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Parashat Chayei Sarah – Sarah’s Outcry

Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Sarah’s Outcry

In the midst of the unspeakable horror that was the Warsaw Ghetto, a holy fire continued to burn bright. This ember was Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piasetzner Rebbe, who served as the spiritual leader and father to thousands of adherents until his murder by the Nazis. His powerful sermons of the war years are preserved in Esh Kodesh, a work with an astonishing backstory. When it became apparent to the Piasetzner that the ghetto would be liquidated, he buried the book manuscript in a canister. The canister was miraculously unearthed by Polish construction workers after the war, and the book was first published in Israel in 1960.

In a remarkable teaching, written amidst unfathomable anguish, the Piasetzner Rebbe addressed the great challenge of continued faith in God’s justice in the face of terrifying and agonizing adversity. He began with the opening verse of Parashat Chayei Sarah: “The years of Sarah’s life were one hundred and twenty-seven years, the years of Sarah’s life” (Genesis 23:1). Why the repetitive phrase “the years of Sarah’s life” at the end of the verse?

The rebbe explained that the repetition is a sign of her extreme, lifelong piety which surpassed even Avraham’s. When the years of Avraham’s life are later tallied (Genesis 25:7), there is no such repetition. Sarah’s faith and devotion were unparalleled, even in her final moments on this earth.

The Piasetzner Rebbe quoted Rebbe Menachem Mendel Torem of Rimanov (1745–1815) on the comparison drawn in the Talmud between salt and suffering, based on the Torah’s use of the word berit, “covenant,” with each. Just as salt sweetens the meat by bringing out its flavor, so too suffering sweetens the putrid sins of man. Rebbe Menachem Mendel furthered the analogy. Salt is only a taste enhancer when applied proportionately – too much salt spoils the meat. Similarly, suffering must be diluted with mercy so that it is proportionate and does not crush a person.

Rashi tells us that the juxtaposition of Sarah’s death at the beginning of Parashat Chayei Sarah with the Akedah in Parashat Vayera is indicative of a causal link. Sarah died after hearing that her only son had been bound like a sacrifice and almost slaughtered. In the rebbe’s words:

Our master Moshe, the faithful shepherd, juxtaposed the death of Sarah to Akedat Yitzhak, in order to advocate for us and to demonstrate what happens when there is too much suffering, God forbid: her soul departed. Furthermore, if this could happen to Sarah, so righteous a woman that when she was 100 she was like 20 with regard to sin . . . , and all of Sarah’s years were equivalent for good, yet she could not bear such deep agony, how much more so is this true for all of us.

Even the greatest, most pious Jews of all time were fragile human beings who could be broken by intolerable suffering.

The Piasetzner Rebbe then boldly claimed that Sarah’s death, the result of overwhelming psychological trauma, was an act on behalf of all Jews, as a protest to God, a demonstration that the Jewish people cannot bear excessive suffering. She gave up her life, if you will, in order to “teach the Creator” the limits of human suffering. She chose to show God the effect of suffering when it is too much to bear.

Even someone who on account of God’s compassion survives their suffering, parts of their lifeforce, mind, and spirit are still crushed and obliterated. Does it matter if one is partly dead or fully dead?

This explains why the verse repeats “the years of Sarah’s life.” Sarah cut her life short. She had been allotted more years that would never be lived out, which could be construed as a blot on her piety. Since she acted for the good of her people, however, the final phrase in the verse instructs us that the lost years were like the rest. Her saintliness pervaded them all equally.

This sermon was delivered orally on the Shabbat of Parashat Chayei Sarah, November 4, 1939. Only two months earlier the Rebbe of Piasetzna had suffered one of the most excruciating blows of his life: the deaths of his only son, his daughter-in-law, and his sister-in-law, all killed by the Nazi aerial bombing of Warsaw in September 1939. In speaking of Sarah’s loss, the rebbe’s own tormented voice is audible.

In this gut-wrenching sermon, the rebbe affirmed that crushing heartbreak and psychological pain can be traumatic. In severe cases, a part of us dies. While the classic religious response to suffering is submission, Sarah confronted the Creator, challenging Heaven to be more responsive and compassionate to the evil that man is made to endure. This gesture legitimates, the rebbe seems to say, our wrestling with theodicy. We are permitted – perhaps even obligated – to press God in our search for beacons of truth and justice in the smothering fog of suffering.

The Piasetzner Rebbe concluded his unforgettable sermon with the following prayer: “Therefore, may God have mercy upon us and all Israel, and may He rescue us quickly spiritually and physically, with open kindnesses.” Although wounded more than we can know, the rebbe’s faith remained steadfast, anticipating redemption. We can imagine to ourselves the rebbe turning with humility and deep faith to God in Heaven, his lips forming a heartfelt petition: “I may not understand Your ways, but I will not give up on seeking Your closeness and anticipating the final redemption.” The holy rebbe pleaded for that day to come soon.

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Parashat Noach – Tzaddik im Peltz

Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Tzaddik im Peltz

In a world overrun by depravity, violence, and corruption, the Torah introduces Noach as the last righteous man on earth (Genesis 6:9). The Torah continues: “And Noach sired ( ויַוּלֶֹד ) three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yefet” (Genesis 6:10). Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk read this verse symbolically in his No’am Elimelech: what are ostensibly three personal names are actually three degrees of spirituality that a tzaddik worthy of the name begets or generates ( ויולד ) in his lifetime. Shem, literally “name,” represents the first degree, fearful obedience and devotion to God that sanctifies His holy Name. Cham, which means “warm,” alludes to Noach’s cultivation of love and closeness towards the Creator. The third and final degree is Yefet, a reflection of the yofi, the “beauty” of  one’s pure, perfect service of the Almighty.

Notwithstanding this characterization of Noach as a tzaddik of the highest rank, rabbinic sages throughout the ages have detected certain imperfections in his overall performance. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev drew a memorable distinction between two types of tzaddikim. One serves God with great fervor but is so focused on his own spiritual aspirations that he bears no one else aloft in his ascent. The other serves God and brings others to serve God as well, raising them up with him. Noach is the first type of tzaddik, because the Torah says he “walked with God” in his divine service, meaning he did not “walk with people” to draw them closer to Him.

Chassidim have a characteristically sharp, pithy way of making this point in Yiddish, often attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe. They call Noach a tzaddik im peltz, “a righteous man in a fur coat.” The idea is that there are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night: by wearing insulating layers or by lighting a fire. Don a fur coat and you warm yourself; kindle a fire and you warm others as well. We are supposed to spread warmth and light in our own service of God.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak himself embodied this beautiful, compelling, and enduring principle of Chassidut, the responsibility to reach out to others and actively draw them closer to the Creator. He was compassionate and gentle, and loved every Jew just as they are. He reportedly said,

If ever I pass away and I have the option of being alone in paradise or going to purgatory in the company of other Jews, I would certainly choose the latter. As long as I am together with other Jews!

