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Parashat Emor: The Erev Shabbat Jew

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

The Erev Shabbat Jew

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously wrote about the missing “erev Shabbat Jew” in America:

It is not for the Sabbath that my heart aches, it is for the forgotten eve of the Sabbath. There are Sabbath-observing Jews in America, but there are not “eve-of-the-Sabbath” Jews who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls.

Some have said he intended to convey that America has Shabbat, but in Europe of old they had Shabbat eve. They spent more time on Friday preparing for Shabbat, so much so that one could feel it in the air. There is no comparable feeling in the streets of the goldene medine. Let us not forget, however, the rest of his wistful reflection. How many American Jews welcome the earthly Shabbat “with beating hearts and pulsating souls”? Perhaps if we explore the true nature of Shabbat, we will merit doing so.

Two Shabbatot
The command to observe Shabbat appears throughout the Torah. Parashat Emor employs the doubling of shabbat shabbaton (Leviticus 23:3), and Parashat Kedoshim uses the plural shabbetotai (Leviticus 19:3). The Zohar interprets this duality or multiplicity to refer to a Shabbat on high, shabbata ela, and to our earthly Shabbat, shabbata tata. In order to understand the supernal Shabbat, let us begin with the more familiar one.

The Rav explained that Shabbat relieves us of the curses placed on humanity after Adam’s sin. Adam was sentenced to hard labor – “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Genesis 3:19) – both back-breaking and endless. He was further cursed to suffer anguish (Genesis 3:17), described in the Rav’s inimitable prose as “the restlessness, fear, and suffering that characterize competitive society, or the conflict between human beings.” Finally, “for dust you are and to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19) initiated the cycle of life and death for humanity.

The “earthly Shabbat” releases us from the curses of toil and trouble. The monotony and rancor of trying to attain prosperity and maintain its security fade into the background. Work is dignified so long as we know how to leave it at the front door of our home. As the Rav observed, “endless work estranges people from their families.” Therefore, the Torah commands us to rest together on Shabbat as a family, and renew ties within parents, siblings, and children. The Shabbat atmosphere is one of serenity.

The “supernal Shabbat” is what suspends the curse of human mortality. In our prayers on Shabbat night, we ask God to spread His sukkat shalom, the shelter of peace, over us. This special insertion implies that we anticipate a time when evil will be no more and we will be free of suffering and death. This is not a reference to the earthly Shabbat but to the eternal, supernal Shabbat.

When God finished creation, the Torah concludes that He saw that everything He had made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The world was in a state of unity and perfection. However, when Adam and Chava disobeyed Him by sinning, they introduced disunity into the world. Shabbat is a time when the state attained on the sixth day of creation is relived, even if only for one day. The universe will revert to that state for eternity in the World to Come, which is why the Mishnah links the two: “‘A psalm, a song for Shabbat’ (Psalms 92:1) – a psalm, a song for the future, for the day which will be entirely Shabbat and rest for life everlasting.” In this sense, our weekly Shabbat offers us a taste of the peace and perfection of the messianic period, the age which will be entirely Shabbat.

The Shabbat to Come
Shabbat reminds us that we must plan ahead for the ultimate redemption. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan found this idea embedded in the way we prepare for Shabbat every week. Since we cannot cook on Shabbat, all of the food must be ready or partially cooked prior to Shabbat. In the wilderness, we are told that the Jewish people would prepare what they brought home of the double portion of manna (Exodus 16:5). Fifty-two times a year we ready ourselves for the earthly Shabbat, and as we do so we are reminded that our time on this earth will come to an end and that a supernal Shabbat is coming. And, as the Talmud says, “He who prepares on Friday, will eat on Shabbat.”

Every week we refer to Shabbat in prayer and Kiddush by its biblical designation as an ot olam (Exodus 31:17). The phrase is usually translated as an “eternal sign,” meaning, an enduring sign between the Jewish people and God. However, Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas wrote in his Reshit Chochmah, a kabbalistic and ethical volume, that the phrase means a “sign of eternity.” Rabbi Kaplan expounded upon this idea:

On Shabbat, the door opens a crack, and we see a spark of the eternal. We feel a breeze blowing from the future world, when all is Shabbat. The Shabbat feeling is a sign of the future, when man and God will be in total harmony.”

The Rav saw references to this Shabbat to come in the Shabbat liturgy. Before the Amidah on Friday night, we say that God spreads the “canopy of peace” over the Jewish people and Yerushalayim, which alludes to the end of days. In the morning, we recite Psalm 92, which is about the everlasting Shabbat. In Mincha, the eschatological theme takes center stage. We begin the central section of the Amidah by saying “You are one and Your name is one,” echoing the time when God and His name will finally be unified. We then say that “Avraham will rejoice, Yitzchak will sing, and Yaakov and his progeny will rest on [Shabbat].” This somewhat mystifying line alludes to the end of days when the great figures will join us again. After the Amidah, we recite three verses that typically understood to be an acceptance of God’s judgment, perhaps because Moshe died on Shabbat afternoon. Yet again, the Mincha prayer of Shabbat is connected to the ultimate divine justice.

After Mincha, as Shabbat rapidly approaches its end, there is a widespread custom to recite Psalm 23, which expresses these lofty themes as well. The shepherd symbolizes the Almighty who remains close to His flock. His providence is manifest even in the valley of death, the long night of exile. We will eventually “dwell in the house of the Lord” with the rebuilding of the Temple.

Exploring the Rav’s Insight 
In the same way we are meant to greet Shabbat with yearning and joy, so should we prolong our visit with the Shabbat queen. In this connection, the Rav shared the following memory from his childhood:

In Warsaw we lived three houses away from a Modzhitzer shtiebel (a small, unassuming place of prayer). Generally, I would go to this Modzhitzer shtiebel for the se’udah shelishit (the third meal) of the Sabbath. They would sing all the zemirot (songs) for se’udah shelishit [ . . . ].

I knew these Jews well and I constantly spoke with them. [ . . . ] I once spoke with one of them who was frail and short. He constantly carried heavy metal pieces and I wondered where he got the physical strength to support this weight. His load was always tied around him with a thick cord. . . . On the Sabbath, I saw this very Jew and I did not recognize him. He came over to me in his tattered kapote. It was covered with endless patches, and even the patches had patches. Yet his face shone with the joy of the Sabbath. I recognized in a tangible fashion that a person’s Sabbath countenance is totally different than his weekday appearance.

So I asked him: “When will we daven Maariv [to conclude the Sabbath]?’

He answered: “What is with you? Are you already longing for the weekdays to begin? What do you mean when will we daven Maariv, are we lacking anything now?”

The Chassidim did not want to let Shabbat go and face the weekday. Their rapturous singing at the third meal brought them into contact with the spiritual plane of true bliss – the supernal Shabbat. If we resurrect the “erev Shabbat Jew” within us, perhaps we too will sense this higher reality, and be reluctant to take our leave of Shabbat the moment night falls.

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Parashat Aharei Mot: Something Different for a Change

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Something Different for a Change*

The problem of tradition versus innovation is an ancient, complex, and yet ever relevant one. The issue has never been fully resolved, and especially in Jewish life we must face it again in every generation.

