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.



(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

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.
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)

Vayechi: The blessed disagreement

Don’t try to change anyone –
except yourself!

You find yourself disagreeing with your spouse, clashing with your business partner, arguing with your child.
You know you’re in the right, and you’re desperate to get the other person to see that.
What do you do?
Yaakov Avinu is on his deathbed. Yosef takes his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, to get their Grandfather’s blessing. Yaakov will be blessing both boys simultaneously, placing one palm on each head. Jewish tradition considers a person’s right hand to be the stronger one spiritually. As Menasheh is the firstborn, with more significant privileges and responsibilities, Yosef wants him to receive the more prominent blessing. He intentionally places Ephraim on Yaakov’s right-hand side and Menasheh on his left.
But Yaakov sees things differently. Through prophetic vision, he realises that Ephraim is destined to become greater than his older brother. Thus, Yaakov feels that the more prominent blessing would benefit Ephraim rather than Menasheh.
But rather than switching them around, Yaakov does the unexpected: he stretches his right arm over his left arm in an X shape!
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn of Komemius, gives a beautiful explanation for Yaakov’s behaviour:
Yaakov had no wish to change his son’s position. He merely wanted to do what he had to do without fuss. Yaakov’s response to the conflict was to change his way of doing things. To do what he felt was right while respecting Yosef’s position.
It’s a lesson for all of us. Disagreements aren’t about changing other people’s views. On the contrary; they could be springboards for own growth. It could be a matter of understanding the different viewpoint while still disagreeing, strongly even. It could mean overhauling our perspectives completely. Or it could be a case of just choosing our battles wisely. But when interacting with others with opposing views, the goal must be about changing ourselves. For the better.

(As heard from Rabbi Shimon Semp)

Vayigash: “We were wrong!”

Admitting our mistakes is hard but so, so worthwhile!

Towards the end of last week’s parshah, Yosef’s brothers encountered the second-in-command of Egypt. Unbeknownst to them, they were talking to none other than Yosef himself, the brother they had cruelly sold into slavery so many years before. Yosef is unsure whether they have repented since those days and put them through a series of tests. He eventually gets them to go back and bring their youngest brother Binyomin, whom he tries to take as a slave. At that point Yehudah gets up and flatly refuses to hand over Binyomin, giving himself up as a slave instead. His argument is so strong that eventually Yosef breaks down and reveals himself.

But the story begs the question: there were 10 of them! And they were with Yosef for quite some time. If you read the story carefully, you’ll notice that Yosef dropped several hints regarding his true identity. He knew what colour the wood of their cribs was at home. He sat them around the table in order of age, oldest to youngest. How is it possible that none of his brothers became suspicious?


Perhaps they didn’t want to think that. Subconsciously, the brothers preferred to stay in denial. Because recognising who he was would have meant admitted that they were wrong. And that, as we all know, is the hardest thing for a person to do.

I said that none of the brothers recognised Yosef. But that might not be entirely true.

When Yehudah makes a case for his brother, he keeps bringing up what his father said. He mentions his mother twice. He stresses how it would kill his father to have to lose his youngest son. It’s as if he recognised Yosef and was telling him “it’s your father, your brother, your mother!”

And indeed, on a subconscious level, that may well have been the case. And even that recognition, on a lower level of awareness, may well have affected Yehudah’s excellent choice of words to Yosef. It’s hardly surprising that it was Yehudah who chose to recognise Yosef. The root of the word ‘Yehudah’ is ‘hoda’ah’-meaning ‘admission’. And that admission ultimately broke Yosef.

Admitting that we erred is not comfortable at all. It’s not the default human reaction. But if we can acknowledge our mistakes, to ourselves and to those whom we’ve wronged, we only stand to gain.

(As heard from Mr Harry Rothenberg ESQ. Click here for the original shiur)

Mikeitz: A true leader

When most people are asked about a talent they are said to have, they’d usually launch some sort of pitch about the experience they’d had in this area. Especially when the person asking is the most powerful man in the country.
That’s what makes Yosef’s presentation to Pharaoh so remarkable. The man gets dragged from prison to interpret the king’s dreams. This is his moment. If he makes a good impression, he could walk away a free man, maybe even becoming Pharaoh’s official interpreter!
Pharaoh: I hear you interpret dreams
Yosef: G-D interprets all dreams (see Bereishis/Genesis 41:15-16)
Who mentions G-D in a sales pitch or job interview?!
And Pharaoh is so impressed that he hires him on the spot. Not as a dream interpreter, but as second in command over the whole country.
That, says Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz , was how Yosef went from a lowly criminal to high powered ruler in a day. No speeches. No marketing. Just plain 

This post is being written just days after the passing of Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman OBM, one of the great leaders of world Jewry, at 104 years of age. The requests in his will were a reflection of the person he was. He stipulated that the funeral should not take place in front of more than ten men, that the coffin should be as simple as possible, that the orthodox Jewish media not publish any tributes to him, and that people refrain from calling him a ‘tzaddik’. Of course, all the other rabbis instructed everyone to disregard the requests.
He simply had no interest in any honour that he felt he didn’t deserve.

And that is the Torah’s main prerequisite for a leader. Humility.

*Based on the writings of Rabbi Yissochor Frand