Democracy and the Pursuit of Truth

Democracy and the Pursuit of Truth

Parsing a difficult word in the Parasha.

In Sivan Rahav-Meir’s first essay for Parashat BeShalach, “Majority Rules?” (#Parasha: Weekly Insights for a Leading Israeli Journalist, trans. Chava Wilschanski, Menorah Books, Jerusalem, 2017, pp. 93-4), she discusses the second part of a well-known comment by RaShI on a particularly ambiguous word in a verse in the Parasha:

Shemot 13:18

But God Led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up “Chamushim” out of the land of Egypt.

RaShI s.v. VeChamushim

1) The meaning of “Chamushim is nothing other than “armed.” Because He Made them travel via the wilderness, He Caused them to go up (from Egypt) “Chamushim.” For if He Made them travel through inhabited areas, they would not have had to be so heavily armed, but rather like someone who goes from place to place with the intention to purchase there whatever he might need. But when he sets out to traverse the wilderness, he has to already prepare anything that he may need..

2) Another interpretation: “Chamushim” = one in five left (Egypt,) and four-fifths died during the three days of darkness.

(RaShI on Ibid. 10:22 s.v. VaYehi Choshech Afeila Shloshet Yamim VeGomer.

…And why did He Bring upon them [the Egyptians] darkness [as the eleventh plague]? Because there were among the Jewish people, in that generation, evildoers, who did not wish to leave, and they died during the three days of thick darkness, in order that the Egyptians not witness their fall and conclude that even they were punished like us

Shemot Rabba 14:3

“Darkness.” Why did He, Whose Name is Blessed, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Who does not Show Favoritism and Who Plumbs the heart and Tests the Innards, Bring this upon them? Because there were sinners among the Jews, who had Egyptian patrons, and they had achieved in Egypt wealth and honor, and therefore did not wish to leave. Said the Holy One, Blessed Be He: If I openly Bring upon them a plague and they die, the Egyptians will say: Just as He has Passed over us, He has Passed over them [i.e., no distinction was made between the victims of the plagues.] Therefore, He Brought upon the Egyptians three days of darkness so that the Jews could bury their dead, in order that their enemies not be witness to this, and they [the Jews] would praise the Holy One, Blessed Be He, for this…)

The global implications of RaShI’s second interpretation of the word.  

Rahav-Meir begins her analysis of RaShI’s second interpretation by quoting Winston Churchill, who said in the House of Commons on November 11, 1947:

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

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From Segregated Singing to Unified Praising of HaShem

From Segregated Singing to Unified Praising of HaShem

Comparing the songs at the Red Sea, led by Moshe and Miriam respectively.

In R. Binyamin Lau’s 2015 Devar Tora for Parashat BeShalach, he notes that two Jewish leaders emerge on the banks of the Reed Sea following its splitting and the drowning of the Egyptian cavalry, Moshe and his sister Miriam.

On the one hand there was Moshe, holding his staff (see Shemot 14:16,) striving to lift the men to never-before realized levels of Divine Inspiration. The “man of God” employs song to raise them up to the heights of holiness. He articulates a line, and then the male population repeat it after him:

(Such a sequence is spelled out by one of the classical commentators: 

Ibid. 15:21

And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, for He Is Highly Exalted: the horse and his rider hath He Thrown into the sea. 

RaShI s.v. VeTa’an Lahem Miriam

Moshe said the Song for the men, i.e., he would state a line and they would repeat after him, and Miriam did the same for the women.)

The complaints of the people immediately following the completion of the song suggests that the expressions of God’s Greatness were not internalized.

But using two striking metaphors, R. Lau states how, in the aftermath of the Song, not much remained, at least to the men, of the ethereal moments immediately prior:

Once the song was concluded, like a deflated balloon, the men returned to being concerned about unpotable water.

(Ibid. 18-26

18 The LORD shall Reign forever and ever. 19 For the horses of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD Brought Back the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea.

20 And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. 21 And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, for He Is Highly Exalted: the horse and his rider hath He Thrown into the sea. {S}

22 And Moshe led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 And when they came to Mara, they could not drink of the waters of Mara, for they were bitter. Therefore, the name of it was called Mara. 24 And the people murmured against Moshe, saying: What shall we drink? 25 And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD Showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He Made for them a Statute and an Ordinance, and there He Proved them; 26 And He Said: If thou wilt diligently hearken to the Voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is Right in His Eyes, and wilt give ear to His Commandments, and keep all His Statutes, I will Put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have Put upon the Egyptians; for I Am the LORD that Healeth thee.)  