When does conformity with accepted custom shade off from cautious conservatism to a rigid reactionary stand? And when does the willingness to experiment move one from the ranks of the liberals to those of the radicals who are contemptuous of the inherited values of the past? When is submission to tradition an act of moral cowardice and an evasion of responsibility, a cop-out on independent thinking? And when is the desire for change a thoughtless lust for cheap sensationalism and trivial thrill? These are questions of the greatest importance, and honorable men and women have and do differ about them.

It would be foolish to attempt an exhaustive analysis of the point of view of Judaism on this question, but is instructive to look for some insights from within the heritage of Judaism.

A perusal of the first part of today’s sidra impresses us with the Torah’s powerful insistence upon observing every jot and title of the tradition. Thus, the Yom Kippur service of the High Priest in the Temple is set forth in the greatest detail, with constant and reiterated warnings that the slightest deviation from the prescribed ritual is a disaster, that any change is calamitous. Clearly, the Bible holds tradition and custom in the highest esteem.

And yet, here and there the Torah leaves us a hint which the Rabbis picked up and expanded, in order to complete the total picture by supplementing this valuation of tradition with another point of view. Thus, after describing the high point of Yom Kippur, when the High Priest has performed the service in the inner sanctum, we read, “And Aaron shall come to the Tent of Meeting and remove his linen garments which he wore when he came to the sanctuary, and he shall leave them there” (Leviticus 16:23). The Talmud (Pesaĥim 26a, and cited by Rashi) tells us that of the eight special garments that the High Priest wore for the Yom Kippur service, he was to remove four of them, those of white linen, and these required sequestering or burial. They could not be used again. He may not avail himself of these four garments on the following Yom Kippur.

Now, these priestly clothes were very costly linen garments. According to the mishna in Yoma (3:7), they were exceptionally expensive. Why, therefore, waste them? Why not put them aside for the following Yom Kippur? Why do not the Rabbis invoke the established halakhic principle (Yoma 39a) that, “The Torah is considerate of the material means of Israelites” and does not want to spend Jewish money unnecessarily?

An answer has been suggested by Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen. With all the concern of the Torah for the prescribed ritual and the unchanging tradition, the Torah very much wanted us to avoid the danger of routine. It considered boredom and rote as poison to the spirit and soul. Therefore, whereas we must follow every step of the ritual, the High Priest must have a change of garments every Yom Kippur, in the hope that the outward novelty will inspire and evoke from within the High Priest an inner freshness and enthusiasm, and that these four garments, which must always be different and always be new, will remain a symbol to all Israel that boredom is a slow death for the spirit, that only renewal can guarantee life. We need something different for a change!

What I think is the authentic Jewish view on our problem of tradition and change is this dual approach, insisting upon the unchanging framework of action, the fixed pattern of activity being transmitted from generation to generation without the slightest deviation, but demanding at the same time that inwardly we always bring a new spirit, a new insight, a new intuition into what we are doing. Objectively there is to be only tradition; subjectively there must always be something different, some change, something new. In outward practice custom prevails; in inner experience, only novelty and growth.

We find this emphasis on internal novelty in all the branches of the Jewish tradition. The Halakha itself, which is so insistent upon preserving outward form, cautions us against merely rote observance of mitzvot to which we habituate ourselves. It is very important for every man and woman to learn how to give religious expression to the various aspects of one’s life, but never must this be done thoughtlessly and mindlessly merely because it has become second nature for us. Every year we perform the same seder, but our tradition challenges us to pour new meaning into the old form. Every Jewish wife and mother lights the candles on Friday afternoon in the same way every week of her life. It is her great opportunity to offer her own personal, even wordless, prayer to her Creator. But every week there should be some novelty, some additional requests, some new insights and concern – perhaps for someone else’s family. When we offer the blessing on bread after a meal, we recite the same words, but perhaps sometimes we ought to vary the melody (if we do sing it) in order to challenge us to rethink our gratitude to the Almighty for being allowed to be included in that small percentage of humanity that suffers from overeating rather than under-eating. Every morning we recite the morning blessings. If we would really hear what we are saying, it is possible that our service would take three times as long! We bless God who is “poke’aĥ ivrim,” who makes the blind see. Only a short while ago we were sleeping, completely sightless. Then we wake up and look at the world around us. We ought to marvel, we ought to be amazed and stunned, at the great miracle of being able to see!

Ask those who cannot, whose eyesight is impaired, or whose vision is threatened, and you will appreciate once again what it is to wake up every morning and be able to see! We blessed Him that He is “matir asurim,” He straightens up those who are bent over. We thank God that we are able to get up in the morning, difficult as it is, and indeed, when we think upon it, we ought to be suffused with a special light of thankfulness that we are not confined to bed, that we have the wherewithal to arise and go about our daily activities. Every word of prayer that we say, every expression of gratitude, ought to be completely new every morning. And indeed, this is true for objective reasons as well. Although the world looks like an old one, although the objects of nature are ancient and its laws timeless, nonetheless we believe that God “renews in His goodness every day the work of Creation.” In that case, every morning we are indeed confronted with a brand new world – and therefore our reaction ought to be one of novelty and amazement and marveling.

The Kabbalistic tradition, as it came to us through Rabbi Isaac Luria, insisted that the same holds true for all of prayer. In prayer, perhaps above all else, we find the Jewish penchant for tradition and the acceptance of tried and tested formulae. Unlike most other peoples, especially in the Western world, our tefillot are the same every day, every Sabbath, every festival. And yet Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that each prayer must be unique in its essence, despite the identity of words. No two prayers are ever alike! Each prayer is offered up only once and cannot be truly repeated – provided that we pray in the right manner.

Hasidism made this the cornerstone of its whole theology. Thus, Rebbe Nachman Bratzlaver declared that, “If we shall be no better tomorrow than we are today, then why is tomorrow necessary at all?!” We may not use the same garments of this year for next Yom Kippur. There must always be something different, for a change in the life of the spirit is necessary to keep the mind and heart alive, healthy, and alert – to make each and every tomorrow unexpected, meaningful, exciting, and hence, necessary. There must be a change – and always in an upward direction.

Paradoxically, if we remain the same, we really are diminished. If we are stationery, then we are not stationery but we retrogress. In the life of Torah, the old rule (Sifre, Eikev 48) holds true – “If you abandon it for one day, it will abandon you for two days.” Why is this so? Because life moves on, turbulently and inexorably. Events are never static; we have to run to keep in place.

This is especially true with the mitzva of tzedaka, charity. I am often frustrated when I appeal for charitable contributions and I hear the answer to my appeal in the form of a question: “Well, what did I give last year?” In all other aspects of life, we accommodate ourselves to a precipitate change in the economy. Despite an ephemeral boycott or occasional whimper or complaint, we adjust soon enough to paying more for beef and onions, for haircuts and services. But when it comes to charity – rarely do we keep pace. “What did I give last year” becomes the introduction to and excuse for repeating the same pledge this year. This question and this pledge form a philanthropic litany which is destructive of our greatest communal institutions.

But this is not the way it should be. We may not use the same garments of this year for next Yom Kippur. Just as in matters of prayer or observance or religious experience, so in matters of charity we must grow Jewishly. Here too there must be something different for a change. Today must not be the same as yesterday, tomorrow not the same as today, this year not the same as last year.

