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  • The Splitting Of The Sea and the Concept of Hidur Mitzvah

    “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him (Zeh Keli v’Anveyhu); the G-d of my fathers and I will exalt him.” [Shmos 15:2] The Talmud derives from here the idea of “beautifying ourselves before Him though our aesthetically pleasing performance of mitzvos: Acquire a beautiful Esrog, make before me a beautiful Succah, a beautiful Sefer Torah, beautiful Tefillin, and so forth.” [Shabbos 133b]. This is the source for the general concept of “Hidur mitzvah”.

    Not only does the Torah expect us to fulfill the mitzvos, there is an additional aspect of fulfillment that involves carrying out the mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible. Even though one can buy a pair of Tefillin for $300 – $400 that are in fact kosher, buying an exceptionally nice pair of Tefillin with exquisite batim [housings] and exquisite writing on beautiful parchment can cost upwards of $1000. We have spoken in the past that there is an obligation to spend up to 1/3 more to do mitzvos in a more beautiful way than what would be the bare minimum way of fulfilling those same mitzvos. All this is learned out from the above cited pasuk from Shiras HaYam: Zeh Keli v’Anveyhu.

    One may ask: Why here? Why is specifically this, the time and place that the Torah decides to inform us of this concept of beautifying oneself before Him with our performance of mitzvos? It does not seem that it really fits into the context of Shiras HaYam.

    I saw a very beautiful answer in the name of Rabbi Tzvi Cheshen from Eretz Yisrael. The Mishna teaches that 10 miracles were done for our fathers at Yam Suf [Avos 5:4]. In other words, the events at the Red Sea did not only involve one miracle – the splitting of the water – but rather there were 10 distinct miracles that happened there. The Bartenura and Tosfos Yom Tov proceed to list the 10 different miracles referred to by the Mishna. I am not going to go through the entire catalog. But just to cite a few examples — besides the basic splitting of the sea — they enumerate the following: The sea became like a tent (with protection from above) and the Jews entered into the midst of it; the sea bed was dry and firm without being muddy; as soon as the Jews crossed through, the sea bed turned back into mud and quicksand to trap the pursuing Egyptians. The list of miracles goes on…

    The question is, why where all these miracles necessary? With the Egyptians on their tails and nowhere to go, Klal Yisrael would have been perfectly satisfied with the “mere” splitting of the sea! No one would have complained if there was not a tent of protective water over their hands or if the ground was still a little muddy. Nine of the ten miracles were most likely superfluous. All they really needed was “split the Sea and let’s get out of here”. Why did G-d add all these flourishes to the basic miracle? They were basically a form of “hidur mitzvah”. “When I do something for My Nation, I want it to be first class! I do not want to just ‘get by.’ I want it to be as nice as possible.”

    Therefore, it makes a tremendous amount of sense why this is the source from which we learn that when you do a mitzvah, you do it right; you make it beautiful. It is because that is how the Ribono shel Olam treated us. When we buy someone a present, it is a sign that we appreciate them and like them. Typically, when we buy a person a present, we put it in a beautiful box. We want the presentation to be as nice as possible. When we buy our wives jewelry, we do not just take the necklace out of our pocket and say “here is the necklace!” We get a nice box which itself costs a few dollars. We have it wrapped really nicely – with a ribbon and a bow — which costs a few more dollars. Who cares? She cares!

    These extra flourishes beyond the basic gift are done to demonstrate how much we love the person to whom we are presenting it. The splitting of Yam Suf showed us how much He loved us. Hiddur Mitzvah – the beautiful Tefillin, the beautiful esrog, etc. – are intended to show Hashem how much we love Him!

    In Search Of Something New To Have Faith In

    The second idea I would like to share, I saw in the Sefer of the Tolner Rebbe in the name of the Chiddushei HaRim. Chazal point out the grammatical problem with the pasuke “Az yashir Moshe u’Bnei Yisrael es haShirah hazos l’Hashem” [Then Moshe and the Children of Israel WILL sing this song to Hashem] [Shmos 15:1], which seemingly is speaking in the future tense, when in fact the past tense should have been employed in describing what took place. The Rabbis cite this pasuk as one of the Biblical allusions to the Resurrection of the Dead (Techiyas haMeisim).

    Here too, we can ask the same question we raised regarding Hidur Mitzvah: Why here? Why is specifically this used to provide a hidden allusion to the concept of Techiyas haMeisim in the Torah?

