Category Archives: Parsha

Names and Redemption: Shemos 5770

This week’s parsha begins with the phrase,ואלא שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה, “these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Mitzrayim”. Since the arrival of the bnei yisrael in Mitzrayim was already mentioned only six chapters before this one, it seems superfluous to repeat the idea as if was never stated.

Why does the Torah have to say this here?

The Ramban explains that this first verse in Shemos is actually a direct continuation from the topic begun earlier in Bereishis. There, we are told that, “Israel dwelled in the land of Mitzrayim, in the land of Goshen. They had a portion in it, were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” This sounds very positive. However, the Kli Yakar informs us that the verse is telling us something very negative. Despite the Jews’ original intention to live temporarily in Mitzrayim, i.e. for the duration of the famine, they became so ensconced there that G-d had to forcefully take them out with a “strong hand”.

A few verses later, in Parshas Vayechi, we read that after Yaakov Avinu passed away, the eyes of the Bnei Yisrael “closed” to their own pilght; they became unaware, like the mice in a mine shaft who cannot detect the subtle changes in the quality of the air available to them—until it is too late. What does this mean? It means that the golus Mitzrayim (the Egyptian exile) began way before a “new king arose in Mitzrayim” and enslaved the Jews; it began when everything was prosperous. But the eyes of Israel being closed also implies that whatever happened during the 210 years after the twelve tribes arrival in Mitzrayim was essentially tangential.

The Ramban refers to the book of Shemos as Sefer Galus v’Geulah—the book of exile and redemption. Not simply, “Exodus”, which refers only to leaving Egypt, but also geulah, being redeemed. It’s not enough to leave; you have to be redeemed. Leaving Egypt did not make us free. We did not only gain freedom from the enslavement of Egypt; we went towards the awesome responsibility of being servants of Hashem.

Exile, says the Ramban, would not be concluded until the Jews returned to their place and to the spiritual level of the forefathers. This was achieved through the milestones of Har Sinai and the building of the Mishkan, which created the context for an indwelling of the Shechinah. True redemption.

By dint of the fact that this section of the Torah has two names, “Shemos” and “Sefer Galus v’Geulah”, the Ramban is telling us that there is an intrinsic connection between names and redemption.

The Midrash tells us that one of the things that the bnei yisrael did not change while enslaved in Egypt was their names. This continued for the entire 210 year period of their servitude. If you stop to think about this for a second, very few of us can claim that type of Jewish continuity for that length of time, no matter where our families come from. Even in this country, where the language is Hebrew, many people do not have traditional Jewish names.

What is a name?

There are many views on this topic. Here, the words of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlit”a, are precise. The words shem and sham are interrelated. First of all, they have the exact same shoresh—even the same letters. What is the difference between sham and shem? We use the word sham to indicate where something is located or contained. In fact, the word shamayim is simply a plural form of the word sham; shamayim is the ultimate sham, the totality of sham. There can be no more sham-ness than the seemingly endless shamayim. Shem, on the other hand, is a word that indicates both the content of an item and its purpose.

Consider another word: shomem, which means both astonishing and desolate. When we describe a place in this way, we mean that there is no content and no purpose there; it is the exact opposite of shem. And it just so happens that the word Mitzrayim has the same gematria (numerical value) as the word shomem (380). Later in the parsha, when Paro is first told to release the bnei yisrael so that they could serve G-d, his response is, תכבד את העבודה על האנשים ויעשו בה ואל יעשו בדברי שקר, “increase the workload on these people, and keep them busy, and do not let them busy themselves with falsehood”. As if to say that the prescription for our lives was to be slaves, to work purposelessly for the duration of our miserable lives, without any deeper meaning. That is Mitzrayim. The Ramchal says that Paro’s response is the classic technique of the yetzer hara: keep the guy busy, so busy that he never has time or energy to take stock of his life.

Why was it so important for the bnei yisrael to retain their names?

A name tells us about the essential purpose and mission of the person to whom it belongs. The fact that the Sefer Galus v’Geulah begins with the names teaches us that people of the tribes of Israel, because of their names, were able to remember their mission even in the darkest stages of exile and slavery. The Midrash goes through each name, from Reuven to Binyamin, describing how each relates to the essence of that tribe, its tachlis, and a different aspect of geulah.

This applies each of us. When life seems purposeless, when we do not clearly sense our place in the world, we experience golus , exile, on a personal level. But that name brings us back; it tells us that we are needed in this world, that we each have a mission and a contribution to make. Sometime, a long time ago, we were welcomed into this world by our parents, and they delivered this message to us, the most affirming message possible: we wanted you here, and we have called you by name!

