:8). The Keruvim on top of the covering were a hint to the angels which are a level above the prophets, and they spread out their wings upward as a hint to the Holy Presence which is a level above the angels, for the angels are the Throne of Honor to accept the Honorable Holy Presence. And this is what is written: “[turned] toward the ark cover shall be the faces of the Keruvim” (Shemos 25:20). The Keruvim [Angels] would look downward towards the covering of the Aron and they were not permitted to look up, for Hashem is above everything as it says: “which is called a name, the name of the Lord of Hosts who dwell upon the Keruvim [being] upon it” (Shmuel Beis 6:2). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

It seems that all the components of the Aron HaKodesh were designed to be a lesson and reminder for tzadikim on how to act and what they represent. There is also a reminder for all of us about the levels of spirituality and holiness: tzadik-prophet-angel-Hashem.

However, what seems perplexing is that the Aron was always kept in the Kodesh HaKodashim, Holy of Holies, and was rarely seen by anyone throughout history; so how could it have been a reasonable reminder for the righteous on how they should represent themselves and act? What is the point of making such a thing for this purpose? Why is it any better to make it with these exact dimensions to teach these hints than for the tzadik to develop his righteousness through learning mussar sefarim [books on character development], taking classes on how to be a better person, and putting into practice what he has learned and developed? The Mussar sefer, Mesillas Yesharim [Path of the Just], is a perfect example of how to master righteousness one level at a time. It is based on a Braisa of Pinchas ben Yair in Avoda Zara 20b. If a person does master each levels in the sefer he is guaranteed to become a great tzadik and will be a level immediately below prophesy. If this is true, what then does the Aron HaKodesh add, especially if it is not seen by too many tzadikim? Seeing is better than hearing about something only if you actually see it; but if you can’t see it, what impact would it have on a person? And if so, why did Hashem go out of His way to create something with specific dimensions and looks in order to be a reminder if it is not a practical reminder?

The answer must be that even if very few tzadikim saw the Aron Kodesh, simply by knowing it is there and what it represents, or learning about how it is made and why it was made in that fashion, adds to the understanding and feeling of needing to live up to that level of righteousness. Meaning, even though they might never have seen the Aron Kodesh and therefore don’t have an actual physical reminder of what they stand for, the very knowledge of its existence, and the mental picture it forms in their minds can have a great impact or adds more to the impact than just learning about how to be a righteous person. The picture in their minds adds more of an impetus to act in the proper way than merely learning about how to act in the proper manner.

So too, for us, the picture in our minds or even in textbooks of the Aron, with the curtain on top, and the keruvim looking down and not up, can bring us to a greater and clearer realization of levels of spirituality and holiness, if we ponder it. A whole new level of understanding and belief in Hashem could be reached which would not have been as clear to us if the Aron HaKodesh and its components would not have been made in the fashion that it is to represent.

Mishpatim – “Him who is Gracious to the Poor”

The mitzvah to give a loan to a fellow Jew in need comes from Devarim 15:8, “Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.” However, in this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim, the Torah gives an additional instruction, when one does give a loan to his fellow Jew on how not to do it: “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person [who is] with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him” (Shemos 22:24).
Based on this pasuk, “When you lend money…” The Medrish Tanchuma says “This is what is meant when it says “He who increases his riches with usury and interest gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor” (Mishlei 28:8). How does this happen? If a Jew needs a loan and then a non-Jew comes and asks for a loan. If he says it is better to lend to a non-Jew and charge interest then to lend to a Jew and not charge interest, and by doing so becoming wealthier, to that King Shlomo screams ‘He who increases his riches with usury and interest’. ‘Gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor,’ refers to Eisav. Was Eisav really gracious to the poor, wasn’t he oppressive to the poor? Rather what this means is that the government will hear about the usury and interest, and challenge him over his rights to it, then take his money and build from it buildings for the need of the country, bathhouses, and structures made out of pillars and canopies to stroll under in order to protect the public from sun, rain, and to direct clear breeze to cool people down. All this for the need of the country and those who pass through and return into the country and that is what’s meant by ‘gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor’ (Medrish Tanchuma, parshas Mishpatim, paragraph 19). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Though this Jew did not transgress the prohibition of charging interest to a fellow Jew, but he still did not fulfill the mitzvah of giving a loan to a fellow Jew, a brother in need, in order to make an extra buck by lending to a non-Jew. For this reason, measure for measure, Hashem does not allow the money he earned to stay in his hands rather it is collected by “him who is gracious to the poor,” meaning Hashem causes this person to be stricken with poverty by flesh and blood because it is the nature of the government to punish him and confiscate his wealth in order to be gracious to the poor. (See the Bi’ur Ha’Amarim on this medrish.