Helping others must begin with appreciating them for who they are. The Berditchever was always judging people favorably, as an oft-told story illustrates:

A teamster in Berditchev was saying his morning prayers, and at the same time, was greasing the wheels of his wagon. He was indeed an interesting sight, praying with his grease-covered hands, and townspeople snickered. “Look at this ignoramus. He doesn’t know better than to grease his wagon wheels while he is praying.” The great Rabbi Levi Ytizchak then came along and said, “Master of the Universe, look at your servant, the teamster. Even while he is greasing his wagon wheels he is still praising Your great and holy Name.”

When it comes time to bring people closer to God, which requires correction, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak teaches that we must use pleasant words and display compassion. The key is to see the lofty soul in every Jew and remind them of it: “One says, ‘Every single Jew is of great stature and the Jewish soul is truly hewn from a place above the Throne of Glory. . . . The one who encouragingly reproves the Jewish soul uplifts it higher and higher.’” In the words of a contemporary Chassidic teacher, “Were we to see the image of God in the other, could we ever show anger to another human being?”

Our forefather Avraham exemplified the second, outwardly directed tzaddik, who is determined to view and treat everyone favorably. Among the many rabbinic sources that contrast Noach with Avraham is the following Midrash. Psalms 45:8 states: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your fellow.” The Sages read this homiletically as a description of Avraham. Of course, being a moral, God-fearing person Avraham must have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore, the verse is actually telling us that he loved discovering the good in others and hated accusing them on account of their wrongdoing. In this way, his conduct was “beyond” that of his “fellow,” namely, the figure with whom he is naturally compared – Noach.

When the prophet Yeshayahu hearkens back to the incident of the Flood, he rather unexpectedly refers to the episode as “the waters of Noach” (Isaiah 54:9). Based on the Zohar, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that the Flood and Noach are inextricably linked, since, in a certain sense, he was partially responsible for it. He neither prayed to God to spare others nor took the initiative to inspire them to repent. Knowing that he and his family would be saved, he failed to act on behalf of others. Compare this with the conduct of Avraham in Parashat Lech Lecha, where he goes to great lengths to save cities unquestionably filled with evil and malice: “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin very grievous” (Genesis 18:20). Avraham is filled with mercy and compassion and seeks out the bright spots – righteousness even – in dark dens of wickedness.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, urges us to consider the teachings of the Torah not as stories from days gone by, but as lessons to be internalized and lived. We are called on to perceive the image of God in our fellow man and be steadfast in our belief that the spark of holiness in every Jew can be made into a fire. It is a profound act of love to pursue the vindication of others and a foremost mitzvah to relentlessly search for virtue in our fellow man.

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Parashat Ki Tetze: Parallel Paths

Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Parallel Paths

One of the Torah’s most curious laws is the commandment in Parashat Ki Tetze to shoo away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks. The Rambam offered reasons for many mitzvot in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), and regarding this mitzvah he claimed that it is grounded in compassion.

The mother bird has an inordinate love for her young, which extends even to the eggs. Though these inanimate objects bear no resemblance to her, she selflessly devotes herself to them. She roosts on them for weeks, barely eating and drinking herself, keeping them warm all the time, until the day she at long last sees her chicks emerge from their shells. It follows that it must be horrifying for her to witness the object of her devotion taken from her. This explains why the Torah repeats the words “the chicks or the eggs” twice in one verse (Deuteronomy 22:6) – the mother’s love for her young is strong even when they are seemingly lifeless beings.

This humane, sensitizing rationale seems to contradict a Talmudic ruling. The Mishnah says, “If someone says [in prayer] ‘Your mercies reach even a bird’s nest,’ . . . he must be silenced.” According to one opinion in the Talmud, we silence the person “because He makes God’s acts into mercy when they are only decrees.” This seems to be telling us not to try to rationalize the mitzvot, because they are beyond the human intellect. They should be performed as the pure manifestation of God’s will alone.

The Rambam in fact codified this law in his Mishneh Torah, and even elaborated on this approach against rationalizing the mitzvot in his commentary on this Mishnah:

One who says this is to be silenced, because he is attributed the reason behind the mitzvah to the Holy One’s mercy on fowl. But this is not so, for were it a matter of mercy, He would not have allowed the slaughtering of animals at all. Rather, it is an accepted commandment that has no reason.

An obvious difficulty arises: How can the Rambam be following the ruling of this mishnah when he himself suggests a reason for this mitzvah in his Moreh Nevuchim? And how can he suggest the very reason he himself says does not hold water?

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook offered a clarification that touches on larger themes. If we pay attention to the context of the aforementioned mishnah, we will see that is referring only to the context of prayer. When a person is studying Torah and engaged in elucidating the essence of the mitzvot, there is ample room to speculate about the rationale for the commandments. Investigation and in-depth analysis is central to Torah study. Prayer, however, is not a time for conjecture and sharp analysis. It demands purity of heart and clarity of mind. When we pray to God our goal should be closeness with our Creator and unconditional devotion to fulfill His will.

Rav Kook penned the following words expressing this notion:

Proper prayer results only from                שֶׁבִּשְׁעַת הַתְּפִלָּה הַמְַעֲשִׂית הֲרֵי
the thought that in truth the soul              הַתְּפִלָּה הַנִּשְׁמָתִית הַתְּדִירִית הוּא
is constantly praying. She longs for         ,מִתְגַּלֶּה בְּפֹעַל. וְזֶהוּ עִדּוּנָהּ וְעִנּוּגָהּ
and flies to her Beloved without               ,הֲדָרָה וְתִפְאַרְתָּהּ, שֶׁל הַתְּפִלָּה
cease . . . this is the delicacy and               שֶׁהִיא מִתְדַּמָּה לְשׁוֹשַׁנָּה הַפּוֹתַחַת
loveliness of prayer. She is likened to      אֶת עָלֶיהָ הַנָּאִים לִקְרַאת הַטַּל אוֹ
a rose who opens her beautiful                 נוֹכַח קַרְנֵי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ הַמּוֹפִיעִים עָלֶיהָ
petals to receive the dew or the sun’s                                         .בְּאוֹרָה
rays of light.

It is not uncommon to find people, even very observant people, studying Talmud or other texts during prayer. Humorously, some have suggested that chazarat ha-shatz, the repetition of the Amidah, be renamed chazarat ha-Shas, reviewing the Talmud. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked if this common practice is permitted, and he enumerated three reasons why it is not.

First, at least ten men need to be attentive to every word of chazarat ha-shatz. If their attention is elsewhere, even on Torah, this requirement is not met. Second, everyone present is obligated to answer amen after each blessing. Finally, even if they make sure ten are paying attention and answer every blessing, fulfilling both criteria, others present might misunderstand and assume that learning is unconditionally permitted.

To these halachic concerns, Rav Kook would have added another critical point. Engaging in Torah learning during time dedicated for prayer undercuts the very character and goal of prayer. It encroaches on the emotions and spirituality we endeavor to actualize in these moments. Rav Kook cited the following Talmudic dictum that corroborates this thesis: “The time for prayer is separate from the time for studying Torah” (זְמַן תְּפִילָּה לְחוֹד וּזְמַן תּוֹרָה לְחוֹד).

