Mishpatim – A Glimpse into the Jewish Perspective of Slavery

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The Torah permits Jews to own slaves, but the way a slave must be treated by his master in Jewish law is very different than our perspective of how slaves were treated throughout history. In terms of a Jewish slave, the Torah opens this week’s portion of Mishpatim with the laws of Jewish slaves.  The Torah begins by saying, “When you acquire a Jewish slave, for six year he shall work, and on the seventh year he goes free” (Shemos 21:2). The master must treat his slave like a part of his household as the gemara in Kiddushin 22a comments: “The Sages taught: The verse states concerning a Hebrew slave: “Because he fares well with you,” which teaches that the slave should be with you, i.e., treated as your equal, in food, meaning that his food must be of the same quality as yours, and with you in drink. This means that there shall not be a situation in which you eat fine bread and he eats inferior bread, bread from coarse flour mixed with bran, which is low quality. There shall not be a situation in which you drink aged wine and he drinks inferior new wine. There shall not be a situation in which you sleep comfortably on bedding made from soft sheets and he sleeps on straw. From here the Sages stated: Anyone who acquires a Hebrew slave is considered like one who acquires a master for himself, because he must be careful that the slave’s living conditions are equal to his own.”  (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Rabbeinu Bachye and Rashbam tell the reasons why a Jew would be sold as a slave. This pasuk talks about one who the court sold because he couldn’t pay for what he stole, as it writes, “If he has no [money], he shall be sold for his theft” (Shemos 22:2). But a Jew who sells himself as a slave because he is too poor to support himself is spoken about in parshas Behar, as it says, “And if your brother becomes destitute with you, and is sold to you, do not work him with slave labor. As an employee or a [hired] resident, he shall be with you; until the Jubilee year he shall work with you” (Vayikra 25:39, 40). But he shall not have heavily burdensome work or disgraceful work, as it says, “As an employee or a [hired] resident,” just as a hired worker does his skill, so too [the Jewish slave] should do his skill, and just as a hired employee works during the day and not at night so to this [Jewish slave] should work by day but not by night.
The Torah in this week’s portion goes on to say, “If he comes [in] alone, he shall go out alone; if he is a married man, his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free,’ his master shall bring him to the judges, and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever” (Shemos 21:3-6). A Jewish slave is treated quite well! After his 7 year indenture he might not want to leave so quickly; indeed, there was a whole ceremony to allow him to stay until the Yovel year (Jubilee 50th year), and the gemara in Kiddushin 22b elaborates, “Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai would expound this verse as a type of decorative wreath [ḥomer], i.e., as an allegory: Why is the ear different from all the other limbs in the body, as the ear alone is pierced? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: This ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves.”    And Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would likewise expound this verse as a type of decorative wreath: Why are the door and a doorpost different from all other objects in the house, that the piercing is performed with them? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and when I passed over the two doorposts of houses in which there were Jews (Exodus, chapter 12), and I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves,” and they should not be slaves to slaves. And I delivered them at that time from slavery to freedom, and yet this man went and acquired a master for himself. Therefore, let him be pierced before them, as they are witnesses that he violated God’s will (Leviticus 25:55), which indicates: And they should not be slaves to slaves. And yet this man went and willingly acquired a master for himself. Therefore, let this ear be pierced.
Rabbeinu Bachye makes a very keen observation about a person who wants to stay a slave to his master. He says, “It is a known thing that it is customary in the world that the nature of a slave, standing in the control of his master, is disgusted by the very thought of his master, dislikes his life because of his work, and desires to be a freeman. This person who desires to stay with his work and to have a master other than the Blessed Hashem is an absolute nuance! Therefore this judgement comes about, that the master himself who chose this slave, and loved him, should be brought before the court and pierce his ear by the door in order to wound the limb that sinned, for it heard at Mount Sinai ‘Don’t steal’ and it went and stole, or because it writes ‘for Me are the Children of Israel slaves’ (Vayikra 25:55) and not slaves to slaves, and he bought for himself a master. Nevertheless for which ever reason it was, it is considered a sin on his part, for he is estranging himself from His Master on High who is Blessed, who warned him, when he accepted the Torah to not acquire any other master, and he now took off the yoke of that mitzvah.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Something incredible is going on here which needs a lot of analysis! Granted, this person did something wrong by stealing and because he couldn’t pay back he was sold into slavery to pay his dues, but first off, that was done by the court. Even the person that chose to sell himself because he was too poor to make ends meet, how can he be faulted for Hashem putting him into that position which compelled him to sell himself as a slave to a fellow Jew? Furthermore, how can we blame him for wanting to stay past the 7 years? He is being treated quite well, like a son or, even better, not overly worked, with room and board, possibly with another wife and children; Hashem essentially put him into the position of wanting to stay by commanding the master to treat him well, so why is he held as a sinner, who seems to be abandoning Hashem for wanting to stay longer with his master, especially if the Torah allows it?!

