Category Archives: Parsha

Everyone Gets Saved This Time (Beshalach)

Everyone Gets Saved This Time (Beshalach)

Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains. -Jean Jacques Rousseau

Against all conceivable odds, the tyrannical Egyptian Empire is brought down to its knees by The Ten Plagues and Pharoah finally tells Moses that the Jewish slaves are free to go worship God in the desert as they requested. Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, but with a further destination in mind. The text states that the Children of Israel left Egypt “Chamushim”, normally translated as armed or equipped. However, there is a chilling Midrash that explains the word comes from the root of “Chamesh” which means five, and that the verse is hinting that only a fifth of the Jewish nation left Egypt.

The Midrash asks the reasonable next question that if only one fifth of the Jews left Egypt, what happened to the other four fifths? What happened to eighty percent of the Jewish people in Egypt? The Midrash answers that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish slaves had no interest in leaving Egypt. They refused to accompany Moses into the desert and to freedom. God struck down those four fifths. According to the Midrash, God destroyed those Jews during the plague of Darkness. He used the cover of darkness to hide the fact from the Egyptians. Only twenty percent of the Jewish slaves escaped and accompanied Moses into the desert. Only their children would eventually make it to the Promised Land a generation later.

The story doesn’t end there, however. In a certain sense the Exodus and the redemption from Egypt was a prelude to the future prophesied Messianic redemption. Some have imagined that in that future event there will likewise be a parallel culling of those who “don’t make the cut,” of those who refuse to leave their version of Egypt, however one might define that.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 14:11 states that in the future redemption, as opposed to the Egyptian Exodus, everyone will be included. Every member of the Jewish people will “make the cut.” Every Jew will be included in whatever God has in store for the days of the Messiah. That the Messianic era will be grander, stronger and more powerful than the Egyptian Exodus, not only in its scale, but also in the fact that all Jews will be included this time. The event itself will serve to somehow free or redeem those of us who are still enslaved or unredeemed, one way or another.

May our freedoms and redemptions come soon.

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of my teacher, Rabbi Dr. J. Mitchell Orlian Z”L.

Powerfully Powerless (Bo)

Powerfully Powerless (Bo)

Let not thy will roar, when thy power can but whisper. -Thomas Fuller

Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the most powerful empire of the world in his day. He decided who would live and who would die. He decided who would be wealthy and who would be poor. He decided who would be free and who would be enslaved. It is no wonder that not only was he worshipped as a god, but he even thought of himself as a god.

Enters Moses, the self-proclaimed leader of the lowly slave race of Jews, claiming that there is some unseen God who demands obedience. Pharaoh quickly and cruelly laughs him out of the palace while cracking down even harder on the enslaved Jewish nation.

Moses together with his brother Aaron become the agents of the famed Ten Plagues. Before each series of plagues Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Jewish nation go serve their God. Pharaoh consistently either declines to let them go, or reneges on his promise to let them go after a plague has passed.

Pharaoh is unwilling to bend to the attack of the plagues to the point of ludicrousness and national oblivion. His stubbornness would seem almost comical if it weren’t so devastating. The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 10:2 states (as do a number of other commentators) that after a certain point of Pharaoh hardening his own heart against the Jewish people and not letting them go, that eventually God steps in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart as well to give Pharaoh the strength to continue to resist the onslaught of the plagues. A normal human being, even one as narcissistic and self-adoring as Pharaoh, unaided, would eventually succumb and give in to the divinely ordained plagues and free the Jewish people. God wanted Pharaoh to have the strength to continue to resist until all the plagues had been unleashed.

The Chidushei HaRim adds that God had another reason for giving Pharaoh additional power to withstand the devastation of the plagues. God wanted to show the Jews and the world that there is no power, there is no force, there is no situation that God can’t save the Jewish people from. Even the most powerful man of the most powerful empire, with divinely reinforced stubbornness is as nothing for God to affect salvation when and how He chooses.

May we realize that power is so often just a façade, a temporary mirage.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Webb telescope and all those involved in its planning, construction and launch, including my friend Michael Kaplan, recently interviewed here: https://www.timesofisrael.com/space-is-changing-webb-is-just-the-start-says-ex-israeli-who-was-in-from-its-dawn/

Comfortable Exile (Vaera)

Comfortable Exile (Vaera)

The comfort zone takes our greatest aspirations and turns them into excuses for not bothering to aspire. -Peter McWilliams

The Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptians for centuries. The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 6:6 wonders not so much as to how the Jewish people endured, but how did they leave? He picks out an interesting nuance from the text.