Torah study and prayer are two of the most natural, powerful, and parallel paths to deepening our relationship with the Almighty. In order to reap their cherished rewards, each requires its own mindfulness and wholehearted attention.

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The Wintman Family Remembers the Rav

The Wintman Family and the Rav: A Very Special Relationship

by Kenny Wintman and Sandy Welkes

Our father met the Rav in 1941. Our father was involved in the activities of the Boston Jewish community but was not especially observant at the time. Despite this, he and the Rav developed a warm relationship. Their friendship endured for nearly five decades, as our father drove the Rav to all his appointments around Boston, and to and from the train station or the airport for his weekly trips to New York. After the Rav’s beloved wife passed away in 1967, my father drove him to the cemetery each and every Friday. The Rav never got out of our father’s car in 45 years without saying thank you.

As our father was not a student of Jewish texts, their relationship was not that of a rebbe and a talmid; rather, it was based on mutual respect and friendship. Our parents did consult the Soloveitchiks on matters of Jewish observance, but they also enjoyed each other’s company. Additionally, our parents attended the Rav’s weekly Motzaei Shabbos shiurim.

One incident in particular that impressed our parents took place before one Pesach in the 1940s. The Rav asked our father if he was free for a few hours and our father readily agreed. The Rav had procured boxes of matza and, together with our father, delivered them to various Boston Public Schools, to provide the Jewish students with Kosher for Passover snacks during Chol Hamoed. This deepened their respect for the Rav and his care for every Jewish neshama.

The Rav, like our family, for many years spent his summers in Onset, Massachusetts. It was there, in the mid-1960s, that the Rav decided to spend most of Tisha B’Av explaining the Kinos. Before that, most people just mumbled the Kinos and did not understand what they were saying; the Rav transformed it into a deeply meaningful experience.

One memory from Onset: After our father would make Havdalah on Motzaei Shabbos, he went to a local store to pick up the newspapers that were reserved for the Rav and us. The Rav, however, kept Shabbos for longer than everyone else. If our father went to the Rav too quickly, the Rav would be upset because he was still keeping Shabbos and could not pay him back until Sunday morning. Our father started going a little later so the Rav would be able to pay him that night and not be upset.

Of course, children have a way of cementing relationships between adults. The Rav was mesader kiddushin at Sandy’s wedding despite his failing health. Kenny became one of the many students who attended personally to the Rav’s needs while he attended Yeshiva University. While others served in the position out of a sense of respect for the Rav, Kenny did it naturally as a close family friend, and the Rav truly appreciated it. He escorted the Rav to shiur and accompanied him to numerous other events. Once, after Kenny had graduated, the Rav even called him in Boston and asked him to fly to New York to escort the Rav personally to a particularly important talk he was giving.

This caring was not one-directional. On one instance, when Kenny was sick in his dormitory, the Rav called him each day to check on him. That Thursday, before the Rav flew back to Boston, he came in person to Kenny’s dorm room so that he could truthfully report to our father that he had checked on him.

The relationship between the Soloveitchiks and the Wintmans, based on deep mutual respect and genuine friendship, lasted close to fifty years.

The Wintmans and Soloveitchiks – July 1951, Onset, Mass. (Soloveitchik Summer Home)

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Foundation of Faith: Chapter 4, Verse 1

Excerpted from Foundation of Faith: A Tapestry of Insights and Illumination on Pirkei Avot based on the Thought and Writings of Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Gibber Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dratch, co-published with Ktav Publishing

Chapter 4, Verse 1

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person. As is stated (Ps. 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.” Who is strong? He who controls his passions. As is stated (Pr. 16:32): “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.” Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Ps. 128:2): “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you” in the World to Come. Who is honorable? He who honors his fellows. As is stated (I Sam. 2:30): “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who despise me shall be demeaned.”

Inspirational Judaism

The Mishnah gives us a series of definitions by the renowned Ben Zoma. However, surprisingly, the Gemara, Kiddushin 49b, gives us completely different answers, and does not even mention our Mishnah. The Talmud discusses the interesting question of the man who marries a woman conditionally. What is the law, the Gemara asks, if a man marries a woman “al tenai she’ani ḥakham, on condition that I am a wise man”? What is the definition of ḥakham so that we may decide whether or not a valid marriage has been contracted? The answer is that it is sufficient that he be kol shesho’alin oto devar ḥokhmah bekhol makom, one who can conduct himself intelligently in any field of discourse. Note that all that the Gemara requires is that he be bright; no mention is made of Ben Zoma’s definition of the wise man as one who retains the capacity to learn from everyone. The next case is the one who marries a woman al menat she’ani gibbor, on condition that I am a strong man. Here the definition is kol sheḥaveirav mityarin mimenu mipnei gevurato, he must be such that his friends fear him because of his power and influence. Again, there is no mention of the Mishnah’s definition of strength interpreted as self-control. Finally, if a man marries a woman al menat she’ani ashir, on condition that I am rich, the marriage is valid if he is one of those kol shebenei iro mekhabdin oto mipnei oshro, whose townsfolk respect him because of his wealth – and not merely one who is satisfied with what he has.

How do we account for these changing definitions? The answer that R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein, the renowned author of Torah Temimah, gives is that the Gemara speaks of the act of marriage, an act which is essentially a kinyan, a contract freely arrived at by two people who must mutually agree upon the proposal. In such a case, we must estimate the understanding that the man and woman probably had at the time they came to an agreement. As a contract, we must consider only their interpretation, their understanding, and their values. The Mishnah gives us the values of Ben Zoma. He gave us the standards that became the ideal of Judaism. The Gemara’s criterion goes by the count of most people; the Mishnah’s criterion goes by the people who count most.

It is also possible to suggest that the Talmud offers the halakhic, legal, answer, while the Mishneh in Avot offers an aggadic, inspirational and aspirational, answer. The Rav, R. Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l, observed that Halakhah alone is minimal Judaism, the quintessential but basic requirements of Jewish life. Avot inspires us and challenges us to expand our characters, our vision, and our spiritual capacities.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his God in Search of Man (p. 336), wrote,

Halacha represents the strength to shape one’s life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Agada is the expression of man’s ceaseless striving which often defies all limitations. Halacha is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Agada deals with man’s ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halacha deals with details, with each commandment separately; agada deals with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halacha deals with the law; agada with the meaning of the law. Halacha deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; agada introduces us to a realm which lies beyond the range of expression. Halacha teaches us how to perform common acts; agada tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halacha gives us knowledge; agada gives us aspiration.

Kibbush HaYetzer

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that the Mishnah’s statement, “Who is strong? He who controls his passions” is a minimalist, not a maximalist position. The higher achievement is not the suppression (kibbush) but the sanctification (kiddush) of the yetzer.