We have to first put into context what exactly happened. Almost everyone can relate that they hate working, mainly do it for the money, love getting time off, look forward to the weekends, and most likely hate their boss. It is human nature, for the most part, because work is a curse that Hashem gave Adam when he committed the first sin of mankind, as it says, “With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground…” (Breishis 3:19). Now, granted, a Jewish slave has tons of benefits, but he still is breaking the very nature of a human being, which seems to hate working even with all the benefits he might be entitled to and get. But not only is he going against human nature, which Hashem instilled into us, he is also going against the very command he as a Jew was given and accepted when Hashem took us out of Egyptian bondage and declared Himself as our master and us as His servants, which we, together, agreed to. So granted Hashem allows in His Torah for a Jew to enslave another Jew, that seems to be a consequence, but it was his decision to steal and it was also his decision to sell himself as a slave, so now that he wants to stay a slave he is admonished and punished for choosing to put himself into this situation. We see from here that even though Hashem might allow situations like this to happen, He very much shuns them and holds the person who got himself into the mess accountable for what he did even if it looks like Hashem “helped” him to get into this rut, but he had the choice to figure out a way to avoid it and he didn’t.

Chaza”l say that the path one chooses Hashem leads him on whether for good or for bad. But even if a person initially chooses a wrong path, Hashem gives him chances to correct his ways and get back onto the right path just like the Jewish slave who has the chance to go free after 7 years if he so chooses. Granted Hashem might let him enjoy the path he is on even if it is bad but that is all part of Hashem’s kindness of taking care of this person in the moment. However if the person so chooses to return to the right path he will be rewarded exponentially for making the right, albeit difficult decision.

Yisro – Gadlus Haadam: Really Realizing Why Humankind is So Great

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You probably never thought about why it is inappropriate to shame someone, meaning to do something that would cause someone to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or even disgraced. It’s obvious why, because it is not nice. But why is it not nice and on the contrary it’s very easy to make up excuses like sometimes it could be fun if done in jest and it could feel good if done to make yourself look good or to bring  attention to yourself?!

The last pasuk of this week’s Torah portion of Yisro states, “And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it'” (Shemos 20:23). Rashi observes on the last part of the pasuk, “אשר לא תגלה ערותך THAT THY NAKEDNESS BE NOT UNCOVERED — because on account of these steps you will have to take large paces and so spread the legs. Now, although this would not be an actual uncovering of one’s nakedness (of the parts usually kept covered), since it is written, (Exodus 28:42) ‘And thou shalt make for them (the priests) linen breeches [to cover the flesh of their nakedness]’, still the taking of large paces is near enough to uncovering one’s nakedness that it may be described as such, and you would then be treating them (the stones of the altar) in a manner that implies disrespect.”

The last Medrish Tanchuma on this Torah portion learns a lesson from here, “for this can be a kal vechomer, (a fortiori), for just as stones that don’t have knowledge to differentiate between good and bad, Hashem still warns you to not treat them in a disrespectful manner, all the more so, your friend, who is created in the likeness of Hashem.” The Etz Yosef adds, “’Your friend who is created in the likeness of Hashem’ as it is written ‘in the likeness of G-D He made him,’ all the more so do you have to be careful not to disrespect him in any possible shameful manner even if you don’t intend to disrespect him, because if you disrespect him you will be disrespecting his likeness of Hashem, and who is honored (or respected) those that honor (or respect) humanity.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must analyze this medrish very carefully. The medrish is comparing every single human being to the stones of the ramp that was used to walk up towards the alter which was in turn used to forge a relationship between man and his Father in Heaven, The Almighty King of all Kings. It was a very holy place where sins were forgiven, thanksgiving was offered on the alter and peace offerings were also sacrificed. It is understandable that it must be treated with the utmost respect for what it represents and does for our connection On High. Still in all the medrish says that it is only an inanimate object that doesn’t have any thought process to be able to choose between good and bad, to have emotions, make choices, to feel insulted, but nevertheless it would be inappropriate to show disrespect towards it, even in a slight indirect manner, which was not intentional as Rashi and the Etz Yosef point out. All the more so a human being, your fellow man who was endowed with a sense of free will, who is able to make deep intellectual, and philosophical choices, and can strive for perfection, and a close relationship with the Almighty, Our Father In Heaven; Mankind who was purposefully given the ability to choose between good and bad in order to be put into situations where he could choose to emulate Hashem, who is all good and complete truth, which is what defines us as being created in G-D’s likeness, all the more so must be treated with the utmost respect and not shamed in any way intentionally or unintentionally.

In a similar vein, I was once in Ottawa, Canada, for the changing of the guards which still has connections with the Royal family of England. Every morning there is a long and elaborate ceremony with hundreds of marching soldiers towards the parliament in order to switch the soldiers who are in charge of guarding the royal keys of the Parliament building, such sovereignty and significance was given towards the keys of a building connected to the royal family, all the more so one can imagine the respect and elegance demonstrated to the majesty herself and her family! (Click here for more information about this ceremony.)

If we only realized who we are, beloved princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses of The King Of All Kings as it says in Pirkey Avos (3:14),  “He (Rebbe Akiva) would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G‑d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, “For in the image of G‑d, He made man” (Genesis 9:6).” Then we would be more cognizant and at the forefront of awareness to ensure we treat each other with proper respect.

The special fortune that every single human being is created in the image of Hashem is THE reason why it is not nice to cause any disgrace to each other. If we truly realized the greatness of mankind, where we ourselves come from, how and why we were created and the potential for perfection and purity that each one of us was endowed with, the world would be a much better place!

