Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

It was the morning after Yom Kippur. Moshe Rabbeinu had just descended from Har Sinai carrying the second set of Luchos. He gathered the people and told them: We're going to build a home for Hashem in our world.

With the anxiety of their destruction, and the fear of Hashem abandoning them finally quelled, they gave like no other capital campaign in history:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא מִדֵּי הָעֲבֹדָה לַמְּלָאכָה

And they spoke to Moshe, saying: The people are bringing much more than enough for the needs of the work...

Imagine the elation, the palpable excitement. Finally, there was something to do. In place of the worrying, pontificating and regret, they would be building.

Through giving and donating, building and constructing, carpentry and tapestry, they would make a place for Hashem in their lives. Through our actions, we will bring Hashem into the world once more!

But beyond the incredible desire to bring the building materials, the Ramban (35:21) describes how each person found within themselves new abilities to craft and construct; skills that they never had before:

וטעם אשר נשאו לבו לקרבה אל המלאכה (שמות ל״ו:ב׳) – כי לא היה בהם שלמד את המלאכות האלה ממלמד, או מי שאימן בהן ידיו כלל, אבל מצא בטבעו שידע לעשות כן, ויגבה לבו בדרכי י״י (דברי הימים ב י״ז:ו׳) לבא לפני משה לאמר לו: אני אעשה כל אשר ה׳ דובר

They were not trained, but found within their nature that they knew what to do... They came to Moshe and declared “I will do what Hashem had commanded.”

Imagine the hislahavus – the passion, drive and devotion.

It is then all the more perplexing that once each and every piece of the Mishkan was finally completed, the entire structure was packed up and put into storage, not to be touched or assembled for another few months.

It's Never Going to Happen

The Medrash (תנחומא יא) relates that during these months, the ליצני הדור, the clowns and the scoffers, were having a good time making fun of the entire effort:

והיו ליצני הדור מרננין ומהרהרין ואומרין: למה נגמרה מלאכת המשכן ואינו עומד מיד

The scoffers of the generation were celebrating and musing and saying: Why is it taking so long for the Mishkan to be standing? Why not put it up now?

The wording of the Medrash is telling: They're not asking “why are we waiting?” They're saying it. It's not a question, it's a statement. We all know that voice; the one asks rhetorically: “Why is it taking so long?” The voice that “knows” it's never going to happen. The voice that is convinced that once you've messed it this badly, there is no chance it's ever going to work out again. No matter what we do, we'll never be able to fix...

As loud as it might be, we know that voice is wrong. The Mishkan was eventually completed; it stood for forty years in the desert, and for three centuries in Eretz Yisrael.

The question, however, is still a good question; but instead of scoffing, let's ask the question honestly: Why, in fact, did Hashem delay the final completion of the Mishkan?

The Medrash (שם) explains:

אֶלָּא מִפְּנֵי שֶׁחָשַׁב הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְעָרֵב שִׂמְחַת הַמִּשְׁכָּן בְּשִׂמְחַת הַיּוֹם שֶׁנּוֹלַד בּוֹ יִצְחָק אָבִינוּ, לְפִי שֶׁבְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן נוֹלַד יִצְחָק. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הֲרֵינִי מְעָרֵב שִׂמְחַתְכֶם שִׂמְחָה בְשִׂמְחָה.

Because Hashem wished to combine the festivities of the building of the Mishkan with the celebration of the birthday of Yitzchak Avinu. Yitzchak was born on the first day of Nisan. Hashem, said to Himself: I will combine these celebrations.

All of this is perplexing. What does Yitzchak's birthday have to do with the Mishkan?

The Pain of Waiting

To understand this, we should consider circumstances that led to the Egel HaZahav: A deep fear that Moshe wasn't coming back. Despite Aharon's attempt to calm the nation, their fears couldn't be contained.

The Shem Mishmuel (פרשת דברים) explains:

Their failure was not that they made an Egel. The sin here was simply a lack of patience. If only they would have waited a few more minutes, they would have seen that Moshe was returning.

The Arizal (ע׳ שם משמואל ויקרא שמיני תרע”ט) explains that the very first חטא of humanity, the sin of Adam and Chava was, likewise, the inability to wait. Hashem always intended for mankind to taste from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil... but not yet. In essence the root of all failure was a lack of patience.

Perhaps then, it was not the Mishkan itself that provided atonement, but instead, this “mandatory waiting period”. If we erred by lacking patience, then Hashem would ensure that we fix our mistakes by learning to wait.

Why is impatience source of all failure? The Kotzker explained:

“What is the different between a patient person and a lazy person? The lazy person acts impulsively, because they do not have the patience to think things through.”