The Jew in this case was not asked to give up any of his money; a loan must be paid back. Hashem just does not allow him to earn more money at the expense of his fellow Jew when he is in need. We see from here that the result of not lending to a fellow Jew in need, and instead lending to a non-Jew in need just to make money off interest causes the government to have a claim against this person’s wealth and raise his taxes in order to support those who are in need. However, why is this a punishment, why is it any different than giving tzedaka, teruma, maaser, peah, or anything else which the Torah says you must or should give up your personal wealth for in order to support your fellow Jews who are less off then you are?

The difference is that by mitzvos like tzedaka you might be losing money but you are gaining eternal reward, and even in these cases, for example maaser, tithes to the poor, Hashem guarantees if you abide by the mitzvah you will become rich. However if the government collects a large portion of your wealth to give out to the poor and support the infrastructure of the country you don’t get any reward in this world or the next, this is why it could be a punishment.

It would seem that Hashem had in mind ideally for individuals or even private groups like charities or a kupah, to set up systems of distribution to those who are not as well off or in need. There are even rules in maseches Bava Basra 7b-8a about the upkeep of individual cities, their roads, walls, security, etc. These individualized systems are in order for both the giver and recipients to benefit. However the control of government over people’s assets on a major nationwide scale perhaps could be a sign of punishment instead of a way of peacefully sharing the wealth in the world.

Haftorah for Parshas Mishpatim- Hashem Never Gives Up On Our Leaders

Chaza”l in their deep wisdom formulated this week’s haftorah in a backwards way but there is a profound lesson they intended to teach. The haftorah starts with an obvious connection to the beginning of our Torah portion in Mishpatim which discusses owning Jewish slaves. In perek 34 of Yirmiyahu the haftorah begins with the way the Jews treated their fellow slaves in the days of King Tzidkiyahu. For many years they had kept their Jewish slaves, even beyond the 7 years the Torah allows one to keep a Jewish slave involuntarily. Yirmiyahu, warning about the coming doom of the first Beis Hamikdash aroused King Tzidkiyahu to set all the Jewish slaves free and they made a great ceremony commemorating their freedom and a recovenant with Hashem and his Torah after straying from His ways. However this didn’t last long and they took back their Jewish slaves for long periods of time and strayed farther and farther from Hashem until the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash became inevitable.

However the Haftorah concludes with the last two pesukim of the previous perek: “So said the Lord: If not My covenant with the day and the night, that the statutes of heaven and earth I did not place. Also will I reject the seed of Jacob and David, My servant, not to take from his seed rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when I bring back their captivity and have mercy upon them” (Yirmiyahu 33:25, 26). (Click here for an interesting halachic discussion on how we are allowed to go backwards when reading the Haftorah.)

The Mahar”I Kara explains the last two pesukim, “Hashem is saying, If I will not fulfill the covenant I made of guaranteeing that day and night would never stop as it is written, ‘There is still all the days of the land, planting, harvesting, cold, heat, summer, winter, day and night, they never rest.’ If they would rest then it would be as if the laws of heaven and earth would never have existed (meaning the world would cease to exist.)   And as long as the covenant between day and night is fulfilled I will not hold back from the Jewish people the ability to acquire leaders from their own people. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Just as Hashem guarantees there will always be the cycle of nature and time in the world, the four seasons, day and night and the cycles of vegetation, though sometimes there are massive destructive forces of nature in the world like hurricanes, tsunamis, blizzards, earthquakes, and tornados that disrupt life so to Hashem promised the Jewish people that no matter how corrupt their leaders become He will never exchange them with non-Jewish leaders to lead His people. No matter how far off they might have strayed from Torah ideals, a Jewish leader will always be the preferred choice for the Jewish people. If this one doesn’t work out hopefully the next one will be better but it is without a doubt that even the most righteous gentile will not be a favorable fit to lead the Jews.

This is the message Chaza”l is teaching us in this haftorah when we first read perek 34 of Yirmiyahu and end with the last two pesukim of perek 33, that as big of a mistake the leaders of the Jews made prior to the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, Hashem still guarantees the Jewish people that the best leaders come from their own people.

Throughout Jewish History and especially throughout our exile, there have always been leaders who keep the Jewish people together. The Gedolei Hador, the leading rabbis in each generation are our guidance and give us hope.  

