Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dvar Torah for Va'eira

The main theme of this week’s parshah is without a doubt the Ten Makkos (plagues). The plagues were Hashem’s way of punishing the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews and to show everyone (Jews included) who was truly ruler of the world.
Some of the makkos ended when Paroh asked Moshe to daven to Hashem. Most times Paroh did not ask for Moshe to daven and instead let the makkos run their course and end on their own. I would like to go into each one of the makkos and try to explain why Paroh only asked Moshe to daven by certain ones and not by all of them. Another interesting point is that the Torah uses different words to describe Moshe’s tefillah (prayer) by each makkah. I would like to explore each situation and try to find the differences between each tefillah.
First of all, there were three makkos where it was not necessary for Paroh to ask Moshe to daven: דֶּבֶר the animal epidemic, חשך darkness, and מכת בכורות the death of the firstborn. By דֶּבֶר and מכת בכורות, they only lasted an instant, there wasn’t any time for Paroh to ask Moshe to daven. The makkah of חשך lasted six days. The first three days it was dark but they could see enough to move around, so there was no need for Paroh to beg Moshe for anything. The second three days, it was so dark that they could not move, so Paroh could not have found Moshe to ask him! So the question is only by the other seven. How come Paroh asked Moshe for help by the makkos of צפרדע frogs, ערוב wild animals, ברד hail, and ארבה locusts, and not by דם blood, כינים lice, and שחין boils?
I would like to answer this question and the question of why Moshe’s tefillos are described differently by each makkah with my own idea (if I may).
Let’s start with the second question first. By צפרדע, Paroh asks Moshe to daven for the makkah to end. As Moshe leaves Paroh’s house, as it says in the pasuk, “…וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הֹוָ־ה עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים” “…And Moshe cried out to Hashem concerning the frogs…”.(8:8) The midrash explains that Moshe cried out for the frogs who were sacrificing their lives for Hashem’s glory by throwing themselves into baking ovens and down the throats of the Egyptians in order to cause them as much pain as possible. It was for these frogs that were giving their lives’ to prove Hashem’s dominance that Moshe davened, not for Paroh.
The next time Moshe davened was the makkah of ערוב. The word the pasuk uses to describe Moshe’s davening is “וַיֶּעְתַּר”, which is a normal language of tefillah. (This, by the way, is the word Paroh uses to ask Moshe to daven for him each time.) Moshe felt no pressure to pray any harder for Paroh’s benefit like he had earlier for the frogs. Therefore, he prayed a “normal” tefillah in order to get rid of the animals.
By the makkah of ברד, the pasuk says that Moshe left the city before he started praying and that the extent of his prayers were, “וַיִּפְרֹשׂ כַּפָּיו אֶל יְ־הֹוָ־ה” “And he (Moshe) stretched out his hands to Hashem…”(9:33), and right away the hail stopped! Why was so little effort required? Mitzrayim was a place full of witchcraft and idol worship. Because of that, Moshe had to concentrate harder to make his tefillos heard. However, once he left the city, for a man as great as Moshe, it was a simple matter of spreading his hands in preparation for prayer to make his prayers heard.
The makkah of ארבה is similar to the makkah of ערוב. Moshe was in no rush for the makkah to end, so he took his time and davened his regular tefillah to Hashem. Plus, he prayed in Egypt, which as we said made it harder for Moshe to concentrate.
So why did Paroh ask for Moshe to daven by these four and not by the other three? The pasuk says by דם, “וַיַּחְפְּרוּ כָל מִצְרַיִם סְבִיבֹת הַיְאֹר מַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת” “And the Egyptians dug around the river for water to drink…” (7:24). According to some opinions, they actually did find drinkable water. If this was the case, Paroh had water and did not need to ask Moshe to stop the plague. A second possible answer is that the Egyptians could buy water from the Jews and therefore did not need to ask for the plague to end.
To answer for the plagues of כינים and שחין you could say that these two were different because these were the only two makkos which Paroh’s magicians could not preform. When Paroh saw this, he decided that it was worth the pain of the plague rather than be embarrassed by his magician’s ineptitude in front of Moshe.
The reason Paroh did ask by the other four is simply because they did not fulfill any of these problems and he therefore had no problem asking Moshe for help.
Shabbat Shalom!    

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dvar Torah for Parshas Shemos

With thanks to Aron Hertz.   

