Parshat Ki Tisa 5779

Parshat Ki Tisa 5779

“I have seen this people, and behold! it is a stiff-necked people.” (22:9)

A former President of the United States once asked his Israeli counterpart how things were going. “I have many problems,” said the Israeli. Replied the American President, “You think you have problems? You are the President of 8 million people, while I am President of 180 million.” To which the Israeli President replied, “Mr. President, you are President of 180 million people. I, however, am the President of 8 million Presidents.”

The Torah itself calls the Jewish People a stiff-necked people. Sometimes this obstinacy can be for the good and sometimes for the not so good. Stubbornness can be an extremely dangerous trait, for it can foil any attempt to improve our situation. Stubbornness enters a person’s mind and blinkers him from any other possibility other the one on which he has set his mind. Thus, in the incident with the golden calf with all its severity, the Torah doesn’t focus on the sin itself, rather on the obstinacy that it revealed. A negative action can always be atoned for and repaired, whereas implacable wrong-headedness allows no place for the way of return. However, there is also a positive side to being stubborn:

Rabbi Sinclair relates the following story: In a certain concentration camp, there was one particularly sadistic Nazi officer. One day he ordered a Jew to follow him to the top of a nearby hill. He indicated a cloud of dust rising on the distant Eastern horizon. “Do you know what that is?” “No.” replied the Jew. “That is the Russian Army. In a couple of hours they will be at the gates of the camp. The war is over for you. I want you to eat this piece of ham now, or I will shoot you.” The Jew refused on the spot without batting an eyelash. And the Nazi shot him also without batting an eyelash. Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” writes that of all the nations that Rome subjugated, the only people that clung successfully to its beliefs was the Jewish People. All Rome’s other vassal states managed to segue the Roman gods into their pantheon without batting an eyelash. The Jews, however, were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice rather than abandon their faith. It is this intransigence, imbued in the spiritual genes of our people by our forefathers, that has preserved Jewish identity to this day.

Moshe comes down from the mountain after the Israelites had made the Golden Calf and VAYAR ET HA’EGEL UMECHOLOT, “…he saw the calf and the dances…”. (Ex. 32,19) Then, the Torah states, his anger flared up and he shattered the Tablets of Stone. Why was he surprised when he saw the calf? Hashem had told him that they made it. Why did he bring the Tablets down or why didn’t he shatter them before? The Seforno answers this question. He says that when Moshe was told that they had made the calf he thought he would come down to them and show them their mistake and they would do Teshuva. When he saw that they were dancing and made merry with such joy, he realized that he will not be able to readily pull them away from the calf. He came to the conclusion that they were not ready for the tablets of the Ten Commandments. We often make mistakes. If, however, we do not realize our errors and continue to justify what we did then it is much harder for us to correct our ways. We must be ready to face up and recognize our wrong doing. Only then will we be able to correct our faults.

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                                                                                                             Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

 

Parshat Tetzaveh 5779

Parshat Tetzaveh 5779

Tetzaveh is the only parshah in the Torah since Moses’ birth in which Moses’ name does not appear (with the exception of the book of Deuteronomy, which consists wholly of a first-person narrative spoken by Moses). The Baal HaTurim explains that the reason for this is that, [when the people of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf,] Moses said to God: “If You do not [forgive them,] erase me from the book that You have written” (Exodus 32:31). This was realized in the parshah of Tetzaveh, since the censure of a righteous person, even if made conditional on an unfulfilled stipulation, always has some effect. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that While Moses’ name does not appear in the parshah of Tetzaveh, Moses himself is very much present. The entire parshah consists of God’s words to Moses! Indeed, the parshah’s first word is ve’attah, “and you”–the “you” being the person of Moses. Indeed, the word “you” connotes its subject’s very self, while a person’s name is a more superficial “handle” on his personality. This means that Moses is more present in our Parshah–that is, present in a deeper, more essential way–than any mention of his name could possibly express. This is fully in keeping with the Baal HaTurim’s explanation (cited above). Due to the fact that Moses was prepared to forgo mention of his name in the Torah for the sake of his people, he merited that his quintessential self–the level of self that cannot be captured by any name or designation–be eternalized by the Torah. It is this level of Moses’ self that is expressed by his “nameless” presence in the parshah of Tetzaveh.