Their dependence upon Moshe was absolute, like marionettes controlled by strings.

R. Lau contends that a similar spiritual drop-off was not evident among the women.

R. Lau then contrasts Miriam’s apparent relationship with her constituency with that of Moshe with his. Miriam is depicted at the Red Sea as holding a tambourine (rather than a staff—see Ibid. 15:20.)

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Tora Study as a Central Jewish Pursuit

Tora Study as a Central Jewish Pursuit

The Talmud identifies a metaphor in the Parasha.

In R. David Silverberg’s first 2015 Devar Tora for Parashat BeShalach, he compares the simple meaning of a verse in the Parasha with the Talmud’s perspective upon it:

Shemot 15:22

And Moshe led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.

Bava Kama 82a

…it was taught: And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water,” upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: “water” means nothing other than Tora, as it says: (Yeshayahu 55:1) “Ho, everyone that thirsteth come ye for water.”

(How according to the Rabbis “water” is understood as “Tora” is explained by one among many of the biblical commentators:

RaDaK on Yeshayahu 55:1 s.v. Havei Kol Tzameh

…After the war of Gog and Magog, the pagans will recognize that HaShem Rules over everything, and there is none besides Him, and then they will come to Yerushalayim to study the laws of God and His Tora, as it is stated at the beginning of this prophetic work: [Yeshayahu 2:3] “And many peoples shall go and say: Come ye, and let us go up to the Mountain of the LORD, to the House of the God of Yaakov; and He will Teach us of His Ways, and we will walk in His Paths. For out of Tziyon shall go forth the Law, and the Word of the LORD from Yerushalayim.” And the matter will be as if He Called them to come and to study. And “water” is a parable for “Tora and [its] Wisdom”; just as it is impossible for the world without water, so too it is impossible for the world without Wisdom. And just like the one who thirsts, desires water, so too the soul of Wisdom thirsts for Tora and [its] Wisdom, as it is stated in the prophecy of Amos: [8:11] “Behold, the days come, Saith the Lord GOD, that I will Send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the Words of the LORD.”)

It thus means that as they (the Jewish people following the Exodus from Egypt) went three days without Tora, they immediately became (spiritually) exhausted. The prophets among them thereupon rose and enacted that they should publicly read the Law on Shabbat (afternoon), make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, make a break again on Tuesday and Wednesday, read again on Thursday and then make a break on Friday so that they should not be kept for three days without Tora…

R. Silverberg attempts to explain why the Tora employed this particular metaphor, whereby Tora is equated to water. He contends that because of man’s dualism, in terms of the “body”/”soul” problem

(See for example, RaShI on Beraishit 2:7 s.v. VaYipach BeApav: He Made him of the lower things [this-worldly] and the upper things [other-worldly], his body from the lower things, and his soul from the upper things…)

he contends with two different urgent personal needs, the physical and the spiritual. Just as one’s body hungers and thirsts, so too one’s soul. The Parasha’s equation of “water” and “Tora” represents emphasizing both needs equally, attempting to assure that one is not addressed without the other also being given its due.

R. Silverberg understands Rabban Gamliel, son of R. Yehuda HaNasi’s statement in Avot 2:4 “Do not say: When I have time I will learn, for you might never have time,” as indicative of an individual who has placed personal needs above and beyond spiritual ones.

(While Pikuach Nefesh [fig., situations in which one’s life is in jeopardy] is certainly a value to be addressed, most of the time, physical needs are manifestations of the pursuit of comfort rather than base survival, and for this reason, it is stressed that Tora study must become as much part of one’s day as regular meals.)

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Blessing God Unconditionally

Blessing God Unconditionally

A Talmudic passage that finds the songs of others not measuring up to that of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law.

In R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s 2001 Sicha for Parashat BeShalach, “One Must Accept It Joyously” (, he discusses three situations mentioned by the Talmud regarding singing God’s Praises:

Sanhedrin 94a

(Yeshayahu 21:11) “The burden of Duma. He Calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?” R. Yochanan said: The angel in charge of the souls is named Duma. All the souls assembled before Duma and said to him: What (Sayeth) the Watchman (i.e., God) of the night? What (Sayeth] the Watchman of the night? (Ibid. 12) “The Watchman Said: The morning cometh, and also the night: If ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.”