    The Tolner Rebbe answers this question based on a second question. If you study the text of the Shira, you see that the opening pasukim speak of G-d in the third person: “A horse and its rider He threw into the sea”; “Pharaoh’s chariots and army He cast into the sea.” Then, suddenly in pasuk 6, the style switches and G-d is addressed in the second person: “Your right hand, Hashem, is majestic in might;” “…You devastate your opponents; You send forth Your wrath…”

    Why does the Torah switch from third person to second person? The Zohar states that Klal Yisrael went through a transformation here. The transformation was that they started Kriyas Yam Suf with a basic belief (Emuna) in the Master of the World. However when they experienced Kriyas Yam Suf and they saw the Revealed Hand of G-d, their belief changed into a reality! [The Rabbis comment that a common handmaiden on Yam Suf saw visions greater than the great prophet Yechezkel.] Previously, belief was just a concept. It was “third person” (detached). By the time they experienced Krias Yam Suf and saw the Hand of G-d, it was a reality: I can point: This is my G-d.

    If that’s the case, at this time Klal Yisrael was devoid of Emuna. There was no question of belief anymore. It was reality. The Master of the Universe said “I want to still give you the opportunity to believe – to use faith to believe in something you have not yet witnessed! What’s that? Techiyas HaMeisim – the fact that everyone will die but everyone will also come back!” That was not yet reality, it was still in the realm of Emuna.

    When BELIEF in the Almighty was no longer possible because it became REALITY, the Jewish people were given the promise of Resurrection (Az Yashir Moshe U’Bnei Yisrael…) to provide them with a concept about which they could have Emuna (belief).

    A second answer to this same question comes from the Belzer Rebbe, zt”l, cited by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky. When the Belzer Rebbe tried to gather his people together after World War II, he saw that the Chassidim — most of them Holocaust survivors who had lost large portions of their families — were in no mood to sing Zemiros on Shabbos.

    The Belzer Rebbe posed this question to his Chassidim: Why specifically now at the time of the splitting of the Sea were the Jewish people taught the Biblical allusion to the concept of Resurrection (Techiyas haMeisim)?

    The Belzer Rebbe explained: Realize that when the Jewish people sang the Song of the Sea, the entire nation was not present. How many people did not survive the enslavement of Egypt? How many survivors had lost the majority of their families in Egypt who had never lived to see the day of the Exodus? According to Chazal, 80% of the Jews died in Egypt. It is safe to say that everyone who did make it out of Egypt had lost relatives and could not therefore fully celebrate the miracles they were witnessing at that time.

    Moshe Rabbeinu told them “It is time to sing.” But they responded, “Sing? How can we be happy? Eighty percent of Klal Yisrael is missing!” Moshe then explained that we have an allusion to the resurrection of the dead from this very place in the Torah: We will get your relatives back! The knowledge that the dead will rise and come back is very consoling.

    Not long ago, I read the story of a woman who lost her only son in the War (Shalom HaGalil) in Lebanon. She was inconsolable. She refused to go to any family simchas. She would only go to funerals. She was a widow who lost her only son, “what joy is there any more in life?” She once went to a family levaya. A woman accompanied her to the cemetery. Following the burial, they stopped at the grave site of Reb Aryeh Levine (The Tzadik of Yerushalayim: A Tzadik In Our Time) to say Tehillim. On Reb Aryeh Levine’s tombstone, she saw the following written: Anyone who comes to pray at my grave should first say ‘I believe with a complete faith that Resurrection of the dead will transpire when it is the Will of G-d, blessed be He that this will happen.’ The woman read that and it touched a chord. Suddenly, it became a reality to her that “one day I will get my son back.” From that moment on, she began to live her life again because the hope that there will be Techiyas haMeisim consoled her.

    Last Sunday, I had to fly to St. Louis for a wedding. I was sitting in the aisle seat with the seat next to me empty. The window seat was taken by an older woman with a box of tissues. She kept on blowing her nose. I was thinking to myself “I am going to catch a cold after this flight.” The plane took off and I noticed that the woman was wiping her eyes also. I thought to myself, maybe she doesn’t have a cold, she’s crying!

    The stewardess came down and sat in the middle seat and started talking with her, at which point the woman broke down and cried loudly. The stewardess tried to console her. Apparently Southwest Airlines was alerted that this woman had some kind of problem. The stewardess left. The woman continued to cry the whole time.

    I said to her, “This is none of my business, but what is bothering you?” She told me, “I found out this morning that my daughter was killed in a car crash and I am on the way to her funeral. My only other child, my son, was killed in Iraq two months ago!” She was inconsolable. I asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She said, “Just pray for me.”

