Mishpatim – “I Was Born That Way” is No Excuse

The events of the revelation at Sinai before and after are split up into 3 sections in the Book of Shemos. The first is in last week’s Torah portion of Yisro, a detailed account leading up to and including the actual giving of the Torah, andthe Ten Commandments. The second is at the end of this week’s portion of Mishpatim, which according to Rashi is an overview of what took place right before the Torah was given, including the famous proclamation by the Jewish people of na’aseh vinishma, “we will do and then we will listen.” The third section is in Ki Sisa, discussing what took place after the Jews received the Torah, specifically concerning the sin of the golden calf.

There is a famous Chaza”l about how Hashem went around to all the nations, giving them a chance to accept the Torah before he came to the Jews and they wholeheartedly said na’aseh vinishma, without even asking what was inside the Torah. There is a very important lesson that could be learnt from the version of the story presented in the Pesiksa Rabasi of Rav Kahana (21:3).
The medrish writes that in the beginning Hashem went to the descendants of Esav. He asked them, will you accept the Torah? They said before Him, “Master of the Universe, what is written inside it?” He said, “Don’t kill” (Shemos 20:13). They said, “The whole essence of our being is that our forefathers guaranteed we will live by the sword, as it says, ‘By your sword you shall live’ (Breishis 27:40), we can’t accept the Torah.” Afterwards Hashem went to the descendants of Ammon and asked them if they will accept the Torah. They said before Him, “Master of the Universe, what is written inside it?” He said to them, “Don’t have incest.” They said to Him, “The whole essence of our being came from incest, as it says ‘Thus, Lot’s two daughters conceived from their father’ (Breishis 19:16), we can’t accept the Torah.” Afterwards Hashem went to the descendants of Yishmael and asked them if they would accept the Torah. They said before Him, “Master of the Universe, what is written inside it?” He said to them, “Don’t steal.” They said to Him, “The whole essence of our being lives off of stealing and burglarizing, as it writes, ‘And he will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be upon all, and everyone’s hand upon him’ (Breishis 16:12), we can’t accept the Torah.” Afterwards Hashem came to the Jews, and they said na’aseh vinishma, “we will do and then we will listen” (Shemos 24:7). For this reason the Torah writes, “He appeared from Mount Paran and came with some of the holy myriads; from His right hand was a fiery Law for them. Indeed, You showed love for peoples” (Devarim 33:2, 3). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Bi’ur on this medrish, explaining why the medrish brings the pasuk of “from His right hand was a fiery Law for them. מִֽימִינ֕וֹ אֵ֥שׁ דָּ֖ת (כתיב אשדת) לָֽמוֹ,” says in Hebrew, “ “ואפשר דדריש מימינו כמו מאמינו  . This means that it is possible to understand the Hebrew term that refers to “from His right hand” to be read as the Hebrew term for believers. The intention being that because of the faith and trust that the Jews entrusted in Hashem, and said, “we will do and then we will listen,” as it says in Gemara Shabbos 88a “About us, who proceed wholeheartedly and with integrity, it is written: “The integrity of the upright will guide them” (Proverbs 11:3), whereas about those people who walk in deceit, it is written at the end of the same verse: ‘And the perverseness of the faithless will destroy them,’” therefore the medrish concludes that they merited to have ‘a fiery law for them.’ (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The other nations seemed to have very valid excuses for why they couldn’t accept the Torah. What could they do, what could you expect from them if it is within their genetic makeup, the way they were born was with a drive to kill, act immodestly, or steal? They even proved it was part of their destiny because of the traditions they had from their progenitors which were even quoted in the Torah. For example the blessing Hagar received for Yishmael her son by an angel, and the blessing that Yitzchak gave to Esav. If that is the case, then why did Hashem pick the hardest mitzvah for them when they asked what was in the Torah? Why doom them from the start?

However, it would seem from Hashem’s response to the Children of Israel that what Hashem was really looking for was a people who truly believed and trusted in Him. So, when the other nations asked what was in the Torah, Hashem gave them the hardest mitzvah for them to observe to test their faith in Hashem and His Torah and obviously they were not willing to be faithful. If they would have been trusting and faithful, they would have realized and believed in the fact that they had the ability to overcome their inborn challenges and that Hashem would not have given them or even created mitzvos they would not be able to adhere to. But the Jewish people showed the ultimate enthusiasm and wholehearted true faith by not even asking what was inside the Torah but by blindly accepting “we will do and then we will listen.” For showing Hashem they were willing and ready to accept whatever Hashem commanded and expected of them they merited to have ‘a fiery law for them,’ they received the Torah, Hashem’s blueprints of creation and the handbook for mankind.

Yisro – Individual Attention

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This week’s dvar Torah is built upon a shmuz Rav Moshe Chait zt”l, the venerable Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim, gave over 20 years ago.

Parshas Yisro is one of the most important Torah portions because it discusses kabbalas haTorah, the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people. The reason why it is so important is because it is one of the foundations of the Jewish people and one of the bases for the future of the Jews.

Chaza”l refer to this event as ma’amad Har Sinai, literally, standing at Mount Sinai. Just standing there was inspirational as we say in Dayeinu in the Haggada on Pesach, “If He had brought us to Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah it would have been for us sufficient (dayeinu).” Just the fire and the voices heard and seen at Mount Sinai could inspire a person to come close to Hashem.

Everyone was at ma’amad Har Sinai! Everyone heard even future generations!

