Yisro’s Belief

parashas Yisro 5782

H’Shem had made a complete mockery of Egypt. This was demonstrated in its entirety by the culmination of the judgment upon Egypt: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea” (Exodus 15:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). Measure for measure, H’Shem enacted judgment upon Egypt. Turning the Nile River into blood, reminded Pharaoh of his guilt, concerning his decree against male infants, that they be drowned in the Nile. The perishing of Pharaoh and his army at the Sea of Reeds was an expression of H’Shem’s judgment against Pharaoh.

Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, an ex-priest of Midian, “heard of all that G-d had done for Moses, and for Israel his people” (Exodus 18:1, JPS). He journeyed from Midian to the encampment at Sinai, and brought with him Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and also Gershon and Eliezer, the two sons of Moses. He proclaimed, “Now I know that the L-RD is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:11, JPS). He continued, by implying that in the same manner that the Egyptians conspired against the Children of Israel, so was Pharaoh and his army destroyed. I.e., measure for measure, by means of water.

Yisro had worshipped many gods; and, according to Tanchuma, he had renounced idolatry many years ago. Yet, it was not until he heard of H’Shem’s plagues against Egypt – each one symbolizing H’Shem’s superiority over an Egyptian god – and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, when Pharaoh was defeated, that he recognized H’Shem as “greater than all gods.”

Up until then, his belief was predicated upon rational inquiry; he had his doubts about the efficacy of the many deities that he used to worship. Yet, when he heard of H’Shem’s greatness being demonstrated in a tangible way through the plagues, and the splitting the sea, his belief was upgraded to the level of knowledge, because of H’Shem’s miraculous intervention for the sake of Israel’s Redemption. In other words, “seeing is believing;” although, in this case, it was enough for Yisro to “hear” “of all that G-d had done,” for his belief to become manifest.

Hidden Presence

parashas insights: Yisro 5782

“Search for the L-rd and His might, continually seek His countenance.”

– Psalm 105:4

G-d’s presence in this world (olam hazeh) is hidden. Yet, He yearns that we seek for Him. Our seeking is more than a hide-and-seek game; to seek G-d also includes preparing ourselves for the encounter, when we find Him. For, His “supernal holiness” (Zohar 3, 297a) may only fill a vessel that has emptied itself in surrender to G-d’s will. Thus, through sanctification, our lives may be sanctified as a preparation for encountering G-d’s Presence.

How may our lives be sanctified? Traditionally, our lives are sanctified through observance of the commandments. “Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments…” Moreover, because the Torah and G-d are one, His light is revealed within the world through the observance of mitzvos (commandments). If divine light is brought into the world through our positive actions in this world, then we ourselves are a light unto the world (Isaiah 42:6). So, as we are sanctified through the observance of mitzvos, the world also receives the positive benefit of our observance.

In this week’s Torah reading, parashas Yisro, B’nei Yisrael assembles at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses is given a set of instructions, in order that the Children of Israel may prepare themselves: “And the L-RD said unto Moses: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow” (Exodus 19:10, JPS 1917 Tanach). This is in preparation for the third day, when the L-RD will descend upon Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:11). “O L-RD, bow Thy heavens, and come down; touch the mountains, that they may smoke” (Psalms 144:5, JPS).

How is it possible for H’Shem to descend on Sinai? Only inasmuch that the heavens were stretched like a bow, so that H’Shem could be simultaneously in Shomayim, and on the top of Mt. Sinai (Mechilta). Yet, this may also be explained through the metaphorical language of tzimtzum: that He descended on Sinai by way of the many levels of contractions, between heaven and earth, until His Presence, hidden within the cloud (Exodus 19:9), revealed itself to Moshe, while from the vantage point of the people, all that could be seen was the thunder, lightning, and smoke (Exodus 19:18, 20:15).

Tu b’Shevat 5782

Tu b’Shevat: a mini Guide

“It is a good custom for the faithful to eat many fruits on this day and to celebrate them with words of praise.” – from Pri Etz Hadar ch. 1, sefaria.org

Baruch atah H’Shem Elokeinu melech haOlam borei pri haEtz

(Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d, who creates the fruit of the tree).

Baruch atah H’Shem Elokeinu melech haOlam shehechiyanu, v’kiemanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh

(Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d, who has granted us life, sustained us, and brought us to this season).