Beshalach – Chesed: Natural Kindness

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This dvar Torah is taken from the notes I took about 18 years ago of Rav Moshe Chait zt”l’s Shmuz in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim

We find in this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach The Song the Jew’s sang at the sea. One of the stanzas says: “You stretched forth Your right hand and the earth swallowed them up” (Shemos 12:15).
The Yalkut Shimone says that Hashem required the land to swallow up the Egyptians as a burial. What was their merit to be buried? It was because they said “Hashem is the righteous”. They declared it almost by force, but still it is a tremendous merit that outweighed all the evil they did. Despite all their evil, they admitted they were wrong, so Hashem gave them a burial. This is hinted to in the words: “You stretched forth your right hand;” the right stands for chesed, kindness.
The pasuk “You stretched out Your right hand“ also hints that they were thrown out of the sea onto dry land, and then the dry land threw them back into the sea because it didn’t want to bury these evil people. What was the claim of the sea and dry land to not bury the Egyptians? Their claim was that just as the earth had to receive the blood of Hevel, after Kayin killed him, which looked like a cover up, which is why the Torah says the land shall be cursed, then all the more so, they claimed, if we bury all the Egyptians who died, the land will be cursed! They wouldn’t bury the Egyptians until Hashem “stretched out His Right hand,” which is a sign of an oath that he wouldn’t curse them.
Hashem said to the sea: ”You now have an obligation to perform your duty which is the kindness to bury the Egyptians.” But why did the dry land not want to do its normal duty which is a moral Chesed? Because it had its justifications and Hashem had to assure the land under the sea that they weren’t doing wrong by serving the wicked.

By Yaakov it says he ‘took a bunch of stones to rest his head on,’ and then it says he ‘took one stone.’ Chaza”l says all the stones wanted to be a pillow for Yaakov, so they became one.
The Mesilas Yesharim in the first chapter says there is a reason for all aspects of creation and the ultimate purpose of creation is to serve man, who is the purpose of creation.
The magnetism of rocks is to serve mankind. Can you imagine what a merit it is to have Yaakov Avinu lay on the rock? Not one rock had any more merit than the other rock, so they had, one might say, a magnetic spirituality to serve Yaakov!

This is a new definition of Chesed, because people think kindness is usually for people that deserve it. However Chaza”l say “The world with kindness was built.” That does not mean Hashem created the world with acts of kindness, but rather the whole identity of creatures were implanted with kindness. Not just man was created with one of his attributes to do kindness, but the whole essence of man is kindness. It is part an parcel of his nature, as well as the nature of all creation. That is why the evil Egyptians had a right to be buried, because of the remark they made, that Hashem is the Righteous. This triggered kindness to bury them.

An example of kindness to the highest degree is Avraham Avinu. Immediately after circumcising himself, he welcomed and served 3 “Arab idol worshippers.”
Doing a chesed for a close relative isn’t a big deal; it is expected. But still Chaz”al say Hashem said to Avraham you can wear My Garments of Chesed only after he buried his wife because at that instant he showed he did kindness out of love more than any other time which generated even more kindness.
Every one of us has an obligation to emulate Hashem, which is why we should do chesed. A person should have feelings that you need to help another, this kindness comes immediately when you see an opportunity coming your way. One should not have the attitude that the other needs to be helped which comes when you see a friend giving you signs that he wants something done for him.

Acts of chesed are everywhere don’t miss out on the opportunity!
Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Bo – Yearning For The Protection

Seder night on Pesach there are many who have the custom to leave their doors unlocked. This is based on a halacha brought in the Rema: “All the laws that apply to the first night should also be followed on the second night. And there is a custom to only read the first paragraph of Shema on one’s bed before going to sleep, but not the other paragraphs which one is accustomed to do on all other nights, for protection, since this night is a night of protection from dangers” (Mishna Berura 481:2). This halacha is based on a pasuk in this week’s Torah portion of Bo: “It is a night of anticipation for Hashem, to take them out of the land of Egypt; this night is Hashem’s, guarding all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Shemos 12:42).
The Rashbam, who is known to explain the pesukim in its simplicity, says: “’It is a night of anticipation for Hashem’ from the days of their forefathers The Holy One Blessed Be He was yearning for this night to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt just as he promised them. And for the Jews it is a night of anticipation for all generations, for they yearn for this night to celebrate the holiday of Pesach with all its laws. The word שִׁמֻּרִ֛ים means waiting (or anticipating) just as it says by [Yaakov about Yosef’s dream] ‘but his father awaited the matter’ (Breishis 37:11).”(Click here for Hebrew text.)
According to the Rashbam, both times when the pasuk uses the term שִׁמֻּרִ֛ים are referring to anticipation (or yearning), by Hashem; anticipating the Jewish people’s redemption and the Jewish people anticipating or yearning for the Holiday of Pesach every year throughout the generations. But there seems to be a stark difference, which challenges what seems to be expected of us each year, between our yearning and anticipation of Hashem’s yearning, of redeeming us from Egypt, or even to Yaakov’s yearning and anticipation to see what would be of Yosef’s dreams. For Hashem was yearning for the day to come when, in natural time, His children would be redeemed and saved from the nasty exile and slavery destined for them in order to receive Hashem’s gift of the Torah, transforming them into a nation, the Light unto all the other nations. This is something obviously worth anticipating, and it is in anticipation of what will happen in the future, which has not yet happened. Certainly by Yaakov Avinu, who did not know the future and what would become of Yosef’s dreams; it definitely warrants yearning and anticipation, an excitement which he probably could not wait to see play out! But us Jews go through the same each Pesach, with the same laws every year, year in and year out. We were already redeemed, the excitement already happened, it is a thing of the past. How can we be expected to yearn and anticipate each and every year, it is the same thing that has happened every year;doesn’t it lose its pizazz and excitement after a while?