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Parshat Va’etchanan: Why Not?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Why Not?


As the curtain rises on Parshat Va’etchanan, Moshe recounts his unsuccessful pleas to God to reverse the divine decree prohibiting him from entering the land of Canaan:

And I beseeched God at this time, saying: “My Lord, God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.… Let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.”
But God turned angrily against me for your sakes and He did not listen to me; and God said to me: “It is too much for you! Do not continue to speak to Me concerning this matter. Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and see with your eyes, for you will not cross this Jordan.”

The tragedy of Moshe’s fate, the fulcrum upon which the entire book of Devarim turns, continues to haunt us across the centuries. This humble, reluctant leader, who has patiently and painstakingly brought his people to the very edge of their dreams, will, as a result of divine mandate, not realize those dreams with them.

Why does God reject Moshe’s supplications? Is Moshe’s sin so great that he must be denied forgiveness? Are the gates of prayer and repentance truly closed to our most sainted leader? If so, what hope have we that God will hear our prayers?

We have previously noted the struggle of the commentaries to identify  the exact sin of Moshe and Aharon at the scene of Mei Meriva, the waters of strife, where God issues His decree concerning the fate of these great leaders. The suggested possibilities for Moshe and Aharon’s failure include deviation from God’s instructions, unwarranted anger against the nation, assumption of credit for a divine miracle, and more (see Bamidbar: Chukat 3, for a full discussion).

Whatever the catalyst for God’s verdict against Moshe at Mei Meriva, however, why can’t that verdict be set aside now?


Deeply troubled by God’s continuing rejection of Moshe’s pleas for forgiveness,  numerous rabbinic sources suggest that God is actually unable, as opposed to unwilling, to forgive Moshe. These authorities note the use of the term lachen (therefore) in God’s original verdict at Mei Meriva. According to Midrashic tradition, the presence of this term invariably indicates that an oath has been enacted. At the scene of Mei Meriva, God actually swears that Moshe and Aharon will not enter the land. This divine oath, once taken, cannot be abrogated.

Building on this approach, the Sifrei suggests that Moshe’s entreaty to God at this time is based upon a misapprehension of the extent of God’s original vow. Once Moshe sees that he has been allowed to participate in the battles for the conquest of the Transjordan, he assumes that the divine oath decreeing his fate has been abrogated and that he will now be allowed to participate in the subjugation of Canaan, as well. God, however, informs him that the vow remains in place and that Moshe’s entry into the land remains prohibited.

The Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot offers a poignant Midrashic play on God’s rejoinder to Moshe, “Rav lecha, it is too much for you.” Departing dramatically from the pshat of the text, the Tosafists note that the words rav lecha can be interpreted to mean “[Moshe,] you have a master.” The Tosafists postulate that, in the face of God’s rejection of his pleas, Moshe argues: Master of the universe, please release Yourself from Your vow – as You have released me from my vows, in the past. God responds: Moshe, rav lecha, you have a master, Someone above you Who can release you from your vows. I, in contrast, have no master. No one, therefore, can annul the vows that I take upon Myself. They must remain in place.

Other authorities focus on Moshe’s puzzling claim, “God turned angrily against me for your sakes.” This statement mirrors an equally troubling comment made by Moshe in Parshat Devarim where, in recounting the sin of the spies, he states, “With me, as well, did God become angry because of you, saying, ‘You, too, shall not come there [into the land of Canaan].’ ”

Can it be that Moshe, at these critical moments, tries to evade responsibility for his own past failures? Why would God reject Moshe’s pleas “for the sake of the Israelites” or “because of the Israelites”?

This puzzle is solved, the Abravanel argues, if we accept his claim that the events at Mei Meriva do not truly determine the fate of Aharon and Moshe. As previously noted, the Abravanel maintains, contrary to the apparent evidence of the text, that these great leaders are actually punished for earlier offenses: Aharon for his involvement in the sin of the golden calf and Moshe for his participation in the sin of the spies (see Bamidbar: Chukat 3, Approaches A). In each of these cases, the actions of these great leaders are well intentioned; and yet in each case they inadvertently contribute to the national disasters that ensue.

God, therefore, calibrates His responses carefully. In order to protect the reputation of both Moshe and Aharon, He does not punish them immediately, together with those guilty of intentional rebellion. He instead waits for them to commit an intentional sin, however minor, in order to punish them for their original transgressions. When Moshe deviates from God’s commandment at Mei Meriva, by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God seizes the opportunity to exact retribution upon these leaders for their previous, more substantial failings.

Now, as he recounts his unsuccessful attempts to overturn God’s decree, Moshe turns to the nation and declares: I am being punished “for your sake.” Because of your flawed reaction to the report of the spies, I must now pay the price for my initial involvement in that tragic episode.

Moving in a different direction, other commentaries suggest that Moshe is forbidden from entering the land at least in part because of the powerful effect that his presence would have upon the people’s ultimate  fate. According to these authorities, this great leader literally suffers “for the people’s sake.”

The Sforno and the Kli Yakar, for example, maintain that Moshe wants to prevent, through his towering presence and personal involvement in the conquest of Canaan, any possibility of the nation’s eventual exile from the land. Moshe’s plan, however, runs counter to God’s intentions. God knows that, in the future, the people are destined to sin and that their ultimate exile will be both unavoidable and necessary. He therefore ensures that the conquest of Canaan takes place only after Moshe’s death, under the weaker leadership of Yehoshua. Consequently, the Israelites’ continued possession of the Land of Israel will not be assured but will forever remain dependent upon their own merits.

Combining aspects of the approaches of the Abravanel, on the one hand, and of the Sforno and Kli Yakar, on the other, the Malbim makes a revolutionary claim. God’s decree concerning Moshe is not the result of any sin on this great leader’s part at all. Moshe’s fate is instead sealed by the failings of the nation. Under God’s original plan, the Israelites were to conquer the land of Canaan under Moshe’s continuing leadership. Moshe’s very involvement would have resulted in a miraculous chain of events. No physical battles would have been fought, as God would have miraculously destroyed the nation’s enemies before them. Moshe would have supervised the building of a Temple destined to stand in perpetuity. And, finally, the messianic era would have been reached. The realization of these miracles, however, remained dependent on the nation’s continuing faith in God…

When the nation, through the sin of the spies, tragically demonstrates itself to be unworthy of God’s supernatural intervention, God has no choice but to ensure that Moshe will not enter the land. He decrees that the generation of the Exodus will perish in the desert, clearly excluding only Yehoshua and Calev (the two spies who withstood the evil counsel of their colleagues) from the decree. For their part, Moshe and Aharon are to share the fate of the rest of their generation.

One last chance for redemption, however, remains. If the next generation, the generation that matures in the wilderness, can prove the strength of its commitment to God, the decree sealing Moshe and Aharon’s fate can yet be reversed. These great leaders will be able to lead the nation into the land and all of the promised miracles will still unfold.