    The knowledge of “From here there is a Biblical allusion to Techiyas HaMeisim” – the idea that one day we will again see the relatives whom we so dearly miss, is a very consoling thought. That is what rejuvenated the Belzer Chassidim who were Holocaust survivors and that is what consoled the woman at the grave site of Reb Aryeh Levine — one day she will see her son again and she can therefore go on living her life.


    Rabbi Yissocher Frand and

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  • We Pay for Everything

    And the Children of Israel called its name “manna”. It was (round) like coriander seed, it was white and it tasted like cake fried in honey. (Shemos 16:31)

    What was the nature of this magical food manna? The Meor Eynaim writes that all life giving provisions are “Tzimtzumim” contractions of the “Schinah” the Divine Presence and what looks like simple bread to our eyes is really the most profound spiritual stuff clothed in a material veil. The “manna” was in fact angel food with a cover more refined than our bread. Therefore the verse states, “He afflicted you and let you hunger and then He fed you manna that you did not know in order to make you know that not by bread alone man lives, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of HASHEM does man live.” (Devarim 8:3)

    How can we understand simply this mystical concept of “tzimtzum” contraction which is at the heart of our food? If I were to tell you that I have sunshine on my feet you might think that I am in a poetic mood and I wish to kick up my heels and dance. You might think that I’m being silly. I’m serious! I have sunshine on my feet! How so? 93 million miles away the sun is releasing energy resulting from the residue of hydrogen atoms constantly fusing. A thin slice of that light and heat rushing off the edge of the sun at 186,000 miles per second makes it in minutes to the earth’s surface. In an open field someplace are tiny solar panels that harness that energy in a unique and marvelous way. These little pieces of grass though the process of photosynthesis produce chlorophyll. Along comes Elsie the cow and she munches on acres of this grass which is processed within her system to later become the milk which ends up on the Honey-Nut Cheerios our kids love to eat for breakfast. Eventually she is sent to the slaughter house to provide meat for other happy occasions but for efficiency sake her leathery skin is shipped to Florsheim Shoes and therefore, lo and behold I have sunshine on my feet.

    And so the child is nourished in the mother’s womb through the placenta. The nursing baby has its meal plan. The caring mother serves bite sizes designed to meet the child’s capacity to process. This is what King David declared, “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing!” (Tehillim 145:16) All is ultimately the word of HASHEM, packaged in an attractive and digestible format.

    It is told that Rabbi Yisrael Salanter ztl., the father of the Mussar Movement, was sitting in a hotel lobby in France. He was served a glass of water. Afterward the waiter presented him with a bill for an enormous sum, let’s say 50 francs. Reb Yisrael asked the waiter if perhaps he had made a mistake because all he had was a glass of water and not an entire meal. The waiter went on to explain that it was no mistake, “Rabinner, you are not paying for the glass of water alone. No! You are paying also for the magnificent scenery, the beautiful decorations, and the musicians in the background. You are paying for the ambiance!”

    Reb Yisrael paid the bill and left a tip and when he went back to his room he wrote to his students in Russia that he now understands why when we drink a glass of water we say, “Shehokol N’hiyah B’dvaro” “That all comes about though His speech!” “We are not blessing for the water alone but rather the world is an expensive hotel and we pay for everything!” DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and


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  • The Sound of Silence

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    Musicians manipulate it. Comedians play it up. Actors, politicians, kids and their parents all have some intuitive sense of how to convey deep and powerful messages using this one simple technique - silence. Whether it's a pregnant pause, an upbeat syncopation, a raised eyebrow or a baby's silent scream, or a dramatic silent pause, well-placed silence speaks volumes.

    It seems that quiet and silence have become extinct. One of the hallmarks of modern life, at least for those of us who live in major urban areas, is constant noise. Yet the rabbis of Israel, the sages of the Talmud, valued silence as a vital factor in life. Rabban Gamliel stated: "All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence." The Talmud stated that a good word is worth one shekel but that silence itself is worth two shekels. The holy men of Israel advanced the idea that penance for sin can be achieved not only by fasting from eating food but more beneficially by fasting from speaking - by silence and its mood inducing power of self-analysis and introspection. Rabbi Yosi Bilus adds, we have one mouth and two ears, G-d's hinting to us Listen twice before you talk. It seems like silence is preferred.

