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PARSHAS YISROAnd Yisro, Moshe's father-in-law, heard about everything that G-d had done for Moshe and for his people, Yisrael. (18:1)
When Ariel Sharon, military leader and eventual prime minister of Israel, lost a son in a tragic accident, he was overcome with grief. A mutual friend approached Horav Aryeh Levine, zl, and asked him to invite Sharon to his home. Perhaps the general would be moved by the tzaddik's divrei nechamah, words of comfort. Thus far, no one was really having much luck in reaching him. Sadly, this was not Sharon's first encounter with tragedy, having lost his first wife and a son in a road accident.
The tzaddik absolutely refused to have Sharon come to his house. "It is my mitzvah to comfort the bereaved," Rav Aryeh said. "I will go to his house." This is part and parcel of the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, comforting mourners.
"But the Rav is not well," his friend countered. Apparently, this meeting took place during one of Rav Aryeh's illnesses, when he was extremely ill. "It is no matter. I am going." Rav Aryeh rose from his bed, and, with great determination, went to visit Ariel Sharon. The Rav walked into his home and encountered a broken man. The grief had taken its toll on him. Rav Aryeh spoke at length about the meaning of tragedy and made a strong attempt at alleviating some of the sadness from Sharon's life. After returning home to Yerushalayim, Rav Arye purchased mezuzos in silver cases and had them sent to Sharon as a gift. Apparently, when he was there, he had not noticed mezuzos on any of the doorposts.
Ariel Sharon never forgot Rav Aryeh's act of kindness. The well-known tzaddik of Yerushalayim was a busy man. Yet, he made time to comfort a bereaved father. He would never forget this gesture. Rav Aryeh was so ill that he was later admitted to Hadassah Hospital for a while, during which time Sharon made a special trip to visit him.
Rav Aryeh was profoundly moved by this act of kindness. He was a man who commanded the entire Israeli army, the soldiers for whom Rav Aryeh regularly prayed. He would say, "They are angels; not one of us know how to appreciate or to value them properly."
Excited and very pleased to see his visitor, Rav Aryeh embraced the general with unusual warmth. Then Rav Aryeh thought to himself, "What am I to tell him?" It is not as if the two had very much in common. That Shabbos was Parashas Yisro. So, Rav Aryeh decided to discuss the first pasuk of the parsha. "We read Parashas Yisro this Shabbos: 'And Yisro, Moshe's father-in-law, heard about everything that G-d had done for Moshe and for his people Yisrael.' Rashi asks, 'What did Yisro hear that motivated him to leave his home in Midyan and trek to the wilderness and join the Jewish People?' Rashi replies: 'He heard about the parting of the Red Sea, and the battle between the Jewish People and Amalek.'
"Why was it necessary for Yisro to hear about two miracles to inspire his coming to the Jewish People? Why was not the Splitting of the Red Sea sufficient reason for him to come? Was this not a great miracle, indeed, unparalleled in human history? Nothing like this had ever happened before, and, for that matter, never since then has the sea split, allowing for an entire nation to walk through on dry land."
"Still", Rav Aryeh continued, "it seems that it was not enough. For when Yisro heard about it he thought, the Almighty indeed wrought a miracle, but a miracle is something extraordinary, unusual; it happens only once. One cannot predict what the future of Klal Yisrael will be from one miracle. Will they always have miracles if they need them?
"But now, when Yisro heard about the battle with Amalek - a real, actual battle, which the Children of Israel fought with courage and bravery - that it happened through plain warfare, he understood that Klal Yisrael is a unique nation. Then he was convinced that it was necessary and worthwhile for him to come and get to know this firsthand." Rav Arye paused a moment, and then added, "Well, what happened once will happen once again!"
Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all deities; through their very plots, He rose above them. (18:11)
Yisro was overwhelmed with the miracles Hashem wrought against the Egyptians. Rashi explains that what impressed Pharaoh most was the middah k'neged middah, measure for measure, aspect of the punishment the Egyptians received. Ki ba'davar asher zadu aleihem, specifically in the very plot which they (the Egyptians) had intended for them. The Egyptians attempted to use water as the weapon of destruction. Instead, they themselves drowned in the Red Sea. In other words, it was not "simply" that Hashem punished them "any old way." No! He turned the tables on them. The water which was supposed to drown the Jews - drowned the Egyptians.