It would seem that it is built into every Jew to be excited about celebrating our freedom on Pesach, with all the laws that pertain to it. However there is a logical step to assume that in order to keep that excitement alive each year it is incumbent upon us to find something new to do, to get us excited for the coming Pesach, be it a new insight into the Story of Pesach or a new recipe for the meal, or even new guests to share Pesach with, something within the parameters of Jewish Law to keep the holiday exciting in order to look forward to it as it gets close and when it comes.

Vaera – Zrizus: Beyond Mind Over Matter

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The Torah tells us in this week’s Torah portion of Vaera: “Moshe and Aharon did as Hashem commanded them, so they did. Moshe was 80 years old and Aharon was 83 years old when they spoke to Pharaoh” (Shemos 6, 7:7). The Torah isn’t just a historical book teaching us facts about the Jewish leaders’ timelines and ages. There must be a reason why the Torah gave the ages of Moshe and Aharon at this junction. In fact, the Ibn Ezra observes that the pasuk mentions their ages, and we don’t find anywhere else in Scripture where it mentions that prophets gave prophesy at such an old age.

The Sforno learns from this pasuk that, with all their elderliness, Moshe and Aharon still woke up early and acted with speed and alacrity (b’zrizus) to do the will of their Creator. For normally one who has reached the age of 80 had, even in those days, already surpassed “old age” and reached “the age of strength,” as Moshe testified in his prayer when he said: “The days of our years are 70 years, or even by reason of strength, 80 years” (Tehillim 90:10). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Sforno is telling us that the lesson we learn from this pasuk is that even at an old age one can act b’zrizus; with enthusiasm, alacrity and zeal, and in a manner which is quick and with much ease, in order to serve Hashem and fulfill His will.

This is something totally expected of Moshe and Aharon, such great tzadikim, righteous to the highest caliber, in touch with Hashem directly. Why would we think anything less of them, that the Torah has to point out their ages as if to applaud them for acting in a manner which was above and beyond what they were expected to do?

We see from here that even for such holy and righteous people like Moshe and Aharon, they also felt the effects of age, and it must not have been easy for them to act with such energy, like they had in their youth, to go with such speed to fulfill Hashem’s will. Yet they overcame the natural lethargies of age, and acted b’zrizus to do Hashem’s bidding, which deserved special mentioning.
But we have to put into context what exactly this means. Although it says at the end of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life: “Moshe was 120 years old when he died; his eyes had not dimmed, and his vigor had not vanished” (Devarim 34:7), and Moshe also carried down the Tablets and erected the Mishkan single handedly, we must say that Moshe was only rejuvenated by Hashem with “the fountain of youth” when he was up on Har Sinai upon receiving the Torah. Until then he was aging normally as anyone else would. In fact, the chapter in Tehillim that the Sforno quoted was written by Moshe Rabbeinu: “A prayer by Moshe, the man of Hashem…” (Tehillim 90:1) and the Ibn Ezra mentions there that Moshe might have written this Psalm when he was 80, before he had prophesy, when his “hands were becoming heavy.” So he really was naturally slowing down at that point; yet when he was charged by Hashem to free the Jewish people he acted in a manner not befitting his age, with such enthusiasm and speed that it was worth lauding him and Aharon in the Torah, which is not known to write anything extra, not even a letter.

This is something which should not be taken so lightly, the Mishna in Pirkay Avos, which the Sforno in fact alludes to, says: “At seventy fullness of years; at eighty the age of ‘strength’” (Avos 5:21). Rashi there says that at 70 you are considered completely old, when most of your hair whitens, and it is a big thing to live to the age of 80, and if one lives longer than 80 it is with “the power” of Hashem which keeps him alive, not because of his own strength, for from now on one doesn’t have as much strength to eat and drink.

We see from all this that aging is a natural tendency within all of us and that it is normal for us to slow down based on the laws of nature. But, even barring a miracle, one has the ability to move above and beyond nature, if he puts his or her mind to it and is excited to act with speed and alacrity, b’zrizus, especially when performing Hashem’s will.

The Orchos Tzadikim in the chapter on Zrizus opens by saying: “Zeal for the Torah and the commandments is a great quality, and so is zeal that aims to make a better world. And it is a quality of the righteous in the service of the Creator, may He be Blessed. Our Sages, of blessed memory, said : “The zealous are early to perform their religious duties” (Pesahim 4a).” Everyone, no matter what age or circumstance has the potential to be righteous and is able to tap in and use this incredible attribute for good.