The Midrash tells us that this is precisely how Hashem feels about each one of us. שקולים הם ישראל כצבא השמים נאמר כאן שמות ונאמר בכוכבים שמות שנאמר מונה מספר לכוכבים לכוכם שמות יקרא, “Israel is like the stars in Heaven; here the verse mentions names, and there regarding stars, the verse mentions names”. מנא מספרם כמה היו ולפי שהם משולים לכוכבים קרא שמות לכולם, “He counted how many of them there were, and because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them.” I couldn’t figure out this Midrash; because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them? Are we being told that, just like Hashem knows about each star, He knows about each Jew? There would not be much of a chiddush here; He created everything, after all!

Rather, as Rashi statesלהודיע חבתן שנמשלו לכוכבים שמוציאן ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם שנאמר המוציא במספר צבאם לכלם בשם יקרא, “the Torah tells us here to inform us that we are beloved to Hashem; Israel is compared to the stars, as the verse states, ‘Who takes out the stars by the number of their host, He calls each one by name'”.

Why are stars so important?

The Malbim tells us, regarding that verse in Yeshaya, כל אחד יש לו שם מיוחד על פי פעולתו, “each one has a special name, in accordance with its purpose.” Now, we can understand the comparison, because each one of us has a unique name that hints at the awesome, unique mission each one of us has. And Hashem counts each one of us.

One other point: stars have a special quality of being points of light against the dark background of space. They glow even in the ultimate darkness, all the time. This is like klal yisrael, who, by tapping into the power of a name, are able to find light in the darkest moments, sparks of geulah that remind us that the true geulah is on its way, bimheira v’yameinu amen!

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Clarity: Parshas Vayeitzei

This parsha contains two Aramaic words: yagar sahadusa.  These words were spoken by Lavan HaArami, the father in-law of Yaakov Avinu.  The Aramaic language is unique in the sense that it is a gateway between the Holy Tongue and all other languages.  It seems that Torah must pass through this gateway; it has never been directly translated in such a manner that the translation retained its actual meaning.

In Likutei Moharan 1:19,  Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains that Aramaic, or Lashon Targum, as it is also known, is conceptually related to the concept of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Aramaic functions as a conduit between the holy and the mundane.  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is understood on a mystical level to mean an admixture of objective good and evil; eating of its fruit caused knowledge of both to meld together.  Man can no longer separate between the two; he now only has his subjective opinions about what is desirable and undesirable to guide him.

In a deep sense, our job in this world is to peel good and evil apart again, to discern one from the other, elevate the good, and destroy the evil.  This is one of the reasons why we lift the kiddush cup during kiddush.  There is an opinion that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the grape.  Wine, the product of the grape, has the ability to either expand the mind (when used in moderation) or to dismantle one’s human stature.  It can go either way, like Aramaic.  By lifting up the cup, we demonstrate that we have power over it and not the reverse.

Lavan is a very complex personality.  He is called “Lavan”, which means “white”, which would indicate straightforwardness and truthfulness.  Yet, he is also Lavan HaArami, the Aramean, the letters of which can be rearranged to mean “the liar”.  A person like this revels in lack of clarity, misunderstandings, unclear, cunning communication.  And don’t be fooled into thinking that we stand on the sidelines hissing at this bad guy–each one of us has this trait.  If we didn’t, the Torah would not spend so much time on Lavan.  He referred to the pile of stones designated as a mark of covenant between himself and Yaakov by the Aramaic term Yagar Sahadusa.  He made his oath in the name of the G-d of Avraham–seemingly to satisfy Yaakov Avinu and appear kosher.  Yet, he then adds “the god of Nachor” to the oath, indicating that he still placed his trust in the idol worshipped by Avraham Avinu’s forebears. And even if he didn’t, he needed the duality, the option to go this way or that.

But Yaakov Avinu only referred to the pile as Gal Eid, in the Holy Tongue, and would only make an oath in the name of the G-d of Yitzchak Avinu.  For Yaakov Avinu, who was the vehicle for G-d’s attribute of Emes (Truth), there was no other way but true and clear. He would accept no duality, even if it would cost him the opportunity to ingratiate himself to the other party, as diplomats do. And make no mistake, at the moment of this exchange, this was the highest level diplomatic negotiation taking place in the world, not between Carter and Brezhnev, but between two people representing the side of holiness and the sitra achra. This was the defining moment for Yaakov Avinu. And he would accept no duality. Because there is only One. Truth is singular.