Horav Aryeh Leib Heyman, zl, questions Rashi's exposition from its source, the Talmud Sotah 11a. Chazal say: Havah nischakmah lo, "We must deal wisely with them." The Egyptians were plotting to do away with the Moshiyan shel Yisrael, the one who would be the Jews' savior. Apparently, they knew that Hashem punishes middah k'neged middah, deriving this from the punishment meted out to the generation of the Flood and that which was administered to the people of Sodom. They asked, "How shall we destroy him? With fire? We know that Hashem employs fire as a punishment. [So that will not work.] Shall we use the sword?" The Egyptians knew that they needed to choose a form of destruction which Hashem would not use against them. Since He is committed to punishing middah k'neged middah, if they would select a weapon which Hashem would not employ against them, they would be able to eradicate the savior and not worry about repercussions. "Let us employ water. Hashem promised never again to destroy the world through the medium of water." They did not know that Hashem would not destroy the entire world with water, but an individual nation, He would destroy. Alternatively, He will not bring water against them, but they could fall into a pre-existing body of water, like the Red Sea.
This is the meaning of, Ki badavar asher zadu aleihem, "Specifically through the very plot which they intended for them." This is like one who is cooking a pot of hot water, and he falls into it. The pot that he was preparing became his own executioner. Interestingly, on that same page, the Talmud relates that three advisors were involved with Pharaoh concerning that fateful decision: Iyov, Yisro and Bilaam. Thus, Yisro was quite aware of Hashem's method of middah k'neged middah. If so, why was he so impressed with Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea? What added insight did he receive as a result of this miracle?
Rav Heyman explains that Yisro became aware of a new understanding concerning the depth of the middah k'neged middah principle. During the Flood, everyone drowned in the fiery waters. In his commentary to Parashas Noach, Rashi elucidates the measure for measure aspect of the Flood punishment. Hashem has said, Rabbah roas ha'adam ba'aretz, "Man's wickedness on earth was increasing." (4:5) Coinciding with this, we find, Nivkeu kol maayanos Tehom rabbah, "All the wellsprings of the great deep burst forth" (Bereishis 7:11). The Flood waters raged for forty days and nights, which coincides with the forty-day gestation period during which a child is formed. Through their adulterous liaisons, the people of that iniquitous generation troubled Hashem to create mamzeirim, illegitimate children, which take forty days to form. Last, as their sins were often carried out with heated passion, they were judged through the medium of fiery waters.
Hashem visited His punishment on Sodom middah k'neged middah. The Zohar HaKadosh enumerates a number of parallels between Sodom's sin and the punishment that they received, one of which was taking away their lives as punishment for refusing to give tzedakah, charity, which is the lifeline of the poor. Both of these punishments have one thing in common: Every sinner was punished equally, despite the fact that some sinners were worse than others. Yet, they all drowned together, or were destroyed by the fire and brimstone that Hashem rained upon the Sodomites.
The drowning of the Egyptians represented a completely new hanhagah, manner of acting, from Hashem. At this point, the Egyptians were divided into categories; their evil categorized and their punishment commensurate with their individual sins. Some Egyptians sunk like lead, not floating down needlessly, while others went down like stone, being battered before they sunk to the deep. The last group, the most egregious Egyptians, went down like straw, being thrown around in the water for a while before finding their resting place at the bottom of the sea. Yisro saw not only Hashgachah, Divine Providence, but he was also privy to Hashgachah Pratis - individualized, personalized Divine Providence.
Moshe led the people out of the camp toward the Divine Presence. They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain. (19:17)
In a statement that has become endemic to Kabbolas haTorah, the Acceptance of the Torah, Chazal state that Hashem raised Har Sinai above the heads of the Jewish People and declared: Im mekablim atem es haTorah mutav - v'im lav - sham tehei kevuraschem, "If you accept the Torah - good - and if not - there will be your burial." The question is obvious: If they are standing beneath the mountain, the correct term would have been: Po, "here will be your burial." What is the meaning of sham, "there"? Where is there? Furthermore, why wait? If they did not accept the Torah, their burial would be here and now .
Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita, offers an explanation that has great practical meaning. He explains that there is a "place" called sham - "there" - which is a graveyard. What does this mean? A young boy entered primary school and began to study alef bais. He found it difficult, but did not despair, since he thought he could catch up in elementary school. "There" he will soar; "there" he will excel in his studies. Elementary school brought about very little opportunity for change. The teacher just was not the right match; the principal just did not understand him. There was still hope. In yeshivah gedolah, high school, "there" he would succeed in growing into a Torah scholar. High school did not work out as well as he had expected, but there was always bais medrash, where the students are more mature and there is greater leeway in learning; "there" he would mature to his potential.
Regrettably, at bais medrash, he did not achieve his expectations - nor did he in Eretz Yisrael. There was still one remaining option: marriage. How little he realized the various pressures that are part and parcel of married life. Responsibility to a wife and family, coupled with parents, who, albeit they stayed out of his business, still wanted to know everything and offer an opinion - whether it is solicited or not. Kollel, versus earning a more lucrative living, is always a wonderful topic open to discussion. While no one has the correct answer for each individual case - everybody has an opinion, and all of this added to the young man's decision to put off excellence in Torah scholarship to the next milestone in life. When he arrives "there," things will be better. This goes on throughout life until he reaches the final "sham." He is now "there," at the cemetery, where he is the star attraction. Only now, it is too late. He can no longer push it off until later, or until he gets "there." Sham tehei kevuraschem, "There will be your burial," If one does not accept the Torah now - later, it will be too late.