Shemos – Daughter of G-D: Respecting Status

An astonishing thing is often overlooked in this week’s Torah portion of Shemos, when Pharaoh’s daughter did something akin to Avraham Avinu.  While totally steeped in the idolatry and black magic for which the Egyptian culture was known, she, completely independently, found G-D and denounced idolatry. This is why “she just happened” to be by the Nile River, in the right place at the right time, as Baby Moses was floating down the river in a basket. Indeed, this is why she is known as Basya, Daughter of G-D. The Torah relates: “Pharaohs daughter went down to bathe by the River and her maidens walked along the River. She saw the basket among the reeds and she sent her maidservant and she took it” (Shemos 2:5).
The Gemara in Sotah 12b elaborates about what exactly took place at the time: “The verse states: ‘And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe [lirḥotz] in the river’ (Exodus 2:5). Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: This teaches that she came down to the river to cleanse herself from the impurity of her father’s idols, as she was immersing herself as part of the conversion process. And similarly it states: ‘When the Lord shall have washed [raḥatz] away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of destruction’ (Isaiah 4:4). This washing clearly refers to the purging of spiritual sins, rather than bathing for the sake of cleanliness. The verse continues: ‘And her maidens walked along [holekhot] by the riverside’ (Exodus 2:5). Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This walking is nothing other than the terminology of going toward death, and similarly it states: ‘Behold, I am going [holekh] to die’ (Genesis 25:32). The verse continues: “And she saw the ark among the willows” (Exodus 2:5). Once her maidens saw that the daughter of Pharaoh was intending to save Moses, they said to her: Our mistress, the custom of the world is that when a king of flesh and blood decrees a decree, even if all the world does not fulfill it, at least his children and members of his household fulfill it, and yet you are violating the decree of your father. After the maidens tried to convince her not to save Moses, the angel Gabriel came and beat them to the ground and they died. The verse concludes: “And she sent amatah to take it” (Exodus 2:5). Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Neḥemya disagree as to the definition of the word “amatah.” One says that it means her arm, and one says that it means her maidservant. The Gemara explains: The one who says that it means her arm explained it in this manner, as it is written “amatah,” which denotes her forearm. And the one who says that it means her maidservant explained it in this manner because it does not explicitly write the more common term: Her hand [yadah]. Therefore, he understands that this is the alternative term for a maidservant, ama. The Gemara asks: And according to the one who says that it means her maidservant, didn’t you say earlier: Gabriel came and beat them to the ground and the maidservants died, so how could Pharaoh’s daughter send her? The Gemara answers: It must be that Gabriel left her one maidservant, as it is not proper that a princess should stand alone.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The life of Moshe Rabbeinu, which means the future of the Jewish People and in fact the whole world, hung in the balance. Would he be saved or not? Pharaoh’s daughter saw the child floating down the river and wanted to save him. Her companions tried to stop her, but the angel Gavriel struck them dead. The Tanna who said that she stuck out her hand and brought in the basket obviously was learning that there was an open miracle performed, by her arm stretching many amos, or cubits, long in order to save Moshe. However, according to the other opinion, Moshe being saved was relatively within the boundaries of nature beside the angel Gabriel’s intervention. That being the case, why then was one maidservant left alive simply because it is improper for a princess to be left alone?  Wasn’t there a chance that the last maidservant might dissuade her from saving the baby? Granted, at this moment, she was making a statement, separating herself from her father’s idolatrous way of life, essentially at risk of leaving the palace all together; but it still must have been a very highly sensitive emotional time, especially with her entire entourage mysteriously dropping dead on the banks besides her. Why take the risk and leave one alive? Because that’s proper manners? If she can potentially be the one to convince her to turn back then any hope of saving Klal Yisrael might be all over!

Imagine if The G-D of Legions, King of All Kings, The Holy One Blessed Be He, lihavdil, was in His war room with the angel Gabriel and they were strategizing a mission of how to best save Moshe Rabbeinu from drowning in the Nile and saving the entire Jewish People. This would have ramifications for the entire world’s existence, for if the Jewish People  would not have been redeemed from Egypt to get to  Har Sinai in order to accept Hashem’s Torah, then Hashem would have destroyed the world. So there was a lot on the line. Hashem decided to conduct things within the natural realm of the world and he warned Gabriel that he could take out all of Basya’s friends besides one, because it would be a lack of proper respect for a princess to be left alone. So now that she had her one maidservant, the maidservant could go and fetch the basket, using normal means of saving Klal Yisrael, and no massive miracle had to take place. But why risk the chance of saving one maidservant just because it is improper to leave her alone? The world was hanging in the balance; why is derech eretz, proper manners, taken into account at such a delicate time as this? Gabriel should not have taken any risks, wiped them all out, and ,if need be, since there was no other means of saving Moshe, then there is no choice but to rely on a miracle! But now that he had to take proper manners into account and must save one of them, it then put everything back into the rule and order of nature, and there is a slight risk that the whole mission might fall apart. Was it really worth even taking a slight risk like that during such an important mission?

The answer is YES! We see to what extent one has to treat another person with the proper respect he or she deserves, no matter what the dire situation anyone is in. Derech Eretz Kodmah LiTorah, proper manners supersedes the Torah! In this case it means that respecting others status comes before rational logic of getting things done properly without taking any risks even at such an ominous time in history!

Vayigash – Political Juggling

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The very end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash describes how Yosef, with his masterful knowledge and expertise, single-handedly came up with a way to save Egypt and the countries around it from a deadly, paralyzing famine, after 7 years of plenty, exactly as predicted from his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. He found favor in the eyes of the nation, for Hashem brings success to those that fear Him!

Yosef’s plan was to collect all the extra abundance of grain and produce that was harvested in the 7 years of plenty, to store them in warehouses as rations for the following 7 years of famine. He intentionally did not start to give out the rations to the people until they desperately needed them, lest they starve to death, and they gladly gave all their money in exchange for food. Once the money was all spent, they gave all their sheep and cattle in exchange for food. This all took place during the first two years of famine. Then, after two years of famine, Yaakov came down to Egypt with his family and the famine stopped, miraculously. So when the people came to Yosef begging for more food this time in exchange for land and their own servitude, Yosef took their land, but told them that he would give them seeds to plant, to produce crops. They would then be sharecroppers of the land, keeping 4/5 of what they produce, and they must give 1/5 to the king; which became a permanent tax. But Yosef never enslaved them, just used them as sharecroppers. Indeed, sharecroppers normally receive 1/5 of the profit whereas the owners receive the other 4/5, but Yosef switched that around, to which Pharaoh acquiesced, and the populace was quite pleased. As the pasuk says: “They replied, ‘You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh’” (Breishis 47:25).