Perhaps all that I have been saying is summed up in the last will and testament of one of the greatest Jewish translators of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Judah Ibn Tibbon, when he left the following advice to his son, Rabbi Samuel: “Of what good is life if my actions today are no different from what they were yesterday?” And conversely, how wonderful can life be if every day is new, if every day is different, if every day there is a change for the better.

*April 28, 1973

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Birkat Yitzchak – Tazria

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

האם דיני טומאת בתים תלויים בקדושת הארץ

והבגד כי יהיה בו נגע צרעת (יג, מז)

כתב הרמב”ן: “זה איננו בטבע כלל ולא בהווה בעולם. וכן נגע הבתים, אבל בהיות ישראל שלימים לה’ יהיה רוח השם עליהם תמיד להעמיד גופם ובגדיהם ובתיהם במראה טוב, וכאשר יקרה באחד מהם חטא ועון יתהוה כיעור בבשרו או בבגדו או בביתו להראות כי השם סר מעליו, ולכך אמר הכתוב ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחוזתכם, כי היא מכת השם בבית ההוא. והנה איננו נוהג אלא בארץ שהיא נחלת ה’ כמו שאמר כי תבואו אל ארץ כנען אשר אני נותן לכם לאחוזה. ואין הדבר מפני היותו חובת קרקע, אבל מפני שלא יבוא הענין ההוא אלא בארץ הנבחרת אשר השם הנכבד שוכן בתוכה. ובתורת כהנים דרשו עוד שאין הבית מטמא אלא אחר כיבוש וחילוק, ושיהא כל אחד ואחד מכיר את שלו. והטעם, כי אז נתיישבה דעתם עליהם לדעת את ה’ ותשרה שכינה בתוכם. וכן אני חושב בנגע הבגדים שלא ינהגו אלא בארץ”.

והנה שמעתי ממו”ר מרן הגרי”ד זצ”ל, שישנם הרבה דינים התלויין בקדושת הארץ, כתרומות ומעשרות ושמיטה ויובל וכו’, וקדושה ראשונה להרמב”ם בטלה אבל קדושה שנייה קיימת לעולם, וזהו דוקא במקומות שהחזיקו עולי בבל, אבל מקומות שכבשו עולי מצרים ולא כבשו עולי בבל אינם קדושים, ואין נוהגים שם תרומות ומעשרות. אבל מלבד זה יש דינים שאינם תלויים בקדושת הארץ וחובת הקרקע אלא תלוים בשם ארץ ישראל כגון: עגלה ערופה, סמיכה וקידוש החודש, שנוהגים גם במקומות שכבשו עולי מצרים. וכן הוכיח הרב ז”ל מלשון הרמב”ם שלא תלה דינים אלו במקומות שהחזיקו עולי בבל אלא אף במקומות שכבש יהושע. וכן היה נוהג גם בשבעים שנה בין חורבן בית ראשון לבנין בית שני, שאף שקדושת הארץ נתבטלה אז, אבל השם ‘ארץ ישראל’ המורה על כך שהיא ארצו של העם הנבחר, לעולם לא נתבטל. [עיין אגרות הגרי”ד הל’ מלכים אות ב.]

והנה הרמב”ן כתב להדיא שגם דיני נגעי בתים שאינם נוהגים אלא בארץ ישראל אינם תלויים בקדושת הארץ אלא בשם ארץ ישראל, ולכן לכאורה היה נוהג גם בשבעים שנה בין בית ראשון לבית שני, וגם במקומות שכבשו עולי מצרים בלבד. ועיין במנ”ח (מצוה קעז) שכתב דאין דיני נגעי בתים נוהגים אלא במקומות דקדושת הארץ הוי דאורייתא, ואי קדושת הארץ בזה”ז הוי דרבנן וכשיטת ספר התרומות, א”כ אין דיני נגעי בתים נוהגים. אבל ברמב”ן מפורש לכאורה להיפך, דדיני נגעי בתים אינם תלויים בקדושת הארץ, שאינם חובת קרקע אלא תלויים בארץ הנבחרת.

ונראה שמטעם זה האריך הרמב”ן לבאר מדוע נגעי בתים לא היו נוהגים אלא אחר ז’ שכבשו וז’ שחלקו. ובתורת כהנים המקור הוא מגזה”כ ד”לאחוזה”, אבל הרמב”ן כתב שהוא משום שאחר שישבו נתיישבה דעתם עליהם לדעת את ה’. ולכאורה לא היה הרמב”ן צריך לטעם זה, שהרי גם תרומות ומעשרות לא נהגו עד אחר ירושה וישיבה דהיינו אחר ז’ שכבשו וז’ שחלקו, ושם לא היה צריך הרמב”ן להסביר טעמא דמילתא, דהוא דין התלוי בירושה וישיבה. אכן בנידון דידן נתקשה לרמב”ן, דכיון דנגעי בתים אינו תלוי בקדושת הארץ אלא בשם ארץ ישראל וכמו שכתב הרמב”ן להדיא, א”כ היה צריך נגעי בתים להיות נוהגים מיד בכניסתם לארץ, דלכאורה ז’ שכבשו וז’ שחלקו נוגע רק לענין קדושת הארץ ולא לשם ארץ ישראל, ולכן הצטרך הרמב”ן להסביר דדין אחוזה לגבי נגעי .בתים הוי דין מיוחד דאז נתיישבה דעתם עליהם וכו’

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Hasidus Meets America: The Passover Haggadah

Excerpted from Hasidus Meets America: The Life and Torah of the Monastryshcher Rebbe zt”l (1860-1938) and an Anthology of His Teachings, by Ora Wiskind, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing

The Passover Haggadah
Todat Yehoshua

The Passover Haggadah recounts a process of transformation in which Jewish self-awareness is fundamentally altered.19 In his extensive commentary on the Haggadah, R. Yehoshua Heschel reads the state of exile, or galut, as the beginning point of a metamorphosis that will transform a seemingly random gathering of individuals into an enmeshed community. But for this to take place, there must be an awakening, the birth of a new dimension of awareness. This awakening is what made the Exodus possible; ultimately, it is what engendered the entity called God’s chosen people, a nation worthy of being redeemed. In the opening pages of his commentary on the Haggadah, he examines the inner workings of that transformation and summons core Hasidic concepts to bring it to light.

“The people picked up its dough before it could rise” (Exod. 12:34). A prelude to the dramatic events to follow, this verse, narrated so briefly, represents the commandment of biur hametz, the injunction to take action, that “no leaven be found in your homes” (Exod. 12:19).20 Following the Zohar, R. Yehoshua Heschel reads it allegorically. “Dough,” in a mystical sense, symbolizes the body, material existence. This verse, then, attests that in that final hour they struggled to elevate themselves, to “pick up their dough,” their physicality, just before it was too late. But haste was essential, before the “Other Side” of evil had time to distract them with anxiety about themselves. In a moment of greatness, they attained the ultimate state of bitul hayesh – annulment of their earthly, embodied, human existence. What made this moment possible is the metaphysical, eternal bond between the Jewish people and God. The connection is primary, organic, indestructible. And so the Exodus, for all time to come, planted within the Jewish people the power to shrug off concern for the body and its pleasures, to forget (if only for a moment) what they lack, the pain and suffering of earthly life, to put aside egotism and selfishness. On this reading, the attainment of what Hasidic teaching calls hitpashtut ha-gashmiyut (freeing oneself from corporeity) signifies a vital, founding stage in every spiritual journey toward freedom, from the historical Exodus to every private story of exile and hoped-for redemption.21

Thus, urgency to “remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life,” far more than a memory of the historical past, reverberates into the present, into the psyche of every living Jew. R. Yehoshua Heschel describes the self-perception that the Haggadah seeks to cultivate. These lines from the first pages of his commentary resonate with contemporary relevance.