One should not fault the place in which he is, the teacher that he has, or the environment in which he finds himself. We must stop playing the game and begin to accept responsibility. "There" will not save him. He is the problem. It is neither the place, nor is it the time; it is the person. Rav Galinsky quotes the Imrei Chaim of Vishnitz, who interpreted the pasuk instructing Moshe Rabbeinu to gather weapons and battle with Amalek: V'tzei hilachem ba'Amalek machar, "And go out and battle with Amalek tomorrow" (Shemos 17:9). The Rebbe explained a unique form of Amalek, a specific power of spiritual contamination, called Amalek machar - Amalek tomorrow. This powerful koach ha'tumah, contaminated power, encourages us to perform a mitzvah, to have that hislahavus, fiery passion, for mitzvah observance, but not to have it "today." Tomorrow would be much better. Only tomorrow is too late. The passion has dissipated; the fire has cooled.
Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, related that he heard a thought from his father concerning an incident which took place in Volozhin. A student was a masmid atzum, very diligent, and a scholar who possessed a photographic memory. One day during lunch, a question was posed to the young men who were sitting around the table. Each one gave his opinion, as did the diligent young man. Suddenly, one of the young men raised his hand and rendered his opinion: "I am surprised that all of you are unaware of a p'sak, an opinion, rendered by Tosfos." Our young man was visibly shocked. How could he have overlooked a Tosfos?
The student immediately put down his portion, stood up and left for the bais medrash. Seven years went by, as he reviewed the entire Talmud a number of times, until he was proficient in its every nuance. He later became a member of Klal Yisrael's spiritual elite. Someone asked the Rosh Yeshivah, the venerable Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, how could a ben Torah leave a meal before benching, saying the grace after meals. Rav Chaim explained that had he waited five minutes to bench, the yetzer hora, evil inclination, would have had already cooled his desire for growth in Torah. The Amalek of machar, tomorrow, would have had a field day and probably would have succeeded in preventing a seven-year sojourn in the yeshivah. Torah scholarship neither brooks excuses, nor does it allow for pretext and mitigation. One does what he is supposed to do with his own G-d-given abilities.
In closing, Rav Galinsky relates that Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, once asked his rebbe, Horav Eliyahu Lopian, "Rebbe, please tell me a shmuess, ethical discourse." (Apparently, Rav Sholom felt the need for some form of "inspiration" from his revered mentor.) "Nu, if you want to hear a shmuess, bring over a shtender, lectern. If we are going to do it, we may as well do it properly." Rav Sholom brought over a shtender and sat down in a chair. He was the audience, and the Rebbe was the speaker. Rav Elya arose and took hold of the shtender with both hands, which was his usual stance when he spoke. He said, "Rav Sholom, if I would have a beard as dark as yours (if I would be as young as you), I would know how to spend my time!" Rav Elya sat down. This was his discourse. The bottom line is: One does not waste time. Tomorrow is not today. We begin with now - not tomorrow. This idea applies to all of us as well.
They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain. (19:17)
As Klal Yisrael stood at the foot of Har Sinai, waiting anxiously for the Torah, they were united as one, with a sense of unity described by Chazal ask, k'ish echad, b'lev echad, "like one man with one heart." This phrase has since become the catchword for describing unity at its apex. All of Klal Yisrael were focused, intent on accepting the Torah with a firm commitment, a common aspiration and uniform purpose. All of Klal Yisrael stood together as one to accept the Torah. It is the term b'lev echad, "with one heart", that begs to be elucidated. Does one heart manifest a stronger sense of unity than one brain? Why, then, is their unity not described thus: k'ish echad b'moach echad; "Like one man with one brain"?
Perhaps we might suggest the following: The brain controls the body's movements, while the heart is the seat of a person's passions, attitudes, emotions. To say that Klal Yisrael was united in mind implies that they were all doing the same thing which, in this circumstance, was accepting the Torah. They were all committed. It does not speak, however, to their individual level of emotion, their personal attitude, their individual desire. They might all be standing together, but were they all on the same page attitude-wise?
We are being told that not only was all of Klal Yisrael there, but they all wanted the same thing. They were united in attitude, emotion, purpose and commitment. This is why k'ish echad, b'lev echad is the paradigm of harmony among people. All too often we may discover that while two people stand together in purpose, in attitude they stand miles apart. Each will have his own individual reason for doing a mitzvah. For example, two people will give the same donation to tzedakah, but they are not unified in mind and spirit. One gives because he wants to help; the other gives because he seeks prominence. One gives because he believes in the goals and objectives of the organization or institution; the other gives out of embarrassment. One wants to remain anonymous; the other wants his name emblazoned on a plaque. To the public eye, they are both equal. Hashem, however, is nireh l'leivav, sees into the inner recesses of the heart. To be unified before Hashem is to be united in both mind and spirit.