Yisro – Jewish Genetics

In this week’s Torah portion of Yisro, the Jewish people received the Torah from Hashem at Har Sinai. There is a famous Chaza”l in the beginning of tractate Avoda Zara which describes how Hashem first went around to all the nations of the world and offered the Torah to them but they refused to accept it after they asked what was inside; however, when Hashem offered it to the Jewish people they said the famous words “na’aseh vi’nishmah,” we will do and then we will listen. They accepted the yoke of the Torah without even asking what was inside. There are commentaries who say this blind acceptance was for the Written Torah only, and there is a famous Chaza”l that says that the Jews accepted the Oral Torah only after Hashem threatened them with annihilation by putting Har Sinai over their heads and threatening to crush them all if they didn’t accept the Oral Torah. The Jewish people later re-accepted the Oral Torah out of pure love in the days of Mordechai and Esther after Haman, his family, and followers were wiped out.

The Gemara in Beitza 25b asks in the name of Rebbe Meir: “Why was the Torah given to Jews?” and answers: “Because they are brazen.” The Maharsha asks a blaring question. Didn’t the gemara in the first chapter of Avoda Zara say that in fact Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world and that they simply didn’t accept it? Yet here it implies that the Torah was destined for the Jewish people anyways? The Maharsha answers that while Hashem gave every nation a chance to accept the Torah of their own free will, He did not threaten each nation with annihilation if they didn’t accept it. Hashem only made that threat to the Jews, and in fact the gemara in Avoda Zara says that the non-Jews will have a claim against Hashem in the future for not giving them an equal opportunity to accept the Torah, in the same fashion as the Jews. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

 So why did Hashem do this for the Jews? It is because they are brazen, and the Torah would be a perfect complement to their nature. What does brazen mean? The Maharsha in Beitza says it does not mean they are strong but rather that they are argumentative and stubborn, willing to stand behind their word and not give up their position easily. The Maharsha explains that the main reason it makes sense that the Torah was given to the Jews is based on a mishna in Pirkay Avos: “That one who is bashful won’t be successful in learning” (Avos 2:5). He also gives another reason why the Torah is a perfect fit for the Jews by quoting a gemara in Nedarim 20a, saying that fear of Hashem will be on their face, which refers to the character trait of having a sense of shame.

The Gemara in Nedarim in fact quotes our Torah portion: “In order so that His fear will be on your face” (Shemos 20:17) and says this refers to shame, quoting the end of that pasuk: “so that you will not sin.” The Gemara says that we learn from here that shame brings one to fear of sin. From here they say that it is a positive sign for a person to be bashful, or have a sense of shame. Others say that whoever becomes shameful will not come to sin so quickly and anyone who does not noticeably have a shameful demeanor, is evident that his ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Maharsha summarizing says that the opposite of a shameful demeanor is a brazen demeanor and the trait of shame is one of the signs of a Jew, as stated in Yevamos 79a. When it comes to one’s character they are saying it is a positive sign for one to be bashful or shameful, but for one’s learning Pirkay Avos says that the bashful one cannot learn. The Maharsha now resolves a blatant contradiction that evolved from the gemara in Beitza to the gemara in Nedarim, namely that the reason why the Torah was given to the Jews was because they are brazen makes sense because (1) one who is bashful cannot successfully learn Torah, and (2) the Torah will weaken his brazenness, ‘for the fear of Torah is on their face,’ which is referring to shame.

Shame seems to be a very positive character trait. Not only that, but King David said there are 3 signs of a Jew: (1) merciful, (2) bashful and (3) doers of kindness (Yevamos 79a).  The Maharsha in Yevamos, explaining the sign of bashfulness or shame, cross-references the gemara in Nedarim that fear on one’s face is referring to shame, and the opposite is a brazen face. However the Maharsha says that this sign of shame in a Jew is not their temperament or nature, as we know based on the gemara in Beitza that the only reason why Hashem gave us the Torah is because we are brazen. Rather, the reason why we are called bashful is because the Torah weakens our strength of brazenness and humbles our hearts, as Rashi points out there. This is what the pasuk “in order so that His fear will be on your faces” means, that by the giving of the Torah Hashem was telling us that He is giving us the Torah so that His fear will be on our faces in order that we will not come to sin. The fact that shame came to us through the giving of the Torah is most apparent from the gemara in Nedarim when it says that whoever does not have shame on his face it is apparent that their ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
On the one hand it would seem that built into the genetic makeup of a Jew is the trait of being brazen, argumentative, and challenging without ever giving up. In a sense it is our way of survival. Not only that but it is the only way to successfully learn Torah. On the other hand, by learning Torah we weaken our sense of brazenness and cause ourselves to develop a sense of shame which instills a fear of Hashem so that we won’t come to sin too quickly. This sense of shame or bashfulness can be seen on our faces, to the point that it is a sign of a Jew. However, what if a Jew does not learn Torah; maybe he or she is not Torah observant. Does that mean they are not Jewish? G-D forbid! Jewish law says as long as your mother is Jewish and her mother is Jewish, etc. etc. all the way back to Har Sinai then you are Jewish, whether or not you learn or observe Torah. So how can the gemara in Nedarim say that if one does not have a shameful face (which evolves through Torah learning) then it is evident that his ancestors did not stand on Har Sinai, meaning he or she must not be Jewish? That is false!