 

The next 43 verses — about half of the parshah’s total — consist of God’s instructions to Moses regarding the making of the priestly garments for Aaron and his sons, who will perform the service in the Sanctuary. A total of eight types of garments were to be made. All Kohanim (priests) should wear the ketonet (tunic), michnasayim (breeches), mitznefet or migba’at (hat or turban); and avnet (sash). In addition, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) should wear a me’il (cloak), efod (apron), choshen (breastplate) and tzitz (crown). The Torah states: And [the priestly garments] shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they come in the Tent of Meeting, or when they come near to the Altar to minister in the holy place, that they bear not iniquity and die (28:43) The Midrash Rabbah relates that there was once a prince whose tutor would enter into the presence of the king on behalf of the prince; but the tutor was afraid of those who stood by the king lest one of them should attack him. What did the king do? He clothed him in his royal purple cloak, so that all who saw him might be afraid of him. Similarly, Aaron used to enter [into the Divine Presence]… and had it not been for the many merits which entered with him and aided him, he would have been unable to go in, on account of the angels that were there. For this reason did God provide him garments after the pattern of the divine garments…. as it says (Isaiah 59:17): “And [G-d] donned righteousness as a coat of mail, and a helmet of salvation upon His head, and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a mantle.”

 

Parshat Tezaveh is usually read during the week preceding Purim (not this year as it is a leap year in the Hebrew calendar). Rabbi Jay Kelman notes that interestingly, the Megillah also is missing a very significant name, that of God Himself. Purim marks the period in which the direct role of God in history begins to recede. Prophecy has ended. The time has come for the Jewish people to be able to function despite hester panim – God’s face being hidden. Mordechai and Esther must use their political skills to save the Jewish people. Unlike Pesach no overt miracle will come to the rescue. During the formative years of the Jewish nation we needed the hand of God to guide us and prophets to teach us. Purim marks the transformation of the Jewish people. It is the holiday that celebrates the acceptance of the oral law which though its rules are divine, its application is left to the discretion of the Sages of every generation. Man will have to apply the Torah without guidance from God.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the faithful messenger of God bringing His word to the world. Yet the Torah is not dependant on Moses and is not even dependant on a “visible” God. But the Torah itself is eternal. Though the names of Moses and God may be missing from our Biblical reading this week, their presence is not. The hand of God and the Torah of Moses continues to be studied each and every day and though God is hidden those who look can see Him. May we be worthy to feel the presence of God in all that we do making all of our endeavors an implementation of the Divine plan for the betterment of the world.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Terumah 5779

Parshat Terumah 5779

The parshah states: “And you shall take trumah for Me” (Shemot 25:2). The verse uses the word lekach, which means take or acquire. King Solomon in Mishlei (4:2) uses the same word lekach to describe the Torah: “A good acquisition I have given to you, My Torah, do not abandon it.” Solomon felt that the best acquisition that a person can make is Torah. The Medrash Tanchuma tells the story of a wise scholar who was on a ship with a number of wealthy merchants. They asked him where his merchandise was. He told them that his wares were far better than theirs were. They searched all over the ship and could not find his goods, so they began to laugh at him. Shortly afterwards, pirates came and looted the ship, taking all of their valuable merchandise. The ship landed, and they were all very poor men with not even enough food to eat or clothing to wear. The wise man went to the house of study and began to learn and pray. The people saw that he was a wise man and they respected him greatly and provided for all of his needs. The former merchants, who were at the point of starvation, saw this and begged him to persuade the townspeople to help them. He said to them, “I told you that my merchandise was greater than yours. Yours is lost and mine is with me. Not only that, you do not profit every minute that you do business. Even when you do profit, you sometimes lose that profit. But the Torah is never lost, not in this world, and not in the next world.”