Why did Hashem begin the Ten Commandments in singular form, I am Hashem your (singular) G-D? In fact the Pesiksa DiRabasi of Rav Kahana (21:14) says there might be a possible defense or excuse for why part of the Jewish people succumbed to the sin of the golden calf, for Hashem said in singular form “I am Hashem your G-D” and perhaps He was only speaking to Moshe, therefore from then after Hashem said “I am Hashem your (plural) G-D,” (as He said in the last pasuk of the paragraph about tzitzis that we say in our shema every day); to be sure everyone felt they were warned. Since Hashem was speaking to the entire Jewish people at Har Sinai, why then was the Torah given in singular form?

To teach us that every single Jew must say Hashem gave the Ten Commandments to me, and I must preserve them. One should not say the Torah was given for everyone else. Hashem had to speak to the Jewish people who were at a level of prophesy to convey the message that Hashem expects me to observe the Torah, and if it is not observed by me then there is no Torah.
One could say, I believe there is a Jewish Nation and a Torah but who needs it. Man’s inclination says he wants someone else to observe the Torah; he doesn’t want responsibility. That attitude will cause destruction to himself and the Torah. It will cause a negative effect to all of creation.

The Pesiksa Rabasi of Rav Kahana (21:6) describes kabbalas haTorah with a parable to a realistic painting of a face; the eyes seem to be looking at you whichever corner of the room you are at. The eyes are looking at every single individual in that room at one time. So too, kaviyachol, Hashem had to speak to every single person at Har Sinai personally “looking at them straight in the eye” to impress upon them the need to observe the Torah. The point is that you must obligate yourself; don’t think it is not for me. The acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai is virtually meaningless if not thought of in these terms. A person could understand, review, and even do mussar bihispa’alus, getting an emotional charge or inspiration, connecting the brain with the heart on this subject, but still not think it is for me.

Gadlus Ha’adam
, the greatness of man is inherent in every person. Hashem placed His Righteousness in man but gave man free choice to make calculations of how to feel and act. If a person does not make the right calculations, then only he will cause his own demise.

Beshalach – It’s Not About What You Say but How You Say It

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This week’s dvar Torah is SPONSORED BY RABBI DOVID VINITSKY AND CHILDREN IN LOVING MEMORY OF HIS UNCLE JOSEPH KATZ  Yosef ben Moshe Hakohen O”H. He was an intellectual who enjoyed learning mussar and was a reader of this weekly thought. May this dvar Torah bring merit to his soul, AND ALSO BRING COMFORT TO HIS WIFE OF 72 YEARS  AUNT ESTEL KATZ AND HIS CHILDREN.

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, Pharaoh sent the Jewish people out of Egypt.

It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go… יזוַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֘

The medrish Pesiksa Rabasi of Rav Kahana learns a very interesting halacha from this pasuk. “Our Rabbis taught that one who uses (literally send his hand שולח יד) an item deposited to him to watch by his friend, how could it be collected by the owner? This is what our Rabbis have taught us (in Bava Metzia daf 43): If one has used a deposit, Beis Shammai says he has to pay what is missing or extra. (For example, if a sheep was deposited to him full of wool and he sheared the wool, after he used the sheep he has to pay for the sheep and wool and if it grew more wool he has to pay the value of what was grown also.) Beis Hillel says he has to pay the value of what it was worth when stolen (whether it was full of wool or empty.) Rebbe Akiva says, he has to pay the value of its worth at the time of the claim against him, (meaning the value of the deposit when he was summoned to court.) And our Rabbis have taught us, that definitely anyone who has used the deposit of his friend is deserving of breaking his arm. Where do we learn this from? From Pharaoh, who the Jews were given to him as a deposit, and he wanted to use them, and Hashem ‘broke his arm’ as it says ‘Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt’ (Yechezkel 30:21). How do we know that the Jews were a deposit in his hand? For it had said ‘פָּקֹ֤ד פָּקַ֨דְתִּי֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם ‘ (Shemos 3:16), (which literally means I have made you into a deposit) [and Hashem promised] and I will take them out (Brieshis 50:25). And because the Jews gave up on being redeemed, Hashem said, go tell them that just as the owner of a deposit when he wants to, he takes his item, so to you, when your time has come, I will immediately take you out of his hands. The Jews said to Hashem, ‘Master Of The Universe, see how he [Pharoah] denies your existence, and prevents us from leaving,’ as it says ‘I do not know Hashem, neither will I let Israel out’ (Shemos 5:2). Hashem said to them, I swear by your life that you will see the mouth who said who is Hashem will say Hashem The Righteous. The mouth that said ‘I don’t know Hashem’ will say pray to Hashem, and the mouth that said ‘neither will I let Israel out’ will in the end take everyone by their hand and send them away. How do we know this? As it says, ‘It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go…’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is interesting to note that Hashem refers to the Jewish people as a “deposited item.” One might think that is very belittling to refer to one’s precious children, a nation of human beings with such potential, as a thing or an object. As they say nowadays, this does not sound politically correct! Why did Hashem refer to the Jewish people in this manner? Yet on the contrary, Hashem was sending a very positive and reassuring message to the Jewish people, to inspire them to not give up hope. Just as they were brought to Egypt, as orchestrated by Hashem, they can very easily be taken out of Egypt, even if they were enslaved and mistreated, just like a person who deposited a precious item into the hands of someone to watch and is now picking it up. These are supposed to be words of encouragement, not insult; it is not what is said but how it is said.