Impulsiveness, the Kotzker explains, is the willful abandoning of reason. If we're honest with ourselves, almost all bad decisions could've been avoided with a moment of rational thought. Before doing anything, take a step back and realize that Hashem is in change; that He runs the world, and that we are here because he wants us here.

Imagine the mistakes we would avoid. Imagine the fights that might never have started. The anger that might never have flared. The temptations that we might never act upon.

A patient person might still ask “why is this taking so long?” But the answer is always the same: “I don't know – but He does, and which means it's ok, even if I don't understand it.”

Patience is the ultimate acquiesce to Hashem's ownership of the world.

In this lesson, there are no greater role models than Avraham and Sarah, who waited an eternity for the birth of Yitzchak. The joy of his birth was far beyond that of other parents.

On the one hand, Yitzchak represented Hashem's desire to reach beyond the curtain and “break the rules” of nature for Klal Yisrael.

But on the other hand the great simcha of Yitzchak's birth was that for the first time in history, Avraham and Sarah were patient. This is the power that they bestowed upon all future generations: the ability to realize that Hashem is in the driver's seat.

Shabbos or Mishkan?

To this end, the Torah introduces the building of the Mishkan with the obligation to keep Shabbos. Chazal explain: To teach us that Shabbos overrides the construction of the Mishkan.

By this point we can appreciate why keeping Shabbos is more important than the Mishkan: The Mishkan teaches us that through our actions we can bring Hashem into our world. But Shabbos educates us כי ששת ימים עשה ה׳... In six days, Hashem made the world. He did, and we didn't. Every Shabbos, we're tapping into the understanding that we're the junior partner in this joint venture called our lives.

The experience of Shabbos, of disconnecting from being in charge of our lives, makes a little more space for Hashem to be present.

Hashem should help us to spend our weeks building the Mishkan. But also, to make some room and wait for Him to fill our lives; with the Tefillah that it should be soon.

Please forgive my irreverence. I am bothered by the sequence of events that culminated in the Egel HaZahav, and I think Hashem is to blame.

Quick recap: Moshe is at the top of the mountain. The people down below are getting restless. These rabble-rousers are lead by the Erev Rav, a collection of slaves that escaped Egypt with the Jews during Yetzias Mitzraim.

They come to Aharon and demand that He assist them in creating some leader-god-idol to replace Moshe. But Aharon is smart. He knows it's just a matter of time before Moshe comes down the mountain and puts an end to this insanity. So he delays, declaring: “Give me your gold!”

Somehow, the nation (or, at least the men) get on board. They hand over their jewelry. Aharon needs to delay further. He tosses it into a fire, and then, miraculously, a golden calf emerges.

Aharon, builds a mizbeach and announces: “Tomorrow will be a festival for Hashem.” He's hoping that by then, Moshe would return. (The Abarbanel adds: The Mizbeach was a Tefillah, a message to Hashem to send Moshe down the mountain.)

Indeed, Moshe does return, but just a little too late. Apparently, his Shiur with Hashem didn't conclude in time for him to stop the nation from worshipping the Egel.

But here's the problem: Hashem tells Moshe “לך רד” – go down because your nation has sinned. While all of this was taking place, why didn't Hashem tell Moshe to go down a few hours earlier? All of this could've been avoided with a little 'heads-up'?!

Moreover, the story of the “emergence” of the Egel from the fire is peculiar. Rashi (לב:ד) quoting the Medrash Tanchuma tells us that:

מִיכָה הָיָה שָׁם... וְהָיָה בְיָדוֹ שֵׁם וְטַס שֶׁכָּתַב בּוֹ מֹשֶׁה “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” לְהַעֲלוֹת אֲרוֹנוֹ שֶׁל יוֹסֵף מִתּוֹךְ נִילוּס – וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַכּוּר וְיָצָא הָעֵגֶל

Micha (the idolator mentioned in שופטים פרק י״ז), was there, and he had in his possession a “supernatural name” (שם) and a plate upon which Moses had written: “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” “Come up, ox, come up, ox!” in order to raise the coffin of Yosef (who was compared to an ox) out of the Nile, and he cast the plate into the melting pot of gold and the calf (a young ox) came out.

Now, I understand that sometimes Hashem allows the natural world to operate according to the rules which He set in motion as He created the universe. We do not have the right to questions why Hashem doesn't “get involved” in a supernatural way. But this Medrash is suggesting the opposite. The Egel HaZahav was not a natural occurrence; it was a miracle! Hashem made it happen.

Which leads me to conclude that Hashem did so intentionally. Not only did He allow the Cheit HaEgel to happen, He enabled it!

And now we need to understand why? Why did Hashem help Micha and Erev Rav in making the Egel? Why didn't He send Moshe down to stop it? What's really on here?