The concept of enacting a tikkun (rectification) through the conscious eating of a variety of fruits on this day is exemplified within the teachings found in the Pri Etz Hadar – Tree of the Goodly Fruit – that serves as a type of manual for Tu b’Shevat. To eat with intention (kavannah), means to acknowledge the spiritual significance of the day, as well as the symbolism from different types of fruits. Especially important are the seven species from Israel mentioned in Torah:

“A land of wheat and barley, and [grape] vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey. – Deuteronomy 8:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

Also included as traditional favorites for Tu b’Shevat are the following:

carob chips, dried apples, dried pears, raisins, grapes, and wine, if having a Tu b’Shevat fruit seder.

motzei Beshalach 5782

motzei Shabbos: parashas Beshalach 5782 – Sweet Waters

“And Moses 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.” –  Exodus 15:22, JPS

For three days after the miracle of the splitting of the sea that led to their deliverance, they were without water. This occurred as a test of their emunah (faith) in G-d, to prove whether or not they believed that He would provide for them, even though the situation appeared bleak. Yet, upon arriving at Marah, they complained, because the only water source was too bitter for them to drink. According to Rashi, instead of grumbling, they should have approached Moshe in a respectful manner, saying, “Entreat mercy for us that we may have water to drink” (Rashi on Exodus 15:25, sefaria.org). In any case, Moshe responded by crying out to H’Shem, Who showed him a tree, to cast into the water, in order to make the bitter waters sweet (Exodus 15:25).

“There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them” (Exodus 15:25, JPS). Sforno explains, that, the test was designed, “to find out if they would be willing to accept statutes, i.e., laws not given to our intelligence to understand, as well as social legislation” (sefaria). If so, this would determine whether or not, they would receive the commandments at Sinai.

Thus, to accept that despite all understanding, a tree that is thrown into bitter waters will somehow have the effect of purifying those waters, so that they are no longer bitter, rather, that they become sweet, was a “lithmus test” of sorts, that would indicate their level of acceptance of commandments, some that have no apparent rational basis, and others that could only be understood over time.

We would be well-reminded of this teaching, if we take this to heart, in regard to our own belief and practice, within the context of the yoke of heaven: the acceptance of the commandments as incumbent upon us to observe, in all diligence, ultimately, for our own benefit. Whether we understand the nature of those commandments on a rational basis or not.

“And He said: ‘If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of HaShem thy G-d, 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 L-RD that healeth thee.’” – Exodus 15:26, JPS 1917 Tanach

Actual Faith

dvar for parashas Beshalach 5782

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the L-RD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” – Exodus 14:21-22, JPS 1917 Tanach

 “If they came into the sea, why does the Torah write: “they came unto dry land?” If they came unto dry land why does the Torah call it “sea?” (Shemot Rabbah 21.10). The verse teaches that the sea was not split for them until they had set foot in it while it was still sea up to the level of the nostrils (to demonstrate their faith). Immediately after they had done this the sea was converted to dry land. – R’ Bachya on Exodus 14:22, sefaria.org

The nature of faith, is not only an abstract quality of belief, per se, in something that is unseen. True emunah is to actually believe in what one cannot see, beyond speculation, as if it exists in actuality, and has an influence in a person’s life. Therefore, while many people confess a belief in G-d, only in tandem to the day to day challenges, does that belief become more of an actuality.

Belief in G-d is more than an intellectual exercise in speculation, in order to compel us to have a reference point (usually, somewhere in Heaven) to direct our prayers towards in times of need. The nature of faith denotes an interface between a person’s belief system and practice, not as something removed from a person’s life, compartmentalized in a region of the mind, wherein a disconnect exists within the framework of that person’s practical existence.

At the Sea of Reeds, the Almighty’s Presence within the pillar of fire, and the pillar of cloud, were manifestations of His actual existence. Additionally, the splitting of the sea served as a sign of His power, not only to the Children of Israel, also to the rest of the world at that time. Yet, the “proofs” of the existence of G-d, the manifestation of His Presence, and the signs of His interaction in this world are not as easily found in our own lives, surroundings, or greater environmental milieu. Instead, emunah (faith), specifically, requires a profound degree of awareness.