A Tanna reported in the name of R. Pafias: It (the strange verses in Yeshayahu 21) was a reproach to 1) Chizkiyahu and his company that they uttered no song (to God) (see Ibid. 37) until the earth broke into song, as it is written: (Ibid. 24:16) “From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous.”

Similarly we read: (Shemot 18:10) “And Yitro said: Blessed be the Lord Who hath Delivered you;” whereon a Tanna taught in the name of R. Pafias: It was a reproach to 2) Moshe and the six hundred thousand (Israelites) that they did not bless [the Lord] until 3) Yitro came and did so.

What might the significant difference be between Moshe’s song and that of Yitro?

But, R. Lichtenstein pointedly asks, how could the Talmud say that Moshe and the six hundred thousand did not sing praises to God. when the “Song at the Sea” (Shemot 15:1-19) is considered one of the most spiritual testaments to God’s Power and concern for the Jewish people?

1 Then sang Moshe and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, “Ki” He Is Highly Exalted; the horse and his rider hath He Thrown into the sea. 2 The LORD Is my Strength and Song, and He Is Become my Salvation; This Is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. 3 The LORD Is a Man of War, The LORD Is His Name. 4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He Cast into the sea, and his chosen captains are sunk in the Red Sea. 5 The deeps cover them–they went down into the depths like a stone. 6 Thy Right Hand, O LORD, Glorious in Power, Thy Right Hand, O LORD, Dasheth in pieces the enemy. 7 And in the Greatness of Thine Excellency Thou Overthrowest them that rise up against Thee; Thou Sendest forth Thy Wrath, It Consumeth them as stubble. 8 And with the blast of Thy Nostrils the waters were piled up–the floods stood upright as a heap; the deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea. 9 The enemy said: I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. 10 Thou didst Blow with Thy Wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters. 11 Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? Who is like unto Thee, Glorious in Holiness, Fearful in Praises, Doing Wonders? 12 Thou Stretchedst out Thy Right Hand–the earth swallowed them. 13 Thou in Thy Love hast Led the people that Thou hast Redeemed; Thou hast Guided them in Thy Strength to Thy Holy Habitation. 14 The peoples have heard, they tremble; pangs have taken hold on the inhabitants of Philistia. 15 Then were the chiefs of Edom affrighted; the mighty men of Moav, trembling taketh hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away. 16 Terror and dread falleth upon them; by the Greatness of Thine Arm they are as still as a stone; till Thy People pass over, O LORD, till the people pass over that Thou hast Gotten. 17 Thou Bringest them in, and Plantest them in the mountain of Thine Inheritance, the place, O LORD, which Thou hast Made for Thee to Dwell in, the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy Hands have Established. 18 The LORD shall Reign forever and ever. 19 For the horses of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD Brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea.

R. Lichtenstein posits that the answer must be inherent in the single sentence that Yitro states, compared with the single verse attributed to Miriam in her song:

Ibid. 21

And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, “Ki” He is highly exalted: the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

together with this verse’s parallel in Moshe and the men’s song, i.e., the conclusion of v. 1 above.

On the one hand, stating: “Blessed Be the Lord” is much more to the point than focusing upon what HaShem Did or the fact that He Is Exalted!

But R. Lichtenstein also presents a much more sophisticated, subtle analysis that challenges our sensibilities in terms of responding to God in all situations in which we find ourselves. He states that according to the Talmud, the word “Ki,” a word that is present in both Moshe’s and Miriam’s formulations, but absent in that of Yitro, has a number of different connotations:

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Taking Some of the Egyptians’ “Possessions” Prior to the Exodus

Despoiling Egypt as part of the Exodus process.

In R. Yehuda Amital’s 2003 Sicha for Parashat Bo, “’Plead with the People that they Should Take Property’”, he discusses the Divine Request made of the people prior to their leaving Egypt, along with RaShI’s comment thereon:

Shemot 11:2

Speak “Na” (please) in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.

RaShI s.v. Daber Na

“Na” is nothing but a request.