In a similar vein, at the beginning of this medrish a person who uses an item deposited by him to just watch is equated to Pharoah, deserving of his arm being broken just as Pharaoh and his country were crushed by the ten plagues for misusing and abusing the Jews. The Rada”l comments that this person deserving of his arm being broken for using the object is like a thief with a high arm and the pasuk in Iyov suggests, “and the high arm shall be broken” (Iyov 38:15). The Rada”l concludes that one should look further into the matter in Sanhedrin 58b.

There, it discusses a person who raise his hand to strike his fellow. Reish Lakish says: One who raises his hand to strike another, even if he ultimately does not strike him, is called wicked…Rav Huna says: His hand should be cut off, as it is stated: “And the high arm shall be broken” (Job 38:15). If one habitually lifts his arm to strike others, it is better that it be broken. (as per Rashi there.) The Gemara relates that Rav Huna cut off the hand of a person who would habitually hit others. Rashi on the gemara there says that the Jewish court has a right to fine a person by beating or punishing him even if there isn’t precedence of the sort in the Torah in order to create a fence and deterrent in the matter. (Clcik here for Hebrew text.)
This person who used someone’s item that does not belong to him, granted he went against the owner’s trust and did something equivalent to stealing – but is he really as bad as Pharaoh, who brutally enslaved the Jews, tortured and killed many of them? Why are they equated?

Granted Pharaoh deserved and received a much, much more severe punishment for what he did; but it would seem from the reference the Rada”l makes to Sanhedrin that the reason why this guardian of the deposit is equated to Pharaoh, who was the guardian of Hashem’s deposit, is not because of what he did, but how he did it.

It would seem that this person had a habit to use other people’s things, which he was entrusted to watch, and that is why he was deserving to have his hand broken just as the person who is in the habit of even just threatening to strike others. Forming such a nasty habit, albeit that it is not punishable the same way as what Pharaoh, did but it is equated in severity to the acts that he did. This is because when a person forms a negative habit, he has convinced himself that he is doing nothing wrong, just as Pharaoh who resolved to believe he himself was a god and denied the Almighty King Of All Kings, had no intention of letting  the Jews go and needed to be severely punished in order to learn his lesson.

Bo – Like the Commitment of a Servant to His Master

This week’s Torah portion of Bo takes us through the final 3 plagues and what led up to the exodus from Egypt. This includes the first Pesach and the laws that relate to Pesach and the seder.

The medrish Pesiksa Rabasi of Rav Kahana expounds on one of his interpretations of a pasuk found in Tehillim (119:62), “At midnight I arise to thank You for Your righteous ordinances.” “In another interpretation “Your righteous ordinances” refers to the ordinances (judgements) that You brought on the Egyptians in Egypt and the righteousness You did with our forefathers in Egypt. For they only had two mitzvos, the blood of the Pesach and the blood of bris milah, therefore it says in Yechezkel (16:7) – ‘And I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood and I said to you, through your blood you shall gain life, through your blood you shall gain life.’ This refers to the blood of the Pesach offering and the blood of bris milah.”

The Maharz”u on this medrish, quoting a Medrish Rabba in Rus, explains that they didn’t have any mitzvos in hand to be involved with so that they could be redeemed. Therefore, in order to be redeemed, Hashem gave them 2 mitzvos, which were the blood of the Pascal lamb and the blood of circumcision… (click here for Hebrew text.)

This pasuk in Yechezkel is mentioned every year in the Haggadah, “’And numerous,’ as it is said: ‘I caused you to thrive like the plants of the field, and you increased and grew… I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your bloods, and I said to you `By your blood you shall live,’ and I said to you `By your blood you shall live!’ (Yechezkel 16:6,7). The Ritva commenting on the Haggadah references a Mechilta which says in the name of Rebbe Masia ben Cheresh that Hashem was saying “And I passed over you and saw you” and behold the beloved time had come when Hashem had sworn to Avraham Avinu that He would redeem his children, but they did not have any mitzvos to be involved in so that they can be redeemed… so Hashem gave them two, the mitzvah of Pesach and the mitzvah of milah so that they can be involved in them in order to be redeemed… So to the Rambam wrote that circumcision took place in Egypt, as it says “Any uncircumcised cannot eat from it.” Moshe Rabbeinu circumcised every one of them except for the tribe of Levi for they kept bris milah as it says “And your bris they observed.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

It would seem from the Maharz”u on the Pesiksa Rabasi and the Ritva on the Haggadah that a prerequisite to being redeemed was that the Jews had to be actively involved in performing mitzvos, which is why  Hashem gave them circumcision and the Pascal Lamb as commandments to fulfill. However, the Ritva himself mentioned that they were already performing mitzvos, earlier in the Haggada, on the line, “’And he became there a nation’ this teaches that Israel was distinctive there.” The Ritva says this was them dressing in a distinct way, differently than the Egyptians, by wearing tzitzis. In fact, the Yalkut Shimone (172) mentions other mitzvos they were careful to fulfill, such as distancing from promiscuity, not speaking lashon hara, and not changing their Hebrew names. Indeed, the gemara in Yoma 28b says that during their entire stay in Egypt there was always a yeshiva open, learning the teachings their forefathers had taught going back generation to generation from Avraham Avinu.  Furthermore, the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer, end of chapter 48, said that for 3 things the Jewish people deserved to be redeemed from Egypt: for not changing their language from Biblical Hebrew, not speaking lashon hara, and for believing in the uniqueness of Hashem (Yichud Hashem). If this is the case, then what does it mean that Hashem had to give them 2 mitzvos in order to redeem them? Is there a contradiction here in the Ritva and are the midrashim arguing with each other?