“The L-RD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him.” – Exodus 15:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The midrash states that even a lowly handmaid saw more at the Sea of Reeds than the prophet Ezekiel saw in his visions (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In other words, the handmaid was able to perceive more in regard to H’Shem, because of her actual experience, where G-d’s intervention was clear. The Midrash emphasizes the importance of seeing G-d’s direct interaction in our lives; this type of interaction is referred to as hashgacha peratis – G’d’s guidance over the life of every individual on earth, even on a personal level. Once we begin to open our eyes to this truth, then our belief will take root in our soul.

G-d’s Presence in the World

TANYA Insights: 11 Shevat (leap year) 5782

“By the word of the L-RD were the heavens made; and all the hosts of them by the breath of His mouth. ”– Psalm 33:6, JPS 1917 Tanach

A Chassidic perspective emphasizes the need for the continual maintenance of the universe – G-d’s Creation – through His will that constantly maintains the existence of the world. Without His continual presence as the force that sustains the world, the world would cease to exist. In reading today’s passage from the TANYA, I thought how this idea can be compared to an event in this week’s Torah reading. Namely, when “Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state” (Exodus 14:27, JPS 1985 Tanach).

Inasmuch that “the sea returned to its normal state,” this connotes the understanding that the normal laws of gravity were restored to the sea. For, two towering walls of water had formed a corridor for B’nei Yisrael to cross through the Sea of Reeds, to be safely ensconced on the other shore. As the Egyptians pursued the Children of Israel, these walls collapsed upon them, drowning Pharaoh and his army in the sea. The restoration to natural law, and the subsequent collapse of the sea walls was signaled by Moshe’s act of holding “his arm over the sea.”

At that point H’Shem relinquished His influence over gravity, thus causing the sea to be restored to its original natural state. The TANYA passage relates how that if H’Shem caused His Will to cease from maintaining the Universe, all would return to its former state of nothingness, before the beginning of time. Clearly, the example given above is a more comprehensible occurrence, whereas, mankind can hardly conceive of the world ceasing to exist. It would be like a computer without electricity – blank screen.

Metaphorically, this should help us to better appreciate the presence of G-d in the world, that animates all spheres of life, plant, animal and human, as well as inanimate objects such as stones, precious metals, and the different layers of the earth, not to mention the artistic beauty of the skies, especially at sunrise and sunset. Shiveesee H’Shem l’negdi tamid – I am ever mindful of the L-RD’s presence (Psalm 16:8).

Pharaoh’s Myopia

parashas Beshalach 5782

Was Pharaoh deceived? Or did he deceive himself?

G-d led the Children of Israel in a roundabout way to the Sea of Reeds, so that they would not have to be confronted by the Philistines, when passing by their territory. Otherwise, they might have fled back to Egypt at the prospect of war. Having escaped the frying pan, they ostensibly entered into the fire. For H’Shem had a strategy in mind, in order to bring about the demise of Pharaoh, and his army who had pursued the Israelites into the wilderness.

In order to lay a trap for Pharaoh, H’Shem brought B’nei Yisrael to a gorge at the edge of the sea. As Pharaoh’s army closed in on them, the Children of Israel began to panic. Yet, Moshe said to them, “Do not fear, stand still, and see the salvation of the L-RD, which He will show to you today” (Exodus 14:13, Israeli Bible).

As for Pharaoh, he apparently thought that Israel was indeed trapped at the Sea of Reeds, as if one of his own gods, whose idol stood there as a towering giant near the gorge, was somehow powerful enough to bring Israel as prey into the hands of Pharaoh, so that he could retrieve what he and his people still considered to be “their slaves.” His perception, based on his trust in the deities that he worshipped, contributed to his deception. For there is only one Master of the Universe, Who has prominence over the affairs of mankind. Pharaoh’s shortsightedness prevented him from seeing the situation in any other way than what appealed to his sense of self, pride, and stubborness.

Additionally, Pharaoh had been shown the sovereignty of the Almighty’s hand, Who proved Himself to be more powerful than the Egyptian gods. Yet, he remained recalcitrant, unable to perceive reality through any other lens, other than his own narrative norm. He suffered greatly for this myopia, inasmuch that he himself was doomed to be drowned in the Sea of Reeds, along with his entire army. Why were the Egyptians as well, unable to see the truth that was set out before their very own eyes? Trying to explain away the plagues, and even the splitting of the sea, as “natural phenomena,” instead of the hand of G-d, they remained stuck in their myopic vision, unaware of the false nature of their gods, and the limited reality of their worldview.