(In this case. “Na” can also be translated as “now/this minute. Although typically it is man who uses “please” in his supplications to God, e.g., Beraishit 18: 27, 30, 32; BeMidbar 12:13, it is notable that according to the Midrash that RaShI is quoting, it is God Who is saying “please” to man.)

Please encourage them to do this, so that the righteous one, Avraham, (should not say): (Beraishit 15:13) “…And they will enslave them and afflict them…” He Made Sure that it would take place; (Ibid.) “…and afterwards they will go out with great wealth” He did not Assure that it would take place.

(The Tora also notes that the people complied with God’s Urging, conveyed by Moshe:

Ibid. 12:35-6

35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moshe; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment. 36 And the LORD Gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.)

What was the point?

Even if God was “Bent upon Making Good,” as it were, His earlier Prophecy to Avraham at the Covenant between the Pieces, i.e., that the Jews would leave Egypt considerably enriched, R. Amital wonders why it was necessary for God to Make such a Commitment in the first place? He asks:

Was this the great reward for the many years of slavery? Did the gold and silver make it all worthwhile?

(There is a view among the commentators that the valuables that the Jews took with them on their way out of Egypt parallels the Mitzva of Ha’anaka, that a Jewish servant, after six years of service, is entitled to according to the Tora:

Devarim 15:12-15

12 If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, he shall serve thee six years; and in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. 13 And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; 14 Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing-floor, and out of thy winepress; of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath Blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. 15 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God Redeemed thee; therefore I command thee this thing today.

The “tie-in” of v. 15 to the Egyptian experience is suggestive. However, clearly the afflictions that the Jews suffered as slaves in Egypt far- surpassed anything that a Jewish master would be allowed to impose on Jewish servants that he might have had in his employ.)

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Differing Emphases Regarding the Plague of the First-born

Differing Emphases Regarding the Plague of the First-born

Comparing two versions of a Divine Commandment that is recorded in the Tora.

In R. Amnon Bazak’s third essay on Parashat Bo, “HaMashmaut HaKefula Shel HaPesicha” (Nekudat Peticha: Iyunim Ketzarim BePeshuta Shel Parashat HaShavua, Machon Tzomet, Alon Shevut, 5766, pp. 71-2), he compares the Commandment given by God to Moshe regarding how the Jews were to prepare for the Plague of the First-born, with what Moshe actually tells the people.

(Nechama Leibowitz always emphasized that when the Tora repeats something that was already said or previously described, one should pay careful attention to the variations that will inevitably appear in the multiple versions. Since one begins with the premise that the Tora is not redundant, apparent superfluities have to be accounted for. See e.g., the Alon HaDeracha for VaYigash 5723)

Shemot 12:7 (HaShem to Moshe)

And they shall take of the blood and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it.

Ibid. 22 (Moshe to the Jewish people)

And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side-posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.

Moshe seems to augment what he had been Told by God to convey to the Jews. 

Moshe appears to add two details to this particular Divine Demand:

a. the blood to be applied to the doorposts will be in a basin (Moshe actually mentions this twice!)

b. no one is to venture outside their door until the morning.

Explaining the changes that Moshe made to the original Divine Command. 

R. Bazak attempts to account for these two differences by attributing to God during this final plague, two different purposes:

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The Need to Constantly Grow Spiritually

The Need to Constantly Grow Spiritually

An intriguing comment by Moshe during his discussions with Pharoah.

In Sivan Rahav-Meir’s second essay for Parashat Bo, “We Are Not Robots” (#Parasha: Weekly Insights for a Leading Israeli Journalist, trans. Chava Wilschanski, Menorah Books, Jerusalem, 2017, pp. 86-7), she keys on a portion of Moshe’s response to Pharoah during the negotiations following the ninth plague when Egypt was plunged into darkness:

Shemot 10:24-6

24 And Pharaoh called unto Moshe, and said: Go ye, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you. 25 And Moshe said: … 26 Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for thereof must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not with what we must serve the LORD, until we come thither.

Defining the context to not only pertain to the immediate mission undertaken by Moshe to free the Jew from enslavement, but also general religious and spiritual development.  