In comparison to Sefer Bereishis which is known as ספר היצירה, the Sefer of Creation, Sefer Shemos is described by the Ramban as ספר המעשה, the Sefer of Accomplishments. This is because while Bereishis tells the story of the Avos who solidified the creation of the world through their actions, Sefer Shemos tells the story of the practical application of the Avos’ efforts by their descendants. What is this application? The acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people and the performance of those mitzvos in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, the sefer starts from when the Jews are slaves in Egypt and ends with them having accepted the Torah, traveling towards Eretz Yisrael, and building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), whose whole purpose was that Hashem should dwell amongst the Jewish people. Hashem’s filling the world with his presence is a fitting end for the sefer dealing with the application of creation.
    One of the big events in this week’s parshah is Moshe’s appointment as God’s messenger to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. When Moshe faces the burning bush and is told his mission, he is very reluctant to go. His first excuse is, “מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם” “Who am I that I should go to Paroh and that I should take the Jews out of Egypt?”(3:11). Moshe feels that he is not an important enough person to stand in front of the King. His second excuse is, “הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם” “(Moshe says to Hashem) Behold, I will come to Bnei Yisrael and I will say to them ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’, and they will say ‘What is his name?’ What should I answer them?”(3:13). Moshe is not sure what attribute of God he should attribute his mission too. If he cannot name the aspect of God he is associated with, the Jews will not believe in his mission. And his final complaint is, “וְהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי” “They will not believe me and they will not listen to me (that Hashem appeared to me)” (4:1). Moshe’s last ditch effort to get out of this job is to tell Hashem that the Bnei Yisrael simply won’t believe him!
     In the pesukim between Moshe’s claims, Hashem is continuously telling him more aspects of the mission and assuring Moshe that he will be successful. (Moshe is punished for this by not having the Kehunah (priesthood) come through his children, but rather from his brother Aharon’s.) Eventually, Hashem decides to give Moshe three signs to show the Jews should they believe him. The three signs are: 1) Moshe’s staff turns into a snake and then back into a staff (This sign was also later used in front of Paroh), 2) Moshe was stricken with tzaraas (best translated as leprosy), 3) Moshe changed water from the Nile into blood. The question is what is the significance of each of the three signs and why did he need to give three?
    Rashi explains that since Moshe said Lashon Hara about the Bnei Yisrael (4:1) by saying that they wouldn’t believe him, Hashem gave him signs that correspond to Lashon Hara. These are the snake, the symbol of Lashon Hara, and the tzaraas which is the punishment for Lashon Hara. The sign of the blood is a preface to the ten plagues which will start with the plague of blood.
    Why Moshe received three signs I believe is because of the nature of each of the three complaints. The first complaint is that Moshe is not worthy to appear before Paroh, so Hashem gives him the sign of turning the Nile into blood. The Nile, the god of the country of Egypt, controlled the destiny of the entire country. By giving Moshe control over the Nile, Hashem showed that Moshe could go to Paroh and have complete control of the events.
    The second complaint is that Moshe is going to go to the Jews with no identity for his mission. The key to this is Moshe’s staff. According to the medrash, Moshe’s staff belonged to Yosef before him and Yaakov before Yosef! This was the same staff that Yaakov used in Lavan’s house (see parshas vayeitzei)! This was an ancient Jewish artifact that all Jews would recognize. If Moshe could bring the staff and prove that this was the famous staff belonging to Yaakov Avinu, of course they would believe him! By changing the staff into a snake, he proved that this was a very special staff.
    The third complaint was the worst one yet, that Bnei Yisrael just would not believe that he spoke to Hashem. This is taken care of by his having tzaraas, a sickness that only comes from Hashem. Ironically for Moshe, and thankfully for us, the Jews had absolutely no problem believing Moshe even without the signs.      
Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dvar Torah for Vayechi