    However, Jewish sources define the human being as "the speaker". The ability to communicate is central to human function. Speech allows us to express our feelings, develop our emotions, explain concepts, influence other people and strengthen relationships. It translates the phrase "and man became a living soul" as "and man became a speaking soul". Words create. Words communicate. Our relationships are shaped, for good or bad, by language. Much of Judaism is about the power of words to make or break worlds. Judaism is a very verbal culture, a religion of holy words. Through words, G-d created the universe: "And G-d said: 'Let there be . . . and there was'." According to the Targum, it is our ability to speak that makes us human.

    "HAKOL KOL YAAKOV" is a slogan attributed to us, hinted to the future Jewish nation, when Yitzchak blessed Yaacov, He said the voice is Yaacov's. The Sages attributed that Yitzchak was saying something deeper. We learn that the Jewish strength is his voice. That is our weapon. It is certainly not our physical strength. Why then would the sages suggest that silence is a value worth pursuing? Isn't silence the absence of speech?

    One of the additional aspects of the Exodus, mentioned in this week's parsha, was that the dogs in Egypt remained silent during the plague of the Death of the Firstborn. When Moshe informed Pharaoh about the impending Tenth Plague, the Death of the Firstborn, he adds: "There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt, such as there has never been and such as there shall never be again. But against all the Children of Israel, no dog shall sharpen his tongue, against neither man nor beast, so that you shall know that G-d will have distinguished between Egypt and Israel."

    Our Sages tell us that, as a reward for their not barking and their display of respect for the Israelites and allowing the Jews to leave without the annoyance of any disturbance, the Torah awarded the dogs with a specific type of non-kosher meat. The meat of an animal injured by a predator is called treifah. "Do not eat flesh that is torn off in the field. Throw it to the dogs." Our Sages (Mechilta, cited by Rashi) state that this was the reward for not barking when the Jews left Egypt. But that's not all. The reward for the dogs is repeated again (22:30) and the very next verse (Exodus 23:1) it says: "Do not utter a false report." What is the connection between the two verses?

    Even more so, the meat and potatoes of the dog's reward is that in the World-to-Come, dogs will lead in singing the praises of the Almighty, as we said earlier. They will say to other creatures "Come! Let us prostrate ourselves and bow, let us kneel before G-d, our Maker" [Tehillim 95:6] Dogs are aware and bark when the angels of death as well as the Mashiach are present.

    Throughout classical Jewish literature they are portrayed as the most insolent of animals. How could it be, that this very same creature will merit to lead in the singing of praises to G-d in the World-to-Come? What is so special about keeping your mouth shut? And what is so special about what the dogs did?

    Rav Mordechai Ezrachi in his Sefer, Birkat Mordechai, writes that the praise of keeping quiet involves more than merely not speaking slander or gossip. The dogs did not earn this merit by not speaking Lashon Hara. The dogs simply kept their mouths closed. Dogs are known for their attribute of chutzpah [impudence]. Therefore, keeping quiet represented the ultimate defeat of their negative character traits (shviras hamidod). This represented the ultimate self-improvement possible for that creature. It is a significant accomplishment when a person who is an Az Nefesh [having the characteristic of arrogance of spirit] and likes to use his mouth inappropriately overcomes that characteristic and is quiet. Such an accomplishment is deserving of special reward.

    The song of the dogs is that of "Come! Let us prostrate ourselves and bow, let us kneel before G-d, our Maker." We won't act with impudence and insolence. We will bow down and display servitude. The dogs turned their nature around by keeping their mouths closed. It took tremendous power and self-control to accomplish such a change. The lesson for us is that it is not always necessary to say something. It is not always necessary to comment. It is not always necessary to have a remark.

    The same turn around can be accredited to Lot, Avraham's nephew. He did not divulge to Pharaoh that Avraham and Sarah are husband and wife as opposed to brother and sister. If Pharaoh would have discovered that they were married he would have killed Avraham and took Sarah for himself. Lot kept silent even though he would stand to gain many riches if he spilled the beans. Money was his weakness. He went against his nature. As a reward, his offspring turned out to be the lineage of the great Jewish kingdom, King David.

    The passuk of "not even a dog will bark..." is mentioned in both in our parsha and in Parshat Mishpatim. How does it coincide there, and furthermore, why is the very next verse (Exodus 23:1) "Do not utter a false report." What is the connection?

    In Jewish tradition, a barking and yapping dog is symbolic of one who speaks "Loshon hara" (gossip) about others. The Talmud says the juxtaposition of the two verses is not accidental. He who utters a "false report" (even gossip that may in fact be "true") has besmirched the gift of speech, and belongs in the company of annoying, barking dogs. By the dogs not barking G-d is showing that his people have conquered this test of speaking Loshon Hara upon their brethren.

