Tu B’Shvat 5778 – Roots

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On Tu B’Shvat, the Rosh Hashannah for the trees, we colloquially recognize the vegetation around us. Many have the custom to recite Perek Shira, a generations old text whose author remains unknown, delineates 84 different creatures or things from which we can learn tremendous lessons about ethics, wisdom, and advice on seeing the hand of God. These items in Perek Shira range in category from things in nature (sun, stars, moon, different types of clouds, dew, and others) to animals and insects, to plant life.

One of the items listed in Perek Shira is the tamar, the date palm. The tamar is one of the shivat haminim, the seven unique species of Israel, typically listed as “devash.” Devash today usually refers to honey, yet among the shivat haminim, it refers to date honey, as regular honey does not come from the ground. 

It’s written in Tehillim and we recite in our tefillot “Tzaddik Katamar Yifrach” that the righteous will flourish like a date palm. What does that mean? What is so unique about this type of tree? It’s not the tallest nor is it the one which produces the most fruit. My teacher, Dr. David Pelcovitz tells a story of a friend of his hiking in the desert on the West Coast of the United States. On this hike, he encountered a date palm tree rancher (yes, they do exist!). The hiker, realizing that a date palm rancher was not someone that he usually came in contact with, asked him tell me something about the plants that he so diligently cared for. After demurring a few times, the rancher responded that the only way to create dates that are commercially able to be sold is if the date palm trees are next to each other, enabling their roots become entangled together.

As the hiker walked away from the rancher with this seemingly trivial tidbit in mind, it occurred to him that the message here is poignant. If one were to simply desire to grow dates without the intent to sell them, they could position their trees as they wished, without a care for how they were positioned. However, if one sought to have dates that were able to be sold and consumed, they would need to be grown in the fashion the rancher stated, with a strong network of roots interconnected with the roots from other date palms. In order to grow and flourish properly, like the dates, our roots must be strong and connected. We must commit ourselves to being rooted in Yiddishkeit, maintaining the bond between ourselves and the Almighty. When we connect to the roots of our past, we can successfully help plant the roots for the generations to come.

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Beshalach 5778 – Belief in God, Belief in Ourselves

Parshas Beshalach chronicles Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt following the ten plagues that ravaged the country. The verse states that as they were leaving Egypt, having seen the strong hand of the Almighty, Bnai Yisrael feared God, believed in Him and believed in His servant Moses as well. They believed in Hashem who brought about the miracles, and they believed in Moshe as the Divine emissary who was there to guide them.

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin writes that “Vayaaminu BaHashem UvMoshe Avdo” means more than that. He notes in Tzidkas HaTzaddik (154) that just as Bnai Yisrael believed in Hashem and Moshe, we are to believe in ourselves as well. Hashem, he writes, has an “esek” with us, “business” so to speak. It is He who puts us on earth for a specific reason with unique goals for us in mind. This notion ties in with the first thing that a Jew is to do upon waking up. We recite Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for restoring our souls to us each day. This prayer concludes with our reciting “Rabah Emunasecha, great is Your faith.” Great is Hashem’s faith in each of us that He brings us back every day with a renewed soul to tackle our day and our responsibilities, which can be enjoyable at times, while debilitating at others moments. These are reminders are constant affirmations: Modeh Ani and Az Yashir are daily parts of our prayer liturgy! May we be inspired through Hashem’s confidence in us to have the strength to face any challenges we encounter.

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Tzidkas HaTzaddik 154

Bo 5778 – 4 Days

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In Parshas Bo, situated between the final plagues levied upon the people of Egypt, the Jewish people are given specific mitzvos to follow. The first is to set a calendar for themselves, and sanctify their time. Rabbi Soloveitchik, among others, note that this was of paramount importance for the Jewish nation on the brink of leaving Egypt as a free people. For the previous generations they were slaves whose time belonged not to them, but to their masters, and at the precipice of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Bnai Yisrael needed to be able to sanctify their time once it became theirs once again. Immediately after this mitzvah, the Jews are given another: to take a sheep for each of their households on the tenth day of this month (the first of month on their nascent calendar). This young, unblemished animal was to be used as the Korban Pesach, and the protocol for what is supposed to take place is delineated in these verses.