The Alshich asks the following question on the above verse: The trumot were gifts given to Hashem for the construction of the Mishkan and its holy vessels. The verse should therefore say “And you shall give trumah to Me.” Rav Shlomo Ganzfried in his Sefer Aperion (as quoted by Rav Beifus in Yalkut Lekach Tov) answers this question. The Torah is telling us that when you give to Hashem, you are really taking. When we give of our time or possessions to do a mitzvah, we receive a reward. The value of that reward is far greater than the cost of what we gave.

Moses begins to gather the materials for the Mishkin (tabernacle). This was the holy site where the Children of Israel would offer up their sacrifices to Hashem. The shechina (divine presence) rested upon this holy place. The Mishkan was a holy place. Its holiness was independent of time. The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 151 tells us how to guard the sanctity of OUR holy places. Joking, idle conversation, and sarcasm are all prohibited there. We cannot enter them only for the purpose of gaining shelter from the outside weather, for a pleasure walk, or shortcut. We cannot discuss our business affairs there. Our clothing and shoes should be clean when we enter these holy places. We have to keep the synagogue and houses of study clean.

 

                                                                                                                     Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Mishpatim 5779

Parshat Mishpatim 5779

In this week’s parshah, we learn of laws in the civil realm; what a person must do if he injures or kills another person or animal – murder or manslaughter, laws regarding and governing Jewish and non-Jewish slaves, sensitivity to the helpless and abandoned, and the laws concerning the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. In the following discussion, I will elaborate on some of the above laws.

 

​It is very important to try and understand why the parshah begins with the conjunctive: “AND these are the ordinances…” instead of starting off by stating, “These are the ordinances.” The Alshekh explains that in putting the conjunctive letter ‘vav’ in front of the first word, the parshah establishes a conceptual link with the preceding 10 commandments. Should a person believe that since the objective of Mishpatim, i.e. social legislation, is the establishment of peaceful and harmonious relationships between people, independent human civil law is EQUALLY acceptable in the eyes of God, the Torah says that this is not so. Only Divinely inspired civil legislation is guaranteed to bring about the peace and harmony God wishes to prevail amongst us. Human jurisprudence, at its best, does justice to what is perceivable by our five senses. Divine jurisprudence also takes into account the inter-relationship between the higher and lower world, about which we know very little. Anyone, who keeps a mitzvah even between man and fellow man, contributes to the harmony in God’s universe including the spheres of the planets and the celestial regions. All this is based on the statement of the Mishnah in Avot 1, that the world is based on three pillars – truth, jurisprudence, and peace. The mere thought that social legislation, which is the result of people who are devoid of sanctity in their lives, could by itself preserve the world indefinitely is inconceivable. The reason, the Alshekh continues, that the Torah talks about ‘mishpatim’ – laws, in plural, is that only by studying a number of laws and rulings, can the fairness of the legislation become evident. A believing Jew could argue that the whole legislation is not needed, since our tradition teaches that God allocates to each individual a certain amount of material needs for each year – the amount to be determined at New Year. Hence, if someone loses money through theft, robbery, or any other cause, it was only an expression of God’s will, and the thief would not be allowed to wind up with either more or less than had been allocated to him by God. This is because any decision made in a properly constituted Jewish court would merely reflect the judgement already made in a higher tribunal – in heavenly court.

 

​With regard to slaves, we read of a slave who is a married man: “ If he is the husband of a woman, his wife shall leave with him “ (Exodus 21:3). The Or Hachayyim comments that one must accept the Mechilta Acharite de Rabbi Shimon who says that the wording implies that the master has to supply the needs of the wife only if she is an appropriate wife for the slave. Should the slave be married to a woman forbidden to him under Jewish law, even if the marriage was legal under Jewish law, his master has no obligation towards her. This raises the question why the master is allowed to assign a woman who is forbidden to this slave as stated specifically both in the Talmud and in ch.3 and ch.4 of Maimonides’ Hilchot Avadim. Maimonides distinguishes between the right to live with such a woman and the master’s obligation to provide for such a woman when she is not his slave. If the slave was betrothed to a woman, he is no longer characterized as single, and the master is entitled to assign a slave-woman to him while he is in his service. According to a discussion in Kiddushin 20, the same applies if the slave had children from a wife who had died in the time he had betrothed himself to another woman. He is then considered as fitting the definition of having both a wife and children so that the master can assign a slave- woman to him as a marital partner.