Of course, there is no contradiction in the Ritva and it would seem that the midrashim don’t have to be arguing. It is one thing to be performing mitzvos because it is a nice thing to do, or even the proper thing to do, things that might even have been a tradition from one’s ancestors. This steady performance might be even the ultimate cause of redemption. However, they were not commanded to perform those mitzvos. Bris milah and the Korban Pesach were the first mitzvos that Hashem had commanded the Jewish people to perform. It would seem that only because they observed what they were commanded to do were they able to go through with the redemption. It would not have been possible to redeem them without their observance of what was commanded of them. In fact, it would seem from the Pesiksa Rabasi that ideally, they should have first received the Torah so that they could observe all of the mitzvos, but out of Hashem’s righteousness He took them out after observing only two commandments.

Observing something that you feel obligated to do is a whole different level than performing a mitzvah because you just feel like it, or because you are in the mood, or it makes sense to you, or you just like it. The reason being is because it shows commitment and true respect to Hashem that you are observing it because He commanded you to do it, whereas a person who fulfills mitzvos just because, and when he feels like it, shows that he is committed to himself and his desires, not to Hashem. Therefore it makes sense, as a cause and effect, that the only way the Jews could have been redeemed by Hashem out of Egypt and taken under His wing, is if they showed they were willing to commit themselves to Him and follow whatever He commanded them to do.

This seems to be a rule by redemption in general, not specific to the redemption from Egypt. In order for us to be able to be redeemed from our current exile we have to have a strong commitment towards not only believing in Hashem but towards observing his mitzvos, His commandments, that will be the means of actually being redeemed once we deserve it. This should bring a whole new meaning for ourselves when we recite the first paragraph of Shema and accept the Yoke of Heaven and then the second paragraph of Shema when we accept the Yoke of Mitzvos observance.

Vaera – It’s Hard to Overcome a Handicap

In the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vaera, Moshe was instructed by Hashem to give encouragement to the Jewish people upon the upcoming redemption out of servitude and bondage and inheritance of the Land of Canaan. “God spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned. And also, I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant.’ Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord’ ” (Shemos 6:2-8).

The next pasuk says that Moshe related what Hashem told him to the Jewish people, but they did not accept what he said. “Moshe spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moshe because of shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor” (Shemos 6:9).
Why didn’t the Jewish people accept such encouraging words? The pasuk states two reasons: because of shortness of breath, which the Ralbag attributes to Moshe, as will be explained shortly, and because of their hard labor, which the Mesillas Yesharim in chapter 2 explains, “In truth, this is one of the cunning strategies of the evil inclination, to relentlessly burden people’s hearts with his service so as to leave them no room to reflect and consider which road they are taking. For he knows that if they were to put their ways to heart even the slightest bit, certainly they would immediately begin to feel regret for their deeds. The remorse would go and intensify within them until they would abandon the sin completely. This is similar to the wicked Pharaoh’s advice saying, “intensify the men’s labor…” (Ex. 5:9). His intention was to leave them no time whatsoever to oppose him or plot against him. He strove to confound their hearts of all reflection by means of the constant, incessant labor.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Jewish people were working so hard that they did not have the time or brainpower to think about and digest what Moshe was telling them. However, the Ralbag adds that if not for Moshe’s “shortness of breath” then they would have accepted what Moshe had told them. What does this mean? The lesson the Ralbag learns from pasuk 9 is that when a person wants to express something to other people, he should formulate his words with the purpose of convincing the person of what he desires of them, using fine and flowery speech so that he will be pleasing to listen to. Without this, it is possible one will not get what he requests, even if it is something which would benefit them (the listeners). We see this from the fact that Hashem commanded Moshe to tell the Jews all that He told him, and most of it was for their own good. Indeed, it was convincing enough that they should have trusted his words, but still the Jews did not listen to Moshe because of the “shortness of breath” of Moshe that he didn’t put in the effort to place his words in an orderly and complete fashion so that they would sound pleasing and believable. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Ralbag, in his verse-by-verse commentary, adds that Moshe had spoken directly to the Jews without Aharon as intermediary as indicated in pasuk 6, “Therefore, say to the children of Israel.” Then Hashem told Moshe to speak to Pharaoh without Aharon as intermediary, “But Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of impeded lips?’” What Moshe meant by “impeded lips” was that his speech was closed, meaning that the gates of speech were closed in front of him like a person sentenced to be speechless. Therefore, in the next pasuk it writes, “So the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon,” all that He commanded to say to the Jews and Pharaoh. The point being that Hashem spoke to Moshe to in turn speak to Aharon, and Aharon would be the intermediary for the messenger of Hashem to speak on his behalf. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into perspective what transpired. It is well known that Moshe had some form of verbal handicap, received when he burned his lips on hot coals at the age of 3 when Pharaoh tested him to see if he could be trusted in the palace (Shemos Rabba 1:26). From that day Moshe had a speech impediment. Moshe originally objected to accepting leadership over the Jewish people when he spoke to Hashem at the burning bush, with one of his excuses being that he had a speech impediment and Hashem told Moshe that Aharon would speak for him. Hashem evidently still insisted in the beginning that Moshe would speak to both the Jews and Pharaoh. Moshe tried with the Jews, it didn’t work, and before going to Pharaoh he told Hashem ‘I can’t do this,’ and Hashem acquiesced and brought Aharon in as an intermediary.