God says to the Jewish nation in Egypt, “And I will take you out from under the labors of Egypt.” The key word in Hebrew is “sivlot” which is commonly translated in this context as “labors.” The Chidushei HaRim reads “sivlot” as bearing, as in they were bearing the pain of Egypt. The verse would then read “And I will take you out from bearing the pain of Egypt.”

The Chidushei HaRim explains that the Jewish people had adjusted to their exile and their enslavement. They had learned to bear it. In a certain sense they had even become comfortable with their slavery. We see multiple indications of that later during the desert journey, when at the first whiff of trouble or challenge or hardship, the people complain and want to go back to Egypt.

God is telling them, “I’m going to make your enslavement unbearable.” And indeed, He does, as Moses’ involvement initially ratchets up Pharoah’s crackdown on the Jewish people. Overnight, the Egyptians stop providing the Jews with straw for the brick production, whilst still demanding that the Jews keep the daily quotas intact. The Jewish people had thought that their enslavement was bearable and didn’t want to rock the boat of their relations with the Egyptians, as we see in the Jewish taskmasters’ complaint about Moses’ intervention. God sets plans in motion to make the enslavement unbearable, to make the Jewish people ready to leave their previously comfortable enslavement.

The Chidushei HaRim stresses that when Jews decide that they can endure exile, if Jews decide that they are not ready to leave the comfort of their golden exile, redemption will never come.

May we always be prepared to transition from comfort to redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Hebrew word of the year — tirlul, translated as “lunacy.”

Unhumble Abdication (Shmot)

Unhumble Abdication (Shmot)

The ability to accept responsibility is the measure of the man. -Roy L. Hunt

Moses encounters God for the first time at the Burning Bush. God calls out to him “Moses, Moses.” Moses responds, “I am here,” (Hineni). The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 3:4 quotes a fascinating Midrash where Moses is responding to the double call by stating “I am here for the call of kingship, I am here for the call of priesthood.” Moses is stating his readiness to accept the roles that God has in store for him (though he does unsuccessfully attempt to get out of confronting Pharaoh later).

The Midrash contrasts Moses’ willingness to accept the tasks God is bequeathing versus Saul’s reticence when he was sought for the kingship. When the prophet Samuel is looking to coronate Saul as King, Saul goes to hide. The Chidushei HaRim ironically looks at Saul’s apparent humility as exactly the opposite – he sees it as a type of arrogance. If God has a job for you, who do you think you are to decline the job? Are you saying you know better than God? Are you saying that God made a mistake? That is what’s implied by Saul’s initial rejection of kingship. It’s not a show of humility but rather the greatest arrogance possible to think one knows better than God.

Moses, on the other hand, at the encounter at the Burning Bush differs from Saul and steps forward. He states “I am here, God, and ready to undertake the missions you ask me to.” Nonetheless, Moses is perhaps the person who argues the most with God and his arguments typically call on God’s mercy. God often does demonstrate mercy, implying that man has the ability to pray to God with an expectation that his prayers can be answered and God’s apparent initial plans can be adjusted and changed.

However, when it comes to a calling, to a mission, to a need of the nation, it behooves the one being called to answer and not hide.

May we know to step up when called upon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 27,050 new immigrants that arrived in Israel in 2021 (including 4,000 from the US – the highest number since 1973).

Jewish Grand Unified Theory (Vayechi)

Jewish Grand Unified Theory (Vayechi)

What ever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man. -Edmund Burke

Jacob is on his deathbed. He assembles all of his sons for his parting words. The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 49:2 looks beyond the obvious convenience of addressing all of his sons at one time and wonders, what is the value of them being present at the same time.

He explains that there are some aspects of the Torah, some secrets of the Torah that can only be understood in a unified gathering. He elaborates that every individual Jew holds the key to understanding a piece of the Torah and the understanding can only be unlocked in a wider gathering. There are parts of the Torah which no person can grasp on their own and they need to be connected and united with other Jews to access that Torah.

But there’s more. That unique part of the Torah that is the personal heritage of an individual Jew is also a blessing. Just like that understanding of the Torah, the blessing is only revealed, is only transformed from potential to reality, when the Jewish people are united.

However, the unification of the Jewish people is not only meant to be a physical, political, or even social unity. For those hidden elements of the Torah to be revealed and for the hidden blessings to come to fruition, it can only happen when the unification is around God. When Jews seek the deepest truths and seek to connect to God, when Jews unite without any other ulterior or distracting motives, the Chidushei HaRim states that is when the deep wellsprings of Torah will be accessible and blessings will abound.