We must say that the trait of shame is also an inherent trait of a Jew which is apparent upon the face of any Jew whether they learn Torah or not, because their ancestors stood at Har Sinai. Not that the gene of brazenness was mutated at Har Sinai into the gene of shame but rather the main genetic makeup of a Jew as said before is brazenness and that inherent trait is very useful for a Jew for without it they cannot learn optimally.  However, from the time our ancestors received the Torah on Har Sinai they developed a sort of recessive gene of shame, which doesn’t skip a generation but is in each and every one of us to the point that it can be recognizable on any Jewish face to some extent. However, if one uses his brazenness towards Torah learning then he can develop that sense of shame to increase fear of sin so that one is less prone to do the wrong thing and more careful to do Hashem’s will, the right thing.

What results according to this is something quite fascinating, in that it is possible for a person to have two totally opposite character traits inside him and herself, even from the time of birth. One can naturally be stronger than the other but we are expected to use and develop both of them even at the same time as we see here that the more brazen one is the better learner he or she can become but at the very same time one taps into his or her sense of shame and is supposed to develop it which automatically means he or she weakens his or her brazenness which is good because that is a sign of being G-D fearing which will slow one down from sinning, but on the same token one still has to persistently use that brazenness to learn more Torah and to be sure he understands everything more clearly in order to be even more careful from sinning, and the cycle just continues on and on.

But this is the complexity of a Human being and the greatness of mankind!

Beshalach – A Well Balanced Diet

In this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, after the splitting of the sea and drowning of the Egyptian army, the Jewish people begin their  trek to Har Sinai, being led by the Clouds of Glory by day and a pillar of fire by night. Along the way they pick up the Well of Miriam, a rock that supplies water throughout the travels in the desert, as well as manna, food that falls from heaven. In summation the Torah tells us about the manna: , “…gather of it each one according to his eating capacity, an omer for each person… and whoever gathered much did not have more, and whoever gathered little did not have less… Let no one leave over [any] of it until morning” (Shemos 16:16-19).

The Ralbag learns from here that it is not fitting for a person to afflict his soul by limiting himself from food essentials. It is also not proper to eat more then he needs to sustain his body. This is why Hashem commanded the Jews to collect a measurement of an omer of manna for each person. What Hashem did was a miracle, for when each person weighed how much they personally received they found they got the exact amount that was fitting for them. The Divine intention was that they would have an exact amount of sustenance, no less and no more, in order to accustom themselves with the attribute of simplicity, as well as to distance themselves from acting like other nations who agonized themselves pretending to serve Hashem in that manner. For this reason also Hashem commanded that no food should be left over till the next day” (Toeles HaRalbag #4 in perek 16). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Besides the obvious lesson that everyone should take care of their bodies and strive to eat a well-balanced diet, I believe there is a much broader lesson that we can glean from this Ralbag. Hashem the Perfect One, Almighty, All Knowing, was able to give each individual in the desert the exact nutrients they need each day. But the Ralbag says that we can learn a lesson that we can apply to ourselves from the obviously open miracle Hashem performed for approximately 3 million people daily. That is, it is generally improper to go to the extremes in life. One must strive to the best of his ability to strike a balance, whether it is with his diet or anything else in life. A healthy, well-balanced diet where one eats exactly what he need, not starving himself, but not indulging too much, will energize a person and give him or her the ability  to serve Hashem  to the maximum. This is true about anything else in life as well.  Everything one does should be for the sake of serving Hashem, so everything should be balanced by that attitude:’how do I serve Hashem to the fullest,’ without going overboard or undershooting.

This lesson of finding a balance or middle ground might be one of the hardest purposes Hashem has put humankind on earth to perfect. But it is also one of the most important, because this is what Hashem is looking for; not to go to one extreme or the other. As the basic theme of Mesillas Yesharim says: we should strive for perfection and perfection is that perfect balance. It is a challenge, it is not easy, but as it says in Iyov: “Man is born to work hard” (Iyov 5:7). Hashem wants to challenge us, and we become better people when we must analyze our every decision to be sure it is correct, and not leaning more to the left or to the right.