While Rahav-Meir could have understood Moshe’s statement to Pharoah as a ploy whereby he wished nothing to remain in Egypt that could be considered hostages to guarantee the return of the Jews after their sojourn in the wilderness, she takes a more existentialist approach that looks to extract from Moshe’s comment a religious truism relevant to all times and places. Rahav-Meir quotes a contemporary Jewish thinker to that effect:

Prof. Pinchos Peli

(Rahav-Meir does not provide a cross-reference for where Prof. Peli published these thoughts)

Moshe’s words, which sound like a declaration of intent during diplomatic negotiations, also reflect a profound theological truth. They teach us that there is no fixed, preordained formula for worshiping God. True worship entails constant searching and discovery, agonizing trial and error, one step forward and two steps back, bold decisions, and strengthening one’s belief. Faith is not a bed of roses which awaits us at the end of the path. And we do not know how we will worship God—until we arrive there.

Concluding by citing a Chassidic tale.  

Rahav-Meir further illustrates the point she wishes to make by referencing a story that is part of the Chassidic tradition:

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When the “Destroyer” is Set Loose, Beware

When the “Destroyer” is Set Loose, Beware

Makat Bechorot demanded that Jews who placed blood on their lintels remain indoors.

In R. Binyamin Lau’s 2014 Internet Devar Tora for Parashat Bo, he notes that it took a great deal of Strength and Effort on God’s Part, so to speak, in order to extract the Jewish people from their Egyptian slavery. In Parashat Bo, we reach the climax of the Ten Plagues, the Plague of the First-born:

Shemot 12:29

And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD Smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.

Moshe instructed the people to stay within the buildings upon which they had placed the blood of the Pascal sacrifice on the doorposts, while the final plague was taking place:

Ibid. 12-3, 22-3

12 For I will Go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will Smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will Execute Judgments: I Am the LORD. 13 And the blood (of the Pascal sacrifice) shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I See the blood, I will Pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I Smite the land of Egypt…

22 And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood (of the Pascal sacrifice) that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side-posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the LORD will Pass through to Smite the Egyptians; and when He Seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the LORD will Pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.  

Rav Lau states that in light of what occurred during the Tenth Plague, vis-à-vis the Jews, the Talmud darkly states:

Bava Kama 60a

R. Yosef learnt: What is the meaning of the verse: (Shemot 12:22) “…And none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning”? Once permission has been granted to the Destroyer, he does not distinguish between righteous and wicked. Moreover, he even begins with the righteous at the very outset, as it says: (Yechezkel 21:8) “And I will Cut off from thee 1) (first) the righteous and 2) (then) the wicked.” …

(R. Yosef’s comment calls to mind what Avraham argued prior to God’s Destruction of Sodom and Amora: 

Beraishit 18:25

That be far from Thee to Do after this manner, to Slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth Do Justly? 

I suppose that God could Answer, as it were: I Gave the Jews in Egypt a means to prevent their being included in the punishment, i.e., swabbing blood on the lintels. Consequently, it was not inevitable that the righteous be swept up with the evil-doers during that plague, as it may have been in what originally was intended for Sodom and Amora.)

A parallel to the indiscriminate human destruction of the Tenth Plague is mentioned with respect to the Churban of the Beit HaMikdash.

R. Lau points out that Yechezkel describes the impending destruction of the First Temple in similar terms, i.e., a mark, this time on people’s foreheads, will save some individuals, but only very few:

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Performing Mitzvot as Soon as Possible

Performing Mitzvot as Soon as Possible

“Matzot” and “Mitzvot” can be exchanged for one another in a text that has no vowels.

In one of R. David Silverberg’s 2016 essays for Parashat Bo, he discusses the Rabbinic interpretation of a verse in the Parasha:

Shemot 12:17

U’Shmartem Et HaMatzot” (And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread;) for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall ye observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance forever.

(Because the word “Matzot” with the addition of a “Vav” between the Tzaddi and the Taf can then be read as the word “Mitzvot” [Commandments,] the Rabbis engage in wordplay regarding this verse.)

Mechilta (Midrash Halacha on Shemot) on Ibid.

Said R. Yoshia: Do not read “U’Shmartem Et HaMatzot” but rather “U’Shemartem Et HaMitzvot”. Just as one does not allow Matzot to become Chametz (by allowing it to rest unsupervised for eighteen minutes,) so one should not allow Mitzvot to become “Chametz,” but rather, if a Mitzva becomes possible for you, fulfill it immediately.