I believe that life is also about clarifying, clarifying the good from the bad, making that which is unclear clear, and emerging with or at least moving towards a defined sense of meaning where there was previously an entropic mess, an existential vaccuum.  Our lives become healthier both spiritually and emotionally when the proper boundaries are in place, when we are able to tune in to the actual task that stands before us, and the context of our lives is truth.  When we accomplish this we are able to stand at the gateway where all opposites meet, and remain on the side of clarity and holiness, like Yaakov Avinu.

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The Old-New Path: Parshas Toldos

Rabbi Dessler, in his legendary sefer Michtav M’Eliyahu, gives us a very keen insight on parenting from this week’s parsha. There is an idea that the Seven Shepherds–Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak Avinu, Yaakov Avinu, Moshe Rabbenu, Aharon HaKohen, Yosef HaTzaddik and Dovid HaMelech–became the vehicles, as it were, for the various attributes of the guiding power of this world as G-d arranged it. Even if you are not familiar with the layout of the kabbalistic sefiros, you can understand something about these sefiros from the content of the parshios in Bereshis.

For example, Avraham Avinu, though his life, was the chariot of the Divine attribute of Chesed (Lovingkindness); he manifested this attribute through all of his actions. We have a principle from our Sages’, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, the deeds of the forefathers are signs for the children. We, as the children of these people, must look to Avraham Avinu as the paragon of chesed if we want to learn what it is and how to do it.

Yitzchak Avinu, by contrast, became the vehicle for the attribute of Gevurah (Might, Severity or Restaint) which is also referred to as Din (Judgement). Gevurah seems like the polar opposite of Chesed; Chesed bestows kindness in a limitless way, whereas Gevurah comes to limit that kindness and ensure that it is conferred in a just manner, but this, in turn, actually maximizes the impact of Chesed and insures that its effects are beneficial. Gevurah is also the root of discipline, self-restraint and self-transcendence, which are key tools of the pathway towards holiness. Gevurah is what is required to suppress and fight against one’s yetzer hara (evil urge), as we find in the Mishna, “Who is considered mighty (gibor)? One who conquers his evil urge.” These were the character traits of Yitzchak Avinu.

One can ask the question, why did Yitzchak Avinu decide that his life’s work would be in an area that was distinct from that of his father? After all, Avraham Avinu was the greatest tzaddik of his time; it might have been more logical to emulate him and continue in his path of building Chesed in the world.

Here, Rabbi Dessler brings a thought from the Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv zt”l. In the Midrash we find that, when Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imenu involved themselves in intense prayer to facilitate Rivka’s ability to conceive (after years of barrenness), G-d granted them this desire, but only in the merit of the prayer of Yitzchak Avinu. Chazal explain that this is because the prayer of a righteous person born of a righteous father is greater than the prayer of a righteous person born of a wicked father. What, in this case, made Yitzchak Avinu’s prayer greater than Rivka Imenu’s prayer? Lineage alone?

Rather, what gave Yitzchak Avinu’s prayer its particular effectiveness was that it came as a result of a dimension of spiritual accomplishment that Yitzchak Avinu possessed. Having been born to the greatest tzaddikim in the world–Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imenu–Yitzchak Avinu could have fallen back upon his education, upbringing and good habits that had been reinforced throughout his formative years to coast through a holy life as if on autopilot. Instead, he built upon these endowments in a very unique way, by transcending them and striking out on his own, serving G-d by opening the gates of Gevurah in this world. This was a unique path that Yitzchak Avinu had cleared himself, as it were. This is much harder to do, explain Chazal, than to leave an evil, idolatrous family for a life of holiness, as Rivka Imenu did.

I think that what we can learn from this perspective, as I have said before, is that we have to empower our children to use the gifts we give them to be the choosers, the architects of their own holy destinies as people.

In parshas Lech Lecha, we see that, at the end of the wars of the kings, which Avraham Avinu’s forces had successfully brought to an end, Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine to commemorate the war’s end. Bread and wine, in order to be the best that they can be, need to adhere to certain criteria. Bread must be new and fresh, whereas wine must be aged. This also applies to the making of a person; we as parents must give our children a mesorah, a tradition of Torah that is as aged as Creation itself, and has stood the test of time. Simultaneously, we need to teach our beneficiaries to live this mesorah in a way that is as fresh and new as bread.

Good Shabbos!

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