However, there are extreme circumstances that call for extreme measures. For example there is a gemara in Gitten 56a which says Rebbe Tzadok fasted for 40 years in order to push off the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash. To the opposite extreme there is a mitzvah to indulge in delicacies on Shabbos and Yom Tov in order to enhance the enjoyment of the day, but Hashem does help us handle this extreme measure at least on Shabbos, where He wants us to eat 3 meals, by giving us a neshama yeseira, an extra soul, which Rashi in Beitzah 16a and Taanis 27b says is in order to broaden our heart and mind so that we will be able to enjoy the Shabbos with delicious foods and drinks, and not be disgusted of eating. However in general it would seem to be an important tenet to strive for a well-balanced and healthy middle ground as a means to serve Hashem to our optimum!

Bo – Superficiality Can Create a Utopia

We find in this week’s Torah portion of Bo that Hashem commands the Jewish people to put blood on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. Hashem told them to specifically use a bundle of hyssop as a paintbrush: “And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse [it] in the blood that is in the basin, and you shall extend to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning” (Shemos 12:22). (Click here for a picture of a hyssop.)

The Medrish Rabba teaches us a very powerful and fundamental lesson from the hyssop. The Medrish first begins as follows: “And you shall take a bunch of hyssop” This is what the pasuk, “’As an apple tree among the trees of the forest’ (Shir HaShirim 2:3) is referring to. Why is Hashem compared to an apple? (Some say the word tapuach, though literally means apple, refers to an esrog sometimes, see Yefeh Toar and the second Tosfos in Taanis daf 29b). Just as the apple seems to be something of no great substance to the naked eye but has a taste and a smell, so too Hashem, ‘His palate is sweet, and he is altogether desirable’ (Shir HaShirim 5:16). He appeared to the non-Jews and they did not want to accept the Torah, as the Torah appeared to them as something of no great substance. In reality it has taste and smell. How do we know it has taste? As it is written, ‘Comprehend (literally: taste) and see that the Lord is good’ (Tehillim 34:9). It has food as it is written, ‘My fruit is better than gold’ (Mishlei 8:19). It also has smell as it is written, ‘And the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon’ (Shir Hashirim 4:11). The Jews said, ‘We know the power of Torah therefore we won’t budge from Hashem and His Torah, as it says ‘in His shade I delighted and sat, and His fruit was sweet to my palate’ (Shir HaShirim 2:3).’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

At this point the Yefeh Toar explains that taste refers to the reward one receives in this world for observing the Torah, while the principle remains intact for him in the World to Come, which refers to the smell which is spiritual reward. Also “the fragrance of your garments” refers to divrei Torah, words of Torah, as it says in Tractate Shabbos that ‘your words of Torah should cover you as a garment covers a person’

The medrish continues: “So to there are things that appear lowly but Hashem commands us to perform many mitzvos with them. A hyssop seems worthless to a person, but it has great powers before Hashem for it is compared to a cedar in many places, when it comes to cleansing the metzora (spiritual leprosy), burning the red heifer, and in Egypt He commanded to perform a mitzvah with the hyssop, as it says ‘And you shall take a bunch of hyssop’. So to by King Shlomo it writes: “He speaks to the trees from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop coming out of the wall. You should learn from this that the big and small are all equal before Hashem. Through small things He performs miracles and through the hyssop which is the lowliest of trees (it is just a weed) He redeemed the Jews. That is ‘As an apple tree among the trees of the forest.’”

The Yefeh Toar teaches us a couple of inspirational lessons from the last part of the Medrish. “Just as the main reasoning of the Torah is hidden from the eyes but those who follow its ways will find its reason so to there are things that appear lowly but they have much treasure and great reason like the hyssop, which seems like nothing at all (just a weed) but it has great power in terms of mitzvos… The intent here is that the reward for doing mitzvos is based on the fulfillment of the mitzvos that Hashem commanded. Not because of the ingredients that carry the mitzvah based on their quantity or quality, therefore even if the ingredients are very small in quantity and quality it is still considered very great. The mitzvos were only given to solidify the Jew, meaning one should not think that Hashem gave mitzvos for His own sake and honor, for example by the sacrifices brought before Hashem, that is why Hashem commands us to bring lowly things like the hyssop that even humans have no need for, for this makes it apparent that the fulfillment of mitzvos is only for the need of mankind, to give them merits through performing mitzvos (for if it is for Hashem’s honor it would be belittling and disrespectful to use such a lowly substance as a weed.) That is why He commanded them to use things which are insignificant to them and easy to do, without much hassle in order to get closer to Hashem.”
What is the connection between the first part of the medrish and the second part of the medrish?