I Get It – And So Do You

In the forty days that Moshe was on Har Sinai, the nation waited below. It had been barely two months since leaving Egypt, seeing the miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. But now they were camped in a desert, relying on more miracles in order to survive.

But what might've happened if, Chas V'Shalom, that miracle-bread from heaven stopped falling? What might've happened if the miraculous well of rock dried up? Most disastrously, what options would be if Moshe, their great leader and savior, were to disappear? In whose merit would they continue to survive?! Rashi (לב:א) tells us that this was exactly what they feared:

כְּמִין דְּמוּת מֹשֶׁה הֶרְאָה לָהֶם הַשָּׂטָן, שֶׁנּוֹשְׂאִים אוֹתוֹ בַּאֲוִיר רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם The Satan showed them something that looked like Moses being carried on in a coffin in the air high above in the skies.

Right now, they reasoned, the Manna was still falling, the rock was still flowing. But all of that could cease in an instant if Moshe has died. How long can a person live in the wilderness without a plan for sustenance?

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (פ׳ כי תשא) writes empathetically about our ancestors. They were anxious, frustrated and out of options. If Moshe was not coming back, they were a few short days, if not hours away from certain death.

It all makes sense. When the people amassed and began rioting in front of Aharon's tent, they were not looking for another god, but a solution to their food and water scarcity.

The Arizal (ליקוטי תורה פ׳ כי תשא) explains that this is the meaning behind the Medrash of עלה שור:

They cast “Rise up ox” in the fire, because they were looking for a different kind of leadership – the leadership of Yosef HaTzadik – the great ox. Whereas Moshe provided them with miracles, Yosef gave his brothers food, clothing and shelter.

Consider for a moment, that the Egel HaZahav was the paradigmatic emblem of financial stability. It was constructed of pure gold; the symbol of wealth and social power. It takes the form of a calf: a young plow animal; the engine of agriculture and economic prosperity.

“These are your gods, Israel!”, is the cry of a slave nation, desperate to know that they will survive the desert if their miraculous leader were to disappear as suddenly as he arrived.

The root cause of the Egel HaZahav was not idolatry, it was insecurity: “What will we do without Moshe?”

Or, to put it simply: There is no ways that Hashem will do these miracles for me. I don't deserve it. If there's some great tzadik around to draw down some heavenly sustenance, that's wonderful. But what about me?

These are the מקטרגים – voices of accusation – that challenge the value and purpose of the Jewish people. They have echoed since our years of slavery in Egypt, and we still hear them today, from inside of our nation and from the outside world.

They ring in our ears, our hearts and our minds: Who says we're the chosen people? What right to do have to Eretz Yisrael? Does Hashem even care about the mitzvos that we do, or chose to neglect?

On a deeper, personal and communal level, we question if we are worthy of Hashem's love and concern. Perhaps we have failed Him too many times to be redeemable? Perhaps our faults and flaws have made us undesirable?

There isn't a Jew in history who hasn't contended with these voices.

The Egel HaZahav did not represent a lack of faith in God, but a lack of faith in ourselves. Hashem is all-powerful, He can do anything. But there's no way He'll do it for me. I am unworthy.

Why Did Hashem Let Them Do It?

Now, imagine that Hashem sent Moshe down the mountain a moment before the Egel was made. The people would've clapped and cheered and celebrated. Aharon would've breathed a great sigh of relief. But deep down, they all would know that if not for Moshe they would all be doomed. Their feelings of worthlessness in Hashem's eyes would be confirmed.

The Kedushas Levi (ליקוטים חדשים פ׳ כי תשא) thus explains:

When a child is feeling deeply insecure about themselves and questioning their parents' love, it's not enough to say “you're so wonderful, of course I love you.” The child wants to know “What happens if I'm not wonderful? Do you still love me then? What if I disappoint you? Will you still hug me then?”

The only way to convince someone that you love them, no matter what, is to allow them to fail. And then to say “I still love you. I forgive you. There is nothing you could do to make me leave you.”

Of course, that doesn't absolve the need to fix the mistakes that were made. There is deep Teshuva that we need to do after testing the extent of Hashem love, and indeed, the Chumash does not shy away from telling us that the aftermath of the Egel was painful.

But knowing this premise, we can now understand why Moshe commands the Levi'im to go from camp to camp; rooting out and executing all those who built the Egel. The Torah's position is clear: The only people who needed to be eradicated were the instigators. The people who made other Jews question their own self-worth.

For the rest of us, for all time, the Egel HaZahav serves as a reminder that there is nothing a Jew can do to make Hashem not love us. Indeed, it was through this saga that the Thirteen Middos of Mercy were revealed.