 

​A very important mitzvah is for us to refrain from taunting or oppressing a stranger, a widow, an orphan, or those who are weak and helpless. Sensitivity to others is very important, and one must not jump to conclusions or judge others, unless they know the whole story. Even then, we should hold back from rendering judgement on someone’s actions. The Lubavitcher Rebbe tells the following story: “You walk down the street and see a man on crutches leaving a doctor’s office. You might think that the doctor was incompetent – the patient went to visit him, paid a substantial fee, followed the doctor’s instructions perfectly, and took all the prescribed treatments and medicine. Obviously, this patient has the wool being pulled over his eyes! But your opinion will change if you are told that prior to visiting the doctor, the patient was hopelessly crippled and paralyzed. Now, at least, the doctor has been able to rehabilitate him to the extent that he can move under his own power. It may further be pointed out that he can not only move and walk (albeit with crutches), but that he is making significant progress. Hopefully, he will continue to improve and will ultimately be able to discard the crutches, if only he continues to follow the doctor’s advice. By the same token, all people have certain built-in attributes from birth. By means of proper rehabilitation, through the influence of good teachers, and particularly through self-learning programs, the weaknesses and handicaps can be diminished and overcome. The weakness should NOT be ascribed to the ignorance of the individual, or to the doctor’s advice. It is our obligation to see to it that we do not mock or ridicule or judge these individuals who are physically or mentally challenged. Rather, we should do whatever is in our power to make them feel welcome and help them find the resources that could help them with their quality of life.

 

                                                                                                                                           Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Yitro 5779

Parshat Yitro 5779

The character of Yitro is legendary within Jewish tradition as the non-Jew who joined the Jewish people. However, there is great deal of ambiguity within the Torah surrounding Yitro and his connection to Am Yisrael. In a number of areas the Torah casts mystery upon Yitro, leaving us wondering as to the meaning of Yitro’s enigma.

To begin with, Yitro seems to have at least four different names! The most common name — Yitro — appears throughout chapter 18 of Shemot, the chapter in which Yitro visits Moshe and offers advice regarding the people’s judiciary structure. In this chapter the man is introduces to us as “Yitro kohen Midyan the father-in-law of Moshe” (18:1), and thereafter is repeatedly referred to as Moshe’s father-in-law. From a verse in the book of Shoftim (Judges) we read of the emigration of the descendents of “Keni, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Shoftim 1:16) – a second name for Yitro. Another verse in the book of Shoftim speaking of a descendent of “Chovav, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Shoftim 4:11) tells us of yet another one of Yitro’s names. Our first encounter with Yitro, in which Moshe meets Yitro’s daughters at a Midyanite well and then subsequently marries Tziporah, seems to provide yet a fourth name: when the daughters return from the well, they speak to “Reu’el, their father” (Shemot 2:18). The plethora of names attached to Yitro is interesting in itself, but the issue becomes problematic when we add in a verse from the Book of Bamidbar: “And Moshe said to Chovav, the son of Reu’el, the Midyanite, Moshe’s father in law, ‘We are journeying to the place of which the Lord said ‘I will give it to you’: come thou with us…” (Bamidbar 10:29). Who is Moshe extending an invitation to? We know from the book of Shoftim that Chovav is Yitro, but the beginning of Shemot indicates that Reu’el, too, is Yitro! The simplest explanation seems to be the one put forth by Rashi, based on the Midrash: “children call their father’s father — father” (Bamidbar 10:29). Thus Reu’el is really Yitro’s (=Chovav’s) father, and the girls’ grandfather. The difficulty with this explanation is that is runs counter to the simple reading of Shemot 2:16-22, which leaves the reader to assume that we are indeed dealing with the girls’ father. As well, unless we posit a tacit insertion of Yitro, Reu’el becomes the one who marries off Tziporah to Moshe, and Yitro is mysteriously absent. Assuming that Reu’el really is Yitro’s father, why did the Torah choose to write in such an unclear manner?