Why didn’t the Non-Jewish nations accept the Torah when they had the chance? The medrish is telling us that they had a superficial view of Hashem and His Torah. It wasn’t appealing from the outside. There was no glitz and glamour, no attraction; so they rejected Hashem and His Torah. However the Jews understood the power of Torah because their forefathers, starting with Avraham, took a deep look, of their own freewill, beyond the surface, and realized there must be something more to the world and the universe. They realized there must be a G-D who created and takes care of everything and if He runs the world He must have various ways for us people to do things in order to take care of ourselves and the upkeep of the world, Hashem’s will, the way Hashem, the way The Creator of everything planned for the world to be run. Avraham was able to simply look around at the world and figure out what Hashem wanted or expected him to do, but it was Avraham’s descendants who decided to cling to Hashem and follow His word, which Hashem gave to them as a gift on Har Sinai to make it easier to figure out how to live a meaningful, wholesome life in this world and reap the benefits in the Eternal World to Come; this gift being the Torah.

So all the non-Jew had to do was to look beyond the superficial level and dig deeper to find the gems, the good taste and sweet smells. Some of them, to their credit, do, and they convert to Judaism in order to live the a life filled with Torah and mitzvos.

This superficiality is the connection to the next part of the medrish. A world renowned principle of modern thought is that equality means just that – a utopia, where everything, and everyone, must be equal. Differences should not exist anymore, whether it is race, gender, or creed.  Everything has equal rights which mean they should not be viewed as anything different, and everything should be the same, a melting pot.

However this medrish is teaching us that Hashem, the Perfect One, Almighty, All Knowing, has a different understanding of equality. Hashem acknowledges that things are different and there are different classes of substances and even people. Some are better quality some are lesser quality; some are bigger and stronger, others are smaller and weaker, and there are different levels. However everyone and everything has its own role or purpose in this world and it makes no difference if they are bigger or smaller, lowly or important, whatever status they are, they all have a purpose in serving Hashem and bringing a person towards his or her perfection. For example, kohanim have a special elevated status more than yisraelim, and Jewish law demands they be given more respect, and only they will serve in the Beis HaMikdash, with leviem playing a more minor role in the service).  Yet, kohanim are not able to keep, for the most part, some precious mitzvos that yisraelim can do, like burying the dead, which is referred to as a chesded shel emes, a true act of kindness. So too, what seems to be as insignificant as a weed can be so important before Hashem that it is used as one of the catalysts for the Jewish redemption from Egypt, as well as purification of contact with the dead or tzaraas.

On a superficial level one would think everything must be the same; nothing should be treated differently, and that is why the Non-Jews did not accept Hashem and His Torah. But if they would have just dug deeper, not taken it at a glance, they would have seen the beauty and wealth of Hashem’s Torah, and that everyone and everything has meaning and use in this world. Every individual thing or person is special and viewed as an individual with an important purpose and can be used in the grand scheme of things, for mankind to become closer to Hashem, and bask in His Holy Presence. With this Divine view of things they could realize what is true equality and Who is the “Apple tree among the trees of the forest.”

Vaera – Psychological Warfare

The plague of wild beasts struck the palace of Pharaoh first, followed by  the rest of Egypt. The Sefer HaYashar says that octopuses put their tentacles into the houses and unlocked the doors so the animals could enter. The Me’am Loez says each animal came with its climate and natural environment so that it would feel secure and attack the Egyptians more ferociously. He also says that animals which were natural enemies joined together to attack the Egyptians. The Medrash HaGadol says that even domesticated animals attacked the Egyptians. This is a glimpse into the awesome array of wonders Hashem wrought on the Egyptians people during the ten plagues, which are mostly illustrated in this week’s Torah portion of Vaera.