Obviously, Moshe had the potential to speak eloquently and get the message clearly across; if not, Hashem would not have wasted His time. So what went wrong? It is actually a bit shocking, if one thinks about it! Moshe had the playbook right in front of him. Hashem told him exactly what to tell the Jewish people. He was like a teleprompter of sorts for Moshe. Moshe of course had the care and desire to tell the Jewish people that they would be seeing salvation soon, don’t worry this terrible exile, servitude will end very soon, and you will be redeemed in exemplary fashion. He cared so much for his people and only wanted the best for them, so why couldn’t he muster up the ability to give over the message with all its flowery detail, excitement, and luster that would energize them to believe in and accept their exciting fate?

It would seem, on some level, though he believed completely in Hashem, accepted his leadership role, and was completely faithful and caring for the Jewish people, but because of the handicap he had, on some miniscule level it effected his confidence in formulating what he was supposed to say in an eloquent and orderly fashion to the degree that he felt hindered and speechless. That is why he told Hashem that he had “impeded lips” and in fact Moshe was “short of breath” when speaking to the Jews. Hashem gave Moshe the chance to overcome his handicap on his own, but Moshe felt he was not ready to, and without any qualms Hashem gave Aharon the job of being Moshe’s mouthpiece.

Still in all, Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader of all time and the first Medrish Rabba at the beginning of Devarim says that through learning and teaching Torah his speech impediment was eventually healed. This is the power of Torah!

Shemos – Do You Really Care?

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This Dvar Torah was gleaned from a shmuz I heard many years ago, at the turn of this century, from Rav Moshe Chait zt”l.

This week’s torah portion of Shemos, begins the second book of the Torah, describing the growth of Moshe Rabbeinu. “The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became like her son. She named him Moshe, and she said, ‘For I drew him from the water.’ Now it came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and looked into their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers” (Shemos 2:10, 11).

The Yalkut Shimone (167) observes that it says about Moshe in the pesukim that he “grew up,” twice. The first one referring to physical growth and the second is gadlus, spiritual growth, when he went out amongst his brothers.
The Ramban on pasuk 11 says on the words “and went out to his brothers” that they told him he is Jewish, so he had a yearning to see what was going on with his brothers.

What was the gadlus, greatness, in the second “growing up? He went out to his brothers, meaning he was concerned about others; that is true greatness!
What does caring about others imply? The Medrish Rabba wonders when the Torah says “he grew up” doesn’t everyone grow up? The medrish answers that Moshe Rabbeinu grew supernaturally. When he was 5 years old, he had the physical body of a 15-year-old. With his maturity he “looked into their burdens,” as the pasuk literally says. Shouldn’t it have said “he saw their burdens?” Rather what the Torah is teaching us is that Moshe Rabbeinu investigated into the matter to see what is going on and he cried. He wished he could do something for them because of all the hard work with the cement; he would therefore lend his shoulder to actually help every one of them.

Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t just stand by and say it’s a nebuch, it’s a shame, he actually got involved. The idea of caring isn’t just to feel for them or even to shed a tear, but to do something. The medrish continues and remarks that Hashem said, ‘You looked out for the Jewish People, I then will look upon you and will assign you as leader over them.’

The Alter miSlobodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, said that a sigh after hearing bad news is worse because instead of that reaction, one could have reacted in another way, maybe to do something about it. If one has a personal problem and he doesn’t just sigh but does something about it, but when it comes to others, he just sighs, that shows the level or lack of maturity in a person.

Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Telz Cleveland, when learning with someone, if he heard a crum svara,  logic that did not sound right, he would get on his case and “start pelting him.” He said he did this in order to help the yeshiva guy because he couldn’t handle just standing by when the student would be making such a mistake. This shows how much he cared!

Rav Dovid Leibowitz zt”l, (one of the prime students of the Alter miSlobodka, founder of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, and rebbe to Rav Moshe Chait zt”l), when he heard that one of his student’s father was bleeding ulcers he ran to the bima and started saying Tehillim. He was flowing with tears and put his whole being, and all his kishkes into his prayers. These are examples of greatness in caring for others!

Vayechi – Putting Your Mind to Going Against the Norm

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This dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Harav Avraham ben Tzvi Mordechai Kanarek zt”l on his first yahretzeit, this Shabbos, the 14th of Teves. May it be a zechus for his holy neshama.

This week’s Torah portion of Vayechi is the concluding portion of the Book of Breishis. Yaakov blesses all his children, including 2 of his grandchildren from Yosef, Ephraim and Menashe. Though Menashe was older, Yaakov switched his hands for his stronger hand to be on Ephraim as the Torah records:

13. And Yoseph took them both, Ephraim at his right, from Israel’s left, and Manasseh at his left, from Israel’s right, and he brought [them] near to him. יג:וַיִּקַּ֣ח יוֹסֵף֘ אֶת־שְׁנֵיהֶם֒ אֶת־אֶפְרַ֤יִם בִּֽימִינוֹ֙ מִשְּׂמֹ֣אל יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־מְנַשֶּׁ֥ה בִשְׂמֹאל֖וֹ מִימִ֣ין יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיַּגֵּ֖שׁ אֵלָֽיו:
14.But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim’s head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasseh’s head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn. ידו:ַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה שִׂכֵּל֙ אֶת־יָדָ֔יו כִּ֥י מְנַשֶּׁ֖ה הַבְּכֽוֹר:

The word used at the end of pasuk 14 discussing switching his hand is   שִׂכֵּל   which is in the past active, forceful tense ((פיעל, literally meaning he put his mind into it. The Radak explains that Yaakov, “put his mind into his hands, as if they did what they did [i.e., the switch] with a mind and with wisdom. For Menashe was the firstborn, and [Yaakov] saw through prophesy that he would be smaller in blessing. This is [using] the mind, for if he would have his right hand on the head of Menashe, what mindfulness would that have been because that is just the way of the world?!” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The right side is known in halacha and kabbala to be stronger and more important, therefore it makes sense to be placed on the one getting the main blessing, which would normally be the firstborn, in this case Menashe. However, Yaakov saw through prophesy that Ephraim deserved the bigger or stronger force of a blessing, as, for example Yehoshua Bin Nun and other leaders of the Jewish people throughout history came from Ephraim (see Radak on pasuk 19.)

Therefore, he switched his hands to put the right, stronger hand on Ephraim.
Now when the Radak explains why the Torah says this took a bit of wisdom and intelligence to do it is because it doesn’t take too much intelligence to do things in the way of the world, meaning what is normal, meaning it would have been normal to put his right hand on Yosef’s firstborn son, Menashe, but it sounds like it took some effort or an intellectual decision to go against the norm and figure out what must be done which was to switch his hands.

But what seems to be the big deal? What was the challenge Yaakov had to overcome which needed him to actively put his mind (with force) into making the decision that he made? Shouldn’t it have been obvious and simple to Yaakov that he was supposed to switch his hands? He saw  through prophecy that Menashe deserved the smaller blessing, which there is no truer or clearer communication of Hashem’s word; that should have made him arrive at this decision. This also wasn’t the first time that he did something which seemed to have been out of the norm. He himself received the main blessing from his father, Yitzchak, by tricking his firstborn brother Esav. He also had used stealth and trickery to deal with his father-in-law Lavan; so why would this be a hard decision, which needed such detail as putting his mind to it in order to make the right choice? Obviously, the right decision should be made, and figuring out how to apply the prophecy should have been easy to figure out, especially  for Yaakov Avinu who had such a high level of emuna and bitachon in Hashem, as well as such a close relationship with Him that it should have been simple to make a decision like this one to switch his hands if prophesy indicates he should do so!

However, it would seem based on this Radak that on some minutely slight level even Yaakov Avinu could be affected by what’s considered normal and it was a challenge for him to figure out how to do the right thing. And only because he put his mind to it and made an intellectual decision to switch his hand was he able to do so.

We see from here how hard it is to go against what is considered normal, for example societal norms, even when they are antithetical to what is right. However, we also see that there is a tool that can be used to fix the issue, which is wisdom; using our heads to overcome what people say is normal but is in reality  the wrong choice.  It is only by using our heads can we choose to make right decisions and to follow the proper way of life.

Vayigash – Trying Harder

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash, Yosef ensured that his father and family were safely brought down to Egypt in order to take proper care of them. Thus making certain the next step in the destiny of the Jewish people, promised to Avraham, would be fulfilled.

Yet, the medrish, Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (perek 39) relates, “Rebbe Yishmael says, ten times did the sons of Yaakov say to Yosef ‘Our father, your servant,’ and Yosef heard these words and was quiet, and being quiet is like acquiescing, therefore his life was shortened by ten years.” The Bayis Hagadol explains that because the reward for honoring one’s parents is long life, therefore, G-D forbid, the punishment for disrespect is a shortened life. The medrish continues, “Yosef heard that his father came to the border of Egypt, and he took all the people with him to greet his father. A whole nation usually comes out to greet the king, but the king does not go out to greet any person, but you learn from here that one’s father is like a king.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
If one analyzes what happened here, it is quite mystifying why Yosef was punished by having ten years subtracted from his life, he should have lived to 120 and instead he lived to 110  even if at first glance it seems to be measure for measure. First off, the Bayis Hagadol points out that only five times does it mention in the Torah that Yosef’s brothers said to Yosef, ‘Our father, your servant,’  once at the end of parshas Miketz (43:28), and four times in the beginning of parshas Vayigash (44: 24, 27, 30, & 31), but because there was an interpreter between them who repeated what they said to Yosef it was considered ten times. So really, he heard his brothers call their father ‘your master’ five times but it was just quoted over again to Yosef because he had to pretend he did not understand what they were saying so that they wouldn’t figure out who he was. Yosef was not ready to reveal himself to his brothers and he wanted to make sure to reveal himself at the proper time so that all his plans would work out smoothly, to be able to properly take care of his father and show him the respect that he was due. So Yosef had to stay silent even though it looked like he was agreeing that his father was his servant, which looked like a sign of disrespect, but no one knew who he was and he was in fact being quiet out of respect for his father since this was all part of the plan to safely reacquaint himself with his father and resettle him in Egypt. Furthermore, he really only heard his brothers talk that way five times and the interpreter, Yosef’s son, who was only acting, was really just a puppet; so what did Yosef do wrong and why was he so severely punished for disrespecting his father? He didn’t actively do anything and his intent, on the contrary, was to prepare for showing tremendous respect to his father which in fact Rebbe Yishmael goes on to show that he did beginning with when Yaakov first came to Egypt. Yosef, the leader of the country, came to greet him, forgoing his position and treating Yaakov like a king because he was his father. Then he sustained and took care of his father and family for the rest of his life; what greater respect is there? So what did Yosef do to deserve a punishment of  his life cut short by ten years?