We know that the Korban Pesach is to be eaten on the 14th of that month, a full four days after Bnai Yisrael were commanded to bring it into their midst. This seems a bit puzzling. What else were the Jewish people doing at this time that they needed this vast amount of time to check their sheep? This is a task that could’ve taken an hour or two, maybe a whole day if one were to really search thoroughly, yet Bnai Yisrael are given much more time than that.

It’s understandable that the Jewish people would need to exert great care in this mitzvah. They were a broken people, racked with years of harsh labor. They knew no other way of life. They had been surrounded by idol worshipping Egyptians, as well as members of their own communities. This was their first real foray into mitzvah observance. I believe their lengthy amount of time to ready themselves and scrutinize the animal they’ve been told to keep safe is to guide the Jewish people into an ultimate existence of strong Mitzvah observance. This idea is evident as Paro tries to outsmart the burgeoning Jewish population in Egypt. He commands the Jews to perform backbreaking work, befarech in Hebrew. The Midrash plays on that word and writes that Paro dealt with them b’peh rach, by speaking softly to them to be eased into this work. The transformation that they were about to undergo at the hands of God would bring about a new way of life for them, and in order for it to be success, they had a significant amount of time to do their first task.

I heard a second perspective on this event from a friend of mine who is a tremendous marbitz Torah and anav, that he explained from Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser. This entire episode showcases to us chashivus hamitzvos, the importance of the mitzvos we are doing. The Jewish people are given four days to make sure that no part of their sheep is impure. It’s holy work that needs to be done with great, meticulous care. This message is one that we should strive to implement in our daily lives. Nowadays, we have no Korban Pesach to bring on the night of the Seder, but we have a plethora of mitzvos that have been commanded to us by the Almighty. We cannot robotically seek to fulfill them as if we’re working on crossing off items on our to-do list. We are set to do the mitzvos anyway: why not do them correctly?

Bnai Yisrael ultimately saw a momentous yeshuah as they were redeemed from slavery in Egypt by God. May we be privy to a similar salvation, bimheira beyameinu.

VaEra 5778 – On Par

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One of my favorite insights on the Torah is found in this Parshas VaEra. At the urging and prodding of Hashem, Moshe and Aharon begin their quest to see the Jewish people freed from slavery in Egypt. As they are present figures throughout the Parsha, there is a small yet poignant inconsistency, one that at first glace may seem trivial.

At the beginning of the Parsha, the psukim state: “That is Aaron and Moses, to whom the Lord said, ‘Take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions.’ They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of Egypt; they are Moses and Aaron. (Shemot 6:26-27). The order of their names are switched around. It’s understandable as to why Moshe would be mentioned first since Hashem called to him and spoke to him directly. Conversely, as the elder brother and mouthpiece of Moshe, it was Aharon who could’ve been portrayed as the leader of the two to Paro and Bnai Yisrael. We could also imagine a scenario where the order of their names has no significance at all. When parents refer to their children, or teachers to their students, there may be no rhyme or reason as to the order in which they are mentioned. Nevertheless, Rashi explains to us that there is indeed a reason for this seemingly minute detail. He comments that there are times when Aharon is listed ahead of Moshe, and there are times when Moshe is listed before Aharon and it’s because the two are considered equals.

Does this make any sense at all? How were the two considered to be on par with each other? Moshe Rabbeinu was summoned by God to lead the Jewish people. Ultimately, he became the greatest leader the Jewish people have ever seen. Aharon, no slouch himself, was the Kohen Gadol who performed the work in the Mishkan. Despite the best of intentions, Aharon is also known for his instrumental role in bringing about the sin of the Golden Calf, arguably the worst of the calamitous deeds done by the Jewish people. The distinguished two brothers shared lineage and lived at the same time. This alone puts them on the same plane?