These final hopes, however, are dashed at the scene of Mei Meriva. There, once again, as they “gather against Moshe and Aharon,” the people prove unworthy of God’s trust. Moshe, in addition, affected by the turmoil, misses the opportunity to fully sanctify God’s name by speaking to the rock. Consequently, the original decree against Moshe and Aharon is reaffirmed and raised to the status of a divine oath that cannot be subsequently reversed. Moshe and Aharon will perish “for the sake of ” and “because of ” the people.

One final approach to Moshe’s contention that his prayers are rejected “for the people’s sake” can be offered by reinterpreting, yet again, the events at Mei Meriva. Adapting the insights of Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky, a brilliant teacher and my community rabbi during my teenage years, we have previously suggested that Moshe’s failure at Mei Meriva consists of an inability to transition from the leadership of one generation to the leadership of the next (see Bamidbar: Chukat 3, Approaches H).

The first generation of Israelites with whom Moshe deals, the generation of the Exodus, relates to God only through the primitive emotion of fear. When, therefore, shortly after the Exodus, this generation finds itself without water at a location known as Refidim, God commands Moshe to speak to the people in the only language that they will understand. Strike the rock, He commands, and let the Israelites recognize the power of their heavenly master.

Forty years later, however, at Mei Meriva, Moshe stands before a generation that has come to relate to God through the more mature dimension of love. God therefore commands Moshe: Take the staff. Show the people that you can use it, but that you deliberately will not. Instead, speak to the rock and, in doing so, “speak” to the people. Demonstrate to them, at this critical moment, that the power of love is infinitely stronger than the power of brute force.

Moshe, however, slips…

Confronted again by the bitter complaints of the Israelites, he flashes back to Refidim. He sees before him not the Israelites of the day, but their parents and grandparents of yesteryear. And in that one fateful instant, as Moshe lifts his staff to strike the rock, he fails to transition with his people from one generation to the next, from one relational level to another. This failure seals his fate. He and Aharon (who makes no move to stop his brother) will remain forever part of their generation, consigned to perish in the desert without entry into the land. “For the sake of the people,” Moshe cannot enter the land. A new generation needs a new leader – one who will be able to transition with his people in their march towards a glorious future.

The above interpretations, however, create an opening for a powerful question. If Moshe’s fate is sealed “for the sake of the nation,” because his leadership would somehow compromise the people’s destiny, why can’t he enter the land as a common man? This humble leader has already requested that God appoint a successor in his stead and, at God’s command, has publicly appointed Yehoshua as that successor. Surely Moshe would now agree to join in the conquest of Canaan under the stewardship of his trusted student. Why doesn’t God simply pass the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua without insisting on Moshe’s death in the Transjordan?

The Mechilta imagines a powerful conversation in which this argument among others, is actually raised by Moshe to God: Master of the universe, when You initially decreed my fate You stated: “Therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land…” Since I cannot bring the people into the land as a king, please allow me to enter with them as a commoner.

God’s response, the Midrash continues, is short and to the point: A king may not enter [the land] as a commoner.

Elaborating on this Midrashic approach, the Abravanel suggests that God’s declaration to Moshe in Parshat Va’etchanan, “Rav lecha, it is too much for you…,” can be reinterpreted as a rhetorical question. Rav lecha? Would it really be appropriate, God asks Moshe, for Yehoshua to teach while you sit and watch? Would it really be appropriate for Yehoshua to be your teacher (rav) and master? Having risen to the grandeur of leadership, Moshe cannot now descend from its heights.

The poignant picture painted by the Midrash and the Abravanel highlights the powerful challenges that often emerge at times of personal transition and change. When an individual must step aside from a specific life arena and allow someone else to “take his place,” the questions often abound.

What can I hold onto; what must I let go? How will I feel when he does things differently? Can I stay, or must I leave? How much space does my successor need in order to be his own man?

Through the rabbis’ eyes, we watch Moshe struggle with these questions after over forty years of extraordinary personal investment and sacrifice. As he does so, our own potential struggles come to light, as well.

Finally, in a telling observation elaborated upon by many later authorities, the Talmud overturns our original assumptions concerning the opening narrative of Parshat Va’etchanan. From the point of view of the Talmudists, the text does not emphasize God’s rejection of Moshe’s prayers, but, rather, His acceptance of those prayers – at least, in part:

The power of prayer is greater than the power of good deeds – for no one was greater than Moshe in good deeds, yet he was only answered through prayer. As the text relates: “Do not continue to speak to Me concerning this matter. Ascend to the top of the cliff [and raise your eyes]…”

Here, then, is a very different take on the results of the dialogue between God and Moshe. Moshe’s prayers are answered, after all. His words do have an effect, as God relents. Although this great leader will still be prohibited from entering Canaan, he will now be allowed to view the land from afar. Sometimes the answers God provides to our prayers are painted in shades of gray, rather than in black or white.

Point to Ponder

Three powerful ancillary lessons emerge from the rabbinic conversation surrounding Moshe’s interchange with God at the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan.

1. Our word is our bond. The suggestion that God may be bound by the strictures of His own vows underscores the seriousness with which we should view our own spoken commitments. If an almighty deity will not
stray from the path determined by His word, how careful must we be to fulfill the verbal obligations that we take upon ourselves?

2. It’s not all about us. The contention that Moshe’s fate is decreed, at least in part, for the sake of others sensitizes us to the fact that an individual’s destiny is determined not only by his own needs but by the valid
needs of others, as well. As we have previously noted (see Bereishit: Noach 4, Approaches A), this idea is dramatically underscored during the Covenant between the Pieces enacted by God with Avraham at the dawn of Jewish history. In predicting the eventual return of Avraham’s descendents to the land of Canaan, God states: “And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Emorites will not be complete until then.” You will not be able to acquire the land of Canaan until the indigenous inhabitants deserve to lose it.

There are times when what is “best” for us is not “best” for those around us. God will factor our competing needs and rights into the equation as He determines our respective destinies.

3. It’s never too late to pray. The proposition that Moshe changes God’s mind through prayer marks this incident as one of a number of occasions in the text where Moshe’s prayers seem to sway God’s judgments. This
phenomenon, however, highlights a fundamental philosophical problem. How can an all-perfect God be moved to “change His mind” by the words of man? God is, by definition, not capable of error. Whatever He decides
is correct, or He would not decide it. What is the mechanism by which such prayer works?

We have noted before (see Bereishit: Toldot 3, Approaches A) that, according to some authorities, the roots of this phenomenon can be traced to the words that launch Jewish history. God’s initial promises to the patriarch
Avraham include the phrase “And you will be a blessing.”22 The Midrash interprets this phrase to mean, “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now they were in My hand. I blessed Adam and Noach. From this time on, you
will bless whom you wish.”