Another source of confusion regarding Yitro concerns the question of whether or not he joined Israel. Shemot chapter 18 concludes with Yitro returning to Midyan — “and he went his way to his own land” (18:27). However, Yitro reappears when Israel is about to depart for Israel. On this momentous occasion Moshe asks Yitro to join them on their journey (Bamidbar 10:29-32). Yitro refuses once, whereupon Moshe urges a second time — and the conversation ends with Yitro’s silence. Did Yitro join Israel? Later mention of Yitro’s descendents in connection with Israel indicates that he may have. Many midrashim pick up this theme, leading to the characterization of Yitro as a convert to Judaism. The Torah, however, at one point relates Yitro’s departure unequivocally, and another time leaves us unsure. Especially if we assume the Midrash to be historically accurate concerning Yitro’s conversion, why does the Torah cast doubt over Yitro’s joining the Jewish people?

Tziporah Kapustin, of MATAN learning centers for women in Israel, explains: The purposeful ambiguity surrounding Yitro’s name, and his ultimate union with the Jewish people cries for an explanation. In as much as a name reflects a person’s essence, the first issue deals with the personality of Yitro. Let us assume that Yitro did indeed join the Jewish people. Perhaps the Torah, in its ambiguity, was interested in conveying not the historical truth, but rather the truth regarding the character of Yitro and his identification with Am Israel. Perhaps Yitro, though eventually deciding to join the Jewish people, was initially unsure within himself as to whether he really wanted to commit this momentous step. In that case, Yitro’s actual reply to Moshe’s invitation is unnecessary — the uncertain silence contains the real response Reu’el is portrayed as the parochial father, the “kohen midyan” in control of his personal and communal affairs. With the advent of Moshe, the simple “Reu’el” disappears, suddenly replaced by “Yitro his (Moshe’s) father-in-law, kohen midyan” (Shemot 3:1) — the village priest, confronted with Moshe’s monotheistic religion, becomes filled with internal conflict. The simple phrase conveys the full paradox — he is the priest of Midyan, yet at the same time Moshe’s father-in-law!? Reu’el returns only once again: when he must decide irrevocably whether or not to join the Jewish people. At that moment he is “Chovav ben Reu’el the Midyanite, the father-in-law of Moshe” (Bamidbar 10:29) — the lover of the Torah, son of the village priest.3

Through not clarifying details in Yitro’s history, the Torah uses ambiguity to give us a window into Yitro’s inner conflict as he contemplates identifying himself with the Jewish people. In this way, the Torah retains Yitro as a paradigm for the many throughout the generations who struggle over embracing their Jewish identity.

 

 

 

Parshat Beshalach 5779

Parshat Beshalach 5779

In this week’s parshah, we read of the Israelites departure from Egypt. Pharaoh, the Torah tells us “had a change of heart” (Exodus 14:5), and decides to pursue the Israelites. The Or Hachayyim comments that an interesting way of looking at this is that when the news reached Pharaoh that the Israelites had “fled”, Pharaoh reconsidered his premise that the Israelite G-d was all-knowing and all-powerful. This G-d apparently had been forced to use deception because he was not omnipotent. This is why He kept His intention that the Israelites should depart permanently a secret up until now. The Torah advisedly speaks of the “levav”, a “dual heart” of Pharaoh undergoing a change. Pharaoh’s considerations were due to conflicting feelings (i.e. two hearts). Originally, Pharaoh had thought that G-d was unable to orchestrate the Israelites’  exodus. Otherwise, Moses and Aaron would not have had to beg him to let the Israelites go. Next, Pharaoh convinced himself that G-d’s love for the Jewish people might only be temporary. In the meantime, Pharaoh had come to realize that his estimate of G-d liking the Jewish people only temporarily had also been wrong. As a result of both considerations of telling him to let the Israelites go, he had done so in the firm belief that there was nothing he could do to stop this process. Now, in retrospect, he realized that he had been wrong after all about the fact that G-d had lacked the power to orchestrate the Exodus without help from Pharaoh himself. This is why he decided to mount the pursuit.

