Parshas Mishpotim: Who’s the Boss?

Lets remind ourselves of our priorities.

We have just been given the Torah at Har Sinai. Now it’s time to get down to the fine details…

Interestingly, the Torah begins by discussing, of all things, the laws of owning a Jewish slave.

Why did the Torah feel it important enough to begin discussing its laws with this?

The answer, as explained by Rabbi Leibel Eiger (a grandson of the famous Rabbi Akiva Eiger), is a guideline in priorities.

The first mitzvah in the Torah is to recognise that ‘I am Hashem, your G-D’. That recognition is a prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. Similarly, the principals of the laws of an ‘Eved Ivri’ are based on the premise that Hashem considers us to be ‘slaves to me’ and not to others. By discussing the laws of Eved Ivri at this introductory stage, the point is brought home again: to be able to accept the Torah, one must first know with Whom his first commitments lie.

As Rabbi Eiger explains, while the laws of Eved Ivri do not apply to our generation, everything in the Torah is eternal. He writes that we are to free ourselves from all types of slavery. Moreover, just as an Eved Ivri goes free in the seventh year, a Jew who finds himself enslaved goes free on the 7th day, i.e. Shabbos.

Rabbi Eiger wrote this in 19th century Poland. Yet anyone could think that he was writing it in 21st Century America. We all know the distractions that distract us from our priorities. Technology, work, addictions. When we think of servitude to G-D, we think of the common mitzvos (commandments) that are done ‘Bein Adam LaMakom’- ‘Between man and G-D’. Commandments like Teffilin, prayer, Shabbos, keeping kosher. However, let’s not forget that servitude of Hashem also means loyalty and commitment to our nearest and dearest.

Hard work is important. Technology is wonderful. But our challenge is to keep things like these under our control, establishing them as our servants rather than our masters. We have other people to answer to. Especially our own Master.

(Based on the thoughts of Rabbi Elimelech Biderman)

 

Small request

Writing this blog gives me tremendous satisfaction. But often the research involved can be time consuming. Often, I only have time to begin thinking about it on Friday morning!

Therefor, I invite anyone who has a good Dvar Torah that Jews from all backgrounds can enjoy to send it to me at ariblum123@gmail.com. Please be clear and provide a reference if possible. If it’s from an online Shir, please give the link and the relevant timeframe point (e.g. 20:29).

Thanks so much.

Ari Blum

Parshas Yisro: Gratitude unwrapped

More than just a gift!

This week we meet a fascinating new individual. Yisro (Jethro), Moshe’s father in law, was attracted to the Chosen Nation. Rashi comments that the catalyst was two miraculous events in the short history of the nation: the splitting of the Red Sea, and the victory over the attacking Amalekites.

Clearly there was something about those episodes that Yisro found particularly inspiring.

The Ksav Sofer explains by answering another question.

The incident with Amalek clearly shows us that the Jews left Egypt well armed and trained for combat. Rashi himself suggests that the ‘silver and gold’ that they had claimed from the Egyptians, as mentioned in the Torah, refers to Egyptian weapons.

So why did they not just take out their swords at the Red Sea and fight the Egyptians themselves?

The Ksav Sofer’s answer can be summed up in one word:

Gratitude.

Two hundred years earlier, the twelve sons of Yaakov had been allowed to settle there and flourish. Yes, the country later enslaved them and oppressed them. But gratitude is something that is everlasting.

Yisro initially assumed that the people were unequipped to defend themselves against the Egyptians. Their victory over Amalek showed him that their unwillingness to fight the Egyptians stemmed from their innate trait of gratefulness. Having taken Moshe into his home In Midyan years ago, Yisro reasoned that the Jews would honour their debt of gratitude to him in a similar fashion. And so it was.

As the Maharal teaches, real gratitude is much more than simply ‘paying back’ favours with identical ones: it’s a feeling of indebtedness that should stay with a person forever.

A verbal ‘thank you’, or even a gift and/or a card, as important as it is, is just the beginning, the basic obligation of decency. Real gratitude continues forever.

(The author thanks Rabbi Binyomin Denderovicz for the idea)

 

 

Parshat Beshalach

Picture this:

You are living in the Biblical times. You’re escaping from a country that, to Jews, like yourself, is the ancient equivalent of Nazi Germany.  You get to the sea.