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Rashi’s point is profound. How is it possible that they were equals? They both were able to maximize their potential greatness. Indeed Aharon did not serve in a role like Moshe Rabbeinu, but the expectations of him were the same as what was expected of his younger brother. Aharon was not supposed to be as great as Moshe. His role was to use his kochos to be the greatest Aharon he can be.

This is a timeless message for all of us. Much of our self-worth is based upon the success of those around us. Whether their success is something we see or highlighted to us by those close to us, it can be unbearable when we try and measure ourselves to the standards they have, many times, unknowingly set. It may not be our role to occupy the same place as those vaunted ones around us. Still, it’s imperative to remember that Aharon HaKohen was a tremendous individual, not an underachiever by any means. We cannot sit back and rationalize our inertia by claiming that living up to high standards is not what we are destined to do. We have been endowed with strengths and abilities for specific purposes. It’s up to us to make sure we utilize them correctly.

Shemos 5778 – Good Chutzpah

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If one were to look up the word “chutzpah” in the dictionary, you’d most likely find something to the tune of “audacity” or “impudence.” We don’t often think of chutzpah as a good or praiseworthy thing. When a child is out of line or “chutzpadic”, parents will most likely not revel in their brazenness. These feelings don’t necessarily subside as one ages. Conversely, there are also times when one’s chutzpah can be have positive dividends. In the Purim story, without Esther marching unannounced into Achashverosh’s chamber, where would the Jewish people be today? Even before that brave act of heroism, there is a staunchly “chutzpadic” episode in Parshas Shemos, one that is amplified by carefully reading the text itself.

Parshas Shemos is a “busy” parsha. There is so much going on, so many important events that are found among the pesukim. Gone are the days of peace and tranquility for Bnai Yisrael in Egypt. There is a new ruler, who has a different approach in regard to the ever expanding Jewish people. As they begin to outnumber the Egyptians and as the king’s attempts to outsmart the Jews fails to stunt their tremendous growth, he summons Shifra and Puah, two Jewish midwives, and gives them a horrifying task. All male Jewish babies are to be put to death, at their hands. For individuals charged with helping bring life into the world, their new job is to snuff it out.

Rashi explains that Shifra and Puah were not their actual names, but nicknames given to Yocheved and Miriam for their roles in caring for children. Shifra, from the word “meshaperet,” because she would clean the children and make them look nice for their mothers. Puah, from the word “poeh,” because she would soothe the babies when they cried. The Torah tells us that these midwives were God-fearing and were not keen on following through with the will of Paro. The pasuk says “vatechayena es hayeladim.” Not only did the midwives not kill the baby boys that were born, they enabled them to live. Despite the direct decree given to them by the most powerful individual around, Shifra and Puah actually took steps to ensure their survival.

Disobeying a direct order from the highest office is no small feat. It is the epitome of chutzpah. When someone acts brash with us, we can usually brush it off and go about our business. It’s almost certain that if we were in a unique position of power, the behavior exhibited from the subject in question would’ve been different. Nevertheless, Shifra and Puah knew what they were doing. There was no misunderstanding.

To be fair, despite the pasuk mentioning that the midwives had a fear of God, they could’ve simply done nothing. They could have helped the women give birth and simply not cared for the children as they normally had done, or taken them away and hid them without feeding them. Technically, the mandate of Paro would’ve been fulfilled passively, as the babies would’ve eventually died. Yet, Rashi continues that Shifra and Puah acutally fed the children and gave them water, with complete disregard for the explicit wishes of Paro. This insubordination could’ve led to severe ramifications for these holy women. Yet, rather than put them to death, Paro angrily wanted to know why they had not acted as he wished. They explained that the Jewish women are not like the Egyptian women when giving birth.

For their actions, the Torah tells us that the midwives were blessed with “batim,” houses of Kohanim, Leviim, and Malchus descending from them. In turn, the Jewish people were blessed to survive that heinous decree, among the others from Paro. It is through their chutzpah that Klal Yisrael are here today.