Chazal (סנהדרין ק״ב א) tell us that every bit of pain and punishment that comes into the world has a little bit of the Chet HaEgel in it. Which means to say, that we still have work to do. We still need to convince ourselves that we're worth it; that Hashem loves us, that there is nothing we can ever do to change that.

Hashem should help us to finally rid ourselves of the Egel; to learn once and for all that Hashem has no regrets choosing us. He believes in us, and time we do the same.

Reading the news from Israel this week has been tough. It's tough to hear of the murder of another pair of brothers. To see the tears of their families, and to know that our enemies are still trying so hard to hurt us. It's tough to see the riots and hear the vitriol of our brothers and sisters. It's tough to hear the relentless and disproportionate condemnation from the rest of the world.

For full disclosure, I do not believe that I am nearly educated enough to understand the nuances of the Israeli legal policy, and I don't know how best to punish and deter murderous terrorists. As someone who is living in Chute La'Aretz (for now), I'm not going to offer my unqualified opinions.

What I do know is that we, as a people and as a nation are in pain. For all of the immense success and progress we have achieved in the past 75 years, it feels like we still have so much further to go. Our story, thousands of years in the making, has not yet arrived at “happily ever after.”

Sometimes, it's hard to dispel the cynicism and pessimism. But the Kohzniter Maggid (פרשת זכור) gives a name to this negativity: Amalek. It's the destructive nature of Amalek; alive and well inside of each us. It's those feelings of ego, hatred, divisiveness, laziness and anger that pull us away from who we want to and need to be.

But the greatest Yetzer Hara of Amalek is believing that there is no meaning to our story; or perhaps, that there is no story at all. As Rashi tells us: אשר קרך בדרך. לְשׁוֹן מִקְרֶה – “Amalek happened upon you on your way” – He made it seem random.

The world of Amalek is one of happenstance. Nothing is inherently meaningful, there is no story. And if there's no story, then there's nothing for me to do. There are no heroes, no villains, no good, no evil, no purpose.

Amalek doesn't only feature in on the center stage of Jewish history, and it's not only a danger when watching the news. If we're honest with ourselves, we've all felt this way from time to time about ourselves. It's that powerful (and deviously useful) Yetzer Hara which allows us to take certain liberties: “Who says this matters anyways...? Do you really think Hashem cares? Is it really such a big deal?!”

It's that part of us that we need to take note of, remember and destroy. Contending with this Yetzer Hara is a life of work, but there is a shortcut to victory – a unique tool in our national spiritual arsenal – and it's available this week only: Purim Goggles.

Amalek looks at the world, and at people, as random events, thrust together in the hurricane of history. Purim Goggles allow us to see people, history and the universe as having direction, purpose and destiny.

The News Headlines of the Megillah

Imagine the scene – someone rushes into Shul in the middle of davening to tell you that the king got angry with his wife, has had her killed, and wants to find a new one.

It's fantastic gossip, but little more than a terrible interruption in davening. Someone might turn around and shush who ever is making the noise.

Imagine they whisper that the new wife is a Jewish girl from the neighborhood. Now people are listening. It's tragic, upsetting, and it's also probably Lashon Hara; definitely not a conversation for shul.

Now, imagine someone tells you that two people were plotting to kill the king, and were stopped by some Rabbi in the capital. Perhaps you'd be intrigued, perhaps you might tell them to stop listening to these crazy conspiracy theories.

But amazingly, all of these stories together are read out in Shul, and we ensure that we hear each and every word. It's called Megillas Ester.

The Chiddushei HaRim (על התורה ע׳ קכז) explains: When Mashiach comes, each and every event in the history of humanity will be understood as part of the story. All of the complexities, difficulties and challenges will be seen as culminating in the great redemption of our nation, and our world.

Seeing in the Dark

This is wonderful in theory and it's nice to be hopeful, in retrospect. But in the darkness of our world, of Galus, with anti-semitism on the rise, divisiveness amongst our people stronger than ever, knowing that Purim had a happy ending does little to help us now. We are not at the end of the Megillah, we're in the middle. It might be more beneficial to ask how we did it back then?

The Megillah tells us: As the plot against the Jewish people formed, our desperation grew. Fasting, prayers and sackcloth.

And then it all began to change.

People started to understand that something special or different was happening when they saw Mordechai on the horse being let through the streets of Shushan. This scene, frozen in time, is in fact, the theme with which we conclude the reading of the Megillah:

שושנת יעקב צהלה ושמחה בראותם יחד תכלת מרדכי

The rose of Yaakov was thrilled and filled with joy when they saw Mordechai wearing – Techeles – royal blue.