“Go and see the works of G-d, awesome in His deeds toward mankind. He turned the sea into dry land, and they passed through the river on foot; we rejoiced in Him there.”

– Psalms 66:5-6, The Complete Jewish Tanach, chabad.org

Angelic Protection

shiur: parashas Beshalach 5782

“The pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, departed not from before the people.” – Exodus 13:22, JPS 1917 Tanach

Upon departing from their former lives as slaves in Egypt, B’nei Yisrael was provided with H’Shem’s presence in the form of “the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night.” Upon reaching the edge of the Sea of Reeds, “the angel of G-d, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them” (Exodus 14:19, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The Angel of G-d appears to be synonymous with the pillar of fire. One way to view this may be as the Angel of G-d actually standing between the Israelite camp and the camp of the Egyptian army. The pillar of cloud obscured the Israelite camp from the reach of the Egyptians. And, the Angel of G-d provided spiritual protection. Also, the Angel of G-d continued to accompany B’nei Yisrael on their journey through the desert:

“In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and, He bore them, and carried them all the days of old.”

– Isaiah 63:9, JPS 1917 Tanach

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 6:2

Mishnah Berachos 6:2 – The Shehacol Blessing

The shehacol is the “catch-all blessing,” made before partaking of food. Although, the blessing specifically applies to certain foods such as eggs, cheese, and milk that would not fall under other categories, like prei ha’adamah (fruit of the earth) and prei ha’etz (fruit of the tree). So, if there is an understanding that by default, the shehacol blessing (shehacol nihiyeh b’dvarot – who creates all things through His word) seemingly covers all foods, then why are there so many particulars?

By analogy, the question may be asked, that if blue is blue, why are there so many shades of blue, or any other color? The rich diversity of G-d’s creation, whether His beautiful artwork, a tapestry in the sky, or a canvas at sunset, is such because of its inclusion of so many diverse elements that blend in harmony with His creation, and abide in accordance with His will. To ignore the various shades of the color spectrum, or fail to differentiate between so many types of foods is to diminish the grandeur of G-d’s creation. These are only my thoughts and not a halachic answer.

Aside from any discussion on the proper blessing to make before partaking of food, consider the following: proper awe, reverence, and respect towards the Creator Who provided the food. There is a story of a peasant who would like to thank the baker for the bread he ate. Upon thanking the baker, the baker said not to thank him, thank the miller who ground the wheat. The miller said to thank the farmer who harvested the wheat. The farmer said thank the earth. The earth said to thank the rain that replenished the earth. The rain said to thank the clouds that made the rain. The clouds said to thank the sun, because, without sunshine, the wheat could not grow. The sun said to thank G-d who made all celestial beings. And so that is one way to understand why we praise G-d with blessings over food and show gratitude towards Him for the food on our table.

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 5:1

Mishnah Berachos 5:1 – Preparation Before Prayer

Continuing with prayer, the Mishnah addresses the recommended state-of-mind to acquire, before the Shemonah Esrei, standing prayer, when we stand before H’Shem as if standing in front of a king. (And how much more so, since He is sovereign King of the Universe). The required state to foster is one of seriousness, denoting humility and awe before H’Shem. This is based upon the following pasuk (verse): serve the L-RD with fear [awe], and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11, JPS 1917 Tanach). In other words, the psalmist relates the understanding that even while rejoicing, we should still simultaneously tremble with fear, so that we do not get carried away with the nature of our rejoicing. This is true and essential reverence, in service towards H’Shem. There is not laxity permitted in regard to this manner of approaching H’Shem; yet, too often this ideal is diminished by our sense of expediency, casualness, and distractedness.

How can a sense of gravity be acquired, before approaching H’Shem in prayer? The Mishnah states that it was the practice of pious men, to take an hour ahead of time to prepare for prayer. They would focus their hearts on HaMakom, the place where G-d resides in Shomayim (Heaven). Today, not many are able to cordon off an hour of time before prayer; however, there is a custom, particularly amongst Chassidim to study an inspirational text from chassidus before prayer, in order to elevate one’s thoughts toward G-d. Thus, by meditating on G-d’s greatness, calming the mind through breathe work, or drinking a cup of tea while reflecting on kitvei kodesh (holy scripture), these may all be acceptable means of preparation before prayer. (However, on a personal note, I do not recommend the use of a mantra; the idea is to uplift our thoughts, not numb the mind).