By granting man the power to bless, God withdraws and deliberately limits His own power. As part of a divine partnership agreement with humanity, God will respect the words spoken by man and reckon with them when He makes his decisions. Man thus acquires the power of blessing and prayer. God Himself grants effectiveness to our prayers, both on behalf of ourselves and for the welfare of others.  Other authorities suggest that the effectiveness of prayer and repentance in swaying God’s judgments can be viewed from an entirely different perspective. Prayer, these scholars argue, transforms the supplicant. An individual who engages in heartfelt prayer and in true repentance emerges from the experience a different person than he was before. In effect, therefore, the subject of God’s original decree no longer exists. God has not changed His mind; man has changed himself.

Whether as a mechanism for changing God’s mind or as an experience through which a supplicant changes himself, prayer remains, for the Jew, a tool that never loses its potential effectiveness. “Even if a sharp sword lies upon his neck,” the Talmud maintains, “an individual should never refrain from [asking for God’s] mercy.”

While we recognize that God’s answer to our requests may well, at times, be no, Moshe’s poignant supplications at the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan remind us that it’s never too late to pray.

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Tisha B’Av: The Veil of God

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays 

The Veil of God*

Tish‘ah be-Av is more than the commemoration of the five specific historical events mentioned in the Talmud, foremost among them the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem six centuries apart. It is even more than the national threnody for a string of tragedies, beginning from the earliest times and extending through the ninth of Av, 1492—the expulsion of Jews from Spain—and the same date in 1942, the signing of the extermination order against Polish Jewry by the unmentionable leader of Nazi Germany. More than these alone, Tish‘ah be-Av is a condition of the divine-human dialogue; it is a quality of the relations of God and the people of Israel.

Man does not always perceive God uniformly. Sometimes, He appears close to us, nearby, concerned, sympathetic, involved in our destiny, a loving and forgiving Father. “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him” (Ps. 145:18). It is a source of joy and comfort to man when he perceives God in this fashion. But sometimes God appears infinitely remote, distant, faraway. It seems almost as if He has vanished from the world, without leaving a trace. God appears aloof, unapproachable, forbidding, uninterested, and ready to abandon man to eternal solitude. There is no greater agony for man than when God thus veils His presence, when He performs hester panim, the “hiding of His face” from mankind. When God, as it were, withdraws from the world and leaves man to his own resources, forsaken and at the mercy of the impersonal and brutal forces of nature and history, man’s life is worse than meaningless. It is this latter condition that is described in Tish‘ah be-Av.

That black day was the beginning of the long, ages-old epoch in which God and Israel disengaged from each other, when a seemingly impenetrable veil cruelly separated them. The culmination of Jeremiah’s Lamentations sound this very note: Lammah la-netzah tishkahenu, ta‘azvenu le-orekh yamim (Lam. 5:20), “Why do You forget us for an eternity, forsake us for so long a time?”

But if so many generations were born and died under the heavy cloud of this veil, this hester panim, since that disaster 1,895 years ago initiated this agonizingly long separation, then we are faced with two questions: First, how is it that we have not disappeared as a people? According to all the laws of historical determinism, we should have disappeared long ago. If there is no longer any relation between God and Israel, how can we account for the mystery and miracle of Israel’s persistence? And second, how can we pray? Is it not futile to try to arouse One who in advance resists any communication? Moreover, how can we speak of such matters as ahavah rabbah ahavtanu, of God’s great love for Israel?

For an answer to these questions and a solution to the whole problem of hester panim and Tish‘ah be-Av, we may turn to a remarkable insight offered by two of the earliest giants of the Hasidic movement. The Hasidic classic, the Benei Yissaskhar, records two questions asked of R. Pinhas of Koretz, the disciple-colleague of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, and the one answer that both gave to the two questions. (See Ma’amarei Tammuz-Av, #3.)

The first question concerns the well-known tradition that the Messiah is born on Tish‘ah be-Av (Midrash Eikhah Zuta [Buber ed., version 2] 1:2). Is it not unreasonable to assert that the purest of all souls, the exalted agent of the Almighty in the long-awaited redemption of Israel, would come into this world on the very day distinguished for infamy and grief? Is not this the single most inappropriate day for such an historic event? Second, the Talmud records a most marvelous tale. It relates that when the enemy broke into the sacred precincts of the Temple and laid low its walls, they entered the inner sanctum wherein there stood the two Cherubim, the statuettes resembling the faces of young, innocent children, and from between which the voice of God would issue forth. When the enemy beheld these Cherubim, the Talmud relates, they found that the two figurines were facing each other (Yoma 54b). Now this is most unexpected, because according to Jewish tradition, the Cherubim faced each other only when Israel was obedient to God (osin retzono shel Makom); when Jews did not perform the will of God, the Cherubim turned away from each other. The destruction of the Temple was certainly the result of Israel’s disobedience and rebellion. One would expect, therefore, that they would turn their faces away from each other. Why, then, were they facing one another, the sign of mutual love between God and His people?

The answer is a profound insight into the nature of love and friendship. The attachment between two people is always strongest just before they part from each other. Two friends may continue their friendship with each other on an even keel for many years. Their loyalty requires of them no outward expression, even if they do not take each other for granted. Then one of the two prepares to leave on a long, long journey. How poignant does their friendship suddenly become! With what longing do they view each other! Similarly, husband and wife are involved in the daily struggles and trivialities that cloud their true feelings for each other. But when one is about to leave for a protracted vacation or sick leave or business trip, and they know they will not be near and with each other for a painfully long period, then they suddenly rise to the very heights of mutual love and dedication, and they behold each other with new warmth and yearning and sweet sorrow. Indeed, the Halakhah declares this to be a mandatory expression of the right relationship between husband and wife: Hayyav adam lifkod et ishto be-sha‘ah she-hu yotzei la-derekh (Yevamot 62b), when one is about to take leave for a long journey, he must be especially tender and loving toward his wife.

Now the love between God and Israel follows the same pattern as genuine human love. Tish‘ah be-Av was the beginning of the hester panim, the parting of the lovers. God and Israel turned away from each other, and the great, exciting, and immensely complicated relationship between the two companions, begun in the days of Abraham, was coming to an end. But before this tragic and heartbreaking moment, there took place a last, long, lingering look, the fervent embrace of the two lovers as they were about to part. At the threshold of separation, they both experienced a great outpouring of mutual love, an intense ahavah, as they suddenly  realized the long absence from each other that lay ahead of them; in so brief a time, they tried to crowd all the affection the opportunities for which they had ignored in the past, and all the love which would remain unrequited in the course of the future absence. That is why the Cherubim were facing each other. Certainly the Israelites were rebellious and in contempt of the will of God. But they were facing each other; God and Israel  looked toward each other longingly and in lingering affection before they were pulled apart. And from this high spiritual union of God and Israel was created the soul of the Messiah! Mashiah was conceived in intense and rapturous love!