Of course, the scene is powerful – Mordechai on the horse, and Haman leading him through the crowds, proclaiming “This is the reward for one whom the King wishes to honor.” Perhaps, indeed, this is the most hopeful event in the story. But of all the details to focus on, the Techeles is a strange thing to be happy about. What is the significance of seeing Mordechai wearing blue?

The Mishna (ברכות א:ב) tell us that there is a time in the morning called משיכיר “the time when one can recognize...” At this moment, we can recognize the difference between white and blue, Techeles and Lavan on Tzitzis. It's around this time that we could also begin distinguishing a friend's face in the early morning darkness.

Why Techeles and Lavan? Rashi (בראשית ט:כג ומזרחי שם) explains that Techeiles and Lavan came to us from difference sources. Shem ben Noach, who covered his father, gave us the whiteness – the pure and uncomplicated understanding that Hashem is the King of the Universe. But Avraham introduced us to the world of Techeles; the connection between heaven and earth, as Chazal (סוטה יז א׳) teach us:

שֶׁהַתְּכֵלֶת דּוֹמֶה לַיָּם וְיָם דּוֹמֶה לָרָקִיעַ וְרָקִיעַ דּוֹמֶה לְכִסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד

Techeles-Blue is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Hashem.

In the darkness of night, we cannot recognize Hashem's involvement in the world. We know He's there, but we cannot understand it. As dawn breaks, however, we might begen to see His hand reaching out, moving history along, connecting Heaven and Earth.

The truth is, however, that משיכיר is little more than a halachic reality. Anyone that's stood outside in real darkness trying to discern colors or faces, knows that at משיכיר it's practically impossible to see anything with any certainty. We know that it's theoretically possible, but most importantly, we know that more light is coming.

Get Your Goggles

There's a great beauty to the Mitzvos of Purim: They're all shrouded in mystery and obscurity, and yet, we still able to celebrate. Purim comes to tell us: Ok, you know that you can start to see, but it's still really hard. Here's some suggestions to make it better:

  • Read the Megillah. It's the only book of Tanach missing the name of Hashem and yet, it all made sense in the end.
  • Give gifts to your friends, include them in your celebration. Mishloach Manos is best given through a messenger (שו״ת בנין ציון ס׳ מ״ב). Why not face to face? Perhaps it's because in this way you are telling your friends that you are sending them your love, your thoughts, even when they are not with you. Even when I can't see you, I know that you're there.
  • Give tzedaka to those less fortunate – לכל הפושט יד – to anyone who asks, without an interrogation. Give without needing to know. (And like all tzedaka, Matanos L'evyonim are best given anonymously שו״ת בית אבי.)
  • And once you've done all of that, have a Seudah where you try to get out of your own head. עד דלא ידע means we realize that we're not so smart after all...

This is the Avoda of Purim, and there is no greater refutation of the Amalek inside of us, and outside in the world.

Taken together, these mitzvos give us Purim Goggles; eyes to see the Greatness of Hashem and the beauty of His people, even in confusion and darkness. Eyes to see that our story is still being written. With His help, we should keep on writing the final chapters before Geulah together.

There was one morning, a while back that I had the opportunity to daven with a group of middle school students. (City and school undisclosed – but it could've been anywhere.)

The kids were rambunctious, finding it difficult to maintain their composure throughout the Tefillah. This is not uncommon for boys that age. At one point, as the noise level was getting out of hand, a rebbe approached the front of the room and motioned for silence and attention. When the room finally quieted down, he began:

“I understand that many of you don't feel like there is anything for you to daven for today. You are healthy and well, your lives are happy and successful. Hashem has taken care of your daily needs. You are well fed, your homes are safe. But please, even if you have no need to daven for yourself, think of someone who needs your tefillos. Is there someone you know who is ill? Someone that needs help on a test? Or making friends? Even if you have nothing to ask from Hashem, ask Him to help your friends.”

The feeling in the room changed, and the rebbe returned to his seat.

I don't know if his message made much of an impression on the kids that morning, but they were certainly a little quieter for the remainder of Shachris. (Though I have no way of knowing if they actually began to daven for themselves or others.)

I've thought a lot about the message that the rebbe shared that morning. On the one hand, it's important and beautiful. We believe in the power of Tefillah to help others. But on the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling in his argument, something profoundly flawed in the underpinnings of his instructions.

What if Life was Perfect?

Take a moment and imagine your life if you were currently living as Jew in the Midbar. Every morning, you wake up to a breakfast of Manna delivered miraculously from Shamayim. Your water comes from a rock. Ananei HaKavod surround your home, protecting you from the heat of the sun and the coldness of night. The requirements of your physical existence are all completely taken care of by Hashem Himself.

