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  • The Spirit of Our People and The Crown of Torah

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    "And Israel encamped there before the mountain." (Shemot 19:2)

    "And Israel encamped- The singular denotes that they were united as one man with one heart." (Rashi)

    "Every single Jew has in his soul the soul of every single soul in Klal Yisrael. Since all of their souls are bound together, this one has a share in that and that one has a share in this." (Tomer Devorah)

    The most celebrated trial of the century was that of Otto Adolf Eichmann. On May 23, 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced to the world that Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann has been captured and would stand trial in Israel. Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler's "final solution of the Jewish question," was captured by Mossad and Shin Bet agents on the streets of Buenos Aires, where he had been living under the name of Ricardo Klement since 1952. The agents drugged Eichmann and he was flown out of Argentina disguised as an Israeli airline worker who had suffered head trauma in an accident. Three days later, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion announced that Eichmann was in Israeli custody, where then he was put on trial for genocide. The decision was made to film the trial for a worldwide TV audience.

    Eichmann's trial began in Jerusalem. It was the first trial to be televised in history. Eichmann faced 15 charges, including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and war crimes. He claimed he was just following orders, but the judges disagreed, finding him guilty on all counts on December 15 and sentencing him to die. On May 31, 1962, he was hanged near Tel Aviv.

    The identity of the executioner was kept secret for 30 years and was not revealed until the man retired. As a human-interest story, German television wanted to interview the man who actually pulled the lever and killed Eichmann. The German film crew traveled to Israel to interview the man. As it turned out he was an orthodox Jew of Yemenite descent.

    The man agreed under one condition - that they interview him at the Kolel - study hall where he was attending daily. The producer asked him why he wanted to be interviewed in a crowded room and not in a quite studio. He answered "I want the German people to see why we survived. I want the German people to see us learning Torah."

    Rabbi Matityahu Solomon asks that on Mincha of Yom Kippur there is a special Segulah of not losing, Chas V'shalom, children before the parents die. They have to shed a tear for the loss of the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, who died at an early age when they were consumed by fire at the altar. Why is this a concern on the day of judgment?

    We are embarking on the holiday of Shevuot and there are numerous points to keep in mind for our spiritual success in commemorating our Torah. Everyone is aware that the High Holiday period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a period of judgment (Din). However, not everyone is aware that the Ari z"l and the Shaloh HaKodesh write that there is judgment on Shavuot as well. The judgment of Shavuot affects each and every one of us. On Shavuot there is Heavenly Judgment that determines the degree of success each of us will have in pursuing our Torah studies during the coming year. Just as the amount of material sustenance each of us will receive for the next 12 months is determined on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, so to the amount of spiritual sustenance each of us will receive from our Torah study during the next twelve months is determined on the Day of the Giving of the Torah.

    We know how to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We know we are to pray, we know we are to do mitzvot. These things determine the nature of the Judgment we receive during the season of the Days of Awe. What are we supposed to do on Shavuot in order that the Almighty will say "If this is how he acts, then he deserves to be given a year of success in his learning endeavors?"

    We all know the story of Purim and how the wicked Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people. It says in Tractate Megila when Haman came to pick up Mordechai for the royal parade, he found Mordechai teaching Torah to children despite of the decree of annihilation. He was curious to know what they were learning. They answered the laws of sacrifices for the future when the Bet Hamikdash would be functioning. At that point in time Haman came to a startling realization, that the children's learning of the laws of korbanos-sacrifices would overwhelm his plotting to destroy the Jews. What was it that deflated Haman? What was it that made him realize that his plan was doomed? Haman expected them that they were planning their end. He thought they, if anything, would learn the laws of death or dying for G-d (Kiddush Hashem) but to find them learning about a Bet Hamikdash that didn't even exist yet and how they were anticipating the coming of it demonstrated to him their resilience and willful stubborn spirit. It was a spirit to exist and co-exist- a spirit that is nurtured by the Torah.

    The Holy Books say that a person's judgment in this matter is dependent on his desire (cheshek) to learn. The more he wants it, the more he shows the Master of the Universe somehow that this is important to him and he wants success in his learning endeavors, the more he will receive it. It is this "cheshek to learn" that determines the extent to which the Almighty will allot him success in learning and that is how he strengthens his spirit.
    This is what we have to demonstrate over the next few days leading up to Shavuot - our desire to learn! One develops a 'cheshek' if one comes to an appreciation of what Torah is and of how important Torah is to his life. Somehow, in these next few days, we must spend time thinking of the role Torah plays in our lives, the importance that it has. In this way, we can sincerely express to the G-d our desire to grow in learning.

    WHY IS TORAH IMPORTANT?

    Study of Torah is a specific mitzvah in Deuteronomy 6:7 (which we recite daily in the Shema): "You shall teach them diligently to your children" - which directs us to transmit Torah to the next generation... "and you shall speak of them (words of Torah) while you sit at home, while you walk on the way, when you go to bed and when you get up" - which directs us to study the Torah ourselves. This need to devote ourselves to knowing the Torah, to work at it, to strive to comprehend it, to give it first priority - is repeated over and over again throughout the Bible. Our history demonstrates that the moment study of Torah is neglected, assimilation of the Jewish people into its surroundings makes its inroad. Without fail, every Jewish community in history that did not teach and study Torah as its first priority gradually disappeared from the scene. Beyond all the good, rational reasons, Torah is the mysterious bridge which connects the Jew and God, across which they interact and communicate, and by means of which God fulfills His covenant with His people to sustain them and protect them.

    It is therefore no surprise that Torah study is so central with us. It is the first blessing a newborn child receives: "May he grow up to Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds." The prayer book is filled with petitions to God to help us understand His Torah. No wonder Rebbe Akiva in the Talmud states that to expect a Jew to live without Torah is like expecting a fish to live without water. That's because the fact is that the Torah is the essence of the Jewish people, our very life and soul, and without it we literally have no existence. This explains why, in a traditional Jewish community, the one who is looked up to and most admired is the scholar of Torah - not the entertainer or the athlete.

    When we study Torah, we are not studying an abstract and arcane text of the ancient world. We are studying the way in which God wants us to live on this earth... (We) are in fact engaged in discovering the essence of Judaism, which is to say, the essence of ourselves.

    Rabbi Paysach Krohn asks a great question. Why did the Angel fight with Yaacov and not with Avraham and Yitzchak? Why did he pick on Yaacov? We know Avram represents kindness-chessed and Yitzchak represents sacrifice and prayer. Yaacov represents Torah. In essence the angel was saying they can do kindness as much as they want; they can pray all day. However, if I take away the Torah there is no future generations. Why should we shed a tear for Nadav an Avihu?

    Rabbi Matityahu Solomon quotes the Ponavitch Rav. Moshe said that Nadav and Avihu were greater than himself and Aharon. As great as they were, can one imagine how great they would have become? Can one imagine what Klal Yisrael would have looked like if for forty years they would have been taught by MOSHE, AHARON, NADAV, AND AVIHU! Can one conceptualize how they would have influenced Klal Yisrael? Furthermore, how much would our nation look like TODAY!

    Rabbi Ephraim Waxman expounds on the Tomer Devorah when it says, "Every single Jew has in his soul the soul of every single soul in Klal Yisrael. Since all of their souls are bound together, this one has a share in that and that one has a share in this." When one learns Torah, he lifts up every Jewish soul in Klal Yisrael that resides with in his Neshama. Even Jews that don't have an inkling that Torah exist benefit from your learning. The power of studying Torah not only transcends space, but it transcends time. One who learns G-d's Torah benefits generations before him and the generations before him learning Torah benefit him through the millennium. Inside our souls rest the souls of our fathers. We have the souls of Nadav and Avihu. In other words, every Jew is timeless and ageless and we all come together and are united through Torah. He explains this point from an interpretation of Kedusha that is recited by the Ashkenazim. "NEKADESH ET SHIMCHA BA'OLAM K'SHEM SHEHMAKDISHIM OTO" - "We, in this world, sanctifies your name through our learning Torah like your name is sanctified in the heavens by the Jews who perished and are by your side, our ancestors."

    In every generation there is that bad angel in one form or another who tries to deter or, at times, destroy us. Rabbi Matityahu Solomon relates an incident, when he was a boy, barely bar mitzvah, where his father one day brought home a 16-year-old refugee from Eastern Europe. It was soon after the war and many of these boys were shipped to England, broken, without families. "My father said to my mother 'Bring out to this boy a pack of cookies'. We were all taken aback, a pack of cookies back then was a big deal at the time. My father continued 'This boy was just tested by the Rosh Yeshiva-Head Master and incredibly, it became known to us that he memorized 200 daphim-pages of Gemarah while he was in the Concentration camp! The boy's father was a Rav in Eastern Europe and gave Daf Yomi classes and when he and his son were forced into the camps the father taught his son.'"

    Rabbi Solomon continues: "I thought, can one imagine the father and son in the barracks in the concentration camp huddled up in one corner afraid not to get caught and the father teaching the son. That is the desire one prays for on Shevuot. That is the spirit of our people. The son, now, will study Torah, unfortunately, without his father. But, in essence, they both will sanctify G-d's name, in this world and the Heavens, for they are part of a nation that has spirit!"

    Rabbi Avi Matmon

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  • Is Matzah a Quick Fix?

    by gTorah.com

    Jews eat Matza because our ancestors left Egypt בחפזון – in a hurry, and we recall this by recreating the food that they couldn’t adequately prepare, leaving it in it’s simplest form. That it to say, the haste, the hurry, the speed, is a key element of one the main mitzvos of the Chag. The fact they left quickly is not incidental to their leaving at all; it is not just the way they gained their freedom, as seen in the way we remember the way they left. Why is there such focus with the way in which they left?

    There is a character trait called Zrizus. Rav Hutner teaches that it is not just the speed with which a task is accomplished; that exists in every realm, good and bad equally. This is not an objectively “good” character trait in any way; it simply describes the intensity of the desire for a specific outcome, which in turn generates the alacrity and passion with which it is carried out. Yet it is ostensibly a key part to Jewish life.

    We praise Hashem as ברוך אומר ועושה, ברוך עושה בראשית. Sometimes we refer to מעשה בראשית and sometimes just בראשית. The Vilna Gaon explains that מעשה בראשית refers to everything within creation; but this does not encompass everything. There is more that Hashem creates, which is not contained, per se, within creation. Time. מעשה בראשית appreciates the universe and all that is in it. But ברוך עושה בראשית refers specifically to the concept of time, a beginning. עושה בראשית. We express gratitude for the creation of time. For a beginning. For בראשית.

    Time is important to all mitzvos, learnt from Matza. The Midrash teaches ושמרתם את המצות – “You shall guard the Matzot/Mitzvos” – ensure that they don’t become ruined by waiting; do it right away. The Midrash subtly indicates that speed is not just an extra credit to a mitzva. If the analogy is fully developed, any mitzva without the speed is ruined! Zrizus, the way we perform mitzvos, is a prerequisite. Why are mitzvos related to time at all?

    The Midrash in Koheles allegorically teaches that when a poor peasant marries a noble princess, he will never be able to satisfy her, as she’ll always have better.

    Our souls are the noble princess. Our souls do not interface with the mundane, common, physicality of life. Because it is not any of those things. Not mundane. Not common. Not physical. Not of life. It transcends all those things. Nothing of this earth can ever satisfy the needs of the soul. It speaks a different language.

    The moment the Jews were selected to be God’s flag bearers, His ambassadors to show mankind a better way, they became connected to something that totally transcends all of creation. By connecting to the Creator, everything created became instantly mundane and beneath that connection. Not just מעשה בראשית. But even בראשית. Because time, too, is a creation.

    No longer just beings who exist for a fixed amount of time. No longer actions with temporary magnitude. In that instant, בחפזון Jews became נצחי. Not simply forever, a lack of expiration date. Eternal. It is a fundamental change of essence; they transcend time. A change noticeable in every single frozen moment of existence.

    They become this עם נצחי with their departure from Egypt. That transfer, that metamorphosis from beings existing within the system, to immortal souls operating on a plane above creation above time, had to happen בחפזון. Not just quickly. So much more than that. Ironically in that moment, they became above all moments.

    Perhaps that is why the final plague happened כחצות, in a non-moment. In the space where נצחי, eternity, is forced to operate within the restricting confines of זמן, of time, the paradoxical result is חפזון. An expression of the attempt to transcend time.

    R Shlomo Farhi explains that this reinforces the importance of the concept of Zrizus as a necessity, an absolute prerequisite without which the Mitzvah is left deficient. The lack of חפזון returns the Mitzvah, and ourselves to time and space. It becomes just another thing on the day’s activity list. Acting slowly is clips the wings of the Mitzvah, grounding it, limiting it, inhibiting it, stifling it.

    Waiting during the food preparation generates Chametz. Chametz is food, but it wont feed or nourish us. It may be good enough for others; but to us, it is inedible.

    This is the why so much of the Chag centres upon the very deliberate חפזון manner in which we left Egypt. It’s what we recall, and it is the platform from which we learn how important and meaningful that even the way we do things can truly matter.

    WHY WAS PAROH SO RESILIENT?

    Throughout the story of Egypt, we find that Paroh’s heart is hardened, after which he resisted overtures to release the Jews. How could Paroh have his free will compromised?

    The question of Paroh’s free will is based on the presumption that Hashem hardened it – but this is not entirely accurate The Seforno explains that there are two verbs used in relation to Paroh – כבד, heaviness, and חזק, strength. Being described as חזק, strong, is not a bad thing by any stretch! A careful reading will show that – for the first seven plagues – all uses of כבד are in reference to Paroh acting in such a way. Where Hashem is acting directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gave him the strength to continue – but why

    To understand what the story is truly about, ask yourself, what was the point of it all? To obliterate the Egyptians? Or to extract the Jews? Both events happened, but lots of other things happened too. Miracles are always as simple as possible, so why the extravagance of plagues that didn’t produce free Jews or defeated Egyptians? Why extend the Egyptian’s suffering

    Hashem is very clear why, but it slips right under the radar. Hashem explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague.

    וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – Egypt will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch my my hand over Egypt, and extract the Jews from among them. (7:17)

    Hashem announces that this is about making something known. Consider that Hashem’s power to this point was entirely unknown. What miracles had been performed that more than ten people saw? People knew about the God of their fathers, but there had never been “outstretched hand” type miracles in history – yet. Egypt – and the world – would know soon enough

    This is why Paroh needed the חיזוק – he could not release the Jews because of the beating Egypt was taking; he could not give in for the wrong reasons. He needed חיזוק as he grew to understand the nature of what he was up against.

    But after the 7th plague, the task is seemingly complete; Paroh concedes, completely:

    יִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Paroh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. Hashem is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beseech Hashem, and bring an end to this fiery hail; I will release you, you will be here no more…” (9:27,28)

    Egypt now knows, but the education is not complete. The subject changes subtly:

    וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters, how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

    Now it is about the Jews. The Jews needed to understand what Hashem would do for them. A generation of slaves could scarcely fathom what was taking place – see the troubles they gave Moshe even after all this – Hashem wanted to show His care to the Jews.

    This is where stubbornness comes in. Once Paroh had conceded and submitted to God, he needed stubbornness to resist anew. This had nothing to do with his free will – Egypt’s understanding is not referred to again.

    This is וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ – for us to internalise how incredible the events were, how much Hashem did and does for us.

    WHAT IS SHABBOS HAGADOL ABOUT?

    Shabbos HaGadol – “The Great Shabbos” – is an anniversary of a one off event. The Jews were automatically safe from the first nine plagues; but for the tenth they had to do something to be saved – two things, to be precise: circumcision and the Korban Pesach. Through these mitzvos they were saved, earning freedom as a result.

    The Korban Pesach was to be set aside on the Shabbos a few days before they left, the tenth of Nissan. Shabbos HaGadol memorialises that event.

    It is highly unusual to mark a day of the week, and not the calendar date of an event. Yet the Shabbos before Pesach is when we remember that the Pesach sacrifice was to be set aside, and not the tenth of Nissan. Why?

    The Sfas Emes expounds how Shabbos is the transition between the previous week and the next. It is the culmination of what came before, and sets the tone of what is to come. Particularly with regard to redemption, Shabbos has trappings of eternity and liberation, with an eye to the conclusion of Creation. As such, the pending Exodus required a particular investment on the people’s part to earn redemption the coming week. It was Shabbos that the instruction was particular to, and the calendar date was incidental – this is why it is remembered on the Shabbos before Pesach. Shabbos sets the tone for redemption and Geula.

    But why is it called Great – HaGadol?

    The Sfas Emes teaches that the “greatness” refers to the Jews. The Jews had little or no merit; they kept their names, clothing and language, but had literally nothing else. By following the instruction to prepare for the mitzva of Korban Pesach, they matured as a nation, and became capable of greatness, and worthy of redemption. The surrender to God’s will and removal of other influences, particularly Paroh’s, made the nation “great”. They became big, or adult – HaGadol.

    R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the separation of the sheep, a sacred animal in Egypt, was not just symbolic of their intent to eat it. It correlated to the second commandment – that there be no other false gods or entities, including Paroh. This was actually a prerequisite to the first commandment, that Hashem is God, exemplified by the Korban Pesach a few days later. They couldn’t just add Hashem to the pile; they had to make a clear distinction.

    The Sfas Emes notes that setting the animal aside wasn’t even a real mitzva – it was never replicated later on in any commandments. It was a one-off instruction in Egypt. It is not a mitzva that we remember then. Instead, the we remember that the Jews took a very tentative, but very tangible first step. The Gemara gives an analogy that if a person makes an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God can then turn it into a grand ballroom. It is Shabbos HaGadol because all subsequent greatness stemmed from that first baby step, that seemed like so little.

    Shabbos HaGadol also parallels Shabbos Shuva, only from a different perspective. Shabbos Shuva is Teshuva from Fear, and Shabbos HaGadol is Teshuva from Love – and love is stronger than fear. The nature of Shabbos HaGadol and Pesach after is that the relationship between God and His people is so strong that the redemption comes without deserving it – the same is true of Teshuva and prayer. This is precisely how they were pulled out if Egypt – they were given access to so much by doing something so small.

    That first step forward makes all the difference. Take the initiative!

    RELIVING THE EXODUS

    During the Seder we recite that every person has to feel as if their very selves left Egypt.

    Why is not enough to recall that it historically took place?

    We say that מתחלה היה עובדי עבודה זרה, ועכשיו קירבנו המקום לעבודתו – At first, they worshipped strange idols, but now Hashem drew them near, in His service. This is of huge significance. This is when the transition occurred; we ceased to be slaves, and became a nation free to serve Hashem. But what is ועכשיו קירבנו המקום לעבודתו – but ״now״ Hashem drew them near, in His service?

    It is precisely for this reason that we are enjoined to feel like we personally left Egypt. In the same way our ancestors had an Exodus that transitioned them into servants of God, we each need to experience our own personal exodus, every year, and renew our own commitment.

    At the end of Maggid, we say the opening two paragraphs of Hallel, and yet no Bracha is said on it. The Emek Bracha concludes that there is no bracha because it is not a Hallel at all! A Hallel commemorates a past event; but this is the “present”! In the names of the parts of the Seder, Hallel is after the meal – the opening two paragraphs take place during Maggid, because they are actually a Shira – a song of praise, like לפיכך – the Shira at the miracle we have to see ourselves as going through!

    THE EGG ON THE SEDER PLATE

    On the Seder plate, there is a designated section for an egg. All the sections have a more obvious role; but the egg’s place is less clear.

    The Ishbitzer teaches that the egg is symbolic of the nascent Jewish nation; like an egg requires nurturing and warmth to hatch, so the newly formed nation was, on its way to “hatching” at Mount Sinai, upon receiving the Torah.

    The Rema says that this is the very same egg as on 9 Av, and points out that the fast of 9 Av will always be on the same day of the week as the first night of Pesach. But there is more to it than that.

    Avraham was told his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt. When they left Egypt, the Torah recounts how וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ

    בְּמִצְרָיִם שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה – the settlement of the Jews in Egypt lasted 430 years (12:40). Not commonly cited, is that “only” 86 of the years spent in Egypt were spent in slavery, which Miriam’s birth marked (hence her name, meaning “bitter”). The early departure was forced because the Jews were mired in the depths of decadence, the 49th level of impurity, beyond which they could not be saved. They had to leave early, if they were ever to leave.

    But this means that only one fifth of the prophesied 430 years of slavery was spent in actual slavery. This is slightly hinted to when Yosef interpreted the butler’s dream, where he described how he’d squeezed grapes for Paroh. In the dialogue, the word כוס appears four times. Figuratively, Yosef announced that when the cup was squeezed into, he would walk free, and the same with the Jews in Egypt, that when they were “squeezed” into the כוס – 86 – they walked free. That only one fifth of the time was served is one the explanations of the bizarre word וחמושים – also a source that many Jews did not live to escape Egypt, perishing in the darkness.

    The deficit in time is 344 – the word כוס multiplied four times, the numerical value of שמד – disaster. On 9 Av, the Torah portion we read berates us and says שָּׁמֵד תִּשָּׁמֵדוּן – we owe for our early, forced departure from egypt. And on the eve of 9 Av, we eat an egg, in memory of the destruction and imperfection of the world.

    As the Rema says, this is the very same egg as on 9 Av. We left early, but leaving Egypt was not the perfect redemption, which we still await. We remind ourselves of this with the egg we eat before 9 Av.

    ARAMAIC WITH A KITTEL

    We begin the story telling aspect of the Seder, Magid, with a short prayer, הא לחמא עניא – This is poor man’s bread… But next year, may we have liberty in Jerusalem.

    It is classically understood that angels gather prayers and transport them to Heaven. This particular prayer is not in the usual Hebrew, but in Aramaic, and this presents a thorny issue. It is similarly understood that angels do not relate to Aramaic, and so cannot present or transmit prayers in Aramaic; as such, prayers are not meant to be said in Aramaic. Why then, is this portion in Aramaic?

    Perhaps there is a way around this issue. There are times when an emissary is not required. There is a Gemara that teaches that Hashem’s presence is manifest in the room of an ill person. Prayers are more effective – there are no angels required; Hashem is right there.

    The Shaagas Aryeh points out how the same is true on Yom Kippur – the Kohel Gadol goes into the Kodesh HaKadashim, and utters a prayer in Aramaic. How is that the prayer can pray in Aramaic? It is because he is in the Kodesh HaKadashim, in front of the Ark, where Hashem’s presence is most manifest. No angels necessary.

    Most of the year round, we are subject to the influence of the Satan. But not all year – השטן has a value of 364, a year, less one day – that is one day per year that the Satan does not influence us – Seder night; it is a Leil Shimurim. When we are enjoined to keep Pesach, we are told that וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה – the word ימימה is very odd; this is it’s only appearance in the Torah. It has the same initial letters as the second part of Tehillim 93:3 – כִּי הוּא יַצִּילְךָ מִפַּח יָקוּשׁ מִדֶּבֶר הַוּוֹת – Hashem Himself will save us, ימימה. This is why there is no Satan on Seder night – Hashem is there. We don’t say Shema for this reason.

    Just like on Yom Kippur. Which is one reason for a kittel. But it goes deeper – the animal used for the korban Pesach is set aside on the tenth of the month, the tenth of the month that Yom Kippur is. ימימה is a 24 hour day, but it is not the same day.

    It is the combination of the evening of Seder and Yom Kippur day that Hashem is in front of us, and therefore we wear a kittel and pray in Aramaic.

    THE DICHOTOMY OF MATZA

    There is a dichotomy regarding the Matza on Pesach. Is it poor man’s bread, indicative of slavery; or is it because of the redemption, that they were freed before they had time to prepare bread?

    The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being freed from Egypt on it’s own; we must celebrate the fact we were enslaved as well. If we were capable of being a nation that could serve Hashem in freedom initially, we need not have been enslaved, and if we could serve Hashem in slavery, we weren’t in need of rescue. So being enslaved in Egypt was a key part of the process through which we became Hashem’s people. What transition took place in Egypt that created a nation capable of serving God?

    The Sfas Emes goes on to explain that by being in crushing slavery, the people were far beyond their comfort zones, and pushed way past the extremes of what they thought they were capable of. This was a life lesson to the people that the arrogance and ego of man could be removed, and a person could devote his entire being to something. This was a key stage in becoming Hashem’s servants – the people knew what it meant to give their all; which would not have been the same thing without the ravages of slavery.

    The Sfas Emes explains that this is what all evils and adversity in life are for – they educate us about our limits, and more than that, they show us the opposite extremes to which we can aspire, attain and transcend. This is the only purpose they serve, just like Egypt. If they weren’t there to help us become closer to Hashem, they would have no function, and therefore would not exist. This was the only way in people could have accepted Hashem as their King entirely; in the same way they had been entirely subjugated to Paroh, they could now subjugate themselves entirely to Hashem.

    This was the critical moment the Jews were born as a nation. As we say in Shema every day: אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלוקים – “That I took you out of Egypt to be for you a God” (Bamidbar 15:41). The causation is clear – we had to have been in Egypt before, in order to be taken out, to become everything we were meant to be. Being God’s people hinges on the need to have subdued arrogance and ego.

    This is what טוב אחרית הדבר מראשיתו means – “the end is better than the beginning” (Koheles 7:8). It was far from pleasant to be in Egypt, but what followed was receiving the Torah. The Sfas Emes tells us that our celebration of leaving Egypt must hinge around the fact that we became better once we left – we accepted Hashem as our King and our God, and we received the Torah. The first thing we did on being freed was for Hashem – this is why there is a concept of firsts going to Hashem, for example the korban Omer (and Pidyon haBen, bikkurim etc). This is what is so vital on Seder night, to relive the Exodus from Egypt. It is when we became God’s people.

    The Sfas Emes answers that this is why Matza correlates to both slavery as well as freedom – it is devoid of the ego, exemplified by chametz, yet it also correlates to the freedom – the process of freedom started when we were slaves. It is how we became truly free to serve Hashem. Our freedom stems from having not been free once.

    LACKING טעם

    In the Haggada we read; חכם מה הוא אומר? מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צו ה’ אלוקינו אתכם– What does the wise son ask? “What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that God our Lord commanded you?”

    The Sfas Emes understands that the wise son is asking the reasons behind the laws, not the laws themselves. Since he is the wise son, it is assumed that he knows the laws. However, how can he ask for a reason for the statutes? חוקים do not have reason, for example, the Para Aduma and sha’atnez. These mitzvos have no clear reason. So why does the wise son ask for the reason for these types of mitzvos?

    In Tehillim, we say; “מַגִּיד דְּבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב חֻקָּיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו לְיִשְׂרָאֵל – He told his words to Yakov, His statutes and laws to Israel”. מַגִּיד implies a discussion – the implication is that חוקים is not just an instruction, but a talking point, something to be talked about. So חוקים have meaning as well – but how can discover these reasons? The Sfas Emes explains that the way to attain an understanding of the חוקים is by doing them even without understanding, but with the belief that what we are doing has a deeper significance. By performing these mitzvos without understanding why, we merit knowing the reason eventually.

    The Sfas Emes explains that the mitzva of matza alludes to this. The matza is made of flour and water. It has no additional taste. In Hebrew the same word is used for taste and for reason – טעם. We specifically do not add any טעם to it to show that the command itself has enough טעם for us.

    Through this, we develop a closer relationship with Hashem, a Naaseh v’Nishma of sorts, that we do as instructed even though we don’t understand.

    The answer we give the wise son is, “We do not eat any dessert after the Pesach lamb.” He wants to know the טעם for the mitzvos including the חוקים . We tell him that the way to know the reasons is to do them, without knowing why, but with faith in Hashem’s command. We hint this when we tell him not to add to the טעם of the Korban Pesach.

    It seems that asking the right questions leads to self discovery, and that it is most important to simply place one’s trust in Hashem .

    ALL ABOUT APPRECIATION

    When a farmer presents bikkurim to the attending kohen, there is a prescribed dialogue that must take place, tracking the early history of the Jewish people:


    וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ – You will answer and say before your God, “The Aramean pursued my father, and he descended to Egypt, and dwelled there, where he became a nation, great and many. Egypt evilly afflicted us, and they gave us hard labour. We cried out to Hashem, God of our fathers, and He heard our cries, and saw our suffering and affliction.

    He extracted us from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great wonders and miracles; and brought us to this place. He gave us this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now, see I have brought my first fruit, which God has granted me, and I place it before God,”.

    He shall place it before God and bow, and rejoice at all the good he has been given. (26:5-11)

    On Pesach, part of the above is quoted in the Haggada, which tracks the development of the Jewish people. This is odd – the actual events are recorded in Shemos, this is only a paraphrase of events there; and not about leaving Egypt at all!

    Why does the Haggada quote from bikkurim and not from its proper historical place?

    The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzva on Pesach of reciting the story of the exodus is not limited to just telling the story; it must be contextualised with an angle of gratitude, which the historical sections do not have.

    Bikkurim is self-evidently about gratitude for the Land of Israel, which has extra special value in the context of liberation from Egypt. So, in reality, discussing Egypt makes a lot of sense in the context of how appreciative we are for the Land; and it also makes sense for the Haggada to quote from somewhere out of place to display gratitude.

    Proper gratitude can be learned from the laws of the thanksgiving offering – the Korban Toda.

    Along with the animal offering, there were 40 accompanying loaves of bread, with very little burnt or taken by the kohen. They are essential parts of the offering, and are subject to the laws of leftovers – if not consumed by the following morning, they must be destroyed.

    This is an impossible task for the owner. Clearly, he is not meant to eat an entire animal and 40 loaves of bread on his own. This is a feast – one he needs to invite many guests to.

    The aspect of gratitude this evidently imparts is the innate requirement to publicise it. The Korban Pesach is identical – an entire roast animal that is to be consumed after a full meal, in a tiny amount of time, before midnight. To avoid issues with leftovers problems you need to invite lots of guests and tell them about Egypt – which is precisely how the Seder begins.

    The Korban Pesach is essentially a national Korban Toda – brought on release from jail; crossing a sea; crossing a desert; and recovery from illness. The Jews were in bondage and released from Egypt; went through the sea; through the desert, and when the Jews stood at Sinai, they were cured from all ailments.

    To really contextualise what gratitude entails, the concluding pasuk in Bikkurim says that וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ – you should rejoice in all Hashem does for you. One just one blanket ‘thank you’, but thank Him בְכָל הַטּוֹב – for each thing individually!

    Gratitude means so much more when it is spelled out properly.

    THE WICKED SON

    In the Haggada, the Rasha asks a question, and the father rebukes him, and the Haggada remarks that the father should הקהה את שניו – knock out his teeth – and rebuke him that אלו היה שם לא היה נגאל – if he had been in Egypt at the time, he would not have been redeemed.

    What do his teeth and potential non-redemption from Egypt have to with each other, as part of a cogent reply?

    R’ Shlomo Freshwater explains that prior to Matan Torah, people who were evil stayed that way – Yishmael, Esav, all the Jews who died during the 9th plague. Before Matan Torah, the only people God would choose to save were the people who chose God.

    After Matan Torah, this changed – Hashem had chosen us unconditionally! This enabled everyone to be saved – even if they weren’t righteous – and any and everyone could do teshuva, as opposed to falling by the wayside like Yishmael, Esav etc.

    So what the father tells his son is that if he had been in Egypt, he simply would not have had the merit to be redeemed. But after Matan Torah, anyone can do teshuva – even a Rasha! But a puzzle remains – we just have to “knock out his teeth” – what does this mean?

    רשע is gematria 570. If we “knock out” שניו – gematria 366 – we are left with 204. What is gematria 204?

    צדיק!!

    The 4 sons are meant to be allegorical, but clearly this section of the Haggada is an inpirational piece about teshuva – no matter what we have done, we can always make amends, we just need to want it and remove the negativity.

    FALSE START

    Looking at the 15 steps of the Seder, ורחץ – “and we wash our hands” – is out of step with the rest. It is evidently linked to the previous step of Kadesh, hence the conjunctive “and”. But this results in a problem – the order makes no sense!

    A doctor sanitises his hands before seeing a patient – similarly shouldn’t we cleanse ourselves of the negative, symbolised by washing our hands, before sanctifying ourselves with positive, through kiddush?

    The same can be asked about Matza and Maror; shouldn’t we get the negative slavery out of the way before commemorating the positive liberty?

    R’ Moshe Feinstein answers counterintuitively that sometimes we are in so deep that we can’t cleanse ourselves of negativity. We have to jumpstart the process of growth by diving in and doing positive acts despite the fact we still have negative baggage. Then we build up the spiritual strength to be able to cleanse ourselves of and be rid of that baggage – which is exactly what happened in Egypt.

    There is a Chassidic analogy of a man with dirty boots in a muddy field. He must walk to the end of the field before he can clean his boots; stopping in the middle to wipe his boots is a exercise in futility.

    This is an exceptionally deep parable, but on a basic level, what it means is that when we have a problem that we can’t avoid, the proverbial “dirty boots”, we must change the situation we are in, by “leaving the field”. Once we have changed and developed, when we find ourselves with “muddy boots” we will no longer be in the “muddy field”. People can look at the world as a muddy field and wonder how they can have faith when there is so much evil, in the world. The answer is that the muddy field isn’t the problem – their boots are bringing mud everywhere!

    The reason we start the Seder in this way is to show us that we just need to take the initiative – Kaddish – and then ורחץ – we will be cleansed!

    MATZA AND MAROR – CHALK AND CHEESE

    Matza symbolises that the redemption took place with such haste that the dough did not have time to rise. The Maror symbolises the bitterness of the slavery.

    Obviously, the slavery took place before the redemption. Yet we eat Matza before the Maror – why don’t we reflect the historical order that events unfolded, and commemorate the affliction with the Maror first, and then appreciate the redemption with Matzah? The Chiddushei HaRim explains with a parable.

    There was a king who had one child, the crown prince. One day, the prince got involved in a national scandal and embarrassed the royal family greatly, for which he was banished. Over time, and as he aged, the king’s grief grew at what he’d done – he’d banished his only son and heir! He sent scouts across the kingdom to locate the prince and bring him back. A scout found the prince, dishevelled and a mess, working as a lumberjack deep in the middle of distant forests, with worn clothes and covered in dirt. The scout verified his reports and could not believe his eyes, yet approached the former crown prince; “My lord, the king has requested your immediate return to the palace. Before we get going, what do you need?”.

    “I’m not sure about going back, I like it here… But you know, what I really need is a better axe; this one is getting blunt. Could you possibly get me another?”.

    The scout was bewildered – when presented with the opportunity to return to his royal heritage, the heir to the throne refused. He had forgotten what it meant to be the prince, he had become a peasant; a simple laborer, who just wanted a better axe to be a better lumberjack.

    The Chiddushei Harim explains that we couldn’t understand how terrible the slavery was until we’d experienced redemption and liberty.

    If you put your face an inch from this text you can’t read it, you can only see the word right in front of you. To appreciate something for what it is, we need to step back from it. From darkness we understand what light is, and vice versa. Light is brightest coming in from the dark, and dark is darkest when the lights go out.

    We need to start with redemption, ultimate freedom to serve Hashem – to illustrate how awful anything else is.

    CHAMETZ AND MATZA

    In the Hagada, one of the four questions asked is that שבכל הלילות, אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה, הלילה הזה כולו מצה – Why on other nights do we eat chametz and matza, whereas tonight we only eat matza?

    The Abarbanel explains that this question has an additional subtle nuance to it. The Korban Pesach is essentially a Korban Toda, a thanksgiving offering, for having been saved. With an ordinary thanksgiving offering, the sacrifice is brought with chametz loaves and matza crackers as part of the offering. The question therefore becomes; why is the thanksgiving offering on Pesach only supplemented with matza?

    The Chasam Sofer explains that chametz is a metaphor for negativity. It is symbolic of the inflation of the ego, among other things. Matza is synonymous with the positive and pure – it is representative of things the way they ought to be, in their simple, distilled, natural state.

    When we offer a regular thanksgiving sacrifice, we are thanking Hashem for the good He has done, but equally, the bad from which we learn to appreciate the good.

    But on Pesach there is no such thing as bad; even being enslaved served a “good” purpose – it certainly wasn’t a punishment for anything the slaves had done! If the Jews could achieve perfection without going through Egypt, they wouldn’t have had to – therefore it served a constructive purpose. The purpose was so that when they were offered the Torah the Jews would be able to understand and accept the concept of service – they had been pushed to the limit and beyond in Egypt; they could do the same for Hashem. We answer how Pesach is a night where כולו מצה – there is no such thing as bad, there is only good.

    The Chafetz Chaim wonders why Moshe was unable to build the Menorah, a problem he had not had when building everything else, and had to ask many times for the instructions to be repeated. The answer parallels the above. The Menorah is compared to to the Torah – hence the phrase “the light” of Torah – and it’s eternity. Moshe’s problem was that he did not understand how he could make something that was meant to reflect the infinite and eternal. Homiletically, how could the Jews keep the Torah forever? Wouldn’t there be evil? Exiles, wars, Holocausts, Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms?

    Hashem’s answer to Moshe illustrates this concept perfectly. “Put it in the fire, and see what comes out”. In reality, there is no negativity, and challenges are not bad. It is only a trial from which there is potential to grow. Adversity builds character.

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  • God and Strangers

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men were standing over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent entrance, and bowed down to the earth… (Genesis 18:1–2)         

    Thus Parshat Vayera opens with one of the most famous scenes in the Bible: Abraham’s meeting with the three enigmatic strangers. The text calls them men. We later discover that they were in fact angels, each with a specific mission.

    The chapter at first glance seems simple, almost fable-like. It is, however, complex and ambiguous. It consists of three sections:

    • Verse 1: God appears to Abraham.
    • Verses 2–16: Abraham meets the men/angels.
    • Verses 17–33: The dialogue between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.

    The relationship between these sections is far from clear. Do they represent one scene, two or three?

    The most obvious possibility is three. Each of the above sections is a separate event. First, God appears to Abraham, as Rashi explains, “to visit the sick”[1] after Abraham’s circumcision. Then the visitors arrive with the news that Sarah will have a child. Then takes place the great dialogue about justice and the imminent punishment of the people of Sodom.

    Maimonides suggests that there are only two scenes: The visit of the angels, and the dialogue with God. The first verse does not describe an event at all; it is, rather, a chapter heading.[2] It tells us that the events that follow are all part of a prophetic revelation, a divine- human encounter.

    The third possibility is that we have a single continuous scene. God appears to Abraham, but before He can speak, Abraham sees the passers-by and asks God to wait while he serves them food. Only when they have departed – in verse 17 – does he turn to God, and the conversation begins.

    The interpretation of the chapter affects – and hinges upon – the way we translate the word Adonai in Abraham’s appeal: “Please Adonai, if now I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by, I pray you, from your servant” (18:3). Adonai can be a reference to one of the names of God. It can also be read as “my lords” or “sirs.” In the first case, Abraham would be addressing God. In the second, he would be speaking to the passers-by.

    The same linguistic ambiguity appears in the next chapter (19:2), when two of Abraham’s visitors – now described as angels – visit Lot in Sodom:

    And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot sat by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low, he said, “I pray you now, adonai, turn aside to your servant’s house and tarry all night and bathe your feet and you shall rise up early and go on your way.” (Gen. 19:1–2)

    As there is no contextual element to suggest that Lot might be speaking to God, it seems clear, in this case, that adonai refers to the visitors.

    The simplest reading then of both texts – the one concerning Abraham, the other, Lot – would be to read the word consistently as “sirs.” Several English translations indeed take this approach. Here, for example, is the New English Bible’s:

    The Lord appeared to Abraham… He looked up, and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the opening of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. “Sirs,” he said, “if I have deserved your favour, do not pass by my humble self without a visit.”

    Jewish tradition, however, does not.

    Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halachic implications. They are matters of legitimate disagreement. This case of Abraham’s addressee is unusual, however, because if we translate Adonai as “God,” it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If, by contrast, we translate it as “my lords” or “sirs,” it has no special sanctity. Jewish law rules that in the scene with Lot, adonai is read as “sirs,” but in the case of Abraham it is read as “God.”

    This is an extraordinary fact, because it suggests that Abraham actually interrupted God as He was about to speak, asking Him to wait while he attended to the visitors. According to tradition, the passage should be read thus:

    The Lord appeared to Abraham…He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to God] he said: “My God, if I have found favour in Your eyes, do not leave Your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:] “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree…”[3]

    This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine Presence.”[4] Faced with a choice between listening to God, and offering hospitality to what seemed to be human beings, Abraham chose the latter. God acceded to his request, and waited while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom. How can this be so? It seems disrespectful at best, heretical at worst, to put the needs of human beings before attending on the presence of God.

    What the passage is telling us, though, is something of immense profundity. The idolaters of Abraham’s time worshipped the sun, the stars, and the forces of nature as gods. They worshipped power and the powerful. Abraham knew, however, that God is not in nature but beyond nature. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image: the human person, every person, powerful and powerless alike.

    The forces of nature are impersonal, which is why those who worship them eventually lose their humanity. As the book of Psalms puts it:

    Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

    They have mouths, but cannot speak,

    Eyes, but cannot see;

    They have ears, but cannot hear, nostrils but cannot smell…

    They that make them become like them,

    And so do all who put their trust in them. (Psalms 115:4-8)

    One cannot worship impersonal forces and remain a person; compassionate, humane, generous, forgiving. Precisely because we believe that God is personal, someone to whom we can say “You,” we honour human dignity as sacrosanct.

    Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine Presence when God appears as God. What is difficult is to sense the Divine Presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.

    In one of the most beautiful comments on this episode, Rabbi Shalom of Belz notes that in verse 2, the visitors are spoken of as standing above Abraham (nitzavim alav), while in verse 8, Abraham is described as standing above them (omed aleihem). At first, the visitors were higher than Abraham because they were angels and he a mere human being. But when he gave them food and drink and shelter, he stood even higher than the angels.[5]

    By choosing the most radical of the three possible interpretations of Genesis 18, the sages allowed us to hear one of the most fundamental principles of the life of faith: We honour God by honouring His image, humankind.

    Shabbat Shalom

    Read more

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