This week’s parshah ends off Sefer Bereishis, the first of five parts of the Torah. When Yaakov realizes he is going to die soon he prepares his children for life in Egypt and beyond by blessing each one of them. These blessings were tailored for each one of Yaakov’s sons according to his strengths and needs. Not only were these blessings given to the brother’s themselves, the entire future of each shevet (tribe) is based on the brachos from Yaakov. For example, Yissachar’s brachah compares him to a donkey, an animal which can handle heavy loads. This is in reference to the heavy load of Torah study which was Yissachar’s main responsibility. Dan’s brachah compares him to a snake which bites a horse’s heal and causes the rider to fall off and die without the snake even touching him. This is in reference to Dan’s descendant, Shimshon (Samson), who killed the Plishtim (Philistines) by knocking over the support beams for their marketplace; killing many without even directly touching them.
Not all the brachos seem to have such nice references though. Reuven, Shimon, and Levi’s brachos all seem to be critical instead of praiseworthy. By Reuven, Yaakov says, “פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר” “(You were) Hasty like water, do not take more (You shall not be superior)” (49:4). Yaakov tells Reuven that because he was hasty in moving Yaakov’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s tent after Rachel’s death (see Vayishlach [35:22]), he lost out on his status as firstborn. This meant losing his double portion in the land of Israel and his right to be the Kohen (Priest) in the Beis Hamikdash to Yosef and Levi, respectfully.
By Shimon and Levi, it sounds even worse. “שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל” “Shimon and Levi are brothers, stolen tools are their weapons. Into their plans, may my soul not enter! Let my honor not join in their congregation. For in their rage they killed a man and in their wish, they hamstrung an ox. Cursed is their anger for it is mighty, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will divide them in Yaakov, and I will disperse them in Israel. (49:5-7)”. Rashi explains that at various times in history, descendants of Shimon and Levi will perform acts that Yaakov has no wish to be associated with. These are the story of Korach of Shevet Levi (Bamidbar 16), and Zimri of Shevet Shimon (Ibid.25). This is what is meant by “Into their plans, may my soul not enter! Let my honor not join in their congregation.” They killed a man, Shechem, and they hamstrung an ox when they sold Yosef ( who is compared to an ox in his brachah). Then, Yaakov curses them! It certainly appears as if these three brothers did not get a nice sendoff from their father.
This would be hard enough to understand without this pasuk written after the brachos are finished. “כָּל אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם…” “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them…” Rashi asks the obvious question; how can the pasuk say that Yaakov blessed all twelve, there are some whom he did not bless? One answer is that even though each brother received his own blessing, all the blessings really went on all the brothers. Rashi also answers that it must be that the rebuke which Reuven, Shimon, and Levi received was really a brachah.  
So what’s the brachah over here? The Ohr HaChaim explains how this works. Until the sin of the golden calf, the first-borns of the Jews were supposed to perform all of the tasks in the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash. After the sin, Hashem took it away from them and gave it to Shevet Levi, the only ones not to sin with the golden calf. However, there is a Chazal that in the times of mashiach, the first-borns will serve alongside the Leviim. Says the Ohr HaChaim, the main part of Yaakov’s blessing to Reuven was calling him his first-born! In 49:3, the pasuk says “רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה” “Reuven, you are my first-born”, and then Yaakov proceeds to rebuke him. But even though Yaakov says here how Reuven will lose his first-born rights, he still calls him his first-born! Reuven will benefit from this at the end of days even though now it seems as if he is being rebuked. (This shows us even more the value of Yaakov buying the bechora [first-born rights] from Eisav, that even in the times of mashiach, Eisav will have no right to serve in the Beis Hamikdash.)
 If you read the brachah by Shimon and Levi carefully, you will notice that Yaakov does not curse them, rather he curses their anger. This in it of itself is a blessing, this is exactly what Shimon and Levi needed in order to grow to their greatest potential, which is the main point of all the brachos.
May we all be zoche to fulfill the full potential of the brachos which Yaakov gave to our forefathers which have matriculated down to us, in order to serve Hashem in the best possible way.
Shabbat Shalom!  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dvar Torah for Vayigash