There are no Yeshiva admissions, no tuition bills. Your children are taught by Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, and you feel Hashem's presence in your life in a tangible way; He's holding your hand, guiding you from camp to camp; from station to station.

Throughout the forty years in the desert, there was quite literally, nothing that anyone needed to do. With one exception: Building the Mishkan.

The Mishkan was constructed with Jewish hands, Jewish labor and Jewish money. Every part of it painstakingly crafted and assembled according to the specifications that Hashem commanded. This project spans four entire Parshiyos in the Torah.

The Sefer HaChinuch (צ״ה) explains that this entire endeavor was not, because Hashem needs a physical home – He fills all worlds at all times completely. The purpose of constructing the Mishkan is to create a space that serves our interests:

כי בנין בית לשם יתברך לעשותנו בה תפלות וקרבנות אליו, הכל להכין הלבבות לעבודתו יתעלה.

The building of a Home for Hashem, for us to pray and offer sacrifices to Him in it – it is all to prepare our hearts to His service.

But why on earth would we build a Mishkan in which to daven if all of our needs are taken care of already?

The message of the Torah is quite clear: Through the process of donating to, building and frequenting the Mishkan, our lives and perspectives would change. We don't daven because we need something. We daven because we want to speak to Hashem. We want to realign our value system to the values of Hashem.

Rebbe Nachman (ליקוטי מוהר”ן קמא ע׳:ב׳) explains the purpose of the Mishkan:

כִּי מִשְׁכָּן הָיָה לוֹ כֹּחַ הַמּוֹשֵׁךְ, לְהַמְשִׁיךְ אֱלֹקוּת לַמָּקוֹם שֶׁהָיָה עוֹמֵד שָׁם, בְּחִינַת (שיר השירים א׳:ד׳): מָשְׁכֵנִי אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה.

The Mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) had an attracting force (מּוֹשֵׁךְ) for drawing Godliness to the site in which it stood, as in “Draw Me; we will run after You”.

The obligation to build a Mishkan serves to teach us that the Ribono Shel Olam is not, Chas V'Shalom, a celestial Jewish Santa Claus. We do not wait on a long line to ask for the things we want in life, nervously anticipating His determination as to whether we have been good enough to receive it. Hashem is also not a bureaucrat insisting that the paperwork of our requests is filled out correctly.

Instead, we create a space, a place and a time to cultivate our relationship. This doesn't only begin when life gets tough, it permeates our lives every moment of every day.

Making Space

Even in the absence of a Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash, we are still obligated and invited to make space for Hashem. The Izhbiter writes (מי השלוח חלק ב, תרומה):

ויקחו לי תרומה שצוה הש”י שכל אחד יפריש לעצמו שעה מובדלת לה' בכל יום ולהתבודד בעבודת הש”י.

“And you will take for a me a Terumah” means that Hashem is commanding each and every Jew to separate for themselves an hour every day, dedicated to to being alone with Hashem.

The purpose of our grand national Mishkan building project was to make Yiddishkeit more meaningful, and less transactional. The only way to do it is by carving out time and attention to nurture our relationship with Hashem.

Likewise, we are also charged with designating space to do so. Chazal tell us that we are obligated to find a מקום קבוע – a set place in which to Daven.

Of course, this goal is not accomplished exclusively by Tefillah. The Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (פרק ל״ד):

וּמִשֶּׁחָרַב בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ – אֵין לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא בְּעוֹלָמוֹ מִשְׁכָּן וּמָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתּוֹ, הוּא יִחוּדוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ, אֶלָּא אַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת שֶׁל הֲלָכָה... אֵי לָזֹאת, אֶעֱשֶׂה לוֹ מִשְׁכָּן וּמָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתּוֹ, הוּא הָעֵסֶק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּפִי הַפְּנַאי שֶׁלִּי, בִּקְבִיעוּת עִתִּים בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה

Ever since the Temple was destroyed, “the four cubits of the Halachah”, the study of Jewish law — is the only sanctuary and abode which Hashem has in His world... (A person should therefore think) “This being so, I will make Him a sanctuary and an abode by studying Torah at fixed times by day and by night, to the extent of my free time.”

Therein lies the key: בִּקְבִיעוּת עִתִּים בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה – creating fixed times of the day and night. Fixed times, and fixed places.

Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, knows that most of us do the things that are urgent long before the things that are important. Without making a time and space, we drift from day to day, never getting to the activities and relationships that make life meaningful.

To avoid this pitfall, Hashem asks us to preempt it by putting in the big rocks first as Stephen Covey explained.

Of course, we should certainly still daven for things that are urgent. We should learn Torah when we need to know the Halacha. But all of that is in addition to the constant endeavor to live our lives in the presence of Hashem.

