Wednesday, January 14, 2015

460 - Va'eira

Before Moshe and Aharon perform the tenmakkos, the Torah offers a short genealogical backdrop. The Torah begins with their great-grandfather Levi, continues with a list of all his children and grandchildren, and ends with the birth of Moshe and Aharon. "They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to take the Jews out of Egypt; this was Moshe and Aharon"(Shemos 6:27). Rashi, bothered by the seemingly superfluous ending of the pasuk, explains that the Torahis informing us that they were complete in both fulfilling their missions and their righteousness "from beginning to end."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Shemos 6:27, 1:5) comments, that this praise of Moshe and Aharon is in reality the goal of every Jew. We must aim to make it through life in general, and each day in particular, without getting derailed from the tracks of our purpose in this world. Chazal relate that Yochanon served in the most sacred position of Kohein Gadol for eighty years and subsequently became an apostate! He was undeniably a great man, but he did not persevere until the end of his life.     

The truth is that no one can know where life will take him. Yosef went one bright day to inquire about the welfare of his brothers and the next thing he knew he found himself as a slave and the sole Jew in the most immoral country in the world. These things do not happen only in ancient times. Rav Wolbe related that he himself experienced a similar phenomenon. While learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland just prior the Second World War, the Polish government forced him to leave the Yeshiva due to his German citizenship. The next eight years found him in Sweden without even a minyan of shomer ShabbosJews. Despite these radical changes, the Torah attests that Yosef maintained his original level of righteousness even in Egypt, and we can attest that Rav Wolbe remained steadfast to his ideals throughout his years in Sweden. 

Additionally, Rav Wolbe mentioned that he once met a Moroccan Jew who related that when he arrived in Israel he was taken to a non-religious kibbutz. He didn't capitulate to their lifestyle and he demanded kosher food. They could not get him to change his ways so they sent him to another kibbutz lest he succeed in convincing others to follow his ways. The same scenario repeated itself in the second kibbutz and the successive kibbutzim until they finally gave in and sent him to a yeshiva. How many of us would survive in such a hostile environment with our religious ideals intact? How long would we last if people taunted us every time we davened or attempted to keep kashrus?

The same tests often arise on a daily basis, albeit on a smaller scale. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l would say that a person changes "in accordance with his clothing." One's behavior is very much dependant on his surroundings. Although while by himself one might maintain a serious demeanor, when he is in the company of others he might act in a lightheaded manner. Although he merely changed rooms in the house, his behavior changed entirely! When people get married they often change as a result of their spouses. Similarly, a change of job, friends, locale or shul can change a person beyond recognition.

As with many creatures, people change their skin to adapt to their surroundings. Our goal is to define our ideals and stick to them no matter in what situation we find ourselves. This was the trait of Yosef, Moshe and Aharon, and it is the hallmark of our leaders throughout the generations!

459 - Shemos

Shemos begins with a description of galus Mitzrayim. Rav Wolbe comments (Shiurei Chumash Parshas Shemos 1:10, 5:14) that while other nations relate to exile as something entirely negative, the Jewish People understand that galus is also very beneficial. Mitzrayim is referred to as the "kur habarzel" (Devarim 4, 20). Rashi explains that kur habarzel is a pot used for refining gold. The exile in Egypt refined and purified Bnei Yisrael, thereby honing them into the Chosen Nation.

However, at face value, it seems that the galushad the exact opposite effect! Bnei Yisrael descended all the way down to the forty-ninth level of impurity, and the only credit whereby they merited redemption was their holding fastidiously to their Jewish names, language and mode of dress. How was the benifit of galus achieved?

The Torah tells us (Shemos 5:14) that the Jewish taskmasters were lashed when Bnei Yisrael failed to fill their daily quota of bricks. Rashi explains that they had compassion on their brethren and therefore they did not push them past their limits. The taskmasters paid dearly for this kindness because whenever the daily total of bricks fell short, they were the ones who endured the punishment. This was a manifestation of the purification process achieved by the galus. While in years of tranquility Hashem might gauge a person by his performance in the area of Torah and mitzvos, duringgalus Hashem measures a person by his level of mesirus nefesh. The taskmasters bared their backs for the sake of their brethren, thusly bringing out their greatness. This ultimately secured for them the coveted position of "Elders" whereby they reached the level of prophecy (as mentioned in parshas Beha'aloscha).

During the Holocaust the Nazis set up Jewish coalitions with the intention that the Jews in the coalition would gather lists of other Jews to be deported to concentration camps. While some Jews complied, others endangered themselves and refused to comply. There were even those who committed suicide to protect their brethren from being killed. Additionally, there were many Jews who were moser nefesh - literally sacrificing their lives - to perform mitzvos. For example some gave up their rations of bread to buy tefillin or a siddur. The story is told of a young boy who gave up his rations and fasted for three days so that he could buy a few pages of a siddur! We simply cannot fathom how precious and dear such a mitzvah is to Hashem! This boy in galus attained a level so lofty, that in times of tranquility only the most righteous can even hope to attain.

Bnei Yisrael are again in galus, and once again there is a purpose for the galus. A Jew who performs under duress rivals the highest levels attained by the greatest people during times of spiritual plenty. The Arizal was asked that if the earlier generations who were so holy and righteous didn't succeed in bring Mashiach, how could we, on our relatively low spiritual level, possibly expect to bring Mashiach? He answered that specifically because the spiritual level is so low nowadays, even the smallest mitzvah is as potent as the mitzvos performed by those living in earlier generations. While it is unfortunate that we're in galus, we are fortunate to have the ability to elevate ourselves to the highest levels of spirituality with every single mitzvah performed. Another five minutes ofTorah learning, a phone call to cheer up a neighbor, aperek of Tehillim are all diamonds of inestimable value!

458 - Vayechi

The parsha commences with Yaakov summoning Yosef and requesting that Yosef ensure that he not be buried in Mitzrayim. Rashi explains that one of the motives behind Yaakov's request was his fear that the Egyptians would make him into a deity. They recognized Yaakov's greatness, and hence, he felt that there was a real concern that they would turn his burial place into a shrine.

Certainly, Yaakov's sons recognized their father's greatness to a far greater extent than the Egyptians. Nevertheless, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayechi 47:29), Yaakov was not concerned that his own children would worship him posthumously. He wasn't worried about such a possibility because the Jewish People are accustomed to greatness. Despite his immense stature and the fact that his likeness is etched into the Kisei Hakavod, it was clear to his children that he was human. Likewise, even the greatest leaders of our nation were challenged and contradicted. Korach quarreled with Moshe and l'havdil the Ra'avad frequently disagreed with the Rambam. 

In contrast, the gentile nations are awed when they come in contact with spiritual greatness. Chazal relate (Sotah 47a) that Rebbi Yehoshua ben Prachya had a disciple (Yeishu) who once spoke in a very indecent fashion and Reb Yehoshua felt that such behavior warranted his eviction from Yeshiva. Subsequently, that disciple repeated before a group of gentiles one of his rebbi's discourses, and they were so amazed that they declared him a deity. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz said that if the other nations would have merited a person of the Rambam's stature they would have immediately made him into a god. In Prague there is a statue of the Maharal: The citizens were so impressed by his holiness that they immortalized him with a stone likeness. 

More recently, in the early twentieth century, there was a motion to pass a law that would seriously compromise the Jewish education of all the schools in Poland. The Chofetz Chaim, who was in his nineties at the time, made a trip to the minister responsible for the decree. He spoke to the minister in Yiddish and when his aides wished to translate his words into Polish, the minister said there was no need, for he had "understood" the rabbi and he would rescind the law. Furthermore, when the Chofetz Chaim blessed him, the minister broke down into tears. The Chofetz Chaim looked like a simple Jew and he did not have any regal trappings, and nonetheless, when the minister beheld his holiness he was awed into submission.

Let us take a moment to appreciate the greatness of our nation. Our gedolim and rabbanim have attained levels never dreamed of by gentiles. We are so accustomed to see and hear about these great people that we sometimes fail to appreciate just how tremendous they are! We should thank Hashem for our being part of His remarkable nation, and we should strive to reach those awesome levels attained by our leaders. If they could do it, we could too!

457 - Vayigash

In this week's parsha, the Ibn Ezra (Bereishis 46:15) quotes Rashi who says that Yocheved was born just as Yaakov's family entered Mitzrayim. The Ibn Ezra disputes this historical detail, because accordingly Yocheved would have been one hundred and thirty years old when she gave birth to Moshe Rabbeinu. Had that been true, certainly the Torah would have mentioned it just as it felt it noteworthy to mention the birth of Yitzchak when Sarah was a mere ninety years old! The Ramban quotes the Ibn Ezra but nonetheless defends Rashi's explanation with an eye opening elucidation.

He maintains that the Torah only mentions those miracles which were foreseen by a prophet prior to their arrival. However, the numerous miracles performed to assist the righteous or to thwart the wicked are not mentioned in Tanach. There is no need to single out these miracles because the Torah in its entirety is made up of miracles. The whole concept of reward and punishment clashes with what we refer to as nature. There is no reason why one who eats animal fats forbidden by theTorah should be severed from his life source and die at a young age, nor is there any natural reason that rain will cease to fall as a result of planting during the shemittahyear. These are both miracles, but since they were not foretold by a prophet people tend to dismiss them and attribute such phenomena to natural causes. "He died because of a heart attack" and, "A heat wave originating in the southern hemisphere is at fault for the severe droughts." Overt miracles that were not foretold are in effect "hidden" like the rest of the miracles of the Torah. 

Rav Wolbe writes (Daas Shlomo unpublished manuscript) that with this concept we can understand the idea of pirsumei nissa - publicizing the miracle - instituted by Chazal in association with the mitzvos of Chanuka and Purim. Miracles that were not foretold can easily be ascribed to natural causes. Even the ten plagues in Mitzrayim might have been written off as a series of natural disasters had Moshe not warned Pharaoh prior to their arrival. Hence, we are commanded to publicize and thank Hashem for those hidden miracles that would have otherwise been dismissed. 

In the Shabbos morning davening we state, "[Give thanks] to Him Who alone performs great wonders." The Medrash (Tehillim 136) asks why the passuk emphasizes that Hashem performs wonders alone. Is there anything that Hashem does not do alone? The Medrash answers that Hashem is the only One Who even knows the great wonders performed. Often, even the recipient of the miracle is unaware that a miracle was performed for him!

Every day we thank Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei for "Your miracles that you perform for us daily." A thinking individual, says Rav Wolbe, asks himself, "I woke up in the morning, davened, ate breakfast and went to learn/work/school. When exactly did the miracles for which we are thanking Hashem occur?" However, if we pay close attention to the "coincidences" of the day, we might very well notice Hashem's involvement in our lives. The miracles are there, we just need to peel off the "coating" of nature which conceals them, and then thank Hashem for "His great wonders, for His kindness endures forever!"

456 - Chanuka

Chazal refer to Chanuka as days set aside forhallel v'hoda'ah (praise and thanks). Rav Wolbe makes a keen observation. When we mention the numerous different levels of praise that human beings offer Hashem, the first rung on the ladder is generally hoda'ah. In thetefillah of nishmas we state that "it is incumbent upon all creations l'hodos l'hallel l'shabeiach l'fa'eir (to give thanks, praise, laud and glorify)..." In the hallel we proclaim "with song yodu v'yishabchu vifaaru..." In contrast, we find that the praises that the angels offer (as mentioned in the tefillah of yotzeir ohr) differ slightly. "And they all open their mouths with holiness, purity, song, and hymn - umivarechim u'mishabechim u'mifaarim..." The first level of hoda'ah is lacking in their repertoire of praises.

Although on most levels the praises of humans and angels are equal, the specific concept of hoda'ah is limited to humans alone. This is because the concept ofhoda'ah is giving thanks for something received from Hashem. The essence of an angel is the mission for which he was created, and he does not have the tools with which to receive anything that would in turn call for him to give thanks. In contrast, hoda'ah is not only a vital part of human obligations, but it is also the first rung on the ladder of praises offered to Hashem. 

Just as giving thanks is a fundamental part of ouravodah, being deficient in this area (kefias tovah) is extremely detrimental and destructive. The Ramban explains that the sin of the Generation of Dispersion was their ambition to make a "name for themselves" (v'naaseh lanu sheim). They wished to entirely disconnect themselves from their Creator, something which our Sages tell us was rooted in their negative trait of ingratitude. One who desires to disengage himself from Hashem has in effect stated that he does not wish to recognize and thank his Benefactor for all the goodness and bounty that He bestows. The Generation of Dispersion wished to disconnect the creation from the Creator, and measure for measure Hashem disconnected them from one another by dispersing them throughout the land. 

In contrast, with regard to the miracle of Chanuka we say in al ha'nisim: "And they designated these eight days of Chanuka to give thanks and praise to Your GreatName (l'hodos u'lehallel l'shimcha hagadol). When we give praise to Hashem we show that we are not interested in making "a name" for ourselves, rather, we recognize Hashem and desire to connect ourselves to our Creator. The world is His, and we wish to thank Him for the endless good which He provides us on a daily basis.

The Mashgiach observes that one who thinks that he lives in a world where everything is already here for him and therefore their use is coming to him, cannot see Hashem in the creation. Everything exists solely due to the will of Hashem, and therefore it is as if He is constantly creating yaish mei'ayin (something from nothing). The Sages instituted the recitation of blessings before partaking in worldly pleasures for they wished to make us cognizant of this reality. When we say "borei pree ha'eitz" this allows us to conjure up Hashem's creation of the Earth and the commandment that it should produce vegetation, trees and fruit. Have we not just beheld Hashem's creation of the fruit from complete nothingness?

The avodah of Chanuka is to understand that everything that we have is due entirely to the will of Hashem. How thankful we must be for all the bounty He bestows upon us. With regard to material acquisitions we are told "And you should be happy with all the good that Hashem has given you." How much more so is this true with regard to our spiritual acquisitions. The difference between us and those who do not know the beauty of theTorah, allows us to recognize the greatness of the Torahand thank the Giver for His boundless kindness. Contemplating this concept is a most worthwhile endeavor, especially during the days of Chanuka that were designated for this purpose.

455 - Vayeishev

Yosef was sold into slavery as a teenager and had to fend for himself in the most depraved country of the time. Moreover, his master's wife was extremely determined to seduce him, and day in and day out he had to deal with her advances. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayeishev 39:11) notes that Yosef, who personified the middah of kedusha, was tested specifically in that area. In a similar vein, we find that Avraham, the quintessential baal chessed, was tested with a test that was the antithesis of chessed: sacrificing his own son.

Rav Wolbe informs us (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 35) that this is a phenomenon which occurs even in the twenty-first century. When the yetzer hara attacks fiercely, there is no reason to become dejected or depressed. It is quite possible that from the very attacks of the yetzer hara we can deduce the aspects of avodas Hashem that need improvement. Moreover, his attacks reveal to us the specific area in which, if properly addressed, we have the capacity to achieve perfection. Simple logic dictates that the yetzer hara strikes precisely in the area that a person has the greatest ability to perfect himself. 

This idea is highlighted by Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Tzidkas HaTzaddik 49, 181). He asserts that every person has his own distinct temptations. If one notices that he has an intense desire in a particular area he should know that it is in this very area that he is spiritually equipped to receive Hashem's blessings; if he directs his heart to Him. Moreover, one should be aware that the sin that he has transgressed most often is the exact area ofavodas Hashem in which he can achieve complete integrity! Therefore, Chazal tell us that when one sins with a particular limb, he should rectify that transgression by using that specific limb to perform mitzvos. Such behavior does not merely rectify that specific sin, it also improves the transgressor himself. Each person was created with the purpose of rectifying a different aspect of avodas Hashem which cannot be accomplished by anyone else. Rectifying the sin aids one in fulfilling their purpose in this world. 

Rav Tzadok bequeathed to us the keys to properly relating to ourselves. When the yetzer hara strikes we get embarrassed; our honor was slighted with his attack. We held ourselves in high regard, and the yetzer hara showed us exactly how lowly we really are. Therefore, most people want to simply sweep their failures under the carpet and forget them as fast as possible. However, this is not the correct response for we are in effect unplugging the red warning light so that we shouldn't see it blinking. Rather, we must perceive it as a wakeup call to address the area in which we are destined to achieve greatness.

It is common for people to compare themselves to those around them. "Why can't I get up for Shachris like my friends who jump out of bed like a cannonball?" "How come everyone is progressing in their shemiras halashonand I can't seem to keep my mouth shut?" The answer to these questions is that getting up in the morning orshemiras halashon might not be the aspect of avodas Hashem that those people were created to rectify. Each person has a unique set of challenges. If one pays attention to the voice of the yetzer hara and works on rectifying the deficient areas, then his faults will become the impetus for attaining perfection, and consequently the catalyst for receiving Hashem's great blessings.

454 - Vayishlach

If we were to give a title to this week's parsha, we might call it, "The Guide to Galus." The Ramban (Bereishis 33, 15) writes that Chazal knew through oral transmission that Vayishlach is the parsha of Galus. Thus, every time Rebbi Yannai would travel to Rome to petition the government concerning communal matters, he would first study this parsha. The Torah's description of Yaakov's interaction with Eisav gives us numerous guidelines regarding the way we are to relate to the gentile nations.

As Rashi explains, Yaakov prepared for his encounter with Eisav in three ways. He made an attempt to appease Eisav by sending a generous gift, he prepared for war, and as one must always do along with anyhishtadlus, he offered a prayer to Hashem. Rav Wolbe says (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayishlach 32:4, 9; 33:4, 15) that throughout the generations Klal Yisrael have used monetary pacification as a means of warding off harsh decrees and combating the negative intentions of our enemies. 

Moreover, we find an even greater level of subservience on Yaakov's part, when he finally met Eisav. Eisav ran toward Yaakov and hugged and kissed him. The Seforno tells us exactly what caused Eisav's change of heart: "His feelings changed instantly when he perceived Yaakov's submission. Had the rabble-rousers who lived in the times of the second Bais Hamikdosh acted in similar fashion, the Bais Hamikdosh would not have been destroyed!" It is not easy for a person to lower himself before others, but there is simply no other way to deal with the other nations. Rebelling against them is not in line withthe Torah's dictates. 

As Jews, we have always had to "apologize" to the other nations for being the "Chosen Nation." The realization that Hashem chose us from among all the other nations of the world requires us to appease those who did not merit this designation. This is an idea which really applies to all interpersonal relationships. If someone from a group of friends was appointed to a position of prominence, whenever he finds himself amongst his friends, he should appease them by demonstrating his deference to them.

Yet, despite the presents and displays of submission, when Eisav offered his assistance Yaakov flatly refused. Just before Eisav departed from Yaakov he offered to have some of his henchmen join Yaakov. Yaakov replied, "Why should I find favor in the eyes of my master." The Ramban explains that Yaakov declined since he had no interest whatsoever in them or in their culture. While the child of an American who moves to France will almost indefinitely become part and parcel of the French culture, a Jew must be careful of such a phenomenon. Even when the non-Jews extend a friendly hand as Eisav did, we must decline their assistance and goodwill. Our desire is to live in solitude. Non-Jews certainly have what to offer, but Judaism offers so much more.

When the Ba'al Ha'Tanya returned from a trip to Petersburg he told his Chassidim that Eisav did not fool himself; this world has many beautiful cities and attractions. Nevertheless, Yiddishkeit has so much more to offer. Appreciate being a member of the Creator's handpicked nation, and do not forget to show deference to those who have not merited that appellation!