From this exquisitely intensified relationship before the long separation, we may gain a new insight into the relationship of God and Israel during this prolonged period of hester panim initiated by the destruction of the Temple. True and devoted friends never forget each other even if anger and offense have caused them to separate from one another. Of genuine friends it may never be said that “out of sight, out of mind.” Where there was once deep and profound love between husband and wife, some spark of it will always remain, no matter how sorely their marriage has been tried. Absence, indeed, may make the heart grow fonder, and the old love may well be reawakened. Those who deal with marital problems have observed that often a couple will undergo legal separation, and that very absence from each other will make them realize how they need and yearn for each other—and thus lead to reunion. A father may be angry with his son, so angry that they no longer speak with each other. But the father’s heart aches, his sleep is disturbed, and his heart lies awake at night waiting for his son to call, to write, to make some small gesture toward reconciliation. All these are instances of separation tense with love striving for reunion.

Such indeed is the hester panim that separates us from our Father in heaven. We are exiled from Him—but not alienated. We are so far—yet so close. We are separated—but not divorced. God’s face is hidden, but His heart is awake. Of course, the divine love for Israel has not expired. It is that and that alone that accounts for our continued existence to this day. Certainly “with a great love hast Thou loved us”—for though we are banished, we need but call to Him and He will answer. Like a wise parent, the Almighty may punish, even expel, but never ceases to love His child!

Have we any evidence of this phenomenon in the history of Israel in our own times? I believe we do, but I approach the subject bi-dehilu u-rehimu, with trepidation. If one were to ask: was it worth experiencing a Holocaust which decimated one-third of our people in order to attain a State of Israel?, then not only an affirmative answer but even the very question is a blasphemy. Only a cruel, heartless jingoist could ever allow such thoughts to poison his mind. Yet the past is done and cannot be undone. History is irrevocable. We may protest it and bemoan it and regret it, but it is there despite us. A tremendous paradox emerged from the paroxysms of our times, and we must strive to understand it: during one lifetime, we have witnessed the nadir of Jewish history, the descent into the very pit, and the rebirth of Jewish independence in pride and glory.

The Holocaust was the most intense, the most dismal hester panim we have ever experienced. God abandoned us to the vilest scorpions that ever assumed the shape of man. From our agony and our dishonor we cried to heaven, but our cries could not pierce the metal veil, which only reflected our shrieking back upon us to mock us in our terrible loneliness and torment. Auschwitz was the device of human genius as God turned aside. Buchenwald was built by human toil and intellect as God closed His eyes.

Yet we survived the experience: crippled, maimed, decimated, disgraced, we yet trudged back from the death camps and displaced-persons camps, from the fury and the wrath, and from the shameful silence of the onlookers, to a land promised us 3,500 years ago. Providence did not allow us to be utterly destroyed. The veil of God ensconced us in misery; but through it, mysteriously, there shone a vision of love. In retrospect, right before the hurban of European Jewry, the State of Israel was being providentially prepared so that the survivors might emerge into new dignity. God too followed the Halakhah: Hayyav adam lifkod et ishto be-sha‘ah she-hu yotzei la-derekh. Before He “walked out on us,” before He forsook us and turned away from us, He provided for our perpetuation, for a new generation and a new life and a new spirit.

Job taught us a long time ago that there are no easy answers to the mystery of suffering. Certainly the unspeakable agonies of a whole people cannot be easily explained, much less explained away. But from the hints left to us by our Sages in the folios of the Talmud about the birth of Messiah and the position of the Cherubim, we may begin to search for direction and understanding and meaning of the history of our times and the mysterious relationship between God and Israel.

Even while intoning the sorrowful lament of Jeremiah, Lammah la-netzah tishkahenu, ta‘azvenu le-orekh yamim, bemoaning God’s aloofness and our forlornness, we recite the same prophet’s words in the same Book of Lamentations as he senses intuitively that hasdei Hashem ki lo tamnu, ki lo khalu rahamav (Lam. 3:22), “the love of the Lord has not come to an end, His compassion has not ceased.”

*Shabbat Hazon 5725 (1965)

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Birkat Yitzchak – Shelach

Excerpted from Rabbi Menachem Genack’s Birkat Yitzchak Chidushim U-ve’urim al HaTorah

פרשת שלח

המרגלים ומצות ציצית – החטא ותיקונו

פרשת שלח פותחת בענין המרגלים וחטאם, וסופה נחתם במצות ציצית. והמעיין בלשון הכתוב יראה ששני ענינים אלו שייכי אהדדי. הנה במרגלים כתיב: “ויתורו את ארץ כנען” (יג, ב), ובציצית כתיב: “ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם” (טו, לט). במרגלים כתוב: “וראיתם את הארץ” (יג, יח), ובציצית כתוב: “וראיתם אותו” (שם טו, לט). ובדברי רש”י מבוארת ההשוואה אף יותר, שהביא מהמדרש תנחומא (ד”ה ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם), וז”ל: “כמו ‘מתור הארץ’ (לעיל יג, כה), הלב והעינים הם מרגלים לגוף, ומסרסרים לו את העבירות, העין רואה, והלב חומד, והגוף עושה את העבירות”, עכ”ל.

ונראה ביאור הדברים, שמצות ציצית היא התבלין והתיקון לחטא המרגלים, והקב”ה נתן את מצות ציצית בעטיו של חטא המרגלים. חטא המרגלים היה שהביטו על ארץ ישראל בראיה מצומצמת ושיטחית, ולא ראו את חמדת הארץ, שהיא ארץ סגולה; ומנגד, תכליתה של מצות ציצית היא לרומם את ראיית האדם. ולכן הלשון ‘ציצית’ הוא מלשון ‘ציץ’, דהיינו לראות, וכמו “מציץ מן החרכים” (שה”ש ב,ט), שמשמעותו ראיה חודרת ועמוקה [וכ”פ במצודת ציון (יחזקאל ח,ג) את המילים “בציצית ראשי – ר”ל שער ראשי כי כל דבר היוצא מן הגוף קרוי ציץ, וכן תנו ציץ למואב (ירמיה מח,ט)”. והיינו: יציאת דבר לגילוי קרויה הצצה], ובמיוחד זוהי מצות תכלת שמרוממת את הסתכלות האדם. כי תכלת דומה לעשבים, ועשבים לים, וים לרקיע, ורקיע לכסא הכבוד (ירושלמי ריש ברכות).

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The Return to Zion: Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future

Excerpted from The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future*

The Jews sanctified the Land of Israel twice, the first time in the days of Joshua and the second in the days of Ezra. When one compares the two eras from a secular-historical standpoint, from a political-economic perspective, the second entry into the land, Ezra’s sanctification, is no more than a pale reflection, a weak echo, of a great and glorious epoch, such that the comparison itself arouses gloom. In the days of Joshua, the nation was young, filled with an aggressive, militant spirit, and pounced on the Land of Israel like a youthful desert lion, defeating thirty-one kings, claiming one victory after another. Nature itself helped the young Jewish people forge its destiny: “Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!” (Josh. 10:12). “They conquered the land in seven years and divided it among the tribes in seven years” (Zevaim 118b). They were proud and youthful, pugnacious and courageous, filled with all the romanticism of a nation stepping out onto the historical stage and enjoying the respect, awe, and admiration of its neighbors. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you” (Josh. 2:9).