We must say that Yosef’s intent was to show respect for his father, and in fact he did actively show tremendous respect for his father, and he was concerned about the status and welfare of his father the entire time, and at the time of listening to his brothers and the interpreter his motives were also respect for his father.  However, his lack of action and silence in the face of such a comment as ‘Our father, your servant,’ although he was not ready to reveal himself to his brother, was taken “in the eyes” of Hashem as a disrespect to his father because it must be if he would have really been vigilant at honoring his father he would have found a way to not allow them to talk in such a manner. He could have changed the subject or walked out, as he did when he felt he had to cry a couple of times in last week’s Torah portion, or some other way, whatever way would work. Since he didn’t take that initiative, even  though his disrespect was as passive as it was, on his level, according to what was expected of a Yosef Hatzadik, it was a lack of honor to his father deserving of punishment measure for measure.

We learn from here how careful we must be to measure our actions and even inactions, for even if we might seem to mean well, we still might not be living up to our fullest potential and what is expected of us.

Miketz – Security Systems

The bulk of this week’s Torah portion of Miketz depicts the confrontation between Yosef and his brothers once Yosef became viceroy of Egypt. One of the lessons the Ralbag learns from this episode is that it is inappropriate for a complete person to take revenge for the bad that was done to him, even if he has the chance. We therefore find that when the brothers of Yosef “fell into his lap” and he had the opportunity to do something bad to them for what they did to him, he didn’t, but rather he watched over them and sustained them. Indeed, even though he pained their hearts in the beginning, this was in order to find out how his father and brother, Binyamin, were doing. It was also to see how they treated Binyamin, for if they hated him and wanted to kill him, like they did Yosef, he would have figured out a way to separate Binyamin from them and save him. For this reason, if he would not have accused them of being spies or some other bad deed, then Yosef would not have been able to investigate and find out if they still had a father or brother, because they were not willing to be so open with him. And when Yosef knew his brother was alive, he put in the effort to at least bring him to Egypt. He made it difficult for the brothers in the beginning and easy in the end. He also said to them that he fears Hashem, for in this way they were appeased, and he removed their very apparent fear. Another reason for Yosef telling the brothers that he was G-D fearing was so that it would not pain their father Yaakov so much at sending Binyamin down to Egypt, since it was known that the master of the land feared Hashem. He jailed Shimon in front of the brothers’ eyes so that they would be forced to bring Binyamin along, and if they would kill Binyamin on the way out of hatred, Shimon would stay under the control of Yosef for the rest of his life, and he would have no means of escape from there. For this reason, Shimon was released from prison immediately upon seeing Binyamin, and he welcomed all of them into his house for them to eat bread with him, in order to appease their hearts even more and also so that he could accuse Binyamin of stealing the silver goblet. He also wanted to show them through this abundant pity for Binyamin and his pardoning of him when Yosef blessed Binyamin and gave him a bigger package more than all the other brothers, in order to appease their hearts so that they won’t be too petrified when he accuses them about this robbery, by entrusting them that the ruler of this land is a kind person, and they are innocent. If not for this Yosef would have been very fearful lest they kill themselves when all these accusations arose, out of much worry, guilt, and loss. Behold, Yosef put in much effort to direct accusations at Binyamin, in order to test his brothers and see how they would treat him; meaning if they hated him they would abandon Binyamin and go their merry way, and if they loved him, they would put all their efforts in to saving him as best as they could. For this reason, we find that when it was clear to Yosef that the brothers were treating Binyamin as a brother, only then did he reveal himself and put in efforts for all of them to move near him, for him to sustain them, so they would not go into poverty. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It would seem that Yosef, in disguise, really forgave the brothers, and in the end saw that they changed their ways, cared more about Binyamin and were dedicated to do the right thing. For this reason, Yosef was ready and did take care of them. Yet when Binyamin was caught with Yosef’s goblet in his bag and they were all brought back to Egypt, Yosef, it would seem seriously, and not just as a test, said to them, “What is this deed that you have done? Do you not realize that a man like me practices divination” (Breishis 44:15)?

 The lesson the Ralbag learns from this pasuk is that it is appropriate for a person to protect his household when any person enters his house and treat everyone in one’s eyes as if they are bandits and burglars. And if there are many people coming to the house, in a fashion that it becomes impossible to guard from each and every one of them, behold it is appropriate to test the one who is not trusted, and be careful of only him. For this reason, Yosef said to his brother ‘Don’t you know that I know divination and there is no one like me.’ (Click Here for Hebrew text.)
Yosef was teaching us a lesson to never trust guests that might come through your house, and to suspect them like thieves; but what happened to judging people favorably? Where is one’s emuna [faith] and bitachon [trust] in Hashem? Especially if a person has an opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah, as Hashem guarantees that one will not be hurt while fulfilling  a mitzvah (unless being flagrantly dangerous). Especially for this mitzvah of hospitality to guests which the gemara in Shabbos 127a (which we read every day after Birkas HaTorah) lists as a precept whose fruits a person enjoys in this world and whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come; meaning though one is rewarded for these mitzvos in this world his reward is not diminished in the World to Come. If that’s the case, then why the nervousness and worry? Wouldn’t treating them as bandits and burglars diminish one’s will to properly perform such an important mitzvah?