Distinguishing between two Rabbinic principles that deal with prioritizing the fulfillment of Mitzvot.

R. Silverberg notes that a question arises for some commentators as to the unique aspects of this rule, as opposed to the principle: “Zerizim Makdimim LeMitzvot” (those who are diligent will perform Mitzvot at their earliest opportunity,) a rule that is mentioned in the Talmud as being based upon a biblical verse:

Pesachim 4a

For it is written: (VaYikra 12:3) “And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” And it was taught: The whole day is valid for circumcision, but that the zealous are early (to perform) their religious duties, for it is said: (Beraishit 22:3) “And Avraham rose early in the morning…”

R. Silverberg first cites a classical “Chakira” (distinction) to account for a distinction between these two rules depending upon whether we are dealing with a Mitzva obligation, or a Mitzva opportunity. When there is a Mitzva that has to be fulfilled at some point during a specific day, i.e., a Mitzva obligation, like circumcision, or the taking of the four species on the first day of Sukkot, while the entire daylight period might be defined as the proper time to do the Mitzva, those who are punctilious will carry it out as soon as possible.

However, in the case when a Mitzva first becomes at all possible, i.e., a Mitzva opportunity, one must be careful to take advantage of it to assure that it doesn’t go by without being fulfilled.

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Gemilat Chesed on a Grand Scale

Gemilat Chesed on a Grand Scale

Tying a theme in the Parashat HaShavua to a contemporary social situation.

In a 2002 Sicha for Parashat Bo given by R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Three Signs of This Nation”, he demonstrated his well-known acute social consciousness by addressing two areas of Israeli life, government financial support for the handicapped as well as for families with large numbers of children.

Jews grew qualitatively and quantitatively during their years in Egypt.

R. Lichtenstein placed these contemporary issues squarely within the context of Jewish tradition in general, and the Parashat HaShavua in particular. He began by citing the following verses from the Parasha that mention how many Jews there were at the time of the Exodus and the number of years they had spent in Egypt:

Shemot 12:37, 40

37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children… 40 Now the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

(The Tora’s inconsistency regarding the amount of time that the Jews spent in exile in Egypt is reflected in another verse, as well as the well-known commentary thereon that relies in part on a Gimatria: 

Beraishit 15:13

And He Said unto Avram: Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. 

RaShI s.v. Ki Ger Yihye Zaracha

From the time that Yitzchak was born until the Jews left Egypt was 400 years. How is that amount arrived at? Yitzchak was 60 when Yaakov was born [Ibid. 25:26]. And Yaakov, upon going down to Egypt said [ibid. 47:9] “the amount of years of my sojournings were 130, resulting in [60+130=] 190. And in Egypt they spent 210 years, which is the value of the letters in the word “Redu” [Ibid. 42:2] [Reish= 200; Daled = 4; Vav = 6], resulting in [190+210=] 400 years… 

Consequently, in order to encompass these various possibilities, R. Lichtenstein writes in a non-committal fashion: “Hundreds of years after the seventy members of Yaakov’s household go down to Egypt, …”)

When contrasted with the Tora’s account of the number of people who originally came with Yaakov to Egypt on Yosef’s invitation:

Ibid. 46:27

And the sons of Yosef, who were born to him in Egypt, were two souls; all the souls of the house of Yaakov, that came into Egypt, were threescore and ten.

R. Lichtenstein posits that the people certainly grew quantitatively and this is borne out by a verse in Devarim:

Devarim 10:22

Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the LORD thy God hath Made thee as the stars of heaven for multitude.

But he also maintains that there were qualitative changes as a result of the exile and servitude.

For qualitative changes, however, it is more difficult to establish causes and evaluate outcomes than fpr quantitative growth. Nevertheless, R. Lichtenstein feels that another verse in Devarim establishes such a usually elusive parameter:

Ibid. 4:20

But you hath the LORD Taken and Brought forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be unto Him a People of Inheritance, as ye are this day.

(Whereas the “real time” Exodus and journey through the wilderness is described in Shemot through BeMidbar, Devarim, the record of Moshe’s final address to the people prior to his death, coming at the end of the forty years of wandering, is the ideal source for thinking about the overall development of the Jewish people up to that point in their history.)

R. Lichtenstein goes on to explain the three ways in which the “iron furnace” of Egypt molded the Jewish people in a particular fashion:

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