You shall not ascend My Altar on steps. (20: 23)
Rashi explains that a ramp was used for the Kohanim to ascend to the Mizbayach, Altar, as a provision to circumvent any suggestion of immodesty. A ramp allows for the legs to move evenly, thereby not allowing any inappropriate exposure of one's self. I think we might be able to add a homiletic interpretation to the closing pasuk of Parashas Yisro.
The Mizbayach symbolizes sacrifice. Indeed, to study Torah, to live a Torah lifestyle, does require a certain element of sacrifice. Before I continue, the sacrifice is only in the eyes of the beholder. A true ben Torah does not view his devotion to Torah as sacrifice. The correct word should be dedication. Every moment dedicated to Torah is a supreme moment of ecstasy. Sacrifice is in the eyes of the world, who fail to understand the beauty and sweetness associated with Torah.
Perhaps there is financial sacrifice, since one who devotes his time to Torah study has little time for anything else. A promising career in commerce, science or law eludes he who trades a financial portfolio for a Gemorah. The cost of Torah study for those who want to have nachas, spiritual satisfaction, from their children is definitely a sacrifice. On the other hand, my heart goes out to all those who choose secular education over a Torah day school/Yeshivah education. The fruits we reap are often the results of the seeds we sow. After all is said and done, there might be sacrifice to a Torah life, but it is well worth the awesome reward: a reward that cannot be obtained any other way.
This perhaps explains the Altar, but what about the Ramp? Is there a difference if one ascends the heights of Torah via a stairway or a ramp? Regardless of the means, he has still made it to the top. There is a difference, however, in the quality of the ascent. More effort is exerted in climbing stairs. This is especially true if the space between the steps is high. There is less exertion in going up a ramp since, it is a gradual climb. On the other hand, it is more difficult to stop and rest on the incline of the ramp, while one who has reached the next step does not expend great effort in remaining there.
We, thus, have discerned one primary difference, which allows for a benefit in each means of ascension. Steps are more difficult to climb, but easier when one wants to stop and rest. The ramp is easier to ascend, but does not allow for comfortable resting along the way. Additionally, if the steps are slippery, one can still climb up; while a slippery ramp will prove quite difficult to escalate.
The Torah is teaching us an important principle in avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. The road to Heaven is not comprised of steps. It is more like an upward ramp. One who wants to ascend to the Torah peak must be acutely aware from the very beginning that there is no resting, no stopping, no vacations, no holidays. It is a steady, upward climb, at times slippery, whereby one could easily fall. He must be careful, focused on the "top" and not allow for status quo. On the other hand, it does not require one to jump from step to step, go from level to level, in one catapult. It means placing one foot in front of the other and keeping it up until he makes the "top." One cannot say: "I have gone far enough"; "This is how religious I want to be"; "I am comfortable with my present level of Yiddishkeit." If one stops his progression, he begins to slide backward until he is at the bottom.
This idea applies equally on the community level, as it does on an individual basis. The shul that wants to maintain a status quo, a certain level of religious commitment - no more, no less - will eventually have less. A community that refuses to go forward, to move upward, will eventually slide backward. There are no plateaus in Jewish life. One either grows, or he regresses.
V'hayah im shamoa tishme'u el mitzvosai
The Talmud Berachos 13a makes the following statement, which I feel is central to our concept of mitzvah performance, especially in the area of Jewish outreach. Amar Rebbi Yehoshua ben Korcha. Why does Parashas Shema (the first parsha of Krias Shema) precede the (second) parsha, V'hayah im shamoa? It is to encourage one to accept upon himself the yoke of G-d's reign before accepting the yoke of mitzvos. In Parashas Shema, we accept the ol malchus Shomayim, the yoke of the rule of Heaven, over ourselves. This is a prerequisite to the parsha, V'hayah im shamoa, in which we assume upon ourselves the yoke of mitzvah performance. Carrying out mitzvos can, at times, be difficult. Thus, Chazal have characterized its performance with the terminology of "yoke." We derive one important principle from Chazal: Mitzvah performance is not exclusive of recognizing that Hashem is in control and that He reigns supreme in all areas of human endeavor. Becoming a Torah observant Jew does not occur because one simply performs mitzvos. If he does not acknowledge the Heaven-factor - the mitzvos are wonderful practices, but they remain practices. A mitzvah is an endeavor carried out l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. In order to do this, one must recognize that there is a Heaven. Otherwise, for whom is he performing the mitzvah?
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