Pharaoh was so startled by this display of violence, especially since it started with him, and he called Moshe to stop it at once. Moshe again demanded: “A journey of three days we shall travel in the desert, and we will bring offering to Hashem our G-D just as he told us” (Shemos 8:23). The Rad”al elaborating on the Medrish Rabba says the reason why Moshe asked for a three day journey was in order to cause the Egyptians to be misled so that they would run after the Jews afterwards. (Shemos Rabba 11:3:15). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Both the Rad”al and Matnas Kehuna direct us to a Medrish previously at the end of parsha 3, paragraph 8 which explains in more detail the intent of misleading the Egyptians. There the Medrish discusses the original command that Hashem told Moshe, to ask Pharaoh to go on a 3 day journey. The Medrish asks: “Why did they say 3 days and not say ‘may we please permanently go’? Why did they say this? In order to cause the Egyptians to be misled so that they will run after them when they leave and they will say they only let them leave on the condition to go away for 3 days and give sacrifices to Him but they stayed away too long so they should run after them at the end of three days. Then they will drown in the sea, measure for measure, just as they threw the Jewish babies into the Nile, mentioned in the first perek of Shemos.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The reality is that the Egyptians did not fall for the ruse for whatever reason, which Hashem already predicted to Moshe. But according to the Medrish, if you analyze it closely, you’ll see that theoretically it was expected to happen that if Pharaoh would grant their request then it is assumed that the Egyptian army would be following from behind ready to attack as soon as they determined that the jews weren’t  coming back.   It would have been enough to give an excuse for them  to run after the Jews and recapture them; but the Egyptians would fall into Hashem’s trap and be drowned in the sea.
The Matnas Kehuna clarifies that the Egyptians really would trick themselves, for Moshe and Aharon did not say “we will go for 3 days and return” or “we’ll go for only 3 days” rather they said “a 3 day journey” and they would travel for three days and fulfill those words.
It would seem that the need for clarification is to explain how Hashem really had no intention of having Moshe and Aharon lie to Pharaoh, since that is the antithesis of truth, which is what Hashem stands for. (We also must say that there is a difference between trickery and misleading. As we found in last week’s dvar Torah, quoting a Rabbeinu Bachye: “that G-D forbid this was a matter of trickery for them to escape”).  The Matnas Kehuna went out on a limb to point out that Moshe and Aharon was not saying anything untruthful. All they said was that they would leave Egypt on a journey that would take three days, a distance of three days, and they would bring offerings to Hashem their G-D. They didn’t say anything about when or if they would be coming back. Pharaoh and the Egyptians interpreted on their own the meaning of their statement, that they should be back in Egypt in three days so if they wouldn’t then the Egyptians would be ready to attack and punish their slaves. The Egyptians on their own would also choose to not trust them, follow them, and decide that since they were not heading back at the end of three days they must not be planning on coming back, and with that decide to run after them only to be led into the sea and drown. This could have been psychological warfare at its best if not for Pharaoh being stubborn and hardening his heart.Why isn’t this a form of lying?  The fact is that Moshe and Aharon did not say anything false, and the Egyptians would have misled themselves. They had free choice, and would have had the ability to analyze Moshe and Aharon’s words before running after the Jews to their demise. Therefore it would constitute honesty, albeit causing the Egyptians to mislead themselves.

This is an example of the fine lines and subtleties of truth.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Shemos – Shock is Worse than a Let Down

I recently found an answer to something that has been bothering me for what might be a couple of decades. Hashem tells Moshe at the burning bush, in this week’s Torah portion of Shemos: “And they will hearken to your voice, and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews has happened upon us, and now, let us go for a three days’ journey in the desert and offer up sacrifices to the Lord, our God’” (Shemos 3:18).

Wasn’t Hashem really planning on taking the Jews out of Egypt permanently? How could  He tell Moshe to lie to Pharaoh and say that  they would only be away for three days and then come back? That is a lack of truth; how can Hashem instruct such a thing to be said?!

However the answer lies in the Rabbeinu Bachye on this pasuk, attributed to Rabbeinu Chananel. He says:, “G-D forbid this is a matter of trickery in order to run away! Rather in order to accept the mitzvos, Hashem wanted them to accept upon themselves mitzvos little by little, as we in fact see that He commanded them about the mitzvah of Shabbos in Marah. We find a similar concept by Avraham, where [Hashem] didn’t tell him immediately, ‘Please take Yitzchok’ rather, ‘Please take your son, that which you love, Yitzchok’ (Breishis 22:2).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We find that in fact Hashem was not planning on using lies and trickery to get His people out of Egypt. Why should the Almighty, All Powerful, King Of All Kings need to? In fact, part of His plan was for them to leave for three days and come back to Egypt at least once, in order to slowly break them in to the responsibility of accepting all of Hashem’s Torah and mitzvos.

This can be taken as a lesson that the “kiruv experts” are correct that people should not take everything on all at once, rather little by little. However, if you take into account the situation at hand for the Jewish people, there is a much deeper lesson to be learned.

The Jewish people had been living in bondage, enduring torturous servitude for many, many years under the clutches of their Egyptian taskmasters. They were desperate for freedom, crying out to Hashem to send a savior. Imagine the  hope that would be dashed once they leave for three days only to come back to the same life they had before. Wouldn’t they lose hope and trust in their leader Moshe, and in Hashem, of ever getting them out of this rut?