[Remembering] is what ensures our survival throughout our  wanderings, uprooted again and again, from one exile to the next. Wherever we go, we are persecuted and despised, scorned and demeaned by all. Yet we must not falter, must never believe that we are the lowest of nations. The day we left Egypt – this memory must imprint our consciousness, . . . the great lengths to which God went to redeem us from there, to make us His treasured, unique nation. This alone will guard us from being swallowed up by our surroundings, assimilated and lost in alien cultures; this alone empowers us to keep on hoping, never to despair that salvation is near.22

Paradoxically, R. Yehoshua Heschel says, centuries of Jewish existence amidst the nations “as a lamb among wolves” is the most cogent testimony of God’s power on the stage of history. The striking prooftext of all this that he offers is a theologically laden Talmudic passage. The ominous, terror-striking eventuality of Divine occlusion – “I will hide My face on that day” (Deut. 31:18) – is preempted by a second counter-narrative: “Rav Yosef said, His hand is outstretched, guarding over us, as it is written, ‘I have covered you in the shadow of My hand’ (Isa. 51:16).”23 The powerful images in the Haggadah of God’s “strong hand” and “outstretched arm” gesture to this complex reality. Although present-day “heretics” continue to avow that “ours is the nation whose Master turned His face from it,” in truth, hester panim means just the opposite: it attests not to abandonment but to concealed, eternal Divine presence. Thus, he concludes, “‘While they are in the land of their enemies, even so, I shall never reject them utterly’ (Lev. 27:44). God’s ‘outstretched arm’ bears witness to this promise, that the Face will not be hidden forever. His hand secretly shelters and protects us from annihilation in this exile; it buoys our hope that, in the end, God will return and comfort us.”24

19. This section is based on my discussion in: “A Hasidic Commentary on the Passover Haggadah for the New World,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 31 (2023), 233–260.
20. His reading al derekh ha-hasidut is based on a passage from Zohar 2.40b, which he notes.
21. Todat Yehoshua, 15–16; 29. R. Yehoshua Heschel returns to this theme later in his commentary, pp. 96–99; see my discussion below. His understanding of “worship through corporeity” and the complex interrelationship between consciousness, materiality and spirituality are clearly influenced by Habad Hasidic thought.
22. Todat Yehoshua, 29–30; see Hebrew Sources, p. 157. He writes cogently of this in his memoirs as well. See my discussion in “Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Rabinowitz of Monastryrishche: Contemplations of a Hasidic Leader on Judaism in Troubled Times” (Hebrew), Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 25 (2017), 197–202.
23. Hagigah 5b. On the striking statement in that Talmudic passage that “whoever has not experienced hester panim [the hiding of God’s face] is not one of them [the Jewish people],” see Todat Yehoshua, 37; see also his commentary on the Talmud, Yalkut Yehoshua, 95.
24. “Heretics” would avow that “ours is the nation whose Master turned His face from it” (alluding to Hagigah 5b). Todat Yehoshua, 29–30.

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Parashat Tzav: A Matter of Time

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

A Matter of Time

The opening mitzvah in Parashat Tzav is terumat ha-deshen, the removal of the ash, a simple ritual that commenced the Temple service every day. It was performed exclusively by a Kohen, who would ascend the outer altar’s ramp, remove a small volume of ash from the pyres, and carefully place it in a designated spot in the Temple precinct. This served the practical purpose of keeping the altar tidy, which maintained the dignity of the Temple and allowed the fires to burn more cleanly.

In keeping with his focus on our oft-forgotten “duties of the heart,” the venerable medieval philosopher Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakudah in his Chovot ha-Levavot stated that this act was also for the Kohen. The Kohen was privileged to stand before God in the holy Temple as the representative of the entire nation, and therefore could develop inappropriate feelings of superiority:

As Scripture says of Aharon, in spite of the high dignity of his office: “He shall remove the ashes” (Leviticus 6:3) – the Creator obligated him to remove the ashes daily to induce lowliness and remove arrogance from his heart.

The menial chore of taking out the altar garbage was meant to humble the Kohen into being a pure oved Hashem, a servant of God.

Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa similarly taught that the Kohen’s day began with the lifting of the ashes to put his heart in the right place, by reminding him of the simple, this-worldly needs of the people he represented even in such a holy place. In God’s house, he was to lift up – to elevate – the common man. Too often those who rise to lofty positions become aloof and fail to relate to the struggles and pains experienced by “the little people,” and to raise them up with them.

The nineteenth-century champion of Orthodox Judaism in Germany, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, found another psychological insight in this mitzvah. The ash reminds us of all the offerings brought the previous day. Removing it signals that it is a new day and we must again do what was incumbent upon us to do the day prior. We cannot rely on what was done yesterday. This recalls Rashi’s comment on “the Lord your God commands you today to observe these laws . . .” (Deuteronomy 26:16): “Every day you shall regard [the commandments] as if they are brand new, as if, on that very day, you have been commanded them.” In order to do this, we must let go of yesterday, and focus on the day ahead.

A fascinating interpretation of terumat ha-deshen arises from the question of its placement. Why doesn’t it appear in Parashat Vayikra, where all the sacrifices are elucidated? The second Ishbitzer Rebbe, Yaakov Leiner, explained that some things can be readily understood,  while others need time to be processed. A new idea forces us to rewire our neural networks, an obscure one takes time to wrap our head around. At times, we do not fully comprehend something until we sleep on it, as the human mind needs a period of relative inactivity to accomplish the processing for us and make it a part of ourselves. The sacrificial rite introduced in Parashat Vayikra was difficult for the Jewish people to wrap their heads around, and this remains true for us today as well. However, with time, a devoted heart, and an openness to absorb these truths, one can surely assimilate them into one’s very being. This is represented by terumat ha-deshen. When the sacrifices of the previous day have finished burning, their process is complete and one removes their ashes, an act that can be performed all night. Why at night? Because it represents the time when the mystifying is on some deep level demystified and absorbed.

The verse says, “Taste and see that God is good” (Psalms 34:9). Sometimes this proves challenging, as various Torah laws and practices defy our rational faculties or moral sensibilities. The sacrificial rite with its myriad details is a good example. Nevertheless, the rebbe taught that when we allow them to find a place within us, they will subconsciously become as beloved as any of God’s more consciously assimilable teachings.

One of the most outstanding Chassidic masters, the Kotzker Rebbe, made this very point. He was once asked, why do we say in the Shema that God’s words should be “upon ( עַל ) your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6) and not “in (- בִּ) your heart”? “Of course they should be in your heart,” the rebbe replied, “but that is not always possible. At the very least, you can put them on your heart. They may sit there for a long time. But someday your heart will open, and if they are already on top of your heart, they can slip right in.”

We cannot always readily digest the Torah we learn. In the same way reaching one’s mature height is the product of years of silent growth, spiritual and emotional development slowly and immeasurably occurs beneath the surface. The key is to place the mitzvot “on our hearts.” When we recognize the nobility of the Torah’s directives and feel honored to be their recipient, we desire to taste God’s goodness. At that point, it is merely a matter of time.

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Birkat Yitzchak – Purim

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

ואנכי הסתר אסתיר

ויאמר כי יד על כס י-ה מלחמה לה’ בעמלק מדור דור (יז, טז)

וברש”י: “ידו של הקב”ה הורמה לישבע בכסאו להיות לו מלחמה ואיבה בעמלק עולמית. ומהו כס ולא נאמר כסא, ואף השם נחלק לחציו. נשבע הקב”ה שאין שמו ואין כסאו שלם עד שימחה שמו של עמלק כלו וכשימחה שמו יהיה השם שלם והכסא שלם”

והנה הספר היחיד בתנ”ך שלא נזכר בו שמו של הקב”ה הוא מגילת אסתר. ובפשטות טעם הדבר הוא, שכל הנסים שבמגילת אסתר הם נסים נסתרים, והנהגת ה’ ופעולתו נסתרת מאחורי הפרגוד ואינו נראה אלא לבעל אמונה המבין דבר לאשורו. וכן אמרו חז”ל (חולין קלט, ב): “אסתר מן התורה מנין, ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא וגו'”, שהכל נעשה בהסתר.

אבל הנה ראיתי בספר ‘לימודי ניסן’ להגאון רבי ניסן ליפא אלפערט זצ”ל, שכתב שהטעם בדבר הוא משום שמגילת אסתר מדברת אודות המן ובמה שרצה להשמיד את היהודים ובסוף הוא נתלה, וכל תוכן ותוקף מגילת אסתר הוא לזכור את עמלק ומחייתו, שהמן מצאצאי עמלק היה, ולכן לא נזכר שמו של הקב”ה, שכל זמן שעמלק קיים אין שמו של הקב”ה שלם.

והנה לכאורה נראה שמה שאין אנו רואים בגלוי את מעשה הקב”ה והכל נראה כטבע, הוא משום שאם היתה הנהגת הקב”ה גלויה לעין כל לא היה מקום לאמונה ובטחון, וזהו לפי הטעם הראשון שביארנו למה שמו של הקב”ה אינו נזכר במגילת אסתר. אולם לפי מה שכתב הגר”נ אלפערט זצ”ל יש לומר, שמציאות הרשע ועמלק בעולם מכסים ומסתירים מעינינו את מעשה ה’ ולכן אינו נראה לכל, אבל בימות המשיח כשיימחה עמלק, אז תמלא הארץ דעה את ה’ ועיני כל יראו את מעשה ה’ ויבינו השגחתו בעולם ואז יהיה שמו וכסאו שלם.

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei – A Retrospective: Putting Sinai in Perspective

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

A Retrospective: Putting Sinai in Perspective


One of the indelible images of the book of Shmot is of the free-willed acceptance by the Israelites of the Torah at Sinai, captured in the people’s proclamation “we will do and we will hear.” Yet a Midrashic tradition quoted in the Talmud shatters that image, painting a vastly different picture.

Rabbi Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa maintains that the Torah passage “And [the Israelites] stood at the base of the mountain” implies that during Revelation, “God held the mountain over them like a barrel and proclaimed: ‘If you accept the Torah, fine – but if not, here will be your burial!’ ”

Rava agrees with Rabbi Avdimi but claims that, centuries later, at the time of the Purim story, the Jews finally freely accept what their ancestors had accepted at Sinai under duress. As proof he cites a passage at the end of Megillat Esther which closely parallels the commitment “we will do and we will hear” rooted at Sinai. The Megilla testifies that the Jews “fulfilled and accepted.” “They fulfilled,” says Rava, “that which they had already accepted.”


Why do the rabbis transform the scene at Sinai so completely? Why is Rabbi Avdimi so intent upon adding an element of coercion to the Revelation narrative that does not seem to exist in the straightforward reading of the text?

Furthermore, how does the Purim story, according to Rava, relate to the Revelation narrative? Purim, a story of survival from the Persian period of Jewish history, occurs centuries later and would seem to be completely unrelated to the events at Sinai. Is Rava simply playing a word game, arbitrarily connecting two totally different tales on the basis of a linguistic nuance?


Through a figurative, rather than literal, interpretation of this well-known Midrash, a powerfully significant lesson can be derived.

The rabbis demonstrate tremendous historical integrity as they ask us to put ourselves in the place of the Israelites at Sinai: You have just witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Reed Sea, the battle with Amalek, the gift of the manna and more. And now, amidst the thunder, lightning and sounding of the shofar of Revelation, God turns to you and asks, “Will you accept my law?”

Could your answer possibly be anything other than a resounding “Yes”?

On a technical level, of course the Israelites retained their free will during Revelation. In reality, however, they were faced with coercion of circumstance. It was as if “God held the mountain over their heads.” Given the surrounding environment, they did not have the opportunity to freely choose.

In this light, Rava’s puzzling observation suddenly makes abundant sense, as well.

Yes, he says, it is true that at Sinai the Israelites did not have the benefit of choice. Surrounded by the miraculous events of the moment, they could not choose a different path.

The time comes, however, when God withdraws; when His hand in the  world is no longer open and He orchestrates events from behind a screen. Within the national era of Jewish history, that moment arrives at the time of the Purim tale. Purim marks the onset of the non-prophetic period of the national era. At no point does God speak directly to Esther or Mordechai, the heroes of the story. They must, instead, determine divine will during a time of God’s silence and in the face of extraordinarily trying circumstances.

And when the Jewish community of that day accepts the story of Purim as divinely orchestrated, when they see the hidden miracle in a series of events that could have been interpreted as coincidental – only then, for the first time, the nation accepts with total freedom what their ancestors were forced to accept at Sinai.

As we have noted before, both the patriarchal era and the national era of Jewish history open with clear, direct communication between God and man. A point is reached, however, in each of these eras, when prophecy is silenced and God pulls back to allow us to find our own way. Just as a parent must let go of the child’s hand if a child is to learn to walk on his own, so too God withdraws and challenges us to determine our path.

And when that moment arrives – during the patriarchal era at the time of the Yosef story, and during the national era at the time of Purim (see Bereishit: Vayeishev 1) – full free will is born and our challenge truly begins.

Points to Ponder

One of the common questions asked by children and adults alike as we consider the flow of Jewish history is, “Why did God limit the performance of miracles to ancient times?” With a sense of longing, we look back to a time when everything was open, when God’s existence was obvious and His connection to our lives clear.

The rabbis, however, would have us understand that, on some level, this sense of longing is misplaced.

To live in a time when God is “hidden” is to face a trial that transcends the test of Sinai. When the thunder, lightning and shofar of the book of Shmot fall silent; when we are forced to find and appreciate God’s existence in the quiet miracles that surround us each day, that is when the mature challenge truly begins.

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Parashat Ki Tisa: The Spirit of Shabbat

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

The Spirit of Shabbat

One mitzvah enshrined in the Ten Commandments is Shabbat. When God commanded us to keep Shabbat, He referred to it in the singular:
“Remember the day of Shabbat ( השַַּׁבתָּ )” (Exodus 20:7). Why now, in Ki Tisa, does the Torah say, “observe My Sabbaths ( שַׁבתְּותֹיַ )” (Exodus 31:13)?

On a simple level, one can say it merely refers to the many Sabbaths of the year. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, however, suggested in his
Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabalah that the use of the plural is to refer to the two aspects of Shabbat, one of which leads to the other: the resting of the
body by observing Shabbat’s intricate laws engenders the tranquility necessary for the soul to delve into spiritual matters. Shabbat is, ultimately, a Besinnungstag, “a day of reflection.” Rabbi Mecklenburg added that this might be the meaning of the aggadic statement that Mashiach will come when the Jewish people observe two Sabbaths. Perhaps it does not mean two separate occurrences of Shabbat, but the perfect integration of the two aspects by all on a single Sabbath.

In a similar vein, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook emphasized the beauty of Shabbat as a day which improves the quality of life for the Jew and for the Jewish people as a whole. He taught that we need to recover from the negative effects of the materialistic, physical world that oftentimes weakens our pure inner essence. Shabbat provides us a sanctuary in time in which to regain our balance, and in its wholesomeness our souls reconnect to their true source:

The pressure of growth and the perfection of life requires actualization by providing a space in which to take a rest and shake off the bustle of everyday affairs. The individual can recover from mundane living at frequent intervals – every Sabbath.

Prior to the onset of Shabbat, the Sages prescribe checking our pockets to remove any item that may not be carried on the sacred day. Rav Kook interpreted this as more than a sensible measure against sin. Shabbat helps us align our inner sentiments and ideals of truth, sensitivity, and sanctity with our activity in the outer world, so that the two operate in harmony. The Mishnah says that a person needs to check their beged, which literally means “clothing,” but it can also be homiletically linked to the word for the unfaithful, boged. When we usher in Shabbat, we are to ask ourselves if anything picked up during the week needs to be removed from our lives. Are our thoughts and actions of the six weekdays in consonance with our convictions and core beliefs?

As we make sure the preceding week is in concord with the culminating Shabbat, we also must bring Shabbat into the following week. When we recite Havdalah, we formally mark the conclusion of Shabbat. The Midrash remarks about the tent of our matriarch Sarah, “a candle would burn from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve.” Why was this the case if the Shabbat candles are only intended to remain lit for Shabbat? The idea seems to be that for Sarah the impact of Shabbat went well beyond Shabbat itself; the light and aura of the holy day informed her home for the rest of the week.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a rabbi of note who was Rav Kook’s contemporary, once commented on the prevalent custom of not giving Havdalah wine to women. He suggested that the reason for this is that practice of our matriarch Sarah, to transfer the qualities of Shabbat into the week. By abstaining from the Havdalah wine that marks the end of Shabbat, she symbolically extends the spirit of Shabbat into the work week.

Shabbat gives us the opportunity to figure out who we really are as a person and what makes a difference in our lives, and to reevaluate our life’s direction at regular intervals. Rav Kook quoted a verse from Parashat Ki Tisa, “Between Me and the Children of Israel it is an everlasting sign” (Exodus 31:17), in his description of the exquisite nature of Shabbat:

A holy day, on which is revealed the inclination of the nation – the inclination towards divine living – in its individuals. It is a sign to the nation that its soul naturally has the need and capacity to bask in the divine. The divine delight, which draws itself into the spiritual point that is the neshamah yeterah (extra soul), rests in the heart of every one of its children.

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Parashat Mishpatim: Na’aseh ve-Nishma – The Hidden and The Manifest

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

Na’aseh ve-Nishma: The Hidden and The Manifest

Two unforgettable words declared by the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai, na’aseh ve-nishma, “we shall do and we shall listen,” have reverberated throughout the generations. The meaning of these two words and the significance of their counterintuitive order have been subject to a wealth of interpretations.

Rashbam, one of the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot and grandson of Rashi, strove to interpret the Torah according to the peshat (literal-contextual meaning). Consistent with this approach, he explained that na’aseh refers to the commandments already given, such as circumcision and Shabbat, and nishma refers to the ones that would be given during the revelation at Sinai. With this declaration, the Jewish people were reaffirming their commitment to the laws which they had already been keeping, and accepting the new ones now being given at Sinai.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno conceived of the two terms as expressing a certain mindset or attitude. The Jewish people would observe the commandments (na’aseh) in order to obey (nishma) the word of God. In other words, the Jews were saying that their performance of mitzvot was not contingent on receiving a reward or on any other ulterior motive. Their motivation was pure, acting solely for the sake of obeying God.

One of Chassidut’s most celebrated thinkers, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, suggested a deeper understanding of these words:

For example, the Torah’s refrain “God spoke to Moshe, saying” ( ויַדְַברֵּ ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר ) makes no demands on us. It is a part of the Torah that we can only “hear” (nishma) but not “perform” (na’aseh). Nevertheless, it has profound meaning. Even among the mitzvot which we think we grasp, there exist layers of meaning beyond our reach. We hear but we do not comprehend. On other planes of existence, these things are understood, but others are still not. The duality of na’aseh and nishma runs throughout all reality.

This notion of inscrutability has been expressed by other Torah luminaries as well. It is said in the name of Rav Chaim Brisker that the reasons we find for the commandments are merely subjective impressions, even the rationale that we may not murder other human beings because it will destroy civilization. Since God could have made the world otherwise, or even in such a way that murder would maintain the fabric of society, the objective reasons behind the mitzvot belong to an inaccessible, supernal realm.

A memorable anecdote involving the Kotzker Rebbe exemplifies this, too. A student once approached the Kotzker and related that he was troubled because he could not understand the ways of God. The rebbe responded with the kind of sharp retort for which he is famous, “A God I could understand, I would not be able to believe in.”

This theological approach, echoed by others but elaborated more fully by Rebbe Nachman, should be appreciated for the way it informs daily Jewish living. The Torah study that we do is an exemplary form of avodat Hashem, divine service, because it does not exhaust itself with learning for the sake of observing. Every word contains worlds of meaning, and through its study we draw closer to the Creator of this immense complexity.

A rabbi is traditionally the most learned in Torah. The general Hebrew term for “rabbi” is rav ( רַב ), which can be understood as one who has an abundance ( הרְַבהֵּ ) of Torah knowledge. The Chassidim designated a different term for their spiritual masters, rebbe ( רַביִּ ), which some claim is a combination of the term for abundance plus the letter yod, which is part of God’s divine name. Therefore, the rebbe is someone who has mastered a great deal of Torah, and whose learning has brought him palpably closer to God. Such is the power of Torah study.

Furthermore, when we bear in mind that our intellect and actions operate on the surface of the Torah, the tip of the iceberg, we inculcate within ourselves a deeper respect for the Torah. If we were privy to what is encoded in every law, word, or crownlet of the Torah, we would never attempt to tamper with or deviate from any of God’s instructions.

