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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.

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Parashat Bo: Time is of the Essence

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

Time is of the Essence

The major events of the Exodus and their accompanying mitzvot are contextualized within the framework of time. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was fascinated by this, and showed, at length and in various fora, that time’s prominence here is intentional and even essential. At the birth of our nation, it was crucial for us relearn and appreciate the true value of time.

Time to Go
In Parashat Bo, in particular, time is prominent.
(1) The stroke of midnight: On the night of the Israelites’ departure, the final plague occurred precisely at the stroke of midnight: “And it occurred at midnight” ( בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה ) (Exodus 12:29). Moshe said it would occur “around midnight” ( כַּחֲצוֹת הַלַּיְלָה ) (Exodus 11:4) because humans cannot calculate that time precisely. The plague struck not a millisecond before midnight and not a millisecond after – it was midnight, on the dot. The Israelite slaves were suddenly made aware of the power of time through the ultimate before-and-after contrast. At a specific moment, everything would irrevocably change.

(2) The first commandment: “This month shall be for you the head of the months’’ (Exodus 12:2). The very first commandment given to the Jewish people was about marking time. Why?

To the slave, time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass. The slave’s time is the property of the master. No matter how hard he may try to be productive in time, he will not reap the harvest of his work; therefore, he is insensitive to time.

The Jewish people were about to be liberated, and learning time-awareness is a critical first step in transitioning to a liberated existence. The Rav suggests that this might account for the halachic  exemption of slaves from mitzvot aseh she-ha-zeman geraman, the time-bound mitzvot. Without awareness of the ebb and flow of time, the slave cannot be held responsible for performing those mitzvot limited by time.

(3) Leavening time: On the verse “You shall guard the matzot” (Exodus 12:17), Rashi cites the Mechilta which understands this to mean “guard them so they do not become chametz.” He then cites another

Rabbi Yoshiyah says: Do not read it as “matzot” ( מַצוּתֹ ) but as “mitzvot” ( מִצוְתֹ ). In the same way we do not allow matzah to be leavened, so we do not allow a mitzvah to be leavened. If the opportunity presents itself, perform it immediately.

Alacrity, which requires sensitivity to time, is an essential component in the service of God, and matzah is a paradigm for every mitzvah.

As the Jewish people were on the cusp of liberation, they needed to develop a consciousness of “time-awareness,” to use the Rav’s term. Even today, as we prepare for Pesach and bake matzot, we are ever conscious of the eighteen minutes steadily ticking away until the dough becomes chametz.

The unified theme of time, therefore, comes into focus. The final plague occurred at exactly midnight, we were bidden to establish a calendrical system, and the matzah had to be eaten within a specific period of time. All of these accentuated for the Israelite slave the lesson that time is essential to true freedom.

Making (the) Seder out of Time
The rituals of the Seder night, which commemorate our enslavement and liberation from Egypt, are likewise closely interwoven with the theme of time.

(1) The holiday blessing: We usher in Pesach during the Amidah of Ma’ariv by saying that God “sanctifies Israel and the festive seasons” (מְקַדֵשּׁ ישִרְָׂאלֵ והְזַמְַּניִּם). These words are repeated throughout the holiday, through which we affirm that it is the Jewish people who sanctify it. This is because God delegated to the Jewish people – in the very first commandment noted above – the authority to determine the date of the festivals. They are the conduit through which sacred time is sanctified and marked.

(2) The first cup of wine: Why does the first cup of wine, over which we recite Kiddush, count as one of the dalet kosot, the four special cups drunk at the Seder? Is it not the case that we recite Kiddush at the beginning of every Shabbat and holiday? With his characteristic penetrating insight, the Rav proposes that the first cup of wine signifies the sanctification of time, by discriminating between the weekday and the onset of Pesach. In that sense, it is part of what Pesach is all about: time-consciousness.

(3) The opening of Maggid: We are accustomed to begin the section of Maggid by reciting the Aramaic passage Ha Lachma Anya, “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” However, the Haggadah of the Rambam precedes that with the words “we hurriedly left Egypt” ( בִּבְהִילוּ יָצָאנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם ). The Rav argues that the Rambam thought the theme of time-awareness to be so important that to successfully tell the story of the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery it had to be begin the narrative.

The Seder is intended to remind us of our unique ability, conferred upon us by God, to sanctify time. This theme is foundational to the story of our people and must be amplified when celebrating the Exodus.

Counting Days and Weeks
This special Pesach emphasis on time continues well beyond the Seder night. The very next night we begin sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the Omer, marking each passing day and then every week as time slowly marches to Shavuot nearly two months later. The Rav exquisitely expresses the deeper meaning embedded in this count:

When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by God that the path leading from the holiday of Passover to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom . . . leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting forty-nine successive days was put to him. These forty-nine days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.

A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric . . . is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.

Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary affiliated with Yeshiva University, expands upon this teaching of the Rav by highlighting the fact that, remarkably, we are enjoined to actually recite a blessing over time as we count the Omer. The forty-nine repetitions of this blessing help us internalize the fact that time can be imbued with sanctity.

Lessons for Living
As our ancestors learned at the Exodus, time is not a blank canvas on which we live out our lives but a wash of distinct colors – alternately bold and muted, bright and dark – every moment pregnant with sacred potential. It follows that the importance of the clock for modern Jewish life cannot be overstated. For this reason, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, one of greatest luminaries of the previous generation, often chose to gift bar mitzvah boys a new watch. On this auspicious day marking a young man’s entry into adulthood, he wished to impart that there is nothing more precious in life than time.

God took the Jewish people out of Egypt to become His people and observe His Torah. As new masters of their own schedule, the manumitted slaves had to remember that there was a Master expecting them not to allow mitzvot “to be leavened.” A Mishnah captures this experience of time: “Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the reward is much, and the Master is insistent.”

This finds clear expression in Halachah as well. As the Rav puts it:

A person reads keri’at Shema at 9:05 and fulfills the mitzvah, but at 9:06 his performance is worthless. What did he miss? It was the same recitation, the same commitment, the same dedication. And yet, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah of keri’at Shema. Time is of critical importance – not years or months, but seconds and split seconds. Time-awareness and appreciation is the singular gift granted to free man, because time belongs to him; it is his time, and he can utilize it to the utmost or waste it.

Once sensitized to the preciousness of time, the Jew must maximize it. Wasting time, bitul zeman, is worthy of contempt.

Exploring the Rav’s Insight
In the Torah, the very first thing to be sanctified is not a place, object, or being, but time itself: “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” (Genesis 2:3). As we have seen, the first commandment given by God to the Jewish people was to mark sacred time by sanctifying the new month. As we do so by reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, some have a custom to say the following verse afterwards: “And Avraham was old, advanced in years, and God blessed Avraham with everything” (Genesis 24:1). Why?

Perhaps the key lies in the phrase usually translated as “advanced in years” ( באָּ ביַּמִָּים ), but which can be understood to mean that he came to ( בָּא ) each day ( ביַּמִָים ) with everything he had to give. He did not leaven any mitzvot. He ran to greet his guests (Genesis 18:2) and rushed to the tent to prepare their meal (Genesis 18:6). He rose early in the morning to fulfill the command to sacrifice Yitzchak (Genesis 22:3), a practice that the Talmud developed into a general principle that one should perform mitzvot with alacrity: zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot.

Since Avraham taught us time-consciousness by personal example, perhaps this is why on Rosh  Chodesh, a day that commemorates that very concept, we remind ourselves to walk (or rather run) in our forefather’s footsteps.

The first act of sanctification, the first commandment to the nation, and the first Jew all share a common theme: a full appreciation and awareness of time.


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Parashat Vayechi: Going Home

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

Going Home

Yaakov is keenly aware of death’s approach. He summons Yosef and makes him swear to bury him in the Land of Israel, in the city of Chevron. This apparently opens an old wound, as Rachel, Yosef ’s mother, was not buried in the special burial cave there – me’arat ha-machpelah. Although the obedient Yosef does not verbalize a complaint, Yaakov senses the air suddenly grow tense. He explains that he had to bury her along the way, but he does not justify why he could not have continued perhaps a day’s journey past Beit Lechem to bury her with her ancestors. What was the reason for this?

Land and Torah 
The Ramban first explicates the opinion of Rashi, who says that it was a divine decree that she be buried in Beit Lechem. Her descendants would pass by her plot as they went into exile, and she would cry and pray for them. The Ramban suggests that this is implied by the repetition of “on the road” (Genesis 48:7), meaning, on the road from Yerushalayim into exile.

The Ramban later claims that all of this is apologetics, as the real reason Yaakov did not bury her in the cave was that two sisters should not be buried there, for he would be embarrassed before his forefathers. In other words, the forefathers who observed the entire Torah would be affronted by the fact that Yaakov did not uphold the Torah’s prohibition against marrying two sisters. But if there was a problem, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wondered, why did he marry Rachel after having married Leah? Elsewhere, the Ramban develops the novel idea that the Patriarchs kept the 613 mitzvot only when they lived in the Land of Israel, and Yaakov married the two sisters while he was in Charan. It would only be an affront now to his ancestors and descendants to bury two sister-wives next to each other in the place where the entire Torah must be kept. This was also why Rachel had to die once she entered the borders of Israel.

Jewish Status
In this context, a fundamental issue needs to be addressed: What was the status of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs before the giving of the Torah? Did they have the status of benei Noach, with full halachic status only coming into effect once the nation of Israel accepted the Torah at Sinai? It is here that the Ramban makes a striking assertion: The Patriarchs bore the status of full-fledged Jews, but only when they resided in the Land of Israel.

The Rav finds a source for the Ramban’s idea in the berit bein ha-betarim, the Covenant between the Parts:

I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and your seed after you, throughout the generations as an everlasting covenant, to be God for you and your seed after you. And I will give
you and your seed after you the land of your sojourning, the entire land of Canaan as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (Genesis 17:7–8)

A central component of this covenant between God and Avraham and his family was “the acknowledgment of the unique and preeminence of the Land of Israel as the central arena for the fulfillment of Jewish destiny.” Without this element, the covenant was incomplete. In other words, the attachment to the Land of Israel as the Jewish homeland was established and made the underpinning of Jewish identity even prior to Sinai, when the covenant was still familial. This would change at Sinai, when the covenant shifted from family to nation. Therefore, prior to the giving of the Torah, it would seem that this familial covenant did not fully apply outside the Land, and Yaakov could marry two sisters.

Longing for the Land
Echoing his father’s request at the beginning of the parashah (Genesis 47:29–31), Yosef insists that his final resting place be in the Land of Israel: “I am about to die, but God will surely remember you and bring you out of this land, to the land that he swore [to give] to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov . . . bring up my bones from here” (Genesis 50:24–25). Moshe would carry out this request (Exodus 13:19), and the Midrash tells us it is because Yosef identified himself as belonging to the Land of Israel: “for I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15).5 Even after becoming a royal, heroic figure in his adopted country, Yosef’s heart lay with his beloved homeland. Throughout, Yosef remained an ivri, a Hebrew, rather than an Egyptian.

If the familial tie to the land was unbreakable, why did Yosef not make his sons swear to take up his bones instead of his brothers? The Meshech Chochmah (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) proposes that Yosef prophetically foresaw that his son Menashe would settle half of his tribe in Transjordan, outside the actual borders of the land. The older son might decide to have Yosef buried in his portion, so Yosef did not want to risk being buried outside the promised land. He therefore did not ask his own children to be responsible for this task.

The Rav was told a fascinating story about the reinterment of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild (1845–1934), the magnanimous magnate who provided the financial support for the fledgling New Yishuv in Ottoman Palestine, by his son, Baron Alain de Rothchild (1910–1982). Edmond James devoted so much of his energy and means to reviving the land that he stipulated in his will that he be buried in Israel. When, years later, he was accordingly disinterred and reburied in Israel, Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, commented, “I thought he was a loyal Frenchman. Isn’t France good enough for him to be buried here?” The Rav observed that neither Pharaoh nor de Gaulle could understand the nature of the Jew and his bond with the Land of Israel.

Reb Chaim’s Dream
In describing his own upbringing, the Rav recounted a home aglow with passion for the Holy Land. This was especially true of his renowned grandfather Rav Chaim Brisker: [T]he Land of Israel occupied a major role in my house. My grandfather, Reb Chaim, was the first to halachically analyze, define, and conceptualize on an extraordinary intellectual level the topics pertaining to the Land of Israel. These included such topics as the sanctity of the Land, the sanctity of partitions, temporary sanctification and eternal sanctification of the Land of Israel. . . . These terms represented not only concepts, abstract thoughts, and formal insights, but they also reflected deep-rooted emotions of love, yearnings, and vision for the Land of Israel. Discussions of the sanctity of the Land of Israel, the holiness of walled cities, the sanctity of Jerusalem, were my lullabies, my bedtime stories. Reb Chaim was perhaps the greatest lover of Zion in his generation. He constantly delighted in the thought that after he married off all his children, he would transfer his rabbinate to one of his sons and then settle in the Land of Israel. There he would purchase an orchard and fulfill the agricultural laws which pertain to the Land of Israel.

Exploring the Rav’s Insight
While usually parashiyot are separated from each another by a considerable space, the first word of Parashat Vayechi is minimally separated from the last word of Parashat Vayigash. According to Rashi, this alludes to the impending bondage of the Jewish people in Egypt following the death of Yaakov. Rebbe Meir Yechiel Halevi Halstock, the Ostrovtser Rebbe, articulated a deeper symbolism in his Me’ir Einei Chachamim. In Vayigash, Yaakov is in the Land of Israel and has not yet descended to Egypt. In Shemot, the redemption has already been set in motion. Vayechi is the only parashah in which Yaakov and his sons are fully in the Egyptian exile, even if not suffering bondage. The only way to survive the exile is to maintain a strong link to our homeland. If this parashah were “open,” that is, separated like every other parashah from the preceding one, it would symbolize a complete disconnect of the Jewish people from their land. With the two parashiyot closely joined as they are, the vital lifeline holds. The Jews will return to the land from every exile. The bookends of Parashat Vayechi therefore show that the heart and soul of the Jew always yearn to go home.

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Parashat Miketz – It’s Dark Outside

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

It’s Dark Outside*

The enemies of Israel are in a state of exultation, grinning from oil well to oil well. Former friends are now hostile, or at best turn away from us. Israel’s one great ally, the United States, is showing signs that she is beginning to desert her. Economically we are in deep trouble. Psychologically we are anxious and depressed. The situation of the Jews in the Diaspora, because it is to such a great extent contingent upon the State of Israel, gives cause for much concern. It’s dark outside.

What does a Jew do when it is dark outside? “It is better,” goes an old saying, “to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Judaism has institutionalized that wise insight. The Talmud (Shabbat 21a) teaches that the mitzva of lighting the Ĥanukka candle is “mishetishka haĥama,” from the time that the sun sets. The Ĥanukka light has no function during the daytime. When the sun shines, there is no need for candles. When things are going well, faith does not represent a particularly great achievement. The mitzva of lighting the Ĥanukka candle applies only when it’s dark outside.

It is easy to answer “Barukh Hashem” (“thank God”) when asked how you are, if you are basking in the sunshine of good fortune. But it is infinitely more difficult to say “Barukh Hashem” or recite the blessing “Barukh Dayan Emet” (“blessed is the true Judge”), when black clouds have darkened the light in your life and you are in deep gloom.

So, on these dark days, Judaism does not despair but rather lights candles. I am not offering nostrums or cheap consolations. I do not underestimate the gravity of the situation – although I believe it is not as terrible as most of us feel. But I believe that 3,500 years of experience in the course of history should have taught us something about how to act and react when it is dark outside.

The spiritual alternative – which is implied in the idea of the Ĥanukka candles – is not meant to be exclusive. I am not recommending that all Jews pull inwards and turn their backs on the whole world. Diplomacy, security, economics, politics, production – all must continue on the highest level possible. But the spiritual dimension of our lives must be enhanced. Jews have learned throughout history that when life is difficult on the outside, you must build up your inner resources and buttress the spiritual aspects of your existence. When the sun sets, there is one imperative: nerot Ĥanukka. When it is dark outside, light a candle.

How do you go about it? Where do you light the candles? The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) teaches: “Mitzva lehaniĥo al petaĥ beito mibaĥutz…uvesha’at hasakana maniĥa al shulĥano vedayo.” Preferably, one should place the Ĥanukka menora at the entrance to his home, on the outside – so that the miracle of Ĥanukka can be proclaimed to all the world. However, during the Babylonian period, while the Talmud was being written, the Zoroastrian religion prevailed, and because they were fire-worshipers they forbade all non-believers to light torches or candles during this season, the winter equinox. Since this was prohibited under pain of death, the rabbis said that we may light the Ĥanukka menora indoors, placing it on the table, and that is sufficient.

It is our major mission as Jews to light candles for the entire world – “at the entrance to his home, on the outside.” But if the whole ĥutz, the entire world seemingly, has turned anti-Semitic and has institutionalized its Jew-hatred in one organization and declared a sakana, a danger, for the Jew to hold aloft his Ĥanukka menora, then even if it is dark outside, we shall make it light and warm inside.

If the outside world makes a virtue of darkness and aggressively pursues a policy of forbidding light, so be it. We shall remove the ner, the candle, from the outdoors and place it on our shulĥan, on our table which is the symbol of family and home and interiority. Let the table become the laboratory in which we fashion the life of our families; the shtender of the academy on which we study Torah; the foundry where young souls and personalities are formed; the source from which light will suffuse all our lives.

If on the outside we are plagued by enemies who bear us hatred, let us on the inside increase our love and concern for each other. Let husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, draw closer together, forgive each other, act with more mutual respect and patience.

If on the outside we find that friends betray us, then on the inside let us do the reverse: let us act with greater loyalty to our own people. Whom then do we have if not each other?

If on the outside hypocrisy prevails in the world, then on the inside let us do the reverse: let us study Torah, the repository of truth and decency, and practice ahavat Yisrael, genuine love for our own people.

Two weeks ago Friday I woke up in my hotel room in Jerusalem, and turned on the radio. The news was traumatic. It informed us that during the night Palestinian terrorists had broken into a yeshiva in an isolated area, Ramat Magshimim, and there murdered three nineteen year old students. It was an especially devastating piece of news for me, because all three were classmates of one of my sons when we were in Israel several years ago. One young man, Shelomo Mocha, had been captured by the guerillas and wounded in his head, and the murderers intended to kidnap him and take him to Syria, but he escaped. It was he who told the story of what happened. That Saturday night, the television news informed us that the TV interviewer had gone to Ramat Magshimim to look for and interview Shelomo Mocha. He was not to be found in the office of the settlement. Where, the TV man inquired, could he find the young man? Was he perhaps in the hospital, recuperating from his wounds? No, Shelomo Mocha was not in the hospital. Had he possibly gone home, to reassure himself in the warmth of his friends and the bosom of his family? No, he was not at home. Had his parents possibly taken him on vacation to recover from this terrible trauma? No, he was not on vacation. Well, then, where was he? The TV interviewer found him: in the beit midrash, in the study hall, studying Torah! What was he doing there? The answer was simple: “I and my friends came here to study Torah. They were killed, but had they lived, they would be doing this. So now I am studying for them too.” The interviewer looked at the camera and told his audience, with begrudging incredulity: “Zehu koĥa shel Torah,” “This is the power of Torah!”

Indeed, when it is dark outside, and it is dangerous to light candles baĥutz, then maniĥa al shulĥano vedayo, we shall light the candles on the table, we shall create and illuminate an enlightened world within.

Permit me to add one more item for your consideration concerning the gravity of our situation. This too deals with Ĥanukka, and it is a point that I take quite seriously.

We all know the classical controversy between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai concerning the lighting of the candles (Shabbat 21a). The House of Shammai teaches that we begin with eight candles on the first day, and diminish it each day by one candle. The House of Hillel taught that we begin with one candle, and each day add another until we reach eight. What is the underlying theme of this controversy?

One of the greatest and most beloved of Hasidic teachers, the Apter Rav, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, known as the Ohev Yisrael (Lover of Israel), explained the controversy as follows: Consider that first menora in Maccabean times, the one in which the miracle was performed. With each successive day that the flame continued in the menora, although there was no oil to support it, the miracle seemed greater and greater. If on the second day the miracle seemed impressive, then on the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth day it seemed even more amazing. On the seventh day it was almost incredible the menora was still burning! On the eighth day, the miracle reached its overwhelming climax, for one day’s oil had already lasted for eight days. Hence, insofar as our perception of the miracle is concerned, every day it grew greater. However, the miracle itself took exactly the reverse course. Only a drop of oil was left after the first day, and that had to support eight days’ worth of miracle. Thus, on the second day, for instance, the oil had to support six full days of light – truly a Herculean task. On the fourth day, it had to support only four more days of light – a miracle, of course, but not quite of the proportions of the first day or so. On the eighth day, the miracle was still there – a day’s worth of light coming from but a drop of oil – but the miracle was quantitatively much smaller than the first day, when it had to stretch for eight days of light. Hence, the House of Shammai follows the reality of the miracle, which decreased with every day, whereas the House of Hillel follows the awareness of the miracle, which increased day by day.

So there is a discrepancy and a disjunctiveness between the facts of the miracle and the perception of them, between reality and appearance. The miracles of Jewish survival and redemption are paradoxically most obvious when they are least effective, and least apparent when they are most profound and far-reaching. When we are most conscious of the wonder of our salvation, that is when the miracles are all but spent, and we must beware of the future. And when we are in the depths of gloom, and seem to find no reason for light or confidence, then we may be sure that deep, deep someplace, God is preparing the greatest miracles for Israel.

I take this to be the deeper meaning of a key verse in this sidra. The most dramatic highlight of a highly dramatic sidra takes place when Joseph and the brothers meet, and Joseph recognizes the brothers but they do not recognize him. So the Torah tells us: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). That verse is somewhat difficult. Only a few verses earlier we were told that Joseph recognized his brothers, and the context itself informs us that they did not recognize him. Why, therefore, repeat it?

Perhaps what the Torah is referring to is not recognition of facial features, of mere physiognomy, but an existential recognition of a far deeper kind. Joseph was second only to Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt. But he had just come up from the most agonizing period of his life. He was in the pit, enslaved, abandoned, all alone, a stranger forgotten by his family and the world. From the depths of misery, he now sat on the throne of Egypt, at the pinnacle of his career. The brothers were in the reverse situation. While Joseph was suffering, they went about their business and their daily pursuits with a total neglect of and unconcern for him. But now they were suffering, now they were caught in a terrible vise, torn by their fidelity to their father, their search for food and survival, their guilt over what they had done to Joseph, their worry over Benjamin. Things indeed looked black for them. So, “Joseph recognized his brothers” – having come through the same experience, he understood what they were going through, and he understood too that their difficulties were the prelude to their salvation, for, as he later told them, “God has prepared this as a way of providing life-giving sustenance for you.”

But while Joseph recognized their predicament, and understood that the miracle of their survival was at its height when they were most pessimistic, “they did not recognize him.” Not having undergone this tremendous experience, as Joseph already did, they could not appreciate the situation, they could not know what he knew – and that is, the teaching we have been presenting in the name of the Apter Rav.

Take but one example from modern history. In 1947 or thereabouts, the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, of unblessed memory, refused to allow a hundred thousand Jews who were DPs to enter Palestine. Just think of it: one hundred thousand straggling wrecks of humanity, emerging from the Holocaust which had consumed six million of their coreligionists – and the most civilized country on earth refused to allow them a haven in Palestine. It was not only scandalous and outrageous, but totally depressing. Jews felt sunken, abandoned, in the greatest despair ever. Yet from the perspective of years later, the greatest miracle was being wrought at that gloomy moment. Had Bevin permitted the hundred thousand Jews to come into Palestine, the pressure would have diminished for the founding of an independent Jewish state, and there would be no State of Israel today. Because he was stubborn, because he pressed us so much harder, from that oppression and that pressure and that pessimism there came forth the miracle of the State of Israel reborn.

So it is with the State of Israel in the course of its history. At the time of greatest elation – such as in 1948 and 1967 – we sometimes overestimated the good news, the miracle of survival. But in times such as these, when there are few signs of salvation, when it is unbearably dark outside, when miracles are as rare as they are necessary, at these times we Jews must be confident that the divine will spins its own plot in the fiber of history on a pattern far different from the trivial designs conceived by piddling mortal men and their pompous conceits. And it is mysterious. And it is deep. And it is miraculous. And it leads to redemption.

When it is at its darkest outside, the lights are beginning to stir on the inside, and sooner or later they will pierce the gloom of the outside world as well.

For the Ĥanukka candles are indeed the heralds of the light of redemption.

*December 6, 1975

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The Light That Unites: Day 2 – Turning Spears into Ploughshares

Excerpted from The Light That Unites: A Chanukah Companion – Blessings, Teachings, and Tales by Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider

Turning Spears into Ploughshares

It may be the most unusual menorah in the world. Some would argue that it is the most authentic representation of the menorah that was lit by the Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans) during the first Chanukah. It can be found on a rooftop in the town of Sderot, Israel. It is indeed a unique menorah.

The town of Sderot sits in striking range of Gaza. Ten thousand rockets have been fired into Sderot and the Western Negev since 2001. The Kassam Rocket Menorah sits on top of the Sderot Yeshiva, where hundreds of young men study Torah and also serve in the Israeli army.

When Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, then chief rabbi of Israel, visited this rooftop menorah, he taught that the menorah that was lit at the time of Chanukah was not the golden Menorah in the Temple. The golden Menorah had been removed from the Temple. When the Maccabees returned to the Temple, the Menorah was not there.

The Menorah that was lit was a makeshift menorah made of bars of iron, presumably from the iron spearheads that were used in battle with the Syrian Greek army. Rabbi Lau asked whether the Chashmonaim could really find nothing other than deadly weapons to use for their menorah, and he explained that this special menorah made the statement that even an instrument of death can create light, Ki ner mitzvah, v’Torah ohr (כּי נר מצוה ותוֹרה אוֹר), “for a commandment is a lamp, and the teaching [Torah] is light” (Proverbs 6:23).

In an amazing expression of faith, the yeshiva commissioned a project to take the very Kassam rockets intended for destruction and death and fashion them into an object that would bring light – a menorah made from the very rockets aimed to destroy and to kill.

In doing so, they have brought the prophetic words of the prophet Isaiah to life. They have taken the spears of war and refashioned them into “ploughshares,” a tool that brings hope and light to the world.

The Kassam Rocket Menorah is lit each year during the eight days of Chanukah. During these dark and cold nights, thousands of families in Sderot live under the threat of rocket fire. The menorah on the rooftop in Sderot illuminates the darkness with a message of hope. When lit up each night of the festival, the menorah is visible throughout the town of Sderot and even into Gaza. It offers a message of light and optimism to all who seek goodness and peace.


“The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to the children of men” (Psalm 115:16).

The Rebbe of Kotzk taught: “‘The heavens’ are in any case heavenly, ‘but the earth He has given to the children of men,’ to make earthly things heavenly.”

Published Oct. 2017

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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.