It is true that the mitzvah of having guests is very important, and as we see in this Ralbag, even the number of guests does not have to be limited. There can be people going in and out of your house constantly if this is the lifestyle you live. However, Hashem expects you to use common sense when performing His mitzvos, and there must be a balance to ensure that one’s household is safe. Therefore, precautions must be taken, security systems set up to ensure nothing goes wrong in the house, or anything is taken. This shouldn’t diminish from the quality of taking care of one’s guests or the quantity of how many guests, but a balance can be made to take care of one’s household and treat their guests with the utmost respect at the same time. And even if one’s guest seems to be suspicious, that does not mean one has to limit his guests. It just means one must take extra precautions to ensure the safety of everyone and everything around him.

Performing mitzvos and protecting ourselves, possessions and our families could be a juggling act which Hashem expects us to master and excel in on all fronts.

Vayeishev – Not All Tests Are Passable

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The beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev tells of the story of Yosef being sold down to Egypt. The Medrish Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer (perek 38) adds some interesting insights into the storyline: “Rebbe Yishmael says that every youngest son is most beloved by his father, as it says, “And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age” (Breishis 37:3). But was Yosef really the youngest wasn’t Binyamin? Rather because [Yaakov] saw through prophecy that he will in the future be a ruler he therefore loved [Yosef] more than all the other brothers and they had great jealousy over him.” The Bayis Hagadol, (a commentary on this medrish and also known as the Beur Maspik,) adds that since Yosef will be a ruler in the future and will support and take care of Yaakov in his old age, that is why he was considered “a son of his old age.”

When Yosef’s brothers convened a court to deliberate whether it was halachically right to kill Yosef for either trying to kill them or, at the very worst, for destroying their Olam Haba, “Reuvain said to them, ‘Don’t murder him, rather throw him into this pit in the desert and he will die there.’ They listened to him, snatched Yosef and threw him into the pit…” What did Reuvain do? He went and sat on top of a hill with the intent to go down by night and take Yosef out of the pit. The nine brothers were sitting around in one place, united with one heart and one idea, and then a caravan of Yishmaelites passed by them and they said, “Why don’t we sell him to the Yishmaelites”. They took him to the edge of the desert and Yaakov, his father, did not hear from him again. They sold him to the Yishmaelites for 20 silvers and each one of them, (including Reuvain) bought shoes for themselves for two silvers each… They said we should make a pact that no one should tell Yaakov Avinu what happened until everyone agrees unanimously to divulge what happened, and anyone who breaks the pact would be excommunicated. Yehuda said to them, ‘Reuvain isn’t here and a pact with excommunication can only go into effect if there are ten.’ What did they do? They had Hashem join the group to make up ten and they declared the pact of excommunication. Reuvain came that night to take Yosef out of the pit and did not find him there. His initial reaction was telling them ‘You killed Yosef, and I was going to come back!’ They told him about what happened and about the pact of excommunication and Reuvain fell silent. Hashem also was silent because of the pact and did not tell a thing to Yaakov, though it writes (in the last pasuk of perek 147 in Tehillim,) ‘He relates His Word to Yaakov,’ but this matter He did not relate to Yaakov, therefore Yaakov did not know what happened to Yosef and he said Yosef must have been torn apart.”

The Bayis HaGadol says that to understand on a simple level why Hashem participated in such a thing, the Mizrachi explains that there was a tradition from the brothers’ forefathers that in the future they would go down to Egypt through the sale of one of the tribes. For this reason, Hashem didn’t want to reveal this secret, for if He would have revealed this to Yaakov, Yaakov would have sent people after him to redeem Yosef, and the decree of the bris bein habisarim would not have been fulfilled. And since all the brothers’ actions were to fulfill the decree of Hashem then Hashem ‘was not able to’ reveal what they did. Once they saw that Hashem agreed to what they were doing and that this was His Will, there was no better partner in these circumstances. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It would seem that the brothers realized selling Yosef was part of the destiny of the Jewish People as Hashem told Avraham by the bris bein habisarim, as it says, “And He said to Avram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions” (Breishis 15:13, 14). Since this was part of the destiny of Jews, Hashem went along with the plan and Yaakov thought Yosef was killed by a wild animal, because Yaakov would have foiled the destined plans if he would have found out what had happened.
Why couldn’t Hashem tell Yaakov what actually happened, instead of Yaakov living through the misery of thinking his most beloved son was killed? Where is Yaakov’s belief and trust in Hashem? He surely also knew the tradition stemming from his grandfather, Avraham, of what was destined to happen and he also knew through prophesy that Yosef would one day become a leader. So why couldn’t he at least put two and two together and believe that this was all part of Hashem’s master plan, decreed by Hashem Himself to Avraham, and possibly Yosef would wind up becoming viceroy in Egypt and they would eventually leave with much wealth as promised by Hashem?

It would seem that Yaakov’s love for Yosef was so strong that he would not have been able to accept that this was a decree from Heaven and he would have redeemed Yosef, as the quality of natural choice in the world, which would have thwarted the plans of Jewish destiny. But since Hashem does not give a test which is impossible for a person to pass, and Yaakov, based on a miniscule level of emotional sensitivity would not have been able to pass this test of his faith in Hashem, verses his love for his son, therefore Hashem kept it secret from Yaakov to let destiny unfold.