 

Pharaoh’s army began their pursuit after the Israelites. The Israelites, seeing the Egyptians close behind them, became frightened. They tell Moses in Exodus 14: 11-13 that they would have rather died in Egypt than in the desert, and that they would have preferred to remain slaves than be killed by the Egyptians. Moses tells the Israelites not to worry, and that “G-d will do battle for you” (Exodus 14:14). G-d responds to these events by asking Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” (Exodus 14:15). The Alshekh asks a flurry of questions about this verse: 1) why did G-d tell Moses not to cry out, when it had been the people who had cried out, and not Moses? 2) Why did G-d not tell the people ‘do not be afraid?!’ instead of ‘keep moving!’ and afterwards that they should move? 3) The word ve-attah, and you, in v.15 and the word va-ani, and I, in verse 17 seem unnecessary, especially since G-d had already said hineni, I am here? The Alshekh explains that Moses had commenced praying, and had said “G-d will fight on your behalf.” G-d said why do you pray to Me? This implies that My (G-d’s) children are NOT entitled to be saved except by an act of mercy. Let them display faith by marching on, before the sea is split. The ve-attah, and you, means that in case the children of Israel think that you can perform miracles ONLY with the staff of G-d. He tells Moses that he should raise his hand over the sea and only then will it be split. Moses was to divest himself of the staff at the moment. There is a tradition, the Alsekh explains, that the reason the Egyptians chose to kill the Jewish babies by drowning was that they knew that the G-d of the Jews makes the punishment fit the crime. At the same time, they knew of G-d’s oath not to bring on another deluge. They reasoned that by drowning the Jewish baby boys, they could make themselves immune from retribution. G-d demonstrated that instead of His bringing on a deluge, the Egyptians themselves would walk into the equivalent of an existing deluge. They had also seen in their horoscope that the Jewish savior would meet his death through water. Therefore, they had decreed a watery death for babies born around the time indicated by the horoscope. Once that date had passed, the decree had been cancelled, since they had considered the potential Jewish savior as having met his death already. G-d was intent to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the Jewish savior would be the one who would orchestrate the watery death of the Egyptian army. Had Moses split the sea with the staff, no one would have known that it was Moses, the intended victim of the water, who had turned the tables and had victimized the Egyptians be water. The miracle would simply have been ascribed to G-d’s rod, to the intrinsic power of that instrument. In order for the Egyptians to commit the folly of pursuing Israel through the sea, several things had to occur. Surely, the Egyptians seeing the miracle could not have assumed that it was FOR THEIR benefit. So why did they out themselves at risk? Also, if they assumed that the splitting of the sea had NOT been a miracle, but a freak of nature, how could they take a chance that it would last long enough for them to catch the Israelites, defeat them and herd them back to Egypt? In addition to Moses’ hand and an act of faith by the Israelites who entered the water before it was split, an act of G-d was needed to cause the Egyptians to expose themselves to the crushing waters when the time came. THIS act by G-d is what He refers to in v.17, when it says as for me, i.e. va-ani, “here I will greatly strengthen the heart of Pharaoh.” G-d’s contribution is the greatest, in that He will cause Pharaoh’s desire for revenge and loot to overcome his common sense, and pursue Israel into the depth of the seabed. The rest of mankind will honor G-d, in turn, when they will reflect on how Pharaoh’s punishment corresponded to his crime. The Egyptians, who will know that I am the merciful G-d, will be those who had remained behind in Egypt, who had not been punished now, as they had not been as guilty as those who had
pursued Israel.

 

                                                                                                                                                Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim