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Torah Beloved: Strange Medicine

Excerpted from Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah, co-published by OU Press and KTAV; edited by Dr. Daniel Gober

Strange Medicine*

The biblical account of the revelation at Sinai begins by informing us that it took place during the third month after the Exodus from Egypt: “baḥodesh hashelishi letzet Bnei Yisrael” (Exodus 19:1). The Children of Israel left Egypt in the middle of Nisan, and the Torah was revealed to them at the beginning of Sivan.

The rabbis of Midrash Tanḥuma (Parashat Yitro 10) wondered why God waited all this time before giving the Torah and did not present Israel with the Five Books of Moses immediately upon their leaving the land of their servitude. The touching answer Rabbi Yehuda Bar Shalom gives is couched in warmth and charm. It can be compared, they tell us, to the son of the King who had been very ill. When he recovered from his illness, his father said, in royal indulgence: “I shall wait for three months to give my son the opportunity to recuperate, and only afterwards olikhenu lebeit harav lilmod Torah, will I lead him to his teacher in order to have him study Torah.” In the same way, when Israel left Egypt, there were amongst them many baalei mumin, people who were deformed and crippled because of the oppressive work of Egypt, and therefore the Almighty said: “I will wait until they are completely recovered, and only afterwards will I give them the Torah.”

The great Kotzker Rebbe, whose challenging insights are always relevant to every age, asked the following question (Sneh Bo’er BeKotzk). In a previous passage, the same Midrash Tanḥuma (Parashat Yitro 8) quoted approvingly the words of King Solomon in his Proverbs and applied them specifically to Torah: “they shall be healing for your body, and marrow for your bones” (Proverbs 3:8). Now if Torah is considered by the Rabbis as a medicine, as a health-giving substance, then why was it necessary to wait these three months? On the contrary, just because Torah is considered a medicine it should have been given immediately, to assist in the spiritual recovery of the Children of Israel. The answer that the Kotzker Rebbe gives is of extreme importance to all of us today. Torah is a medicine, he agrees, but a strange medicine: it works only if the patient knows that he is sick. It is effective only if the patient agrees that something is wrong with him which needs correction. And the situation of the Children of Israel was especially calamitous because they did not even recognize that they were baalei mumin, that they had absorbed terrible impurities from the abysmal spiritual climate of Egypt and its slavery. Hence, they had to wait for the third month, for during this time they learned that there was something wrong with them, and only then might Torah be effective as the medicine which would heal them.

So Torah is a strange medicine. Like certain kinds of psychological therapy which are effective only when the patient has attained insight, Torah is effective only if the patient knows that he needs it, that he cannot live without it.

It may have occurred to many of us often to wonder: here we are, having worked so hard and labored so diligently for Torah in this country. Yet, while Orthodoxy has achieved much, we are so very far from our goal! How often we seem at the point of utter frustration.

May I suggest the reason for the lack of proper returns on all our investments of time and energy, of money and worry that the patient – American Jewry – did not know that he was sick! And if the patient thinks that all is well with him, Torah cannot help much. It is a rule in the business world as well: you may have the best product in the world, but if the public feels no demand for it, you cannot sell and stay in business.

May I also suggest that in recent months, or even weeks, something dramatic has occurred which, frightening as it is, gives us new hope that American Jewry now knows its true condition, and hence Torah may yet become the medicine which will save American Jewish life.

No doubt most of us have either heard of or read that sensational and much discussed article in Look magazine entitled, “The Vanishing American Jew.” The burden of this article was that, considering the progressive assimilation of American Jews into the general environment, particularly as a result of intermarriage, the entire American Jewish community is threatened with gradual extinction. Now, Look has been roundly criticized by a number of Jewish leaders and spokesmen for national Jewish organizations. It is true that the gloomy forecast by the magazine may have been exaggerated for the purpose of selling more copies. Also, there is no doubt that the article, appearing in a popular weekly periodical, was not annotated in scholarly fashion and supported by long columns of statistics. Nevertheless, it cannot and ought not be denied that the major contention of the article is unfortunately valid!

Only a few months ago, in a much more profound and well documented article, a major researcher writing in the American Jewish Yearbook for 1963 warned that the alarmingly high rate of
intermarriage combined with the depressingly low birth rate of American Jews threatened our entire future in this country. Public relations problems aside, I fear that we are confronting the truth in this warning about our future.

Yet I believe that we ought to welcome these reports; not because, according to the article, Orthodoxy is least affected by the plague of intermarriage – that is little consolation for us. Rather, we ought to welcome this news because of its shock value. Perhaps this will wake up some of our sleeping brethren who slumber in their own little cocoons of official optimism.

We ought to welcome what has now been told to the entire world, because this confirms sadly what we who stand uncompromisingly in the Jewish tradition have been warning our fellow Jews not for three months and not for three years, but for over thirty years – that without Jewish education, without Shabbat, and without mitzvot, the community will surely assimilate and ultimately disappear.

For too long now, ours has been a lonely voice in the wilderness crying out: you will not be able to keep the Jewish people alive and surviving merely on an ethnic basis; a young man or woman with academic training will, if not thoroughly grounded in the total religious experience of Judaism, refuse to accept that it is necessary to continue to be a Jew merely because of nationalistic or racial reasons.

Above all, we welcome this revelation because with this new realistic awareness of our own condition, maybe something will be done. Now that American Jews begin to realize how sick our community is, perhaps we will be ready for the beneficial therapy of that strange medicine called Torah. Perhaps now efforts at teaching Torah to our generations of American Jews will become more effective. Maybe with the growing realization that our community is filled with baalei mumin, with those who are sick and deformed for having ignored Judaism, for having decimated its principles and halakha and for having forsaken the heritage of parents and grandparents, maybe with this realization the medicine of Torah will work.

By a remarkable coincidence, this past week has seen another report that is very important. And perhaps those who are weary of statistics will have more faith in the insights of a distinguished American sociologist. Professor Robert MacIver, with whose purposes we totally disagree but whose analysis we accept as valid, addressed the American Council for Judaism on a theme which seemed to bother both him and his hosts: the “continuing alienation” of Jews from the rest of American society. Put in other words, this means that both the good professor and the American Council for Judaism are disturbed at the slow rate of assimilation! Whose “fault” is it that we have not assimilated completely at this late stage of American Jewish history? Professor MacIver blames the “distinctiveness of Jewish culture” as expressed in such phenomena as Shabbat, “food taboos” (for which read: kashrut), and the Jewish strictures on intermarriage. He blames, in addition, the idea of separate Jewish schools, i.e. the Jewish day school system, and the tendency to form special Jewish organizations for matters of general interest (probably referring to organizations such as the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists).

Is the professor right? Yes, he is! Would that our non-Orthodox Jewish friends listened closely to what he says. He notes well what it is that has saved us to this day. And they are not the solutions that have been offered by our deviationist fellow Jews, whether the half-Reform or quarter-Reform or completely Reform, whether Yiddishists or Hebraists, whether secular Zionists or any others with pet solutions for our problems. No mere “adaptations” can heal the sick heart of American Jewry. Not even fighting an ever-diminishing anti-Semitism with an ever-growing budget, which seems to be the peculiar blessing of our “defense organizations,” will accomplish much towards saving American Jewry. Israel is important, Yiddish is important, Hebrew is important, but these alone have not helped and cannot help. At best they are tranquilizers, at worst merely placebos. You cannot treat a serious medical problem with a couple of aspirins!

This we must all recognize – especially those who want to juggle the Jewish destiny, being not completely Jewish, yet not completely non-Jewish; not traditional Jews, yet not assimilated Jews. In the long run, this is an impossible task, doomed to failure. Now we must recognize not only that we are sick, but that there are certain forces that have kept us alive and well, and that we must do all that we can to reinforce those healthy elements: Shabbat, kashrut, the ban against intermarriage and inter-dating, and above all education, and more education! Perhaps, to take up the hints of Professor MacIver, there should be Sabbath-observing young Jewish professionals who will form organizations for social workers and lawyers, for architects and behavioral scientists, equivalent to that of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. Above all else, it is time that we recognized our spiritual illness and our need for Torah. Then, and only then, will Torah become, as Solomon put it, “healing for our body and marrow for our bones.” If these revelations will shock American Jewry to an awareness of its own impoverished spiritual condition, then our timeless message will become more effective than it ever was before. Then all of us will begin to build more day schools. Then we shall begin to emphasize more Hebrew day schools on the high school level. And let us take a leaf from the book of our Catholic friends who now realize that high school and college education is religiously far more significant than elementary school education. Then we shall begin, as a community, to pay more attention to Yeshiva University.

Then, above all, we will begin to devote more attention as well to Jewish youth on campuses throughout this country. There are in our country, at present, some three hundred thousand Jewish college students, representing about 75% of the college age youth of the Jewish community. In a short time, this is expected to rise to 90%. Now there is an organization by the name of Hillel which is devoted to the welfare of the Jewish student. But the solution we have in mind is more than what most Hillel groups do or can offer. What we mean is Torah and the study of Torah above all else. It is therefore an indication of the new opportunities opened to us to learn that a group like Yavneh, which started out only about five years ago with a handful of students at Columbia University, has now spread to about seventeen campuses throughout the country and in the short space of five years now numbers some twelve-hundred students who, in order to belong to this organization, must undertake a regular program of Jewish study for which no college credit is offered! Imagine if Yavneh were given the proper support by the adult community, they might today number not eleven hundred but perhaps eleven thousand members!

In summary, then, this new realization of how far we have gone downhill may make us ready to return and climb once again to the summit of Sinai. We have achieved, to use the words of the Midrash, the ad shetashuv nafsho min haḥoli (Midrash Tanḥuma, Parashat Yitro 10). We have recuperated enough to appreciate how sick we were. Now is the time to take the next step: olikhenu lebeit harav lilmod Torah, the return to the house of the teacher to study Torah!

Now is the time when we can achieve greatness, when every effort can produce unprecedented results. It is in dedication to this kind of commitment that we turn our thoughts to the past, entertaining memories of devoted parents and teachers, and promise to consecrate ourselves to a greater, brighter, and holier future for us, our children, and all Israel.

*May 18, 1964

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Parashat Va’era: On Having a Heart

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and Yeshiva University Press; Edited by Stuart W. Halpern

On Having a Heart*

In the Bible’s description of the seventh of the ten plagues which God brought upon Pharaoh and his Egyptians, the Torah employs a style that is somewhat different from the usual and which, therefore, seems to require some special attention.

The seventh plague, you will recall, was the barad, the plague of hailstones which fell upon the Egyptians, their servants, and their cattle, and killed all life that was unprotected. Now, before Moses stretched forth his rod and caused the hail to fall, he warned the Egyptians of what he was going to do. He warned them to withdraw indoors in order to save their lives. The reaction of the pagan Egyptians was to laugh at Moses, and though six times previously he had predicted the act of the Lord, they ridiculed him, and most of them – excepting the very few who did believe in God – exposed themselves to the plague.

Now here is how the Bible (Exodus 9:20-21) describes the actions of these two classes of Egyptians, those who took Moses seriously and those who did not: “hayarei et devar Hashem,” those of Pharaoh’s servants who feared the word of God, gathered their slaves and cattle indoors and saved them. “Va’asher lo sam libo el devar Hashem,” “and he who did
not put his heart to the word of God” (i.e. he who did not pay attention to God), left his cattle and slaves outdoors to be slain by the hailstones. Notice that the two classes of Egyptians are not described in the same kind of terms. If the first Egyptians are “hayarei et devar Hashem” (Godfearing), the second should be described as “lo yarei et Hashem” (not fearing God), or “sonei Hashem” (God-hating), or “eino ma’amin” (nonbeliever), or “ĥotei” (sinner) or something similar. Instead, the Torah describes this second, evil, anti-God class as “lo sam libo,” the kind that
“doesn’t put his heart” to God. Why this stylistic awkwardness?

The answer is that it is by no means awkward. It is people who are awkward who are being criticized by the Torah. What the Bible means to tell us by this choice of words is that indifference, not “putting your heart to it (or into) it,” is the cardinal sin of mankind. Centuries later, George Bernard Shaw repeated the same idea in his play “The Devil’s Disciple” (1901), when he wrote that the greatest sin of mankind is not hate but indifference.

Certainly, and despite the apparent signs of a return to religion in some general way, our generation’s greatest religious defect is an abysmal indifference and horrendous apathy to religion, to morals, to ethics, to Torah…in short, to God. It is purely a matter of “lo sam libo” – we do not pay attention to God’s word, we do not put our hearts into His service. Not anger at God, not rebellion against Torah, not resentment at religion – these are not the sins of our generation. Ours is a greater, subtler, and deeper sin – religious neutrality.

We do not absent ourselves from the synagogue because we are actively atheistic. It is just apathy. We do not desecrate the Sabbath because we dislike it. We are just religiously phlegmatic. We do not deprive our children of a solid Jewish education because we are in principle opposed to it. It is just that we never get around to it because of a spiritual supineness, a lackadaisical, lazy unconcern with anything that does not directly concern our immediate physical well-being. We are, thus, more than “eino yarei et devar Hashem,” “ĥotim,” “sonim” to God – we are “lo sam libo,” people who are so inured to God that they do not even consider Him in the first place. An atheist, an agnostic, a communist, has at least given God the courtesy of thinking about Him. The indifferent Jew doesn’t even do that.

And what is the practical result of this spiritual indifference? It results in inhumanity and wastefulness, in social and economic indifference. What happened to the Egyptian who was “lo sam libo,” who did not take God seriously? “Vaya’azov et avadav ve’et mikneihu basadeh,” he left his slaves and his cattle to die in the fields. A slave is as much a human being as a master, and cattle are food for hungry children. But a person who is indifferent to God is indifferent to them, for they are only the creatures of God. Our fellow men and our respect for private property are the casualties of our indifference to God.

In the translation-interpretation of the Torah know as the Targum Yerushalmi, the translator adds some interesting notes to this matter of the reaction of Egypt to Moses’ warning about the hailstones. For the first class, the “yarei et devar Hashem,” the God-fearing Egyptians, the Targum gives, as an example, Job. And as an example for “lo sam libo,” the indifferent one, the illustration is Balaam.

How beautifully the Aramaic translator was able to detect this moral from the Torah’s literary style, and then transmit it through an apt and cryptic illustration! Job, remember, was the man who complained against God. He ranted and he raved, he complained and he resented, he objected and he protested. At times his outbursts against God’s supposed injustice were so strong that one of our Rabbis was moved to exclaim (Yalkut Shimoni, Job 900), “afra befume deIyov,” “Job deserved to have his mouth filed with dust!” Balaam, on the other hand, never said anything untoward, anything offensive or protesting to God. When called upon to prophesize, he prophesized. He saw Israel as the chosen of God and so, even though himself a pagan, he praised Israel as the special people of God.

Yet here was the great difference: Job objected – but he took God seriously, he thought about Him, he sought Him, he demanded of Him, he offered to Him, he questioned Him. Job put his heart into Godliness. Balaam, on the other hand, “lo sam libo,” never really took God in earnest. Balak, the king of Israel’s enemies, said (Numbers 22:6), “Go curse Israel for me” – Balaam wondered not whether the God of Israel would be happy about such an arrangement. He just didn’t care. And so he went to curse. He was a religious Hessian, a spiritual mercenary. When the beast he was riding on halted, he beat it mercilessly. He didn’t wonder why it halted, for being indifferent to God, he was indifferent to all of life: “Vayaazov et avadav ve’et mikneihu basadeh.” He just didn’t care. That is why he is known as Bilam harasha, Balaam the Wicked – because he didn’t care, because he never considered the wishes of God.

Medical doctors know that indifference can allow a small growth to develop into the kind of thing that kills. Marriage counselors know that more marriages are broken by indifference than by differences. The indifference of the great powers to the plight of European Jewry resulted in the loss of one third of our people in the Holocaust. The terrible indifference of religious Jewry to Palestine, in years gone by, cost us years and years of attempting to give Israel the kind of spirit and leadership it needs. And religious teachers are therefore similarly alarmed when they approach parents or children – especially teenagers just blossoming into maturity, in an attempt to engage their attention and interest – and the response they get is, “I don’t know. I guess I just don’t care.” What future can they have when they are possessed of the evil demon of ennui, boredom, of “lo sam libo.” With listlessness of this kind you can do absolutely nothing. Hatred can be converted into love. But apathy cannot be moved or converted into anything.

This thought is summed up in a superbly powerful and beautiful capsule of wisdom in the Midrash (Song of Songs Rabba 2:13). It is a remark so sage, and concerns a word so familiar, that I hope all of us will remember it. Offering an allegorical interpretation of Song of Songs 2:4, in which Israel sings of God “diglo alai ahava,” “His banner on me is love,” Rabbi Aĥa indulges in a typical midrashic play on words and says “dilugo alai ahava” – God announces, “his mistake is beloved by Me.” What does this mean? Rabbi Aĥa explains: If an am ha’aretz, an ignoramus, was reciting the Shema and came to the words “ve’ahavta et Hashem Elohekha,” “thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” and mispronounced “ve’ahavta” to read “ve’ayavta,” “thou shalt hate” – that error too
is acceptable to God! “Dilugo alai ahava” – God loves such mistakes!

What a powerful and incisive comment! God is willing to accept even “ve’ayavta” instead of “ve’ahavta,” even hatred and rebellion in place of love and loyalty, but never “lo sam libo,” never that deadly indifference that chokes the soul and poisons the spirit. Better to complain against God and be angry with Him and protest against Him, than to shut your eyes and ears and heart to Him. Better to shake your fists at the heavens, than to shrug your shoulders and turn up your palms and say, “Don’t bother me – I’m not interested.” Better a bitter exchange with the Creator
than no dialogue at all. For ultimately, “ve’ayavta” is based upon am ha’aratzut, upon ignorance, and with the study of Torah and the acquisition of wisdom and learning there will come instead “ve’ahavta” – true love and devotion and loyalty to God. But apathy, “lo sam libo,” has no future whatsoever. Indifference marks the end of any dialogue between God and man. It condemns a man to eternal suspension in a heavy cosmic nothingness, where he is enveloped in a thunderous silence which keeps him at an infinite distance from God – a distance which he cannot and God will not ever bridge.

This, then, is the message implied in the stylistic eccentricity of our sidra. The antonym of yirat Hashem, Reverence, is “lo sam libo” – not putting your heart into Synagogue, Torah, Judaism. In order to achieve that glorious reverence before God, we must learn sympathy and empathy and not apathy, yearning and not neutrality, passion and not indifference.

In short, the Torah presses each of us this day with its demand and its challenge: “Have a heart.”

*January 22, 1955

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Parashat Shemot: Galut and Geulah – Intertwined Processes

Excerpted from The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms of Leadership by Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, co-published by OU Press and KTAV

Galut and Geulah: Intertwined Processes

Parashat Shemot deals with galut Mitzrayim, our exile in Egypt, and at the same time begins to relate the first steps toward our geulah, our liberation. A closer look into the parsha illuminates for us that galut and geulah are not separate, discrete events. Both are processes that occur over long periods of time, and are linked together and overlap in multiple, significant ways.

The parashah opens with the genesis of the oppression of the Jews in Egypt. A new Pharaoh now occupies the throne in Egypt, and he immediately develops a deadly paranoia regarding the Jews. He bemoans not only their rapid demographic growth, but also their growing success in Mitzrayim: “vayirbu vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od, vatimalei ha-aretz otam.” The Klausenberger Rebbe interprets the latter part of that verse to mean that the Jews had successfully penetrated every sector of Egyptian society.

Pharaoh’s response is immediate and comprehensive: the enslavement of the Jewish people through harsh and backbreaking labor. This introduction to the long episode of enslavement – the galut Mitzrayim – is condensed into only six verses at the beginning of the parashah. Only several verses separate that account from the Torah’s description of the birth of Moshe, his discovery in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, and his upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace. Then, just a few verses later, we read, “Vayigdal Moshe, vayetzei el eḥav, vayar b’sivlotam,” Moshe matures and seeks out his brothers. He sees and empathizes with their suffering.

Moshe demonstrates his connection with his enslaved brethren by killing an Egyptian who was beating a Jew; as a result, he is forced to flee Egypt. In Moshe’s exile in Midian, God appears to him in a burning bush and persuades him – overcoming Moshe’s great humility – to undertake the mission to liberate the Jews from Egypt.

This is the first demonstration that galut and geulah are not separate and distinct events, but a process in which they are interlinked. Geulah is not confined solely to the termination of galut. The process of geulah is initiated by God through the identification of the Jewish people’s future leader, stimulating in him a psychological disposition for his mission, and finally recruiting him and providing him with the tools and motivation to undertake that mission. The initiation and first steps of the geulah process occur almost simultaneously with the onset of the darkness that descends upon the Jewish people in Mitzrayim.

The second half of the parashah provides an even better example of this principle. Following God’s instruction, Moshe, with his brother at his side, visits with the zekenim, the leaders of the Jewish people in Egypt, and convinces them and the people that the liberation from Egypt is forthcoming. “Vaya’amen ha’am,” the people declare their faith in Moshe and his mission.

Recruited by God and now encouraged by the response of the elders and the people, Moshe, accompanied by his brother Aharon, appears before Pharaoh’s court. “Ko amar Hashem . . . shalaḥ et ami,” Thus has God spoken, let My people go. Pharaoh’s response is defiant: Who is this God that I must follow His orders? Indeed, Pharaoh responds by increasing the labor the Jews must accomplish. The Egyptian overseers instruct their Jewish counterparts to increase the quota and speed of production of the Jewish slaves. The Jewish overseers angrily confront Moshe and Aharon after their meeting with Pharaoh. They complain that instead of relieving them as promised, they have caused their situation to become even more desperate than before.

The Torah here relates two remarkable responses to this dire turn of events. Moshe returns to God and asks, “Why have you sent me on this alleged mission of liberation?” “Ume’az bati el Pharaoh . . . hera la’am hazeh, vehatzel lo hitzalta et amekha,” since my mission, You have not only not liberated the Jews; You have, in fact, worsened their situation.

God responds, “Ata tir’eh asher e’eseh l’Pharaoh ki v’yad ḥazakah yishalḥem,” Pharaoh will ultimately liberate the Jews, and you yourself will witness it. As I indicated earlier, galut and geulah are intertwined processes. God indeed instructed Moshe to visit Pharaoh and demand of him the liberation of the Jewish people. But liberation, explains Rav Uzi Kalchaim, is not a linear process, not always ascending. It is instead a curvilinear process, with ups and downs, some steps forward, followed by retreats – some steps backward.

Liberation can be compared to childbirth. There is never a set time for a child’s birth. Much depends on the condition of the mother and the child. If the child is not fully ready for birth, he or she remains in the womb for a longer period of time. What God is advising Moshe is that the time is not yet fully ripe for geulah. The Jews are not ready, not fully prepared for their redemption. Some further actions are required on their part. Those changes will surely come. “Ata tir’eh,” you yourself will lead that liberation – when the conditions that we will together foster and create will fully warrant their liberation.

Geulah, as I have suggested, is not a distinct event set in time, but a process – intimately linked with both the circumstances of our galut and our creating the appropriate conditions to prepare for our own liberation.

As it was in Egypt then, so too in our exile today.


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Parashat Toldot: The Leader and His Progeny: Never One Size in Education

Excerpted from The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms of Leadership by Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, co-published by OU Press and KTAV

The Leader and His Progeny: Never One Size in Education

Parashat Toldot deals essentially with the genesis of the profound enmity between Ya’akov and Eisav, one that pervades Jewish history until this day. How can we explain the root cause of this most troublesome phenomenon, considering that Eisav is also the son of Yitzḥak and Rivkah, our second patriarch and matriarch?

There is much discussion among the commentaries regarding the twin brothers’ childhood. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch poses an unusual and radical solution that deserves our attention because it may have relevance for our time as well.

The Torah tells us, “vayigdelu hane’arim,” Ya’akov and Eisav matured. “Vayehi Eisav ish yode’a tzayid, ish sadeh,” Eisav becomes a hunter, a man of the field, one comfortable in the wider society whose values differ substantially from the moral climate of Yitzḥak and Rivkah’s household. A hunter is not a desired Jewish profession, then or now. Ya’akov, on the other hand, is described as “ish tam, yoshev ohalim,” a tent dweller, a pious, insular scholar engaged in Torah studies.

According to Rabbi Hirsch, this divergence in character between the two brothers surfaces only after they mature. That is explicit in the preceding verse. Until that time, according to Rabbi Hirsch and others, they were raised in the same home, exposed to the same socialization by their parents, attended the same schools, and were enveloped in the same moral and spiritual ambience that their parents represented. So what was responsible for the very radically divergent paths of their lives?

The Torah, Rabbi Hirsch points out, characteristically does not cover up the blemishes of our ancestors. We must learn from their noble achievements, but from their errors as well. What occurred here was a failure of adhering to the principle, “ḥanokh lana’ar al pi darko.” Parents are responsible for educating their children by taking into account their special needs and predispositions.

Eisav, like Ya’akov, has his own set of predilections and strengths  on which his upbringing should have been based. There is no one formula or recipe for educating all children, even the offspring of Yitzḥak and Rivkah. That he was not schooled and socialized in a more individualized way might have contributed to Eisav’s unacceptable behavior and activities.

This knowledge and insight did indeed have an important impact on Ya’akov himself. At the end of his life he gathers together his sons, the twelve tribes of Israel, for his final message and blessing to them. The Torah describes his blessing in the following words: “Ish asher k’virkhato berakh otam.” Ya’akov blesses all of them “in accordance with their blessing.” In other words, he recognizes that each of them has unique aptitudes and talents. One general blessing for all would not suffice. Ya’akov is able to identify the special potential of each son, and shape his blessings to address and fully express that individual trait or characteristic.

His blessings range far and wide – from success in business and agriculture to moral, political, and spiritual leadership. By highlighting and praying for each son’s individual success in the area of his greatest talents and aptitudes, he ensures that the Jewish people would also be blessed as a collective.

The gap that Rabbi Hirsch wisely identifies regarding Eisav’s education has certainly affected our history, as the Toldot narrative reveals. The leadership of the Jewish community, and especially parents raising the next generation of Jews, needs to be continually conscious of the critical omission identified by Rabbi Hirsch.

There is ample evidence that some Jewish leaders, parents, and educators are still not devising and tailoring their children’s education to the special needs, interests, and character of their children and students. Rabbi Hirsch’s stunning insight thus has equal relevance in our age.

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Festivals of Faith: Rosh HaShana – Three Who Cried

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

Three Who Cried*

Ours is an age which has forgotten how to cry. Whether at Rosh Hashanah services or Tish‘ah be-Av kinot, whether at a funeral or a theater, tears are conspicuous by their absence. Once upon a time, the mahzor was stained with tears; today, it is so white and clean—and cold. Not, unfortunately, that there is nothing to cry about. A generation which saw the finest of its sons and daughters destroyed in the most terrible massacre in recorded history; a generation which, the more it probes the heavens, the more it ignores the heart—a generation of this sort has much to cry about. How many people here today do not have their private woes, their secret sorrows?

It is rather that we have embarrassed ourselves into silence. It has become a style of the times to restrain our tears on the theory that maybe that way the pain will go away, that by refusing to display genuine emotion, the agonizing facts of our lives will be altered. But we are, nevertheless, human beings. And so the unwept tears and unexpressed emotions and unarticulated cries well up within us and seek release. What insight the Kotzker Rebbe had when he said that when a man needs to cry and wants to cry but cannot cry, that is the most heart-rending cry of all.

Granted that crying is an experience we ought not to deny ourselves. But is there not a difference in how and why people cry? Is there not a vast difference between the various types of weeping and what motivates them?

I believe there is. And Rosh Hashanah suggests three separate causes for tears, two that are vain and unfortunate, and a third that is heroic and constructive.

The three types are symbolized by three biblical characters, all women, whose tears are recalled on this holiday. They are the mother of Sisera, Hagar, and Rachel.

Sisera was a Canaanite general, leader of an army that was, so to speak, highly mechanized compared to the peasant people of Israel which it attacked. This arrogant pagan warlord was defeated by the Israelites, who were led by Deborah. In Deborah’s song of triumph, she paints the picture of Sisera’s mother, usually overconfident, this time anxiously awaiting the return of her son (Judg. 5:28): Be-ad ha-halon nishkafah—she peers intently out the window, a nagging question burning within her; maddua boshesh rikhbo lavo—why is his chariot so late in coming, why do the wheels of his chariot tarry? She answers, soothing herself: My son and his soldiers are busy dividing the spoils of their great victory; they are splitting up the dyed cloths, the embroidered garments, the damsels of conquered Israel. But the delusion cannot last forever. The truth must emerge. Her son is dead. Va-teyabbev—the mother of Sisera breaks out into uncontrolled sobbing. There were one hundred sobs, tradition declares (Tosafot Rosh ha-Shanah 33b, citing the Arukh), and for this reason, we Jews on Rosh Hashanah sound a total of one hundred notes on the shofar.

A beautiful, compassionate story. A shining example of historical generosity and forgiveness—we relive the pain and anguish of the mother of our enemy. But were there no Jewish mothers who were bereaved of their sons in the same war? Was no Jewish blood spilt in our long history, no Jewish tears shed by grieving mothers?

What the Rabbis intended, I believe, was a moral of great significance: The mother of Sisera lived in a dream world. She refused to face reality and contemplate its bitter side. And when you live in a dream world, you must expect nightmares. She had imagined that her exalted position as mother of a successful conqueror inured her to pain and tragedy—that was reserved only for the contemptible enemy, Israel. She was guilty of an immoral optimism, the kind of outlook that characterizes the unthinking and arrogant of all ages. Hers was a strutting and pompous dream which collapsed under the weight of its own illusions. And this indeed is what the shofar and Rosh Hashanah remind us of: there is a Yom ha-Din, a day of judgment and accounting. Al titya’esh min hapur‘ anut (Avot 1:7)—do not go through life, says one interpretation, blithely ignoring consequences which you dread. He who sits on top of the world has no assurance that his world will not collapse under him. Absolute security is a myth. Life is not as certain, as guaranteed, as the haughty, unreflective mentality of the mother of Sisera lead her to believe. Beware of such vain and dangerous illusions.

Do we not know in our own lives the kind of mentality that discovers its smugness and self-confidence punctured only when it is too late? We see it in international affairs, as when our government naively assumed that Communism could never gain a foothold on this continent, so we neglected the masses of Cuba, we supported tyranny, we ignored the oppressed population—and now we have Castro and his Russian allies ninety miles off our coast. Va-teyabbev. . .

The couple who neglect to seek advice for their serious problems, the man who ignores medical symptoms he inwardly fears, the mother who notices her children going off on the wrong path and says and does nothing—all of them lull themselves with false balm, assuring themselves that all is really well and nothing will be wrong. Va-teyabbev—how pitiful the tears that are so futilely shed when, later, there is divorce, and incurable illness, and a child gone astray. Broken homes, broken bodies, broken hearts—all in the inglorious tradition of Sisera’s mother. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of this, tells us that nothing in life is guaranteed, that by ignoring danger, you invite it, and that better face reality now than cry vainly later.

Hagar was the second of the three who cried. We read about her in today’s Torah portion. You recall that she was the servant of Sarah whom Abraham, at Sarah’s behest, banished from his home. She took her child, Ishmael, into the desert, and when the water in her jug gave out, she cast the child away, pathetically saying she did not want to see him die. And va-tissa et kolah va-tevk (Gen. 21:16), “she raised her voice and cried.” No attempt to save the child, no looking for an oasis—which factually was there, before her eyes—no real effort at changing her dangerous situation. She merely raises her voice and cries; it is the cry of desperation, a morbid, fatalistic pessimism. Hers is a “realism” that leads to resignation. Unlike Sisera’s mother, she sees the “facts” only too clearly. Hagar beholds the great desert of life—and submits to it.

Rosh Hashanah reminds us of this weeping too. Just as it discourages us from harboring the dangerous illusion of total security, so it warns us off from the equally dangerous fatalism of a Hagar, the hopelessness that paralyzes all will and initiative. By recalling these tears, we learn to avoid living so that we too will be forced to shed them.

And how important that advice is. Take the matter of the danger to the future of humanity from nuclear war. Most of us are under the impression that the majority of people are indifferent to its ghastly possibility, that they never consider such horrors as real.

I believe, however, that the reverse is true. Contemporary man’s attitude to the H-bomb is not that of the em Sisera but of Hagar. If they do not discuss it, it is because inwardly, psychologically, they have already given up and accepted it. They have surrendered and have the feeling that they are living in the end of time.

The results, morally speaking, are disastrous. If there is no future, then the present loses all value. If there is nothing to build for, there is nothing to live for. If death is certain and universal, then, like Esau, let us sell our birthright to fill our stomachs. If, as the cynics quoted by Isaiah said, mahar namut, “tomorrow we die” (Is. 22:13), then indeed, “let us eat and drink and be merry”—and forgo any serious purpose in life.

This, then, is the result of the Hagar mentality in its fatalism, its absolute hopelessness in the face of adversity. It is the type of mind which, seeing before it the midbar, is so overwhelmed by it that it stretches out and prepares to die with a whimper. And in that interval between despair and death, is it worth being temperate or sober or chaste or law-abiding or pure? The tears of Hagar and her whole frame of mind suggest a despair of which is born delinquency.

Both these approaches are dangerously wrong. A society, like an individual, which alternates between the moods of exhilaration and depression, em Sisera and Hagar, shows symptoms of moral mania and spiritual psychosis. Neither the one weeping nor the other is for us. Rather, it is the tears of a Jewish mother which inspire us this day.

The third woman who cried is Rachel. We read of her in tomorrow’s haftarah, in what is one of the most moving passages and most stirring images in all literature. Jeremiah describes Mother Rachel crying from her grave over her children who are banished from their homes into exile: “Thus saith the Lord, kol be-Ramah nishma, nehi, bekhi tamrurim, a voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel mevakkah al banehah, it is Rachel weeping for her children; me‘anah le-hinnahem, she refuses to be comforted” (Jer. 31:14).  Here is a woman whose tears have moved history. Unlike Sisera’s mother, they do not come from living an easy life and deluding herself into imagining that a day of reckoning will never come. Rachel lived a hard life and a brief one; she knew trouble and anguish. She sees her children going into exile and recognizes the bitterness of reality. But unlike Hagar, she refuses to bow to these realities. Me‘anah le-hinnahem, she refuses to submit, she refuses to adjust, she refuses to accept exile and destruction as the last word. Her cry, her tears, and her protest to God are the characteristic of the Jew throughout all time. The Jewish soul beholds reality in all its ugliness but sets out to transform it. The tears of Rachel are the tears of a gallant soul who will not yield to the world but makes the world, though it take centuries, yield to it. They are not the tears of vain sentiment and self-pity, but of powerful protest; they are a sign not of weakness, but of strength; not of resignation or frustration, but of determination. The tears of an em Sisera or a Hagar are the end of their story; for Rachel, it is a beginning. To Rachel’s cry there comes an answer: Koh amar Hashem, “thus saith the Lord,” min‘i kolekh mi-bekhi ve-einayikh mi-dim‘ah, “refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears, for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and thy children shall come back from the land of the enemy; and there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord, and ve-shavu banim li-gevulam, thy children shall return home” (Jer. 31:15–16). The Jewish attitude, symbolized by Rachel’s crying, is one which steers clear of the extremes of ignoring facts and of surrendering to them. Judaism teaches, in the language of the Kabbalah, that the it‘aruta di-le-Eila, the impulse from Above, or divine assistance, can only come in response to the it‘aruta di-le-tatta, or human initiative. For God helps those who help themselves—and God help those who don’t.

Has not this Rachel mentality distinguished the authentic Jew throughout the ages? Are not her heroic tears our saving grace even today? We did not rely on Britain or the United States or the League of Nations or the U.N. to take care of us, assuming with naive and idolatrous optimism that all would be well with us. We knew the harsh realities of creating an old people anew on a renewed land—with ancient enemies waiting to devour us. But Jews fought. They went into battle inspired by the tears of a Rachel who me’anah le-hinnahem, refusing to accept defeat, refusing to acknowledge surrender, refusing to submit to overwhelming odds. That is why ve-shavu banim li-gevulam; that is why there is an Israel today.

Fourteen or fifteen years ago, the great question was Palestine or the State of Israel. Today, two other central questions present themselves to us Jews, questions equally as significant as that of Israel.

The first is Russian Jewry. There is, at present, not too much we can do about it. We must recognize the brutal facts, the wily and cunning enemy we are dealing with, and the incalculably tragic results of a generation of Russian Jews denied any and all Jewish education. But we must vow never to give up hope. Me‘anah le-hinnahem. We must apply pressure. We must talk of them and inquire about them. We must never despair, but rather prepare for their eventual release and return to the House of Israel.

But the second is one we can do much about—and that is the most momentous issue in the Jewish life of this generation—the future of American Jewry. Here the attitude we take can determine whether we shall survive and thrive or, Heaven forbid, eventually vanish without a trace.

If we adopt the genuinely Jewish approach of a Rachel, then there is hope for us. We dare not consider the complacent ideas of those who foolishly tell us that all is well and there is no cause for worry—those who, imbued with the same opiate that dulled the mind of Sisera’s mother, are blind to the densely negative features of American-Jewish life: intermarriage, vast ignorance of the most elementary aspects of Judaism, a desire to mimic the non-Jews, and a growing vacuum in the lives of our children.

Yet, at the same time, we dare not take a Hagar-like attitude and assume that things are so far gone that nothing will avail. The pessimists are blind to the resurgence and growing independence of Orthodoxy; the spreading Jewish Day School movement; the growing and developing Yeshiva University; the flourishing Hebrew book industry. Either attitude—ignoring the problems and ignoring the promises, thoughtless optimism and hopeless pessimism— paralyzes all initiative and must result in national mourning.

Ours must be the tears of Rachel. Knowing reality, let us proceed to transform it to a better reality. Let everyone here decide to come to shul at least once a week instead of making a perfunctory three-day-a-year visit. Let every parent send his or her children to a yeshivah or day school or at least Hebrew school. Let every thinking adult leave this synagogue today determined to learn more about Judaism, about the Jewish people—about yourselves. Tears of determination, of me‘anah le-hinnahem—the tears of Rachel—these shall save us.

Ha-zore‘im be-dim‘ah be-rinnah yiktzoru (Ps. 126:5). Those to whom tears are not the distillation of vain illusions or morbid resignation, but the dewdrops of creative moral heroism, they shall sow the seeds of hope with these tears—and reap a harvest of joy, of happiness, of nahas and unending blessing.

*5723 (1962)

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Parashat Ekev: Making Hay Out of Religion

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Making Hay Out of Religion*

One of the great paradoxes of human nature is the meeting of opposites, the fact that two conditions which are contrary to each other in the extreme can produce the same effects. How frequently are we amused to find the Vatican and the Kremlin toeing, with characteristic dogmatism, the same line; occasionally we are astonished at the coincidence of view of The Wall Street Journal and the Daily Worker. Both extreme Right and extreme Left are alike in condemning the liberal center, and in demanding blind obedience of their followers. Both were equally hostile, for instance, to the Marshall Plan.

In the same vein, we find that affluence and plenty often produce the same results as do adversity and poverty. It is no secret that indigence breeds immorality and corruption. In the Middle Ages, the Black Plague and universal poverty combined to cause the greatest crime wave in the recorded history of Europe. Murder, violence, and theft were the immediate results of pestilence and destitution. In our own day, starvation and privation are bound to unleash the tidal waves of immorality and degeneracy whether in Nablus of Arab Palestine or in Harlem of enlightened New York. Sociologists usually blame low standards of morality on low standards of living.

But the astounding fact is that there are people who would behave  immorally and irreligiously and unethically when they earn $200 a week, whereas they did not do so when they barely eked out a living at $25 a week. Somehow, prosperity will sometimes produce worse effects than will poverty. The recent basketball scandals have shown that boys from wealthy homes are not necessarily immune to the temptation of the fixer. Today, when America is enjoying comparatively high prosperity, the record for narcotics, sports scandals, and government bribery is as black as ever. It is a well-established phenomenon that the nouveau riche, the man who has suddenly become wealthy, leaves his house of worship and forgets his religion. Even political immorality is practiced by the extremely wealthy. There are some millionaires who are known sympathizers of American Communism, an “ism” which usually preys only on the poor and dejected.

This principle or paradox was already formulated in the Torah and explained by our Sages. In today’s sidra we read, “And you shall eat and be satisfied…take heed and beware lest your heart be deceived and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them” (Deuteronomy 8:10-11). And the Rabbis of the Midrash (Sifri, 43:17) infer from the sequence of the texts that there is a refinite relationship between satiety, eating until you’re full, and idolatry – namely, that it is only out of satisfaction and satiety that one takes to idolatry. Was not the Tower of Babel, the symbol of rebellion against God, built during a period of affluence? Did not the wickedness of Sodom flourish among a wealthy people? And, in our own time, was not Berlin, the city which admitted only wealthy “schutz-juden,” the center of assimilation? Only when people are satisfied and content with themselves do they go hunting for other gods, whether the money god or the entertainment god or the god whose first commandment is “Thou shalt keep up with the Joneses.”

Well, we can understand that satiety and contentment would result in laxity of morals and religion. After a heavy gluttonous meal, one’s metabolism rate drops, one’s pulse and respiration go down and energy is sparse. One feels lazy, and if he forgets his Grace after Meals, or skips a mitzva or two, or commits a sin or two, it is a result of negligence and indolence rather than rebellion against God. Why then do the Rabbis insist that eating to satisfaction is the precursor of the worst of all sins, idolatry?

Idolatry, no matter what kind – ancient or modern – is easier than true religion. And because it is easier to practice, success is more readily attainable in idolatry than in monotheism. First of all, it requires less mental exertion. True religion is more abstract, more difficult conceptually than belief in a tangible idol. The invisible is harder on the intellect than the visible. Thus, idolatry is less emotionally taxing than Judaism. It is easier to offer your overt devotions to or embrace a slab of concrete or a totem pole or a Rembrandt or a moneybag or a rabbit’s foot than it is to fall in love with an unknown God whom your senses cannot even detect. And idolatry places fewer restrictions upon your behavior than does our religion. The creed of Moloch or Baal never demanded strict Sabbath observance. The religion of the moneybag certainly places no restrictions on corrupt business practices. And the faith in the sacred cow of science requires ethical conduct of no one. All sources indicate that idolatry has frequently sanctioned murder, immorality, and downright degeneracy.

Why do normal people fall prey to the curse of idolatry? Why do they succumb to this opiate of easy living? Let us read the verse preceding the one we have previously quoted: “And I will give grass in your fields for your animals and you shall eat and be satisfied,” and then, “beware of worshipping other gods.” Certainly! If a person is satisfied with eating the grass reserved for his cattle, if that individual is satisfied to thrive on straw and hay, then certainly his goals are so low that he will be satisfied with the easily attainable idolatry. If this person’s noblest goals are not as high as the stars in heaven, but as low as hay in the field, and if he is satisfied with this grass, then this individual’s loftiest aims and ambitions in his entire religious life will be not the dedication to one God in heaven but the worship of a dozen cheap clay and wooden statues. “I will give grass in your fields for your animals and you shall eat and be satisfied.” The danger of idolatry rears its ugly head when people’s aims are level with the ground, when they strive for straw and are content with their success in obtaining it.

The great American ideal is “success.” But “success” can apply as well to a well-executed murder as to the amassing of a fortune. I have two friends who intended to accelerate their reading this summer. One decided to read ten important novels published during the past year. The other friend was less ambitious and selected three best-sellers for his summer reading list. By today, I hear, the second fellow has well completed his list of three books. He is by all American standards a success. The first fellow finished only eight of the ten books he had set out to read. Again by American standards, he is a dismal failure. Yet who has accomplished more? Is success really a measure of achievement? Is it really necessary for a meaningful life? In this same vein, idolatry is easier to succeed in than Judaism. It all depends on what your original goal is. “I will give grass in your fields for your animals and you shall eat and be satisfied.” People who are satisfied with straw are ripe for idol worship.

Look around you in your places of business and in the streets, and you will meet the typical American Jew of 1951. How high are his goals? Doesn’t he seem to think that an insignificant check to a charity is the summum bonum of Jewish life? Isn’t this person satisfied with a Sunday school education for his children? Isn’t this person’s highest religious ideal to visit the synagogue on the High Holy Days? Isn’t this person’s standard for kashrut two sets of dishes in the home and one set all over the rest of the world? In short, our typical American Jew is often satisfied with straw. A bellyful of hay is sufficient to pacify this person’s spiritual hunger, and a thimbleful of ersatz-religion satisfies his cultural requirements. “I will give grass in your fields for your animals and you shall eat and be satisfied.” He is unfortunately satisfied with the grass for his cattle, and that means that he is prepared to bow and kneel to the next idol. What the American Jew needs is not a face-lift but a lifting of his level of vision. He must learn to aim higher.

One of the reasons that the Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) gives for the destruction of the Temple is that the people did not act lifnim mishurat hadin, they only did what was legally expected of them, and no more. They followed the letter of the law, but failed to rise to the spirit of the law. This view of the Talmud was given a modern slant in plain English when Senator Fulbright, commenting on the sad state of American political morals, said that it was “setting a low level” for our national development if “our only goal for official conduct is that it be legal instead of illegal.” Indeed, he was expressing the popular fear that our country, the sanctuary of democracy, is endangered because its sights are as high as the din, the strict Constitutional law, and not lifnim mishurat hadin, the spirit of the law, the unwritten moral code. A diet of hay and straw is bad for the spiritual health of our nation. We must raise our sights.

Y. L. Peretz, the famous Yiddish and Hebrew writer, has immortalized the type of Jew whose goals were no higher than “grass in your fields for your animals,” the animal’s straw, in his story “Bontche Schweig.” When Bontche died, he was tried by the divine tribunal, and the heavenly court decided that he merited any reward he would choose. Bontche could not believe it. “Takeh? Really?” he asked in wonder. He was reassured. When Bontche announced his decision, the court and angels looked down, a little ashamed, and the prosecutor laughed. For Bontche had answered, “Well, if it is so, I would like to have every day, for breakfast, a hot roll and fresh butter.”

In the same way, a leader who prods his people on to higher goals and loftier ambition is a leader who loves his people. And, conversely, the leader who lulls his people into complacency and self-satisfaction is a traitor. Some of the most laudatory and flattering of epithets were bestowed upon Israel by Balaam, the gentile prophet. Oh, how he praised us! Just compare what he told the Jews to the sermons that Isaiah preached at them. Balaam told them that God saw no sin or evil in them; Isaiah said that they were repulsive to God and rebellious sons. Balaam told them that glory would be theirs without a struggle; Isaiah warned of impending doom if they would not mend their ways. But who would you say loved Israel more? Certainly, the strict and critical Isaiah! For he set higher and finer goals for his people – goals more difficult to achieve, if success was at all humanly possible. He demanded of them exertion and initiative, while Balaam told them that they could rest on their laurels, that they were successful and nothing else of great import was worth striving for. Balaam was not a friend – he was a bitter enemy. The leader who loves his people will give them not a pat on the back, but a shot in the arm. He will teach them that if they can digest and be satisfied with hay and straw, then they are bound to wind up prostrating themselves before pagan idols.

Our good friend, ex-Ambassador James G. McDonald, warns us in his recent book that “the spiritual future of Israel is not without danger.” We can keep our aims low and become another banana republic on the shore of the blue Mediterranean, or we can press forward towards the mark, the prize of our high calling. Success is assured to us if we will be content with hay; but the rewards will be greater if our ideals will be loftier.

Today we welcome the month of Elul. During this month, reserved for penitence and introspection, we will reevaluate and possibly reset our present standards and ideals. We can make them as low as the grass upon the fields for the cattle, or as high as the stars in the infinite heavens above.

Which shall it be?

*August 25, 1951

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Parshat Va’etchanan: Second Edition?

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

Second Edition?


Moshe’s recollections bring him back to the pivotal moment at Sinai, when, amidst thunder, lightning and the sounding of the shofar, God conveyed the Ten Declarations to the Israelites (see Shmot: Yitro 4).

As Moshe repeats these declarations in retrospect, a series of variations upon the original text recorded in the book of Shmot emerge. These textual discrepancies are inconsistent in nature. While the first and third declarations are repeated without any change at all, the other eight contain variations ranging from the nuanced to the substantial.


We have repeatedly noted (see Bereishit: Bereishit 3; Chayei Sara 3; Miketz 1) that whenever the Torah replicates a conversation or event, we are challenged to carefully compare the two versions presented. Invariably, the differences that emerge are important and instructive.

The passages before us, however, are uniquely problematic. With Moshe’s retrospective recording of the Ten Declarations, we are effectively confronted with a “second edition” of the divine communication that launched Revelation and changed the world.

How can we explain the textual discrepancies between the two versions of the Aseret Hadibrot? These declarations are, after all, God’s own words. A perfect God must have fashioned a perfect text through which to introduce His law to His people. Communication shared by such a Deity should need neither further editing nor improvement.

Our questions are further complicated by the singular nature of the book of Devarim as a whole. We have previously noted (see Devarim 1) that a spectrum of rabbinic opinion exists concerning the authorship of this volume. While all traditional scholars accept the divine nature of Devarim, they argue over Moshe’s role in the narrative. Does Devarim, they ask, uniquely consist of Moshe’s words, agreed to by God in retrospect; or does Moshe continue in the role that he has played until now, faithfully recording a text dictated by his Divine Master? Our position on these issues will
clearly affect our posture concerning the “dueling editions” of the Aseret Hadibrot. Numerous possibilities emerge. Did the textual emendations found in Devarim originate from God, from Moshe or from a partnership between the two? Is the source of all these variations consistent; or were some changes determined by God and others suggested by Moshe?

Faced with these glaring issues, the rabbis accept as a given that the second version of the Aseret Hadibrot is neither an improvement upon nor a replacement for the first. Both versions are authentic. The changes that appear are, instead, designed to convey critical lessons and ideas that could not be derived from one consistent text.

Armed with this understanding, the scholars painstakingly study the differences between the two versions of the Aseret Hadibrot and offer explanations for each.

Our discussion must, of course, begin with a review of the textual discrepancies themselves.

The Ten Declarations:

Version I (Shmot)

The Ten Declarations:

Version 2 (Devarim)

1. I am the Lord your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 1. I am the Lord your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.
2. You shall have no other gods in My presence. You shall not make for yourself a graven image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the Earth below or in the water beneath the Earth. You shall not bow down to them nor shall you serve them, for I am the Lord your God, a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon

children to the third and to the fourth generations of those who hate Me; and Who shows kindness to thousands of those who

love Me and to those who keep My commandments.

2. You shall have no other gods in My presence. You shall not make for yourself a graven image of any likeness [the letter vav is omitted] of that which is in the heavens above or on the Earth below or in the water beneath the Earth. You shall not bow down to them nor shall you serve them, for I am

the Lord your God, a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon children and to the third and to the fourth generations of those who hate Me; and Who shows kindness

to thousands of those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord, God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve anyone who takes His name in vain 3. You shall not take the name of the Lord, God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve  anyone who takes His name in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you labor and perform all your work; but the seventh day is Sabbath to

the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, and your son, and your daughter, your slave, and your maidservant, and your

animal, and your convert who is within your gates – for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that

is within them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.

4. Safeguard the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days shall you labor and perform all

your work; but the seventh day is Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, and your son, and your daughter, and your slave, and your maidservant, and your ox, and your donkey, and your every animal, and your convert who is within your gates;

in order that your slave and your maidservant shall rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God took you out from

there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to make the Sabbath day.

5. Honor your father and your mother so that your days may be lengthened upon the land that the Lord your God gives to you. 5. Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that your days may be lengthened and so that it

will be good for you, upon the land that the Lord your God gives to you.

6. You shall not murder. 6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery. 7. And you shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal. 8. And you shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow. 9. And you shall not bear vain witness against your fellow.
10. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow. 10. And you shall not covet your fellow’s wife, and you shall not desire your fellow’s house, his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.


The textual variations between the two versions of the Aseret Hadibrot can be summarized as follows:

1. On six occasions the conjunctive letter vav is added to the text (second, fourth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth declarations), while on two occasions that letter is omitted (second and fifth declarations).
2. On two occasions the Torah substitutes one word for another (fourth and ninth declarations).
3. On three occasions the Torah adds a totally new phrase to the text (fourth and fifth declarations).
4. On two occasions the Torah substantially changes a passage of existing text (fourth and tenth declarations).
5. On two occasions slight written variations appear in the text, but are not vocalized (second and fifth declarations). [Note: As these variations do not result in a change in meaning, they are not reflected in the above translation. One of the variations results in the omission of another letter vav from the Devarim text, in a variant spelling of the word ya’arichun (shall be long; see below).]

In predictable fashion, the rabbis approach these textual variations from all ends of the interpretive spectrum, offering explanations that range from the mystical and Midrashic to the pragmatic and halachic. Differing perspectives concerning the divine or human origin of the emendations found in the Devarim text can also be discerned.

At one end of the spectrum, a fascinating Midrashic source takes note of an easily missed transformation in the Aseret Hadibrot as a whole. The first “edition” of the declarations, the rabbis point out, contains the entire Hebrew alphabet with the exception of one letter, the letter tet. This omission is subsequently rectified in the second “edition” through the insertion of two phrases: u’vizro’a netuya, “and with an outstretched arm” (third declaration) and u’lma’an yitav lach, “and so that it will be good for you” (fifth declaration). The words netuya and yitav, each containing the letter tet, provide one such letter to compensate for the original omission and one to complete the alphabet in the second edition of the dibrot. These nuanced distinctions, the rabbis explain, hardly occur by chance.

God intentionally omits a letter of the alphabet when the Aseret Hadibrot are first given at Sinai in order to protect the Israelites from the full consequences of their impending sin – the sin of the golden calf. By rendering His contract with the people incomplete and thereby technically “invalid,” God deliberately minimizes the impact of their subsequent betrayal of that contract.

A corrected version of the Sinaitic covenant, complete with all letters of the alphabet, is granted to the next generation of Israelites, as they stand poised to enter the land of Canaan and to succeed where their fathers failed.

A second Midrashic tradition attributes yet another omission in the initial version of the Aseret Hadibrot to potential consequences of the sin of the golden calf. The word tov (good), the rabbis note, is absent from the declarations inscribed on the tablets at Sinai. Had those tablets – ultimately smashed by Moshe in response to the sin of the golden calf – contained the word tov in any form, God would have been compelled to strip away all future “goodness” from the fledgling Jewish nation.

Any direct allusion to the concept of “goodness” must wait until a new, more deserving generation receives its version of the declarations. This condition is fulfilled when the phrase l’ma’an yitav lach, “so that it shall be good for you,” is incorporated into the fifth declaration recorded in the book of Devarim.

Finally, a third Midrash focuses on the addition of a total of four conjunctive letters, vavs, in the Devarim text. The numerical value of the letter vav is six. The inclusion of these four vavs, therefore, carries the cumulative effect of symbolically adding the number twenty-four to the dibrot. Twenty-four is also the number of volumes contained in Tanach, the Jewish scriptural canon. The entire corpus of Torah She’bi’chtav, the Written Law, is thus alluded to within the text of the Ten Declarations.

It should be noted that, as is often the case with Midrashim, all these sources ignore the literal significance of the additions in question, choosing instead to see the inclusions as “carriers” of divine lessons that are external to the straightforward meaning of the text.

While the Midrash offers countless other observations concerning these textual variations, we now turn our attention to the opposite end of the interpretive spectrum. Here, numerous scholars struggle to discern logical explanations for the emendations to the dibrot. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the general approach of Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague.

As previously noted (Devarim 1, Approaches A), the Maharal maintains that Moshe’s role is transformed with the advent of the book of Devarim. The first four books of the Torah, the Maharal explains, are designed to reflect God’s perspective, as the transmitter of the law. The text of those volumes is therefore transmitted by God directly, literally speaking through Moshe. The book of Devarim, however, is different. This text is devised to more closely parallel the perception of man, the recipient of the law. Now Moshe serves as a prophetic messenger, receiving God’s messages and recording them in his own words. Devarim presents God’s truths – seen through Moshe’s eyes.

The emendations found in the Devarim version of the Aseret Hadibrot thus reflect Moshe’s desire to add “commentary” to the text. Upon receiving God’s word and perceiving its thrust, Moshe sets out to shape the text as necessary, so that all of God’s messages will be clear to the nation.

While the Maharal’s overall approach to the variations in the dibrot is rooted in logic, however, this scholar’s explanation of the individual emendations remains somewhat esoteric.

As a case in point, the Maharal notes that the phrase l’ma’an yitav lach, “so that it shall be good for you,” is added to the fifth declaration in the Devarim edition of the dibrot. This phrase is omitted from the first edition, the Maharal explains, because of the unique nature of Revelation at Sinai. In that setting, God speaks to the nation “face to face,” addressing the divine dimension of the Israelites’ souls. The heavenly dimension in mortal man, however, is by nature incomplete and cannot be referred to by the term tov (good), a term that uniformly connotes wholeness and completeness. The phrase l’ma’an yitav lach, therefore, with its reference to “goodness,” can only be included in the second edition of the dibrot, when Moshe addresses the Israelites as earthly equals, one mortal speaking to another.

The Maharal also observes that in contrast, the next phrase, u’l’ma’an ya’arichun yamecha, “so that your days will be long,” is included in the fifth declaration of both editions of the dibrot. Strangely, however, the word, ya’arichun (shall be long) is written incompletely in the Devarim edition, with a vav omitted and a smaller letter, yud, added. This emendation, the Maharal explains, is created by Moshe to reassure the nation. Generally, when the Torah speaks of a lengthy period of time, the connotation is one of sorrow. The time period involved may actually be short, but it  “feels endless,” due to the difficult nature of its passage. Conversely, when the text speaks of a short duration of time, the days spoken of are pleasurable.The Torah thus informs us that Yaakov toiled seven years in expectation of marrying Rachel, yet the time period “seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.”

Moshe, recognizing the negative connotation associated in the text with a lengthy period of time, deliberately shortens the word ya’arichun. The reward for performing the commandment of kibbud av va’em, he conveys, will be “long days” that don’t possess the usual character of “long days” in the Torah. An individual who honors his parents will be rewarded by God with a long yet gratifying life. He will be blessed with an abundance of pleasurable days that will not seem endless.

Numerous other commentaries follow the Maharal’s general approach to the text in Devarim, yet offer specific explanations that cleave closer to the pshat.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, for example, maintains that Moshe tailors the dibrot in Devarim in order to address the unique challenges faced by a generation about to enter its Promised Land.

By adding the phrase l’ma’an yitav lach…al ha’aretz, “so that it shall be good for you…on the land,” to the declaration concerning obedience to parents, Moshe conveys that “every contemporary generation in Israel [will only achieve] happiness and prosperity if it takes over, with honoring obedience, the tradition of its history and laws from the hands of its parents, as a heritage to be carried on forever…”

Hirsch also offers a logical explanation for Moshe’s joining together of the last five dibrot – the prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and coveting another’s property – into one long collective statement in the Devarim text. He does so, Hirsch argues, in order to include and prohibit all crimes against the property of others “in one and the same utterance of God.” In addition, by connecting these transgressions, Moshe consciously roots all such crimes in the last declaration, the ban on “coveting” the property of another. Envy towards others, Moshe emphasizes to the people, inexorably leads to greater sin. Such emphasis, Hirsch explains, is particularly necessary at this juncture, as the people prepare to leave behind the controlled, centralized authority of the desert encampment in favor of a scattered existence over the whole of a country.

Once we accept Hirsch’s suggestion that Moshe tailors the dibrot in Devarim to suit the needs and perceptions of a new generation, we can offer other explanations for some of the variations found in the declarations.

Moshe adds, for example, the phrase “as God commanded you” specifically to the fourth and fifth declarations dealing with the observance of Shabbat and kibbud av va’em, obedience to parents, respectively. Based on a Talmudic tradition, Rashi and others explain that this phrase references the fact that the mitzvot of Shabbat and kibbud av va’em were actually introduced to the nation shortly after the parting of the Reed Sea, before the Revelation at Sinai.

If these commandments preceded the Sinaitic Revelation, however, why is the phrase “as God commanded you” not included in the first edition of the dibrot communicated at Sinai, as well? By the time Revelation occurred, these imperatives had already been shared.

We might argue, perhaps, that, for the generation of the Exodus, Revelation at Sinai was a stand-alone event, designed to impress the people with its power and strength. As we have noted before, this generation, shaped in the cauldron of Egyptian slavery, relates to God through the primitive dimension of yira, fear (see Bamidbar: Korach 6, Approaches B, Points to Ponder; Chukat 2, Approaches D; Chukat 3, Approaches H). Immediacy and power, rather than slow, painstaking processes, speak to the erstwhile slaves. The Ten Declarations are therefore presented in isolation to the generation of the Exodus, as a powerful independent statement of binding law.

Their children, however, come to see God through the continuing prism of ahava, love. Raised for almost four decades under God’s watchful eye, surrounded by the Clouds of Glory, nurtured on the heaven-sent manna, patiently traveling towards a destiny and a destination, this generation now understands that a true relationship develops over time, in incremental fashion. Against this backdrop they are able to view the unfolding of the law itself as a process, with Sinai as a dramatic but by no means isolated event. This generation has witnessed laws enacted following the Revelation at Sinai during their own wilderness travels. They can readily understand that the development of law could have preceded Sinai, as well.

The shift of generations potentially explains the greater emphasis on material possessions in the second edition of the dibrot, as well. In the fifth declaration, as recorded in Devarim, the commandment of Shabbat applies not only to “your animal,” but to “your ox, and your donkey, and your every animal.” In the tenth declaration the list of possessions that we are forbidden to covet expands to include “your fellow’s house” and “his field.” Additionally, while the Israelites are prohibited from “coveting” another’s possessions in the first dibrot, in the second version they are also warned not to “desire” those possessions. The generation of the wilderness has begun to comprehend the reality of personal ownership in a way that their parents, raised in slavery, could scarcely imagine. Moshe therefore specifies material possessions in greater detail, including “real estate” where applicable. He also warns this new generation not only against “coveting”
that which is clearly beyond their reach, but against “desiring” prohibited possessions that they believe they could potentially attain.

Finally, the shifting emphasis in the fourth declaration from creation to the Exodus as the philosophical foundation for Shabbat observance may also reflect generational change. Momentous events can only be fully appreciated and understood in retrospect. To the generation of the Exodus, therefore, Shabbat is presented as a remembrance of the creation of the world. To the wilderness generation, however, Shabbat also becomes a remembrance of the Exodus itself.

No discussion concerning the variations between the two editions of the Aseret Hadibrot would be complete without mention of the most famous distinction: the transition from “Zachor (remember) the Sabbath day to keep it holy…” in the first edition to “Shamor (safeguard) the Sabbath day to keep it holy…” in the second. Rabbinic commentary on this glaring shift is extensive. One basic approach, however, stands out, weaving Midrashic and halachic analysis into a fascinating interpretive tapestry.

The rabbis begin with a foundational Midrashic suggestion: “‘Remember’ and ‘safeguard’ were delivered in one utterance.”

These two imperatives, the rabbis suggest, were miraculously communicated at Sinai simultaneously. Rashi and others explain this claim to mean that the two words were somehow pronounced by God as one, yet each word was separately and distinctly discerned by the assembled Israelites.

What, however, is the import of these two separate imperatives? What specific obligations do the commandments of “remembering” and “safeguarding” the Sabbath entail?

While various suggestions are offered within rabbinic literature, one basic approach is of particular significance. The commandment to “remember” the Shabbat obligates us to perform the positive acts that underscore the significance of the Sabbath day, such as the recitation of Kiddush (the blessing proclaiming the sanctity of Shabbat recited over a cup of wine). The commandment to “safeguard” the Shabbat, on the other hand, obligates  us to observe the restrictions that define the day. By refraining from thirty-nine basic prohibited activities and their derivatives on Shabbat, we effectively “safeguard” the sanctity of the day.

Combining the legal distinction between these two imperatives with the Midrashic tradition that they were transmitted in “one utterance,” the rabbis arrive at a practical halachic conclusion. Although women are normally exempt from time-bound positive biblical commandments, they are nonetheless obligated in the biblical mitzva of Kiddush. This exception to the rule, the rabbis explain, emerges from the divinely ordained connection between zachor and shamor: “All those who are included in the commandment to ‘safeguard [the Shabbat]’ are also included in the commandment to ‘remember [the Shabbat].’ ”

Since women are obviously as responsible as men in maintaining the sanctity of the Sabbath through refraining from prohibited activity, they are also obligated in the positive acts, such as Kiddush, that underscore the holiness of the day.

Taken together, the rabbis maintain, the imperatives of zachor and shamor summarize each Jew’s relationship with Shabbat. Shamor directs our attention to the restrictions through which we create the behavioral boundaries that define the circumference of the Sabbath day. Zachor commands us towards the positive actions through which we fill the newly created circle with meaning.

Our search for answers concerning the two editions of the Aseret Hadibrot has been extensive but hardly exhaustive. Numerous other sources comment on these textual emendations, and further insights remain to be revealed through continuing study and analysis.

Points to Ponder

How does a divinely ordained legal system transcend the ages? We examined this question in depth in our review of the structure and process of the Oral Law (see Shmot: Yitro 5). In short, however, the secret lies in the delicate balance between continuity and change – in immutable foundational laws that remain open to constant interpretation and application across the generations.

Can it be that the Torah hints at this essential balance through the differing editions of the Aseret Hadibrot? No section of text would seem riper for rigidity than these declarations, pronounced at Sinai by a powerfully present God. Nonetheless, the Torah allows for controlled transformation even in this divinely transmitted code. While the laws remain unchanged in the second version, new ideas are added and the text is consciously shaped to better address a new generation.

Apparently, the balance that preserves the law is embedded in the law from the outset.




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Parshat Balak: Why Bother

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

Why Bother


Fearing the apparent strength of the Israelites, Balak, the king of Moav, attempts to secure the services of Bilam, a Midianite sorcerer, to curse the nation.

God eventually allows Bilam’s participation in Balak’s plot, but warns the sorcerer: “Only the thing that I shall speak to you – that you shall do.”

Bilam’s repeated attempts to curse the Israelites are thwarted as God transforms the sorcerer’s curses into blessings.


No story in the Torah is stranger then the story of Balak and Bilam.

Why does God find it necessary to intervene in order to prevent Bilam from cursing the Israelites? We can certainly understand a divine move to preempt a physical threat against the nation. What danger, however, is potentially carried by a verbal threat such as Bilam’s curses? Why does it matter what this sorcerer says? Why can’t God simply choose to ignore him?

Deepening the puzzle is a fascinating fact concerning the story of Balak and Bilam: this is the only story in the Torah – since the patriarch Avraham enters the historical stage – that takes place totally out of view of the Israelites, their emissaries or their ancestors.

This narrative is comprised of a series of events, interactions and conversations at which no Israelite is present. Had God not informed us of these events, we would never have even known that they happened. Bilam would have pronounced his curses, God would have simply ignored them, and the Israelites would have gone blissfully on their way, forever unaware of Bilam’s words. Who knows how many other unnoted verbal threats were directed against the Israelites during the biblical era, their echoes fading into the mists of history. What makes this episode worthy of God’s or our notice? Why is the narrative of Balak and Bilam included in the Torah at all?


One perspective on the issues we raise is reflected in our discussion concerning Bilam’s power to bless or curse (see previous study). According to this approach, the threat posed by Bilam’s words emanates from God’s own decision to grant strength to man’s speech.

At the dawn of Jewish history, at the launch of Avraham’s journey, God promises the patriarch: “And you will be a blessing.” This statement is understood by the Midrash to mean “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now they were in My hand. I blessed Adam and Noach. From this time on you will bless whom you wish.”

As a result of this heavenly decree, every word spoken by man about another, for good or for bad, acquires power. God therefore moves to abort Bilam’s curses before they can acquire the power of spoken words.

We further suggested that Bilam’s words might have carried singular strength, either due to his close, albeit mysterious relationship with God, or as a result of his singular ability to tap into preexisting conditions in his environment and direct them against his enemies (see previous study, Approaches G).

God’s own self-imposed limitations in the face of man’s speech and/or Bilam’s ability to manipulate the very rules created by God to govern His universe may well have enabled the sorcerer to seriously threaten the Israelites through his words. God therefore moves to stop those words from ever being spoken.

This approach to Bilam’s threat is underscored in the Midrashic pronouncement “There were no days, from the day that the world was created, when the Holy One Blessed Be He needed to be with [the people of] Israel as much as the time when Bilam wanted to destroy [them] from the world.”

Other commentaries are unwilling to consider the possibility that Bilam’s words could have directly threatened a people protected by “the righteousness of the patriarchs and the merit of the Revelation at Sinai.” God is compelled, these scholars argue, to change Bilam’s words for other reasons.

The Ibn Ezra, for example, suggests that God acts to prevent the surrounding nations from arriving at an erroneous conclusion that would damage the nation’s honor. In the aftermath of Bilam’s efforts, the Israelites endure a devastating plague as a result of the sin of Ba’al Pe’or. Had Bilam been allowed to curse the nation, observers would have mistakenly concluded that this plague had actually been caused by the sorcerer’s curses.

Similar explanations are offered by later authorities who, likewise, maintain that God intervenes so that observers will not attribute later failings of the Israelites to the effect of the sorcerer’s curses. The Abravanel, however, rejects the Ibn Ezra’s approach, failing to see within it any compelling threat against the Israelites. How then, the Abravanel asks, are we to view the textual sources clearly testifying that, had it not been for God’s merciful intervention, Bilam’s curses would indeed have had devastating impact upon the people?

The Abravanel therefore posits a real, albeit indirect, threat potentially presented by Bilam’s words. As Balak himself clearly testifies, by the time the story begins, Bilam has earned public renown for his perceived powers in the area of blessing and curse. Had the sorcerer been allowed to pronounce his intended curses, surrounding nations would have heard and would have been encouraged to attack the “newly vulnerable” Israelites. “Open season” would have been called on the fledgling nation. Once God transforms Bilam’s curses into blessings, however, the special status of the nation in God’s eyes becomes readily apparent to all, rendering the people safe from attack.

A similar interpretation is suggested by Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk, who maintains that God intervenes in the Balak/Bilam story in order to “thrust the fear of Israel upon all the kings of the nations.” Once someone of Bilam’s stature blesses the Israelites, surrounding nations will be fearful of moving against them in any way.

A creative approach to the impact of Bilam’s words is offered by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the pivotal rabbinic leader of nineteenth-century German Jewry whose emphasis on the universal role of the Jewish nation serves as a foundation of his religious philosophy. God visits specific individuals, whether Jewish or Gentile, with prophetic vision, to enable them to bring forward His message to the world. In this case, God wants Bilam to bless the Israelites in his role as a prophet, not for their sake, but for the sake of the surrounding nations. He wants the world to recognize that this is a “blessed people,” whose very character and mission reflect God’s will for mankind as a whole. When Bilam attempts to subvert this prophetic mandate by cursing rather than blessing the Israelites, God steps in to ensure that the intended divine message to mankind will be properly transmitted and received.

Another possible approach to the significance of Bilam’s words can be gleaned from a puzzling rabbinic observation that, at first, seems only to deepen the mysteries before us. In the book of Devarim, as Moshe recounts the Bilam-Balak episode in retrospect, he relates: “And God transformed, on your behalf, the curse into a blessing.”

Why, ask the rabbis, does Moshe speak of a singular transformation of “the curse into a blessing”? Weren’t multiple curses transformed into blessings during this episode?

The answer suggested by the scholars threatens to undermine the thrust of the entire Balak/Bilam narrative:

Rabbi Yochanan stated: From the blessings pronounced by Bilam, one can determine what was in his heart…. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana [further] maintained: [due to the sins of the Israelites] all of them [the blessings] reverted back to the original curses [my italics], with the exception of the blessing concerning synagogues and houses of study, as the Torah states, “And God transformed, on your behalf, the curse into a blessing”: “the curse” and not “the curses” [my italics].

How astounding! The rabbis would have us understand that, in the final analysis, God’s intervention in the Bilam story has limited effect. After God “troubles Himself” to change the sorcerer’s curses into blessings (an act whose necessity we have already questioned), almost all of those blessings turn back into curses. Perplexingly, the Balak/Bilam story now seems to make even less sense. Why does God bother to transform Bilam’s words if, in practical terms, those words are not truly “transformed” at all?

Perhaps the rabbis, in their own inimitable style, answer all of our questions at once. Fundamentally, they maintain, God’s message through the Balak/Bilam narrative is surprising but clear: It does not matter what Bilam says!

Phenomena like Bilam’s words ultimately have no independent power. Although God may grant credence to words spoken by man, such words are not the primary determinants of an individual’s fate.

This sorcerer can curse you or bless you; it makes no difference. Your destiny will be decided not by outside forces, but by your own merit. Your own actions will determine whether you are “cursed” or “blessed.”