May we indeed reach such levels of unity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my daughter Tiferet’s school, Ulpanat Arad, and their fundraising effort to build a needed building for environmental education. If you’re looking for a good cause, please consider helping Tiferet reach her goal of raising NIS 5,000 (around $1,600) for her school. You can contribute thru this link: https://charidy.com/arad/52562

Saved from Exile (Vayigash)

Saved from Exile (Vayigash)

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. -Vaclav Havel

After twenty-two years of mourning, Jacob discovers that his beloved son Joseph is alive. Not only is Joseph alive, but amid a global famine Joseph is also the Viceroy of Egypt and the man in charge of the world’s supply of grain. Joseph, with Pharaoh’s blessing invites Jacob with his entire family to relocate from Canaan to the land of Goshen, the most attractive area in Egypt.

Jacob leaves Canaan with the whole family. The night that he is about to cross from Canaan into the Egyptian lands God appears to Jacob. God tells Jacob not to worry:

“Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 46:4 wonders as to the unusual phrase that “Joseph’s hand will close your eyes.” Why is that good and how does it comfort Jacob?

He explains that one of the defining aspects of Joseph was his fortitude to withstand the enticement of Potiphar’s wife and to remain holy and dedicated to God’s precepts. Whenever that aspect of Joseph is present among the Jewish people and they find themselves in danger or exile, it is Joseph’s “hand” that will protect and save them. It is the commitment to a higher standard in our relations that will call down a higher level of divine involvement. God in a sense is telling Jacob that Joseph’s strength of character will ensure that his descendants will return to their home from the Egyptian exile.

The concept of family purity, of correct monogamous relationships, of not wreaking havoc on the bonds of marriage invokes Joseph’s great power and merit. That merit affords us an added measure of intervention, of taking us out of the dangers and personal exiles we find ourselves in.

May we cherish the bonds of marriage and merit to be redeemed from our exiles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Gideon Perl zt”l, Rabbi of Alon Shvut and Gush Etzion.

Blessed Limbs (Miketz)

Blessed Limbs (Miketz)

Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will. -Bhagavad Gita

Joseph’s story is perhaps one of the most dramatic and incredible rags-to-riches stories in history. In the space of a few minutes, he goes from being a destitute, abandoned, and imprisoned slave to being the Viceroy of the Egyptian Empire, the mightiest empire on the planet at the time. We can only be amazed at his composure when he is suddenly brought from his dungeon before Pharaoh, the mightiest man on Earth, and all of his advisors and he is asked to decipher Pharaoh’s cryptic dream.

Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dream, predicting the coming years of plenty to be followed by famine. He astutely recommends that Pharaoh should stock the surplus from the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine. He adds that someone should be in charge and bear responsibility for the nationwide effort. Pharaoh and his advisors can’t think of anyone better than Joseph and thus he’s appointed to the position of Pharaoh’s right-hand man.

The language used to describe Joseph’s newly bestowed powers are interesting:

“You shall be in charge of my court, and by your mouth shall all my people be directed.

And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.

Without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 41:40 wonders as to why the Torah refers to various body parts when describing Joseph’s role. Mouth, hand, neck, foot all receive mention. He takes us back to Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and how Joseph resisted her constant seduction. Because Joseph did not sin with any of his body parts, he merited that he should be rewarded through his body parts. The mouth that didn’t kiss Potiphar’s wife would command the Egyptian nation.

Joseph’s strength and control of his limbs purified them and allowed them to be the conduit for great blessings and success.

May we remember who should be in control of our limbs.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Yeshiva University Maccabees’ winning streak. Look them up.

Daily Seductions (Vayeshev)

Daily Seductions (Vayeshev)

The most important of life’s battles is the one we fight daily in the silent chambers of the soul. -David O. McKay

Joseph, who was sold by his brothers as a slave, ends up serving in the house of Potiphar, a powerful minister in Pharaoh’s empire. By biblical accounts, Joseph was extremely handsome and his good looks attracted the attention of Potiphar’s wife who attempted to seduce him on a daily basis.

The Midrash has some fascinating suggestions as to one of Potiphar’s wife’s underlying motivations. The Midrash explains that Potiphar’s wife had some sort of vision that her line and Joseph’s were meant to be joined. Based on that vision, she continuously tried to seduce Joseph. As it turns out, there was some truth to her vision, but she wasn’t the one who was meant to actualize it. Rather that vision was fulfilled years later through her daughter, Osnat, who eventually marries Joseph and gives birth to Potiphar’s wife’s grandchildren.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 39:10 adds, that Joseph likewise had a similar premonition that Potiphar’s wife’s attentions had some divine or prophetic element to it. However, he wasn’t sure if the attention was something he was meant to act on or not. He wasn’t sure if the attraction of Potiphar’s wife came from his good inclination or his evil inclination.