In the days of Ezra, the ten tribes were entirely absent, having been exiled to Halah and Habor (see I Chron. 5:26) or, in the words of the Jewish aggadah, “beyond the Sambation River” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10:5). A segment of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin wanted no part in the return to Zion, the Second Temple, or the redemption. They were happy sitting by their fleshpots in Babylon, Persia, and Media. Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and the other kings altered their edicts seven times a day, each new declaration repealing the previous one: one moment immigration was allowed, the next, they issued a White Paper halting entry. Even with someone positioned as close to the monarchy as Esther, the Land of Israel could not be mentioned: “At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, ‘What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (Esther 5:6). “‘Half the kingdom,’ but not the whole kingdom, and not something that would serve as a barrier to the kingdom. And what is that? The building of the Temple” (Megillah 15b). “Sanballat and Tobiah, and the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” (Neh. 4:1), Samaritans, enemies, informers, hateful broadsides, defamation and behind-the-scenes plots, fear of violent excesses and pogroms. “The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon. . . . that we may use the night to stand guard and the day to work” (Neh. 4:11, 16): with one hand, we have to extract water from the Negeb of the Land of Israel; with the other, we have to protect ourselves from Arab hooligans. And the internal situation? Economic hardship and spiritual impoverishment, intermarriage and ignorance, lack of language and tradition. And above all, “we have become a mockery” (Neh. 3:36): we have become objects of shame and derision.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, the great Jewish teacher, the pillar of the halakhah, comes along and rules that “the first sanctification . . . was in effect in its own time but not for all time,” whereas the “second sanctification is in effect forever, both in its own time and for all time” (Hilkhot Terumot 1:5). You hear? Joshua’s sanctification via capture and military victory, undertaken in an unbridled, gushing, enterprising spirit of conquest, when proud prophets, warriors, elders, students of our teacher Moses, and heroic legions seized the Land of Israel, was no more than a temporary phenomenon: Nebuchadnezzar abrogated it. But Ezra’s sanctification, which came about through daily, small-scale, unheroic, painstaking work, through disappointments and despair, intercession with and requests from the authorities, insults and humiliation – that remains forever: neither Titus nor Hadrian, neither Islam nor the Crusades, neither Turkey nor even the [British] Colonial Office can undo it.

Maimonides explains this halakhic paradox using the same philosophical idea: “Why do I maintain . . . that [the first sanctification] was not in effect for all time with respect to the rest of the Land of Israel vis-a-vis the sabbatical year, tithes, and so on? The reason is that . . . the requirement to observe the sabbatical year and the tithes depended on the land being conquered by the people, so that once it was taken away from them, their conquest was negated” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Beirah 6:16). Joshua’s sanctification was not the result of hardship but of historical success during glorious moments of Jewish history – none of which is forever. Ezra’s sanctification, by contrast, came about through occupation, settling the land, through the word of God, through adversity, martyrdom, spiritual pain and despair, mockery and derision. Ezra’s sanctification emerged from crisis, tribulation, and subjugation. Redemption born of suffering, the messiah born following birth pangs, are eternal – sanctification for all time!

How beautiful are the words we read in today’s haftarah: “The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is wakened from sleep” (Zech. 4:1). The angel of redemption rouses Zechariah, the prophet of the return to Zion:

Prophet! Despair not, deliver your prophecy, spread the Torah of redemption, of the messiah, of the building of the Temple! Do not give up hope because of the pitfalls and obstacles on the road; because of the external Sanballats, Samaritans, and Arabs and the internal Satans dwelling in the houses of the Kohanim Gedolim; or because of the “filthy garments” (Zech. 3:3) worn by Joshua the Kohen Gadol, who was supposed to lead the people toward God! Deliver your prophecy, proclaim redemption, and awaken the people’s hearts so that they hear the steps of the messiah.

Look, Zechariah! “A lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left” (Zech. 4:2–3). You see such a great vision of light, anointing oil, priesthood, and kingship; you see the great drama of the End of Days that can result from this movement! Inform the people, tell them about the golden Menorah with its fount of oil, about the clear light radiating from its seven branches, about Jewish anointing oil, sanctity, purity, ethical ideals, and historical hopes. Talk to them, inspire them!

However, the prophet does not understand how the great light of the golden Menorah can be born of such modest circumstances, such political bankruptcy, such a disgraceful national condition, such a state of disintegration and disharmony. At most a small community will emerge, not any sort of epoch-making event. The angel asks him, “Do you not know what those things mean?” and he responds, “No, my lord” (Zech. 4:5): I do not understand! At that point, the angel reveals to him the great secret of suffering, adversity, and sacrifice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power” (Zech. 4:6). For the Second Temple will be built not with happiness and joy, not with the support of neighbors and great kingdoms, but in spite of the enemies, insults, and disruptions, in spite of the enmity and disdain exhibited by the rest of the world. Through adversity and hardship will the holy light of the golden Menorah shine forth, and eternity will prevail.

*This excerpt is taken from an address delivered by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the Emergency Conference of the Mizrachi National Council on June 2, 1945.

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Birkat Yitzchak – Yitro (Shavuot)

Excerpted from Rabbi Menachem Genack’s Birkat Yitzchak Chidushim U-ve’urim al HaTorah

שבחן של ישראל

וכל העם רואים את הקולות (כ, טו).

איתא במכילתא: “רבי אומר להודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה היו שומעין את הדבור ומפרשין אותו שנאמר יסובבנהו יבוננהו יצרנהו כאישון עינו שמכיון שהיה הדבור יוצא היו מפרשין אותו. ולהודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה שלא היו בהן סומין שנאמר וכל העם רואים, מלמד שלא היו בהן אלמים שנאמר ויענו כל העם, מלמד שלא היו בהן חרשים שנאמר כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע”. עכ”ל.

והנה צ”ב כונת המכילתא, איזה שבח של ישראל אמור כאן, ולכאורה היה צריך לומר “להודיע שבחו של הקב”ה שריפא לכל הסומין ואלמים וחרשים”. והביאור בדברי המכילתא נראה, שהנה אדם קולט ידיעות דרך חושיו, ולכן אם היה חסר אחד מן החושים היה חסר בתפיסת דבר ה’ בסיני. וכיון שישראל קדושים לא רצו שיעכב שום דבר בתפיסתם את האמור בסיני, לפיכך זכו שנתרפאו בכך שדבר ה’ נכנס בתוכם וריפא אותם ונתרחב כח חושיהם להבין דבר ה’, וזהו “שבחן של ישראל”.

ולכן מאמרו של רבי במכילתא פותח בלהודיע שבחן של ישראל – שהבינו כל דבור וקלטו אותו מיד, וההמשך עוסק ברפואתם של בעלי המומין מישראל, כי רצונם של ישראל להבין דבורו של ה’ בכל תוקפו הוא זה שגרם לרפואתם, וגם זה הוא שבחן של ישראל.