Now what?

Two minutes later, you hear a soft rumbling behind you. Turning your head, you can make out what looks like a horde of Egyptian chariots in the distance.

You’re trapped. Doomed.

What would you have done?

If you are reading this, the chances are you would know Who to turn to. Even if you were an atheist, I bet that you would plead with the G-D you ‘didn’t believe in’ to save you. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s instinctive for Jews to pray when pushed into a corner.

Yet, when the Jews found themselves in that situation, they were told off by Hashem for doing just that.

“Why are they crying to me?” Hashem asked Moshe “Go forward!”

It’s as if Hashem was surprised and upset with them for doing what anyone with faith would have done!

Perhaps Hashem was telling them was that faith wasn’t just about praying.

Yes, there are times when it is appropriate to ask for Hashem’s intervention.

But sometimes, having faith means taking action. Believing that Hashem is behind you whatever you do.

That is why the Torah speaks about Nachshon Ben Aminodov with such respect. He was the first one to literally jump into the ocean. He took a step, knowing that Hashem ‘had his back’.

On the wall behind my desk hangs a quote: ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’. Next to it hangs a picture of Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel OBM, somebody whom I see as a role model. I wasn’t consciously thinking about the connection when I hung the two pictures next to each other. But today, I can’t help thinking about how he Rav Nosson Zvi embodied that quote. As the head of a Yeshivah with 5,000 students, he would constantly travel to collect funds, even whilst fighting a 20 year-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

As I well remember from my stint at the Mir Yeshivah, his lectures weren’t a pretty sight. The man was in such pain it was difficult to watch him get a word out.

Not quite the image of a professional fundraiser.

He could have been content to pray for Yeshiva’s financial salvation (which was often precarious, to put it mildly) from the comfort of his bed.

He would have been forgiven for ‘accepting his limitations’ and doubting his own fundraising abilities.

But Rav Nosson Zvi didn’t consider any of this for a moment. He just acted.

So when you’re stuck, don’t just pray.

Act!

 

(Parshah thought originally heard from Rabbi Shlomo Farhi. Watch the original lecture here)

Parshat Bo: Let Him in!

When all the gates are locked, humility tunnels you under them…

Throughout the saga of the ten plagues, the narrative remains the same: G-D inflicts the chaos, Pharaoh begs Moshe to ask G-D to stop, G-D ends the nightmare, Moshe orders Pharaoh to release the Jews, Pharaoh’s heart hardens, Pharaoh refuses, G-D is angered, and the cycle repeats itself.
Pharaoh’s refusal makes him deserving of punishment. It makes sense, at least on the surface.

But, as the Torah tells us from the beginning, it was G-D who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Pharaoh had ZERO control over his free will. He couldn’t repent of his wickedness even if he wanted to.

And yet, G-D punished him over and over, in a series of escalatingly intense plagues, with the ‘grand finale’ at the Red Sea.

Doesn’t that seem unfair?

A Rabbi of a Synagogue noticed something rather odd that happened once a year. One of the shul’s members was a man who only came to services on Rosh Hashanah. He would walk in, pray for a few minutes quietly, and then leave. And for those few moments, his face showed that he was concentrating very intensely. One year, the Rabbi couldn’t control his curiosity. He called the man over and asked him what he was praying for.
“Every year” he replied “I have this request:
“G-D: I have a great marriage, a financially rewarding career, all the cars and luxuries I want, kids who are doing well in school. One thing I ask of You: Please, stay out of my life!”

This sad joke is indicative of the type of person Pharaoh was. We mentioned that Pharaoh was beyond the point of no return. But that wasn’t entirely true. He had a ‘backdoor’ option.

The Talmud tells us that there are sins for which the gates of repentance remain closed. But the commentaries stress that even in these situations there is an answer. If one calls out to G-D, He will dig a tunnel (so to speak) under the gates for you to go through.

That, says the Chofetz Chaim, was an option that Pharaoh had all along. With a sincere expression of submission before his Creator, he could have changed his life. But like the poor fellow in the story, he lacked the desire to have Hashem in his life. Pharaoh’s lack of humility prevented him from bridging the gap between him and G-D.