This week’s parshah is dominated by the drama of Yosef finally revealing his true identity to his brother’s. For Yaakov, this was the impossible dream come true. His long thought dead, beloved son was alive! Can we imagine what such a reunion must have been like? Lucky for us, the torah documents the entire scene.
In Perek 46, Pasuk 29, right at the beginning of Shishi (sixth aliyah), it says, “…וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל צַוָּארָיו עוֹד” “…And he (Yaakov) appeared to him (Yosef) and he (Yosef) fell on his neck, and he (Yosef) wept on his (Yaakov) neck for a long time.” There is a famous question: how come Yosef fell on Yaakov’s neck and cried while Yaakov has seemingly no reaction whatsoever? Not exactly the reaction we were expecting!
Rashi brings a very famous midrash which explains that Yaakov was saying Shema when Yosef came. He couldn’t stop in the middle, so Yosef was left to cry by himself. The very next pasuk shows Yaakov’s true reaction, “וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי” “And Yisrael said to Yosef, ‘Now I can die since I have seen your face and you are still alive.” Yaakov also had a very emotional reunion, however, his reaction was a little delayed since he was in the middle of saying Shema.
The Sifsei Chachamim has a problem with this midrash. If it was now the time to say Shema, how come Yosef wasn’t saying Shema along with Yaakov? He also has an obligation to say Shema at a certain time, so how come he was not saying it at this time as well? The first answer is that Yosef was in the middle of the mitzvah of כיבוד אב, honoring his father. We have a rule that if you are in the middle of preforming one mitzvah, you are not obligated to fulfill another mitzvah in the meantime. Since Yosef was in the middle of כיבוד אב, he did not have to say Shema at that time.
A second answer we say is based on a gemarah in Brachos (13b). The gemarah explains that if someone is טרוד, loosely translated as “busy”, they are excused from reading the entire Shema and fulfill their obligation with just the first verse of שמע ישראל ה' אלוהינו ה' אחד. For example, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, also known as Rebbi, the author of Mishnayos, never said more than the first verse of Shema since he was constantly involved with teaching his students. So to by Yosef, he was completely involved with running Egypt and now was involved in כיבוד אב, so he did not have time to say more than the first verse. Therefore, he finished Shema long before Yaakov did, and started crying while Yaakov was still finishing up.
Still, it is a little strange that Yaakov decided to start saying Shema right now. His beloved son, whom he has not seen in over twenty years, is on the way to see him! How can he all of a sudden decide to say Shema now? He will still have time to say it afterwards? There are a few different answers, however, I would like to see if I can take one from the Ramban. In order to answer a separate question, the Ramban brings up a point from last week’s parshah that the brothers did not recognize Yosef since they had not seen him for 22 years. Yaakov, with his bad eyesight (he was 130 years old!), couldn’t recognize Yosef either! I would like to take this point for this question as well. Yaakov did not recognize that Yosef was there, so he decided to start saying Shema. In the meantime, Yosef arrives and immediately embraces him.
Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dvar Torah for Chanukah

We are told that the origin of the name “חנוכה” comes from the phrase, “חנו-כה” “they rested on the 25th”, referring to when the Jews in the desert finished working on the Mishkan (Tabernacle) on the 25th of Kislev, the same day that the miracle of Chanukah took place one thousand years later. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev in his sefer, Kedushas Levi, asks why this is worthy to name a holiday after? If this is the reason, why didn’t they call Purim “חנו-יד” since the Jews rested on the 14th day of Adar?
Reb Levi Yitzchak explains that first we must understand what the purpose of a chag is. There is a concept in kabbalah that time does not go in a straight line, but rather in a circle. This means that whenever Rosh Hashanah comes around, the events and miracles that happened on previous Rosh Hashanahs are brought to light again. The same is true with Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, and the rest of the chagim. Whenever we light the Chanukah candles, all the miracles that happened to the Chashmonaim are “revealed” to us.
So how come certain miracles were picked as holidays and not others? For instance, why didn’t the Rabbanan decide to commemorate the miracle of Sancheireb (see Sanhedrin 94) or Sisrah (see sefer Shoftim Perek 3)? The answer is that only miracles which had an effect on our good character were picked. These miracles are the ones strong enough to be renewed by us every year on their anniversary. However, these other miracles happened without us having to undergo any major character changes, so they won’t have as much power.
This, by the way, will answer a halachic question. The brachah, “שעשה ניסים לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה” “…who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, in these times”, is a little strange. How come it sounds as if the miracle is still continuing? It should read, “ובזמן הזה” “and in these times”? According to this, the reason is because the miracles are still in effect until this very day!
In summary, every year on the anniversary of an important miracle, we celebrate because in reality, that day is really the renewing of the same miracle many years later. Based on this, the Kedushas Levi answers that since Chanukah is the first chag after Rosh Hashanah (and Succos, but he includes all the Tishrei- Chagim together), it has an additional point of renewing the entire year full of miracles. The word “חנוכה” is the same as “חנוכת”, which means dedication or inauguration. Because this chag dedicates the whole year of holidays, it is called “חנוכה”.
May we all work this Chanukah to make it truly the beginning of a new year of miracles, where the anniversaries of these great events are renewed nowadays and we will have the same hashgachah today as we did then.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!