    Returning to the bold statement of the leader of the Sanhedrin, let's analyze the quote of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel: "All my days I grew up among the wise men, and I have found nothing greater (for the body) than silence." (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17). How is silence good for the body? Why not say that silence is good for the soul or for a person in general?

    The Maharal, a 16th century commentator, explains that man is comprised of body and soul (Guf and Neshama), the physical element and the spiritual. Everything man does has its basis in one of these two dimensions. When one dimension is active, the other one is passive. Maharal explains that speech derives from the physical facet of man. When we speak, our physical aspect is controlling us. Silence allows our spiritual dimension to regain control. Since the spiritual mode of man is silence, quiet allows the spiritual to lead the physical, while speaking gives the physical the leading role. The best thing for the body is when it is guided by the soul. Thus, there is nothing better for the body than silence.

    Why is speech derived from the physical facet of man? How is silence the mode for the soul? Silence allows us to remove all of the external and physical distractions in our lives and lets us focus upon the essence of our being, the soul.

    For this reason, the Torah was given in the desert. The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightning and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered G-d not in the whirlwind or the fire or the earthquake but in the kol demamah dakah, the still small voice, literally "the sound of a slender silence." I define this as the sound you can hear only if you are listening. In the silence of the Midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. To hear the voice of G-d, you need a listening silence in the soul.

    When we're alone in the car, do we immediately reach for the radio? Is it any wonder that talk radio is such a booming international business? We are so afraid of silence, so fearful of the opportunity to be with ourselves and penetrate our inner world. However, one doesn't understand it is an opportunity to think.

    Hitbodedut is a classical Kabbalistic term for meditation. The Hebrew root of the word is badad, literally meaning to be alone, to detach yourself from noise and be with yourself. In the more advanced form of this meditation, Hitbodedut is to seclude or separate 'intellectual everyday consciousness from imagination." This is the practice of being alone and simply being with yourself, just yourself without the radio, in silent.

    I have often said this; the best quite time opportunity for me is Shabbat. I wake up very early in the morning, where it's still dark, cup of coffee in hand relaxing alone and doing my version of meditating. It is absolutely exhilarating. "The vehicle for wisdom is silence" (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:13), as King Solomon tells us, "'Closing one's lips makes a person wise" (Proverbs 10:19). Genuine spiritual heights can only be attained through introspection which only comes by dint of the medium of silence.

    A Jew's morning prayer cycles through stages - the Verses of Praise often said aloud or sung; the blessings of the Shema which includes a lot of vocal responsive reading; and the Declaration of Unity itself - which in some congregations, Yemenite for example, is a deafening shout that can literally shake the walls. But when we get to the climax of the prayer service, the top rung of the ladder, the Amida, what do we hear? Nothing. Just lips moving. Our most profound prayer, the private saying of the Amidah, is called tefilla be-lachash, the "silent prayer." It is based on the precedent of Hannah, praying for a child. "She spoke in her heart. Her lips moved but her voice was not heard."

    There are two forms of silence. One is just absence of words and the other is a prerequisite and foundation of effective speech. The first silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence (unlike speech) causes division and separation, creating dysfunction in human relationships. Getting upset and giving someone the silent treatment. When we are offended or hurt, respectful conversation is the only tool to resolve issues and repair relationships. Remaining silent and refusing to talk is a form of aggression and totally ineffective.

    The second is a good silence that creates the platform for effective and positive speech. It allows the goals of communication to be achieved. True communication can only occur when there is mutual understanding and deep respect for each other's position. For this to take place, our words must be preceded and guided by appropriate silence. This means:

    When we are waiting to respond so that we can think before we talk, rather than speak impulsively. To actively listen to someone else without interrupting them so that we can really understand their perspective and that they can feel heard. It is this form of silence that the sage is referring too. Before we can be true to our identity as "speakers and communicators," we must learn the art of good silence. Being quiet when we should talk creates dysfunction and disunity among us. But silence, when timed correctly, is the language of connection. The dogs receive the reward for they went against their nature for the love of G-d.

    Speech is viewed in Judaism as being the ultimate Godly gift to humans. It is truly what separates us from other forms of life on this planet. But it was given to us to be used sparingly and purposefully. Silence was therefore the decorative box that held the gift of speech within it. Sometimes, one receives a gift in a container and the container is as valuable as the gift itself. Then the box should be treasured as much as the gift itself. Silence is such a container for speech.

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Rabbi Avi Matmon


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