Parshas Terumah charges us to begin constructing our own sacred spaces and times. Making the important, important. With Hashem's help, we too will merit to fulfill the the famous words of Rav Hutner:

בלבבי משכן אבנה – In my heart I will build a Mishkan...

In the past few years, I have had this conversation dozens of times with Rabbanim, friends, colleagues and members of our community. Something has changed our generation. The change has not been sudden, but not subtle either. The problem is simple: In general, observant millennial Jews are less inclined to show up. This is true of minyanim, shiurim, programs and commemorations.

Practically, the reasons I get for this all converge on one explanation: Parenting is exhausting, expensive and time consuming. “I wish I could come... but...”

While the answer is noble, the facts on the ground are bothersome to me as a Rabbi, but also because this is my generation; the world in which my children are growing up. I want to see more people doing more things in shul. While I'm not particularly interested in pointing fingers or pontificating on “what changed and why,” I am extremely interested in trying to fix it.

To be very clear, people still show up for the big things and no one has exchanged our value system for any other. Everything is still in place, but the day to day obligations of an Eved Hashem are often less apparent.

To allegorize for a moment, we are much better at the “sound and light show” of Matan Torah than the daily living of Parshas Mishpatim. And it's precisely this transition that might shed light on how to traverse these challenges.

Moshe's Most Difficult Question

After the great heights of Har Sinai, our Parsha opens anticlimactically with the laws of a Jewish slave. Fire and smoke, thunder and lighting, the sound of the great Shofar are exchanged for technicalities of jurisprudence. The contrast is stark enough to give us textual whiplash, and the Meforshim grapple with explaining how we got from Matan Torah to Mishpatim.

Rav Shlomo Kluger (כת״י חכמת התורה תקסח), however, disagrees entirely with the premise of the question. While the laws of Mishpatim were taught at Sinai, the narrative of Parshas Mishpatim is simply a continuation of the episode that occurred just before Matan Torah.

To review: Moshe is standing all day judging the people. His father in law, Yisro, offers some advice. “You can't do this alone. Appoint some assistants...”

וְהָיָה כׇּל־הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְכׇל־הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ־הֵם Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.

Moshe takes this advice, but with a twist. He appoints a team of assistants, and empowers them to judge the nation. However where as Yisro differentiates between matters, great and small Moshe instructs: אֶת־הַדָּבָר הַקָּשֶׁה יְבִיאוּן אֶל־מֹשֶׁה – the difficult questions they would bring to Moshe.

The Alshich HaKadosh explains: In Torah there are no minor matters especially regarding personal and interpersonal questions. We don't have a court system that differentiates between small amounts of money and large sums. Every question is important. However, Moshe tells Yisro, there are questions that are more difficult, more subtle and more sensitive. These are the questions that the people should bring to me.

Rav Shlomo Kluger explains: Parshas Mishpatim opens with the questions that the Jewish people brought to Moshe. Hashem then instructs Moshe on how to answer the most challenging and difficult Halachik questions that couldn't be answered by anyone else. It begins with Eved Ivri.

The Eved Ivri's Problem

Let's unravel this question. The Eved Ivri enters Moshe tent:

“Rabbi Moshe, I don't know what to do. I am a Jewish slave, sold into slavery to pay back the money that I stole.”

“When my life fell apart, I was rescued and acquired by a wonderful person, a generous person, a pillar of the Jewish nation. Before I met him, I had no friends and no support system. My master took me in; and in his home, I have achieved some measure of rehabilitation. He found me a wife, and I have built a happy, healthy family in this insular world of Jewish slavery.”

“It has been some years now. My debts have been repaid. I am ready to re-emerge as a functioning member of society. First the first time in my life, I want to be free to be an Eved Hashem. But I can't do it. How can I just leave? My world right now is my job, my wife and my children. How am I supposed to choose between Hashem and my family?”

Cutting to the heart of the question, the Eved Ivri is asking: How should I prioritize the two most important things in my life? My family or Hashem?

Image the scene when this question first arose somewhere in the Machaneh, and someone raised this question to their local Zakein. Most likely, he thought, he paused and considered, and realized that there is no simple solution to this question. This questioned was then referred on to Rabbis and teachers with greater wisdom, until it finally reached Moshe Rabbeinu.

Are We the Eved Ivri?

We deal with this question as well. Perhaps in our generation more than ever before. We deal with it every time we need to choose between Maariv and bed-time. Or when we consider if we should take our small kids into shul, knowing that doing so is to sacrifice any kavanah.