Furthermore, what is the connection between the way Hashem wanted to handle things with the Jewish people by breaking them in slowing into Torah observance, and breaking the news to Avraham that He wants him to sacrifice his son Yitzchok? One is throwing a whole new lifestyle at them, which happens to be for their benefit and good being that the Torah was going to be a gift to them, as a guide book to life, whereas for Avraham, Hashem wanted him to slaughter his only son from Sarah, whom he loved, and was supposed to inherit his entire life style and future; what does one have to do with the other?

It would seem that the common thread is the shock of such a request. In both cases it would be told to them bluntly, all at once. The shock of such a notion, in both cases, might have such a powerful impact that it would have created  shock waves in their brain and they would not have been able to accept the request, no matter how much of a benefit it was to them, or how high a level Avraham was at in his love for Hashem. It would be even worse than the disappointment and feeling of being let down when falsely tasting freedom only to be lead back into servitude and the clutches of their evil masters.

What a psychological impact a sudden shock could have on the system! Therefore Hashem, for our own good, wanted to act stealthily, to ensure we would be ready to accept the yoke of Heaven upon us for eternity.

Vayechi – Special Asara b’Teves fast edition: Joy to the World

On fast days like Asara B’Teves, we read a haftorah during mincha from the book of Yeshayahu in Perakim 55 and 56. There is a pasuk mentioned in the haftorah which my Rosh Yeshiva ztz”l said became a wedding song in Europe for when they escorted the chosson and kallah from the wedding hall at the end of the wedding party. He taught the song to us and we actually sang it at the end of his wedding when he got remarried. The pasuk goes: “כי בשמחה תצאו ובשלום תובלון ההרים והגבעות יפצחו לפניכם רנה וכל עצי השדה ימחאו כף.” “For with joy shall you go forth, and with peace shall you be brought; the mountains and the hills shall burst into song before you, and all the trees in the field shall clap hands” (Yeshayahu 55:12).

The Radak says that in context this pasuk is talking about the Jewish redemption from exile:. “For with joy you shall go forth from exile and with peace you shall be brought to your land. The mountains, hills and fields are a parable for the whole world rejoicing. They will be clapping hands in joy proclaiming ‘Long lives the king!’… Another interpretation is that mountains and hills refer to the leaders and the trees in the field refer to the commoners.” (Click here and here for Hebrew translation.)

At the end of the Haftorah, there is a famous pasuk that we say in our Slichos before Sh’ma Kolienu. Yeshayahu prophesizes in the name of Hashem: “I will bring them to My holy  mountain, and I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Yeshayahu 56:7).

The Radak explains that after the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt speedily in our days, just as a guest enters someone’s house and the hosts accepts him with happiness and joy, so to I, Hashem, will command the kohanim to accepts anyone who comes to convert with happiness and joy. “And I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer,” meaning they, the non-Jews coming to convert and certainly the Jews who left their religion and are now coming back , will be happy when they see themselves come year after year to the Azara, which is the house of prayer, with the rest of the Jewish people bringing their prayers, burnt offerings, and other sacrifices. (Click here and here for Hebrew translation.)

In the advent of Moshiach the entire world will recognize that Hashem is One, the Creator and Sustainer of everything, All Powerful, and King of All Kings, and that the Jewish people are the chosen holy nation, priests and light unto the world.  Why then does it seem that Hashem has to instruct the kohanim to accept anyone wishing to convert with open hands and a smile, just like a host accepting his guests? Shouldn’t they naturally be overwhelmed with joy that everyone is coming together and wants to be closer to Hashem? The whole world will be jumping with joy and singing “long lives the King,” as we saw above; why then would the kohanim need instructions to accept converts with happiness and joy? Furthermore, once the converts and even the baalei teshuva are in the Beis Hamikdash, mixing with the crowd to pray and give offerings to Hashem, why then does Hashem have to “cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer” as if they would feel uncomfortable otherwise?

The lesson is that people will still be human even when Moshiach reveals himself. It would seem that even at a joyous time like this when everyone comes together in unity, and the past philosophies and history are left behind, still in all there is a natural tendency for the leaders and more experienced to be skeptical of the newcomers. That is why Hashem must command the kohanim to treat those that want to convert as a host would happily treat his guests. This is also why the converts and those Jews that return back to their roots might seem to feel uncomfortable when walking into such an experience, since there is a natural tendency to feel the jitters and out of place. Therefore Hashem will be right next to them, bringing them to His holy mountain, “and will cause them to rejoice in His house of prayer” just as everyone else in ecstasy will come to pray and show their gratitude and offerings to Hashem, may this moment come speedily in our days.