However, when he saw that her seduction was a daily occurrence, he understood that the evil inclination was pushing this relationship. The Chidushei HaRim states that when the good inclination tries to persuade us to do something, it pushes once. If we don’t seize that good initiative or opportunity, it will seldom present itself again. However, the evil inclination attempts to entice us daily. When Potiphar’s wife accosted Joseph every day, it became clear that it was really the evil inclination at work.

May we stand strong in front of our daily temptations and take advantage of the fleeting opportunities to do the right thing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To giving thanks. It should be a daily exercise.

Your Money or Your Soul (Vayishlach)

Your Money or Your Soul (Vayishlach)

Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming. -Matthew Arnold

Jacob has spent twenty long years in the service of his father-in-law, Laban, in the town of Haran. He finally leaves, takes his four wives and twelve children with him, and makes his way back to Canaan and his father’s home. On the return trip, however, he needs to contend with his brother Esau. This is the brother from whom Jacob had stolen their father’s blessings and who as a result had planned to murder Jacob, which led to Jacob’s fleeing to Haran in the first place.

Jacob had every reason to suspect that Esau would still bear a grudge and plan to do him harm once he was again within Esau’s grasp. In an attempt to reconcile with his brother, Jacob sends word ahead to Esau of his return to Canaan. As part of his message, Jacob informs Esau of his wealth: “I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves.”

He is informed that Esau is on his way to greet him, together with 400 warriors. Jacob fears for himself and his family. One of his tactics, to hopefully appease Esau, is to send him lavish and extensive gifts of multiple flocks of all variety of domesticated animals, which included 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses; together with their accompanying herdsmen servants.

Jacob’s efforts are successful and the meeting of the brothers is a peaceful one. The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 32:6, however, wonders as to why Jacob is informing Esau of his wealth. The entirety of Jacob’s message could be summarized as follows: “Hi Esau, I’ve been by our uncle Laban all these years. I’m wealthy. I hope we can get along.” It seems like an unusual message to a brother with whom Jacob hasn’t been in touch in twenty years and whom he suspects of murderous intentions.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that there was a deeper meaning in Jacob talking about his wealth. He was in essence putting the wealth out there as a target and saying if you need to hurt me, hurt my property, hurt my material belongings, but don’t touch my soul. He goes on to quote King David who used a similar approach when he stated “spread a table for me in full view of my enemies.” His meaning is that his enemies should focus on David’s material possessions and not his inner world.

May we remember what’s enduring and what’s fleeting, what’s important and what’s secondary.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the return of tourism. Let’s hope it continues.

Powerful Vows (Vayetze)

Powerful Vows (Vayetze)

A vow is fixed and unalterable determination to do a thing, when such a determination is related to something noble which can only uplift the man who makes the resolve. -Mahatma Gandhi

Jacob is on the run. He is escaping his home in the land of Canaan from the murderous intent of his brother Esau. En route, he sleeps in a place that afterward will be named Bet El (House of God) where he has a dream. In the dream, he sees a ladder that reaches the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. God speaks to Jacob from the top of the ladder. God promises Jacob that He’ll protect Jacob on his journey, bring him back home safely, and guarantees him the land and great progeny.

Jacob wakes from the dream, and he is in such awe of the event that he vows that God will be his God and that he’ll tithe all of his gains to God.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 28:20 examines the phenomena of making a vow. The Torah and Jewish Law take vows very seriously. The consensus is that vows should generally be avoided, but if made, they are legally binding and must be upheld.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that Jacob made the vow to bind himself closer to God. He had just experienced a divine revelation. He felt enormously close to God, but he knew the feeling wouldn’t last. In that moment of divine closeness, in that moment of spiritual clarity, Jacob makes a vow. The intent of the vow is to find an additional way, another mechanism to keep himself bound to God even when the effects of the momentary clarity dissipate. The Chidushei HaRim states that Jacob pioneered this approach and opened the door for his descendants, the Jewish nation, to similarly bind themselves to God through positive vows during those moments of divine proximity. Such a vow can be extremely powerful.

He further adds that the angels in Jacob’s dream were dancing. They dance as a result of our good deeds. If we were to realize the tremendous impact our good deeds and divine service have in both this world and in the upper worlds, we would never cease them.

May we always resolve to do the right things, whether we vowed or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Israeli government finally having a budget.