We are all familiar with the custom of hagbahah, lifting the Torah scroll prior to or after its reading. The congregation affirms that “this is the Torah that Moshe placed before Israel, in Moshe’s hands from the mouth of God.” But how can we truthfully declare that this is the same Torah, if we cannot even make out the words as it is borne aloft? Perhaps it symbolizes that the Torah is lofty, beyond our ken, mystifying even. The Torah may not be in heaven, its deepest dimensions are certainly not of this earth.

Rebbe Nosson Sternhartz of Nemirov, the prized student, personal scribe, and expositor par excellence of Rebbe Nachman, developed his master’s conception of the revealed and hidden aspects of the Torah by way of a Midrash on Psalms 81:4:

On Rosh Hashanah, the Holy One tells Satan to bring witnesses, and he brings the Sun alone. The Holy One says, “By the mouth of two witnesses is a matter established” (Deuteronomy 19:15), so he goes to bring the Moon. But the Moon is concealed, and though he seeks her out, he cannot find her. Then, the Holy One rises from the throne of strict justice and sits on the throne of mercy.

Rebbe Nosson interpreted the Midrash as follows. Every Jew has two aspects, the visible and the invisible. The Sun shines brightly and represents the manifest and external aspects of Jewish observance; it corresponds to na’aseh and to the Torah. At times, we are negligent in our observance, so “the Sun” testifies to our failures. But this is only half the story. The Moon – sometimes barely visible, sometimes not visible at all – represents the innermost, hidden yearnings of the Jew to be close to God; it corresponds to nishma and to prayer. Satan cannot find “the Moon” to force her to testify. God looks straight into the innermost chambers of our heart and finds no guilt.

The Jewish people’s declamation at Sinai, na’aseh ve-nishma, is the credo of Judaism. So much is encompassed in the space of these two words about who we are and who we want to be. Let us live up to this eternal pledge.

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Parshat Yitro: The Mystery of Moshe’s Father-in-Law

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

The Mystery of Moshe’s Father-in-Law

Upon hearing of the Israelites’ successful Exodus from Egypt, Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, gathers Moshe’s wife and children and journeys to the Israelite encampment near Mount Sinai. After a mutually respectful reunion with his son-in-law and a celebratory meal including Aharon and the elders, Yitro counsels Moshe concerning the governance of the people. Moshe accepts his father-in-law’s suggestions and the Torah then records: “And Moshe released his father-in-law
and he [Yitro] returned to his land [Midian].”

Yitro, thus, apparently departs before Matan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai) even begins.

Many chapters later in the text, however, Yitro suddenly reappears in the Israelite camp. In the book of Bamidbar (Parshat Beha’alotcha), after Revelation, as the nation begins its momentous journey away from Mount Sinai, the Torah abruptly interrupts the narrative to record the following conversation between Moshe and his father-in-law:

Moshe: “We are journeying to the place in which God has said ‘I will give it to you.’ Go with us and we will treat you well, for the Lord has spoken of good for Israel.”
Yitro: “I will not go, for only to my land and to my birthplace shall I go.”
Moshe: “Please do not leave us, for you know our encampmentsin the wilderness and you shall be as eyes for us. And it shall be if you come with us, and the good that God will bestow upon us, we will bestow upon you.”

There, the conversation ends. Yitro does not openly appear again in the Torah text.

Did Yitro end his first visit to the Israelites by returning to Midian before Revelation? If so, why does the text inexplicably record his presence, chapters later, as the Israelites prepare to depart from Sinai? If he never left in the first place, why does the Torah state in Parshat Yitro, “And Moshe released his father-in-law and he returned to his land”?

What was the final outcome of the conversation between Moshe and Yitro in the book of Bamidbar? The Torah records no conclusion. Does Yitro ultimately return to Midian or does he join his son-in-law’s people in their historic journey from Sinai after Revelation?

On an even more basic level, why does the Torah bother to record the visit(s) of Yitro to the Israelite encampment at all, particularly as bookends to Revelation, the formative event of Jewish history? Of what lasting importance is Yitro’s ultimate decision? Why should we care whether or not one additional individual joins the Israelites in their journey? And if Yitro’s fate is so important, why isn’t the text clear concerning his final decision?



Faced with the puzzling textual information concerning Yitro’s appearance(s) at Sinai, the early scholars take a step back and raise a related, yet even more basic, issue: Why did Yitro journey to the Israelite encampment in the first place?

Among the suggestions they offer are two possibilities recorded in the Talmud, based on the verse “And Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in- law of Moshe, heard all that God had done for Moshe and Israel his nation…

What did Yitro hear? “Rabbi Yehoshua maintains that he heard the news of the battle with Amalek…. Rabbi Eliezer Hamoda’i argues that he heard the news of Revelation.”

The Talmud goes on to explain that the debate between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer concerning Yitro’s motivations hinges upon a fundamental disagreement over the timing of his visit to the Israelite encampment. Rabbi Yehoshua, in consonance with the flow of the text before us, maintains that Moshe’s father-in-law arrives prior to Revelation. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, evidence of the text notwithstanding, claims that Yitro does not arrive until after the Torah is given. Only upon hearing of that momentous event, argues Rabbi Eliezer, does Yitro journey to
his son-in-law’s people.

Central to Rabbi Eliezer’s position is a well-known yet often misunderstood rule of traditional Torah study: Ein mukdam u’me’uchar ba’Torah – the text does not necessarily follow chronological order. Thus, even though the Torah records Yitro’s appearance as occurring before Matan Torah, he does not actually arrive until after Revelation is complete.

This rule is invoked sparingly by the scholars only when they feel that the events in the text cannot be understood in the sequence in which they unfold. Everyone agrees that, on the whole, the Torah does follow chronological order in its description of events.


Centuries later, in their struggle to explain Yitro’s sudden reappearance in the book of Bamidbar, the commentaries base their approaches upon the dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer.

The Ibn Ezra, for example, maintains that Rabbi Eliezer is correct: Yitro does not arrive until after Revelation. The record of Yitro’s visit prior to Revelation is temporally out of place. Furthermore, although the Torah records two conversations concerning Yitro’s future plans (one before Revelation and one after), only one conversation actually takes place. The Torah simply refers to that conversation twice.

After listing a series of proofs to bolster his position, the Ibn Ezra addresses the obvious question: if Yitro arrives only after Revelation, why does the Torah chronicle his visit in detail in Parshat Yitro before Matan Torah even begins? The Ibn Ezra postulates that the Torah wants to create a distinction between Yitro’s visit and the attack of the nation of Amalek, recorded at the end of the previous parsha, Beshalach. Yitro’s commendable behavior towards the Israelites is to be seen in stark contrast to the unprovoked hostility of the Amalekites.

In this way, at the dawn of Jewish history, the Torah demonstrates that the approach of normative Judaism to the non-Jewish world is far from monolithic. While those, like Amalek, who perpetuate evil are to be resisted in implacable fashion, “Righteous Gentiles” such as Yitro are to be treated with respect and honor.

Centuries later, this distinction between Yitro and Amalek is again clearly drawn as the fate of their progeny is determined. When Shaul, the first king of Israel, prepares to wage war against the Amalekites, he warns the descendents of Yitro to evacuate Amalekite territory and escape the looming conflagration.


