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FEBRUARY 13-14, 2003 22 SHEBAT 5764

Pop Quiz: What type of tool may not be used to build the altar?


"And Yitro heard." (Shemot 18:1)

This is the perashah which tells us about the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, perhaps the greatest event that ever took place in the world. Wouldn't it be proper to have the entire perashah devoted to that special occurrence, rather than begin with Yitro joining the Jewish? What was so important about Yitro that this had to precede Matan Torah?

The answer is the first word - vayishma - and he heard! The Torah is teaching us that if we don't hear, we will not be able to receive the Torah. Hearing means being able to concentrate and focus on someone else and not only on ourselves. It means to accept that we're not perfect and we can hear advice and criticism. The whole world was aware that the Jews came out of Egypt with great miracles but did nothing about it. Yitro, however, heard and came. Because he was willing to truly hear and understand, he changed his own life and ultimately gave some very useful advice to Moshe. That is why the giving of the Torah must be preceded by the story of Yitro, to teach us what hearing can bring.

We often ask others how they are, but do we really hear their answers? Our kids are constantly talking to us, but are we truly listening? Even if we do allow the words of others to enter our ears, do we hear "between the lines"? Let us learn from Yitro to truly hear and listen to what's around us and this will make our lives a little bit better.

Shabbat Shalom. Rabbi Shmuel Choueka

"And all the people could see the sounds." (Shemot 20:15)

When Hashem presented the Torah at Mt. Sinai, not a bird chirped, the sea did not roll, and no creature made a sound. All of the vast universe was silent and mute. It was then that the voice went forth and proclaimed, "I am Hashem, your G-d." (Midrash Rabbah). When Hashem revealed Himself to Israel, the world fell silent because this moment was pivotal not only to Israel but to all of creation. If Israel did not accept the Torah, the universe would have come to an end.

As Hashem spoke, everything fell silent and we clearly heard Hashem speak. But that wasn't enough. Not only did we hear his voice, but we saw his voice! Rashi explains: They saw the sounds that emerged from the mouth of the Almighty! We are not referring to the sounds of the shofar that accompanied the giving of the Torah but we are referring to the sounds of Hashem Himself!

Why did Hashem perform this unusual miracle? There must be an important reason because Hashem would not do anything superfluous. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains the important reason. Hashem is telling us that each person should fully know and understand the Torah. When a person hears Torah, he hears sounds. But he should understand it as if he can see it with his eyes. The subject should be as clear as if he sees it before his eyes. And so every teacher should teach his student so clearly that they can walk away feeling as if they saw it.

I fear that we got used to the notion that the Torah was given to us as a beautiful gift, which might imply that we should put a beautiful cover on it so that it would look great in our bookcase. Or perhaps we should put the Bible in hotel rooms for the curious traveler. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are to pore over every word, analyze it and dissect it until we could almost see it. May we merit to dedicate our lives to this holy mission. Shabbat Shalom. Rabbi Reuven Semah


Yitro said, "Blessed is Hashem, who rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh. (Shemot 18:10)

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 94a, Hazal say that it is an embarrassment for Moshe Rabenu and all of the Klal Yisrael that until Yitro declared, "Baruch Hashem," no one else had done so. In other words, Hazal attribute to Yitro the first public praise of Hashem. Is this true? Are we to ignore the Shirah, song, that Moshe led Klal Yisrael in singing after Hashem split the Red Sea for them? Is their praise any less significant than that of Yitro? Horav Sholom Mi'Radomsk, z"l, distinguishes between Yitro's praise and Moshe's praise. Moshe and Klal Yisrael were both deeply moved by Hashem's deliverance of them from their enemies. Their overwhelming sense of gratitude inspired them to sing His praise. They thanked and lauded Hashem for what He did for them. In contrast, Yitro gave gratitude in a yet uncharted area - "Who rescued you" - He thanked Hashem for saving Klal Yisrael. Yitro was the first to appreciate the benefit that others had received, to give thanks to the Almighty for His actions on behalf of others. (Peninim on the Torah)


"And the Israelites encamped there near the mountain" (Shemot 19:2)

The word the Torah uses for encamped, "vayihan," is in the singular. This, says Rashi, is because they were as one unit: "As one person with one heart."

Rabbi Yitzhak of Vorki noted that the word vayihan, besides meaning encamped, also comes from the word "hen," finding favor. That is, the people found favor in the eyes of one another and therefore found favor in the eyes of Hashem.

When you only see the faults and shortcomings of another person, you become distant from him. But when you see the good and positive in other people, you become closer to them. This unity is a fundamental requirement for accepting the Torah.

How is this developed? We find in Nahal Kidumim that togetherness between people is possible only when there is humility. When the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, which is the symbol of humility, they internalized this attribute.

When you have humility, you do not feel a need to gain power over others or to feel above them by focusing on their faults. When you have the trait of humility you can allow yourself to see the good in others. The traits of love for others, seeing the good in them and having humility go hand in hand. By growing in these traits you make yourself into a more elevated person who is worthy of receiving the Torah. (Growth through Torah)


Question: Why does the haftarah reading have seven blessings (two before and five after)?

Answer: They represent the seven aliyot to the Torah. (Excerpted from Siddur Abir Yaacob, published by Sephardic Press)


"You shall not ascend My altar on steps so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it." (Shemot 20:23)

If the altar had been built with steps, the kohanim would have been exposing their lower body to the stones of the altar when they ascended the steps. Therefore, the Torah decreed that a ramp be used instead of steps. They would then not need to take large steps and they would not become exposed. The Rabbis ask why this was necessary. The kohanim wore pants, so even if they had climbed steps, their body would not have been exposed. Rashi explains that even though there would not have been any actual exposure, taking large steps is "close to exposing nakedness."

Rabbi Mordechai Gifter elaborates: Sometimes the Torah will prohibit an action, not because of the outcome but because of the manner in which it is performed. Even though the kohen would not have revealed himself, it would not be proper for him to take large steps when ascending the altar. Our Rabbis learn that this also applies when we make an evaluation of a person or situation. One should not take "large steps," but rather, he should take his time and gather all the pertinent information before coming to a conclusion.

In Pirkei Abot (2:4), Rabban Gamliel teaches that one should not judge his fellow man until he puts himself in the other person's shoes. One can almost never know all the factors that brought the other person to act the way he did. Therefore, Rabban Gamliel teaches, we are not in a position to judge his actions. We must take "small steps" and judge him in a positive light.

Question: How does it make you feel when someone misjudges your actions because he didn't take the trouble to find out why you acted that way? Are you careful to avoid doing the same thing to your friends?


This week's Haftarah: Yeshayahu 6:1-13.

In the perashah, B'nei Yisrael experienced the greatest revelation of Hashem in history, the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. In the haftarah, the prophet Yeshayahu describes his greatest and most fearful vision. In that vision, he was shown the throne of Hashem, and observed the heavenly angels paying homage to Hashem. Yeshayahu feared that he would die after seeing this vision but Hashem assured him that he would live. Similarly, at Har Sinai, the souls of B'nei Yisrael actually left them, but Hashem revived them.

Answer to Pop Quiz: Tools made out of iron.

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