A man came to the Steipler and told him that he was concerned about his difficulty in maintaining faith in G-D. the Steipler’s ‘diagnosis’ was clear. “Haughtiness” declared the sage. “If you’re too concerned about yourself to think about others, you have no room in your heart for Hashem either!”

A humble person knows that he isn’t the master of his destiny; G-D is.

(Based on a lecture from Rabbi Fischel Schachter. Click here to watch the lecture video)

YOU can be like Moshe

This week aside from Moshe Rabbeinu ( Moses our teacher), we read about his brother Aharon. The first time the two of them were mentioned together, Aharon is discussed first. Rashi points out that the order in which they are mentioned in one verse keeps changing throughout the Torah. Most of the time Moshe comes first. Sometimes Aharon’s name precedes Moshe’s in verse. Rashi explains that each one was as great as the other.
But is that true? Wasn’t Moshe the greatest Prophet to ever live? How could Aharon be compared to his brother like that
The Rambam goes a stage further. He asserts that anyone can be like Moshe Rabbeinu!
How do we understand Rashi and the Rambam?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein OBM (or ‘Rav Moshe’ as he was known) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was born with a tremendous abundance of gifts. And he used those talents to the full. He lived up to his potential. In that sense, Aharon was able to match his brother. Aharon, too, used the gifts that Hashem had granted him to become the best person he could be.
And that, says Rav Moshe, is what the Rambam meant. We can all achieve greatness in the areas we were destined to grow in, using our Heaven-endowed gifts. Just like Moshe, we too can live up to our potential and achieve great things.

(As heard from Rabbi Nosson Scherman https://www.torahanytime.com/#/lectures?v=54678)

Parshas Shemos: Stars of the day

When the sun’s down, they’ll be the ones lighting your way!

 

We have reached the next stage in the founding of the Jewish Nation. The forefathers are gone, and their descendants have now settled in Egypt. The book of Shemos (Exodus) begins by naming the sons of Yaakov all over again, although they had already died long ago. Rashi explains that Yaakov’s sons are compared to the stars. He quotes Isiah (4:26): ‘They (the stars) are counted by G-D when He brings them out, and again when He gathers them in’.

But why compare them to stars?

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky OBM has a beautiful explanation, which I would like to like to expand on humbly.
Rabbi Kamenetzky points out that stars are invisible during the day. Their light is overpowered by the sun. Only once the sun departs can it become dark enough to allow them to be seen in their dazzling glory. The greatness of Yaakov’s sons was revealed when they were in exile when the light emanating from Yaakov had been extinguished. That was when they became beacons of light to guide their descendants.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson here.

Many times throughout history, when Jews found themselves in danger, the salvation came from the most unlikely people. A little shepherd boy is the one to defeat a giant, with a slingshot and stone. A child with a disability writes a letter to the President of the United States, moving him to release an over-punished prisoner. Children (and adults) who go unnoticed, or are maligned and isolated, rise to the occasion when the time is right.

A New York-based therapist was presented with a child, David, who was having a hard time buckling down at school. His parents and siblings were at their wit’s end and were desperate to get him to sit still and focus. After a session or two, the therapist decided to hold a third meeting with all the family, including the boy’s grandfather. And so, the family gathered and aired all their hurt and misery. Poor David had to endure the verbal dirt being slung at him: He was hurting his siblings’ chances of finding marriage partners, he was embarrassing the family, etc.
“Enough!”
Stunned, the family turned to the source of the commanding voice.

The grandfather, who had remained silent till now, had something to add.

He stood up, looking agitated, and spoke his mind in a shaking voice.
“I was David,” he said “I was the one who dropped out of school in Poland in the 1930s to become a tailor. I was the ‘disappointment to the family’. After overhearing two German officers discussing Hitler’s plans for the Jews of Europe, I begged my parents to get visas for America. Failing to convince them, I came to New York on my own. Hitler caught up with them. I was the sole survivor of my family.”
“This child, whom you are ripping apart so mercilessly, has untapped potential within him. Studying is not his greatest strength. But he has other talents that will come to the fore one day. In the meantime, I refuse to let you tear him down like this!”

How many ‘stars’ do we know? Children and adults, whom we tend to judge and label?
When it gets dark, that person’s light might be the one guiding the rest of us.

(See Sefer Talelei Oros)