After lengthy discussion, the Ramban ultimately disagrees with the two basic arguments of the Ibn Ezra and arrives at a conclusion that preserves the flow of the Torah text from Parshat Yitro to Parshat Beha’alotcha.

Yitro, he argues, arrives at the wilderness of Sinai before Revelation, as indicated in the text and as maintained by Rabbi Yehoshua. The two conversations between Moshe and Yitro recorded in the text, he continues, both occur. Yitro discusses his plans with Moshe before Revelation, returns to Midian, subsequently rejoins Moshe at Sinai after Revelation and the second conversation takes place.


Finally, the Abravanel presents a third option, agreeing with the Ramban on one point and with the Ibn Ezra on the other. Like the Ramban, the Abravanel maintains that Yitro arrives before Revelation. He claims, however, that Moshe’s father-in-law then remains with the Israelites for two years, sharing in the experience of Matan Torah. Only one conversation takes place between Moshe and Yitro concerning Yitro’s future plans. Agreeing with the Ibn Ezra, the Abravanel believes that this dialogue occurs after Revelation but is also briefly referenced in Parshat Yitro, two years before it occurs.


If the authorities disagree concerning Yitro’s arrival at Sinai, even greater debate surrounds the mystery of his ultimate fate.

Some scholars maintain that Moshe’s father-in-law returns to his homeland for practical reasons. The Sforno, for example, suggests that Yitro believed that he could not, at his advanced age, tolerate the environment of a new land. Moshe was successful, however, in convincing his father-in-law’s descendents to join the Israelites’ historic journey.

The Sifrei quotes Yitro as offering arguments which in the centuries to follow will often be raised by those choosing to live in the diaspora: I will not join you because of my familial obligations and because of my material success outside the land.


Other sages, while agreeing that Yitro returns to Midian, attribute higher motives to his decision.

An early source, none other than Rabbi Eliezer Hamoda’i, the Tannaitic scholar who weighed in concerning Yitro’s arrival (see above), maintains that Moshe’s father-in-law offers the following rationale: What good can I possibly do, Moshe, if I join you on this journey? A candle only makes a difference where it is dark. You, Moshe, are like the sun while Aharon is like the moon. In the face of your illumination, I, a mere candle, will have no effect at all. I will therefore return home, to Midian, where I will convert the members of my family, bringing them under the cover of the wings of the Almighty.


Virtually alone among classical commentaries, the Ramban demurs and maintains that Yitro actually decides to join the Israelites upon their departure from Sinai. As indicated above, the Ramban adheres to the pshat of the text in maintaining that Yitro actually visited Sinai on two occasions, once before and once after Revelation. After the first of these visits Moshe’s father-in-law returned to Midian. After the second visit, however, Moshe successfully convinces Yitro to remain and to throw his lot in with the fledgling Jewish nation.


Regardless of the positions we adopt concerning Yitro’s visits, motives and final decision, the fundamental questions remain: Why does the Torah bother to record these events at all, particularly as bookends to Matan Torah, the formative event of Jewish history? Of what significance is the possible decision of one more individual to join the Israelites’ journey? And, if Yitro’s fate is so important, why isn’t the Torah clear concerning his final decision?

Answers to these questions may well lie in two basic truths concerning Revelation which will be discussed in greater depth elsewhere (see Ki Tissa 5, Approaches A2).

1. Revelation is not a one-time event but an ongoing phenomenon. The Torah is received anew in each generation through study, observance and halachic application.

2. Revelation unfolds not only in communal but in individual, personal terms. At the foot of Mount Sinai, each individual struggled with his own commitment to God’s newly given law. Similarly, in each generation, as the Jewish nation renews its commitment to Torah, every individual struggles to determine his or her relationship with that law.

Suddenly, the Torah’s intent becomes clear.

The text chooses Yitro, the one individual present at Sinai whose relationship to Revelation most clearly mirrors our own across the ages – an “outsider” who did not personally witness the miracles of the Exodus, the parting of the Reed Sea, the defeat of Amalek; a “latecomer” whose information concerning God’s Revelation is (at least according to most authorities) heard rather than seen.

The text then brackets the narrative of national Revelation with the account of Yitro’s individual, internal struggle as he decides whether to accept or to reject the laws given at Sinai, to affiliate with the Israelites as they begin their journey or to return to the known comforts of home.

Through this focus on Yitro, the Torah foreshadows the personal struggle of each Jew in every generation.

Distant from Sinai, we, too, must decide whether or not to heed Matan Torah’s eternal call; we must determine to what extent we will truly be part of our people’s ongoing journey from Revelation to the end of days.

Yitro’s choice remains open in the text to indicate that for each of us, regardless of our background, our place in our people’s saga is not a foregone conclusion. There are no assurances, no inherited certainties. Like Yitro, we face overwhelming choices as we map out our spiritual paths. Concerning our place in the journey of our people, the jury is out until we decide; and the process of deciding courses through our entire lives.

Points to Ponder
If the story of Moshe’s father-in-law reflects the universal struggle of all Jews for philosophical self-definition, it also validates the spiritual journey of one specific subset within our community: converts to Judaism.

Great misunderstanding abounds concerning the attitude of Judaism towards conversion. The traditional Jewish community’s apparent reluctance to accept potential converts is often interpreted as negativity towards conversion and converts themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our approach towards potential converts actually mirrors our fundamental belief in the inherent potential value of all human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike (see Bereishit: Noach 4). We hesitate to convert others to Judaism simply because we believe that those outside of our faith tradition are under no obligation to be like us. We do not maintain that an individual must worship as we do, nor do we contend that only our path will afford “redemption.”

We therefore work mightily to ascertain that an individual wishing to convert:
1. Fully understands why he is doing so

2. Recognizes that, from our perspective, he is not required to convert

3. Spends time in serious study and comes to realize exactly what his decision to convert will entail

In short, we insist that a potential convert reflect knowledge and commitment.

If over time and through a serious course of study, an individual demonstrates a true desire to convert and a commitment to Jewish law and practice, we are obligated to accept him fully. 

Numerous sources within our tradition reflect the high regard in which righteous converts are held.

For example:
1. A specific mitzva is found in the Torah instructing us to “love the convert.” This commandment exists over and above the general edict “Love for your friend as for yourself,” which also applies to converts.

2. God Himself is described in the Torah as One Who “loves the convert, providing him with bread and garment.”

3. Conversion features prominently at pivotal moments in our nation’s history through the contributions of important figures such as Yitro and Ruth.

4. We beseech God in our daily prayers to judge us favorably in the merit of our nation’s righteous individuals, including the geirei tzedek (righteous converts).

5. Most significantly, as noted before (see Bereishit: Vayeishev 4, Approaches B), the laws of conversion themselves are derived by the steps taken by the Israelites and those who stand with them at Sinai, before and during Revelation. We are, in a real sense, a nation of converts, our Jewish identity determined by our ancestors’ acceptance of Torah law at Sinai or thereafter.

Does Yitro eventually convert to Judaism? The answer remains unclear, as well it should. After all, conversion is a difficult process and not all can or should see it through.

If Yitro did convert, however, we can be certain that he was welcomed with open arms by Moshe and the Israelites.