The Ralbag learns a very important lesson from the leadership of Yosef: “It is befitting of a person who has control over other people’s possessions that he should treat them with the utmost honesty and put as much effort as possible in ensuring their success, as well as not accepting anything from them even though he is the reason why the owners have their possession (or investments.) This is why the Torah tells us that Yosef brought all the money he earned, when selling grain, to the palace of Pharaoh and did not keep one iota. He then brought all the sheep and cattle to Pharaoh once the citizens had no money left. Afterwards he bought all the lands for Pharaoh in a way that Pharaoh was entitled to a fifth of the produce of the land. This was all due to [Yosef’s] good protection of the success over what he was commanded to accomplish, albeit that he contrived such a thing with much intellect, in a fashion that the citizens gave thanks to him and they said he had rejuvenated them,” [still in all he didn’t take anything for himself, though he deserved to receive part of what he earned.] (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Certainly Yosef must have had some salary or stipend that Pharaoh gave him to support himself and his immediate family. Yet Yosef treated his job with the utmost scrupulousness and didn’t take even one cent from anything that he collected while sustaining the Egyptians and the nations around them. He even put intense effort in ensuring the citizens had the best end of the deal, giving them 4/5 of the crops they produced and only taxing 1/5 for the king, as well as not truly enslaving them. With much effort, a thought out plan, and a lot of help from Hashem, Yosef brought the Egyptians and everyone else out of the great economic strife they were in. The citizens acknowledged his sincerity and success because he was honest and true to his word.

The Torah also tells us that: “Only the farmland of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they ate their allotment that Pharaoh had given them; therefore, they did not sell their farmland” (Breishis 47:22). The priests refered to here were the leaders of the communities, like the heads of local or state government; those that maintained law and order within the populace.

The lesson the Ralbag learns from this is that “it is befitting for a ruler, when he wants to do something which would be very difficult on his followers, that he should appease the leaders of his nation in a fashion that they will agree with his plan of action. If he does not do that in this exact manner, they might rebel against him. For this reason we find that when Yosef collected the grain for Pharaoh during the 7 years of plenty, besides what was needed to feed the citizens, Pharaoh made a condition to give the ministers of the land all their needs for provisions during the seven years of famine. This was the reason he was able to convince the citizens that he will sell them what’s needed on his own terms. He was not afraid the nation would rebel and steal the grain or assassinate him and steal the grain because he had the backing of the leaders.”
Yosef and Pharaoh understood that the devised plan would be very difficult to execute. Confiscating all the accumulated wealth, especially during such years of plenty, with only dreams as assurance to the populace that it is worth it and they should be trusted, would be hard for anyone to swallow. They knew they needed the support and backing of the lay leaders and local government officials to execute their plans. Therefore they guaranteed the local ministers all the provisions needed, up front, in exchange for keeping peace and civility during the tumultuous times, and it worked. 

But why wasn’t this looked at as a bribe, or even just unfair or unjust behavior which should have sparked a rebellion? Why were the upper echelons, the leaders, being treated differently and more favorably than the rest of the populace? Where was the justice, equality, and honesty in that?

We must say that since Yosef himself, the head honcho, took full responsibility for everything, acted with the utmost sincerity, honesty and efforts, which everyone was able to see and appreciate, then even if there were some decisions that might have looked, to the outside, a bit sketchy, they could and would be overlooked by the populace, since Yosef had earned their love and respect, as well as there being a system of everything being kept under control.

This is a lesson that the Ralbag learns for each one of us, even till today. We see from here that by going out of one’s way, above and beyond to ensure one can be trusted, that he really is honest and he sincerely puts all his efforts in creating a system of success then people will trust him no matter what type of decisions he makes.

Miketz – Never Forget the Golden Years

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In this week’s Torah portion of Miketz, Yosef marries Osnas bas Potiphar. There are two sons born to them, Menashe and Ephraim. The Torah, when talking about Yosef naming Ephraim, says: “And the second one he named Ephraim, for ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’” וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִֽי: (Breishis 41:52).

However the Daas Zekeinim adds that Yosef also named Ephraim after his grandfather and great grandfather, Avraham and Yitzchok. For they were referred to as ashes, אפר. Avraham, as it says “…although I am dust and ashes” (Breishis 18:27). Yitzchok was like ashes on the alter [by the Binding of Isaac (Akeidas Yitzchok)]. For Ephraim sounds like two [sets] of ashes (plural). This is why the Jews are referred to as Ephraim, as it says, “Is Ephraim a son who is dear to Me” (Yirmiyahu 31:19). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This pasuk in Yirmiyahu has not only become a famous kumzitz song, but we say it every year in our mussaf shemone esray on Rosh Hashana. It is also the last pasuk of one the haftorahs recited on Rosh Hashana:

“Is Ephraim a son who is dear to Me? Is he a child who is dandled? For whenever I speak of him, I still remember him: therefore, My very innards are agitated for him; I will surely have compassion on him,” says the Lord. יטהֲבֵן֩ יַקִּ֨יר לִ֜י אֶפְרַ֗יִם אִם יֶ֣לֶד שַֽׁעֲשׁוּעִ֔ים כִּֽי־מִדֵּ֚י דַבְּרִי֙ בּ֔וֹ זָכֹ֥ר אֶזְכְּרֶ֖נּוּ ע֑וֹד עַל־כֵּ֗ן הָמ֚וּ מֵעַי֙ ל֔וֹ רַחֵ֥ם אֲרַֽחֲמֶ֖נּוּ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָֽה:

The Radak on this pasuk in Yirmiyahu says that Hashem is saying: “The fact that I remember him constantly is as if he is a dear son to me who never sinned in my life just like a father who delights in his beloved son. At all times when I speak to the prophets I mention my love that precedes me [and so when they leave and they pass by He takes their affairs with Him at all times.] Therefore when I remember the earlier love My ‘innards’ are agitated for him in his terrible state in exile. I will have mercy upon him and I will take him out of exile.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Yirmiyahu is telling us how Hashem still loves his children even though they sinned, including the 3 cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder. For this they deserved to be exiled from their land and the first Beis Hamikdash destroyed. Indeed, they even intermarried in exile. Still, in all, Hashem did not stop loving them and eventually out of His own abundance of mercy redeemed them from exile into Israel and built the second Beis Hamikdash. However, in order to keep the abundance of love flowing, the Radak says that Hashem would frequently remind Himself of the early years, when the Jewish People were a delight, like a beloved son that didn’t do anything wrong. According to the Daas Zekeinim quoted above, this refers to the Jewish people in their infancy, in the times of Avraham and Yitzchok, which is why the Jewish people here are referred to as Ephraim.
But if Hashem is that naturally loving father, why does He need the reminder of the early years? His compassion and mercy for his precious son should always be there no matter what wrong the son does? It must be that because the son betrayed his father and did grievous sins which warranted a reprimand, or in this case a severe punishment, then a reminder of the early years is needed to arouse the original love for the child when they were just freshly born into this world; cute and innocent. For the love now is tainted by the fact that the son, Klal Yisrael, has betrayed and been sinful to Hashem.

Based on the fact that we should emulate Hashem, there is a very important lesson that comes from this pasuk. There are times when our children do things which are wrong and can get the parents upset, and which have repercussions, sometimes severe repercussions. An extreme example is if a child decides to intermarry. We see from here that we are not supposed to be overwhelmed by our natural love of our children and overlook the wrong they have done. Rather, steps must be taken to show your dislike towards their decisions. Yet, once that happens, it might become hard for the parents to love them the same way again, and, in severe circumstances like intermarriage, they might want to disown them. However we also see from here that it is fitting for the parents to look back on the early years, when their son or daughter was nice, cute, and innocent, beloved and cherished by their parents. The parents should constantly be reminding themselves of yesteryear, to arouse love and mercy upon their wayward children, as if they never sinned, while still punishing them for the wrong they have done. In this way they won’t completely disown them and are ready to invite them back, and even possibly try to help them back at any moment in order that they have the potential to return on the positive path of serving Hashem just as Hashem treated the Jewish people in Babylonian exile.

Vayeishev – Four Cup of Wine at the Seder: Appreciating the Process of Salvation

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ישועת ד’ כהרף עין is a saying posted on the wall of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim’s main office in Queens, NY. It means “Salvation of Hashem is like the blink of an eye.” This does not mean we can expect or, G-D forbid, demand that Hashem rescue us from our calamities instantaneously, like in the blink of the eye; rather, it can happen and we must believe it is possible. When it does happen there is much to be thankful for at its realization. However, as we will see from a medrish in this week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev, there is more of an appreciation of Hashem’s salvation when it happens through an extended process.

The Torah portion relates that the chief butler of Pharaoh was thrown in jail over a fly found in Pharaoh’s goblet. The chief butler had a dream in jail which Yosef explained to him. The Torah describes the dream, saying: “So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph, and he said to him, ‘In my dream, behold, a vine is before me. And on the vine are three tendrils and it seemed to be blossoming, and its buds came out; [then] its clusters ripened into grapes. And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh’s palm.’ And Joseph said to him, “This is its meaning: the three tendrils are three days. In another three days, Pharaoh will number you [with the other officers], and he will restore you to your position, and you will place Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, according to [your] previous custom, when you were his cupbearer” (Breishis 40:9-13).

However the Medrish Rabba (Vayeishev 88:5) relates that there was actually a deeper meaning behind the dream. “’So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph, and he said to him, ‘In my dream, behold, a vine is before me.’ This refers to the Jewish people as it says, ‘You uprooted a vine from Egypt’ (Tehillim 80:9). The vine had 3 tendrils [representing] Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. ‘And it seemed to be blossoming’ [refers to] the blossoming of the Jewish redemption. ‘And its buds came out’ [refers] to the budding of the Jewish redemption. ‘Its clusters ripened into grapes’ represents that a vine which blossoms immediately buds and grapes that are budding immediately ripen. ‘And the cup of Pharaoh was in my hand.’ From where did the Rabbis enact four cups on the night of the seder? Rav Huna said in the name of Binayah in accordance with the four types of redemptions that were mentioned by Egypt, ‘And I took you out,’ ‘And I saved you,’ ‘And I redeemed you,’ and I took you.’ Rebbe Shmuel bar Nachman said, in accordance to the four cups mentioned here… Rebbe Levi said in accordance with the four kingdoms. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said in accordance with the four cups of poison that Hashem will serve the non-Jews… And in accordance with those Hashem will give the Jews four cups of salvation in the future to come as it says, ‘The Lord is my allotted portion and my cup’ (Tehillim 16:5), I shall lift up a cup of salvations, and I shall call out in the name of the Lord, (Tehillim 116:13)…”

The Yefe Toar, bothered by the fact that it seems clear from the pesukim that Yosef interpreted the dreams differently, points out “the truth is that it was known that Hashem did not want to show [the butler and baker] what would become of them after 3 days. Only because what transpired as a result was [Yosef] was released from prison which eventually led to the redemption of the Jewish people, therefore Hashem orchestrated all these causes, and therefore it makes sense to attribute everything to the Jews who were the ultimate purpose of these dreams… ‘The vine that budded immediately ripened,’ this is coming to hint to 3 types of redemptions: buds, clusters, and grapes. The buds hinted to the beginning of the redemption when Moshe revealed himself to them as the progenitor of their redemption. The clusters refer to going out of Egypt, for then they started to see the fruits of redemption. The Grapes refers to the splitting of the sea, which completed their redemption. ‘From where did the Rabbi enact four cups?’ The Medrish answered that we learn from here that on Pesach we drink the cups because of freedom as it says, ‘I shall lift up a cup of salvations’… this is why we relied on this Torah portion for the amount of cups, for it hints to the redemption and Yosef went free because of this.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
Hashem could have redeemed us in the blink of an eye, as soon as Moshe came back to Egypt, but there was a whole process to our freedom. Why was the redemption drawn out at the cost of the extra pain and suffering, until they were completely free?
Rav Yisrael Salanter in his 7th letter of Ohr Yisrael begins: “Everything in the world is brought into existence through the process of cause and effect. The harvest of produce is the result of many preceding causes, such as planting seeds and plowing. The acquisition of money results from causes such as commercial transaction and leasing. Each cause is the effect of a preceding one. For example, seeding a field is the initial cause of grain sprouting. The seeding itself is the result of the person who plants the seeds, and the planting of the seeds is the result of his desire either to utilize the grain or to earn money through his labor. In the final analysis, there is no effect without a preceding cause that generates it. Likewise, there is no cause that is not generated by a preceding one. Ultimately, this chain of cause and effect traces back to the first, essential Cause – The Almighty.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from this Medrish that the Sages, when enacting the four cups of wine in appreciation of Hashem saving us from the clutches of Pharaoh and Egyptian bondage, recognized the cause and effect that ultimately led back to Hashem. Indeed, going all the way back to when Yosef interpreted the dreams for the butler and baker and how everything ultimately connected, piece by piece, until the final redemption at the sea.

This very enactment proves that one will appreciate seeing a process of salvation at work and in this way will have more of an appreciation of the way Hashem runs this world then if he would be saved in the blink of an eye, though more flashy, and possibly less strenuous, but lacking in the clear appreciation that one could potentially have by looking back and seeing a whole process unfolding.

Vayishlach – Loving Your Enemy

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Yaakov prepared for combat with Esav at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. Fearing the worst, he split up his camp, prayed to Hashem for salvation, and sent a peace envoys ‘with giftsto try to divert the incoming attack of Esav and his 400 mightiest warriors. The Torah portion begins: “Yaakov sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esav, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying: “So shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Yaakov, “I have sojourned with Lavan, and I have tarried until now. And I have acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants, and I have sent to tell [this] to my master, to find favor in your eyes’ ” (Breishis 32:4-6).

The Ralbag learns a very fascinating lesson from this initial confrontation. He says: “It is befitting for one who has someone who hates him and he wants to remove the hatred from him, that he should come close to him with all his might and tell him some personal news. In this way he is bringing their hearts closer by not hiding anything. The point being that a person only informs his loved ones of personal news and hides it from his haters. With this, if so, by making a foundation in his heart that he is a loved one, and breaking his heart, you will remove the hatred from him. For this reason Yaakov sent messengers to Esav to inform him about what had happened to him in order to calm his heart that he is a loved one.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There was an obvious rift between Esav and Yaakov. Esav wanted to kill Yaakov at some point for “stealing” the birthright and blessings. He even sent his son to do the duty many years before, but his son only took all of Yaakov’s possessions which left him penniless and utterly embarrassed because he had no gifts in hand when he met his bride to be, Rochel, at the well. Granted that now he is trying to appease him, but how is it humanly possible to treat your enemy as your loved one by giving him personal information which most people wouldn’t divulge to a random stranger off the street, no less a sworn enemy?

It would seem that Yaakov, though apprehensive and ready to prepare for battle if need be, sincerely felt brotherly love, and sent a delegation to talk with Esav in a manner that only two loving friends or family would engage in.  Real sincerity must have been there, if it was to be successful in removing the hatred from Esav’s heart. It was not an allusion or trick, because people can see right through that. Indeed, it also seems from this Ralbag that, on the contrary, a person who hates another cannot simply tell his enemy personal information. There is something innately blocking him from doing that, and therefore by telling that information it demonstrates sincerity, which can melt the heart of your enemy.

The fact that the Ralbag brings this as a lesson shows us that this can be done by anyone, not just a Yaakov Avinu. As hard as it is to go over to someone with whom you are not on good terms and start engaging in small talk and treating him or her like your friend, if one can muster up the will and power to do so, then inevitably it will remove hatred from his or her heart, because you are sincerely showing love towards that person.