Had God allowed Bilam to proceed with his intended curses, the Israelites, upon hearing of the sorcerer’s words (or barring that, upon learning of similar phenomena) could have claimed them as justification for their failings: How could we be blamed? Were we not doomed from the start?

God therefore decides to use the Balak/ Bilam episode as a teaching opportunity. He intervenes, changes the sorcerer’s curses to blessings and reveals the entire episode to the Israelites from the start. In doing so, He effectively proclaims: Now I have removed any possible excuse. The words pronounced upon you by the sorcerer are positive. The final significance and impact of those words, however, like so much else in your lives, is in your hands. If you are meritorious, Bilam’s blessings will remain intact. If not, those very “blessings” will be turned against you.

Always remember that your story will be defined by no one else. You can blame no outside force. Ultimately, it’s all up to you….

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Birkat Yitzchak – Shlach

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

פרשת שלח


המרגלים ומצות ציצית – החטא ותיקונו

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

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


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Parashat Shelah: Does It Pay to Be Good?

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

Does It Pay to Be Good?*

Does it pay to be good? This is a question one often hears – and asks – as a sign of frustration. Usually, it is just an expression of momentary disappointment and serves a cathartic function. But sometimes, and with some people, and especially if repeated often enough, it is elevated from a query of complaint to a philosophy of life, and from a passing mood to a firm moral judgment. So let us ask ourselves the question rather seriously: Does it pay to be good?

We must first divide the question into two parts by posing a counter-question: “pay” for whom?

“Does it pay to be good?” may refer to the benefactor, to the one asking the question; or it may refer to the beneficiary, the one who is the recipient of my goodness and generosity.

The first question – does it pay for me to be good – probably should be answered, for most cases, in the negative. If you expect dividends from your ethical investments, you are seriously in error. The good life is not necessarily the happy life. John Kennedy, born into a wealthy family, high society, and catapulted into historic political prominence, decided that “life is unfair.” Much earlier, the Rabbis broodingly concluded that the reward for virtue simply is not in evidence in this world (Kiddushin 39b). I myself, being professionally engaged a good part of the time in doing favors for people and arranging for some people to be kind to others, learned long, long ago that one thing I must never expect (if I wanted to lead a life free from constant minor disappointments) is gratitude. I now never expect anyone to show gratitude. Therefore, when, as often happens, I meet people who are possessed of that noble virtue, I am delighted beyond words at the great discovery of a genuine human being. But ingratitude neither overwhelms me nor surprises me any longer because, truth to tell, and without the least trace of cynicism,  it is the rule rather than the exception. Were a person to be good only because it pays, or because it will be recognized and acknowledged, he would have to stop being good!

But essentially the question does not even deserve an answer – for, no matter what the answer may be, our immediate reaction must be to ask: “So what?” Who says that it has to pay in the first place? An individual who plans to be moral because it pays to be good will end up either an evil person or one who will suffer constant frustration. Judaism taught us, “Do not be like servants who serve the master only in order to receive a salary or a wage” (Avot 1:3). Don’t be good merely because it pays. Judaism never urged upon us that old maxim, “Honesty is the best policy.” A Jew must be honest even when it is not a good policy. Morals and goodness are matters of principle, not prudence. Yes, we believe that ultimately there is spiritual reward – but this must never become the motive for being good in the first place.

The real question that is worth pondering is the second one: Does it pay to be good for the beneficiary of my kindness? At first glance, it is a simple matter of definition – obviously it is good for someone if I do that person good. Yet it is not quite that simple. We must consider such factors as excess, timing, and short-term indulgence which may lead to long-term damage. And here there can be no uniform answer. Here what is required is wisdom and maturity and deliberation in order to foretell whether our benefaction will ultimately prove helpful or harmful.

The incident of Moses and the spies he sent into Canaan provides an illustration of a case where it did not pay to be good. God told Moses, “Send for yourself people to spy out the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2). But according to the way the Rabbis (as cited by Rashi ad loc.) interpreted this incident, the relations between God, Israel, and Moses were quite complex, and the role of Moses was anomalous. Thus Rashi states:

God said to Moses, “Send a delegation of spies if you wish. But do it on your own responsibility. For Myself, I am not commanding you to do so.” For the Israelites themselves demanded such a delegation, and when Moses consulted the Divine Presence, He replied: “But I have already told them that it is a good land! Therefore, if you wish you may let them have their spies, but not without great risk.”

In other words, the sending of the spies was a concession, like the permission to appoint a king over themselves, or the granting of permission for the eating of meat to the children of Noah, or the law of the beautiful captive. And, while we may be grateful to God for being an understanding Father, it is not always clear that such indulgence is for our own ultimate good.

Obviously, here Moses was being too good. He submitted to pressure by the Israelites, when perhaps he should not have done so. He was too good – and it didn’t pay!

The commentators are undecided about the moral qualities of these spies. Some say they were truly just, some say merely innocent, and some say they were wicked. But I prefer a fourth interpretation, that of Midrash Tanĥuma, which declares them “kesilim” – a word which means both knaves and fools, primarily the latter. The spies were immature and childish. And Moses over-indulged them, pampered them and babied them, like a father who is too good to his little children.

In Deuteronomy 1:23, Moses, in recollecting the story of the spies, said: “Vayitav be’einay hadavar,” which usually is explained as, “And the plan found favor in my eyes.” But if Moses admitted that the plan was valid in his opinion, how does Rashi tell us here that Moses did not really favor it, and that he consulted with the Divine Presence which discouraged him? I submit that, perhaps, the expression of “vayitav be’einay hadavar” means, in essence: I, Moses, considered the matter and decided to be good to you. And of course – Moses erred. For to be good is not always the same as to do good. It is sometimes better to be hard-headed than soft-hearted.

Indeed, Moses already knew the harm that can come from excessive softness. After the sin of the Gold Calf, when Moses acts as the great advocate and defendant of his people, he tries to shift part of the blame for the making of the calf on God Himself! He maintains that God helped to spoil this people. “Moses said to the Almighty: O God, the gold and the silver which You gave them to excess [when they left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea], so much that they had to exclaim, ‘enough!’ – that is what caused them to make a golden calf ” (Yoma 86b); You spoiled them and led them to think that such material valuables are a true criterion of greatness, and so they deified them!

So, all of us must learn in our personal and professional and especially family lives that it does not always pay to be good. Sometimes we intend to be kind and generous, and are only inviting trouble later on for the very one whom, out of love, we seek to benefit.

We tend to sin in this respect especially as parents. It is an old Jewish syndrome of which the Bible records numerous examples: Eli with his sons, Samuel with his sons, David with his sons. In our days, we often try to give our children what we did not have, and so we fail to give them what we did have. Our generation of affluence is over-pressing material good on the younger generation, and thereby denying them a sense of discovery, of self-worth, of the achievement of earning and deserving the goods of the world. We think, “vayitav be’einay hadavar,” we are being good to them, when we are really helping them build a Golden Calf. We send teens on a trip around the world but then there is nothing for them to look forward to other than ennui and boredom. We saturate them with luxuries until they are sated and cry, “Enough!”

What else is there left for them to live for, especially since non-material values were never seriously considered? We send our children to the best universities with only the minimal attention to Jewishness, Jewish society, and the opportunity for Jewish observance. And later, even the finest Orthodox families wonder where they went wrong and why they now suffer from the problems of intermarriage.

But this idea of short-term kindness leading to eventual harm has to do not only with individuals but applies to collectivities as well.

One such case is the problem of the priorities that our liberal Jewish community sets for itself. We are generally a kindly people, and therefore concerned with the well-being of all peoples. And that is as it should be. But we have sinned in the area of priorities. We have tried to be good to others and denied our kindness from our kin. We have acted politically, socially, and economically on behalf of all the underprivileged – except for the Jewish poor; on behalf of all political causes – except our own; on behalf of all marginal people – except for those of our own people who have not yet “made it.” And so it did not pay for us or for them to be good.

A second such instance concerns the hijackings which now proliferate in the world. The policy of most governments has been to be soft, accommodating, and gentle with hijackers. Most nations told themselves, obviously in sincerity, that they were protecting the passengers on the immediate plane endangered. Yet they failed to see that in this way they were inviting further hijackings and endangering the lives of untold numbers of other, future passengers. Apparently, only the government of Israel took the right attitude: no concessions, no submissions, no negotiations. They realized that it does not pay – even for the passengers of an endangered jet – to submit to the criminals.

In this respect, I wish to single out for special condemnation and censure a recent editorial that was distinguished by viciousness and inanity rolled into one. A week or ten days ago, The New York Times, in an editorial after the Lod massacre, had the temerity and audacity to suggest that Israel itself must accept part of the blame, because when it decided to storm the Sabena jet some time earlier, this provoked the terrorists to attempt the Lod massacre.

What unmitigated gall! While the Times was pontificating in its editorial columns, its news columns were informing us that the Lod massacre had been planned long before the Sabena jet incident. Now we know, factually, that this was the case. Furthermore, this week the airline pilots of the world set June 19th as a deadline for a new policy against hijackers – once more in consonance with that of the State of Israel – and that they will strike if this policy is not worked out.

Perhaps it is a consolation for us to recall that The New York Times was usually wrong on Israel, from the beginnings of the Zionist movement until this very day. Thank the Lord that, with all our reverence for the sage advice given to us from the Olympian heights of the Times editorial room, we have been wise enough to disregard it and ignore it. Perhaps it is a measure of the justice and rightness of Israel’s cause that it evoked the displeasure of the Times editorial writer. When we satisfy the Times’ standards, perhaps then we ought to question whether we are on the right track.

To summarize, we respond to the question, “Does it pay to be good?” as follows: If the question is asked whether it pays for me to do good, the question is invalid – it is a pseudo-question because it really makes no difference what the answer is. It is irrelevant. I do not do good because it pays, but because as a Jew I am commanded to do good.

But if it means: “Does it pay to be good toward the beneficiary?” the answer is that it depends upon that individual, upon his maturity and sense of proportion, upon that person’s absorptive capacity for kindness and goodness. It is a question which demands wisdom and knowledge of the particular case in order to know how to act properly.

For, as we indicated, it is so very difficult to know when we are truly doing good and when we are going to excess, that even God was faulted by Moses in this respect. Yet, we must always rely upon Him and pray that He be good to us without overindulging us and causing us eventual harm. So we pray, in the blessing of Rosh Ĥodesh, for “ĥayim sheyimalu mishalot libenu letova,” a “life in which the desires of our hearts will be fulfilled” – but not all of them, not everything we want, not without measure, but only: “letova,” for what is truly our real good. Amen sela.

*June 10, 1972.