We debate between coming to Shachris and driving carpool, attending shiurim and assisting with homework. Our choices, very often are not unlike those of the Eved Ivri. It is a zero-sum game. If we want to be an Eved Hashem, carpool will not be driven, and homework will not be done.

Which means that, fundamentally, we do not have a choice, short of abandoning our family.

This issue is somewhat unique to our generation of dual-income households and a society and culture that requires intense parental involvement. In previous generations, these concerns were simpler to navigate. (Please note, I'm not here to wax nostalgically about a world where parents had no idea what their kids were up to all day. Aside from my doubts that it was better or healthier, it's not helpful to our world in 5783.)

Our reality requires all parents to be actively involved with their kids from infancy until adulthood (and often beyond.) But certainly as it pertains to young parents of young children, we don't often have the time and resources to be the Avdei Hashem that we know we “ought” to be.

This is neither an excuse, nor a free pass. There are places where could be doing better. We all know how much time our generation wastes on frivolous and meaningless activities. We know that there are hours and hours of mindlessness that we could harness for more meaningful activity. And we should. But I'm also acutely aware that by the time many parents have gotten their kids to bed at night, it is hard to muster the energy required to do anything meaningful.

So what is the Torah's solution to the conundrum of the Jewish parents torn between their family obligations and Hashem?

וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֶל־הַדֶּלֶת אוֹ אֶל־הַמְּזוּזָה וְרָצַע אֲדֹנָיו אֶת־אׇזְנוֹ בַּמַּרְצֵעַ וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he will serve him until the Yovel year.

The Torah's response, on the one hand, is extremely validating. If you really feel like you cannot be an Eved Hashem right now, you may stay where you are.

But on the other hand, the Torah obligates that the person choosing job security and family over the freedom to serve Hashem needs a permanent reminder that life is not supposed to be this way. We are supposed to live a life that is structured to give us the latitude to do both. And if we have not achieved it yet, giving up is not an answer that Hashem is willing to accept.

Thus, the slave is take to the doors of the city, and his ear is pierced – publicly – so that no-one will think that this is ok (ראב״ע).

For many families, regular minyan and shiur attendance is impossible right now. But the real question is what will happen when our kids are a little older? What will happen when our child-raising responsibilities are not so franticly time consuming? Will we then fill our time with Avodas Hashem?

Rav Yonasan Eibeshutz (תפארת יהונתן) notes that the Torah commands that this piercing must happen specifically at the door. This is to remind the Eved that Hashem is still trying to open a door for them, and if they're will to listen, they will see that there is always a way to a better life.

I would like to suggest that we too adopt some reminders of how we wish things to be. To make some kind of regular commitments to our aspirations in Shemiras HaMitzvos. It could be as small as is manageable – one weekday Shachris a month? There are very few people that cannot manage that. The same is true of every positive habit; Talmud Torah, exercising and learning new skills.

Perhaps you might feel that such minor commitments are meaningless, but consider the difference between sometimes and never. Sometimes carries the message that “this is something that I value, and want to be able to do.”

When it comes to Avodas Hashem, we may not be able to do everything all the time, but we can certainly keep a foot in the door. We can anchor ourselves in what we want to be able to work on when we can.

Eventually, even the Eved Ivri is released. When the great Shofar of Yovel sounds, he returns home; he land is restored and his life is once again his own. The only question is whether or not he is ready for that freedom.

Hashem should help us to escape our confines, rediscover our freedom and find a way to keep out foot in the doorway.

Two recent scenes from my classroom:

Scene 1:

“Rebbe, I'm so sorry, I wasn't paying attention. I was up really late last night.”

“Is everything ok? Why were you up so late?”

“We have so many tests and assignments this week. I'm so stressed out.” (Murmurs of agreement from the class.)

“Ok, I hear you, and we all have stressful weeks, but I have an honest, and cheeky question: Were you up late studying or binge watching Netflix?”

(Sheepishly) “Well... it wasn't Netflix, it was Hulu.”

The rest of the guys seemed to concur. They too have experienced evenings like this. I paused to conduct an unofficial study: “Chevra, how many of you fell asleep last night holding or staring at your phones?”

Every hand went up. Except for one talmid, and, as he explained, his phone was dead, so he had to use his iPad.

Scene 2:

(From my Halacha shiur where, we're learning Hilchos Eruv 101).

“Guys, let's review: The Rambam is explaining that, as far as the Torah is concerned there are two “spaces” on Shabbos: Reshus HaYachid – a private area, and a Reshus HaRabim – a public area. Chazal are defining how to act in shared usage spaces that don't fit neatly into either category...”

A hand goes up at the back of the room.

“Rebbe, I get all that, but why does Hashem care? What difference does it make if I carry something from one space to another?”

“That's an excellent question. But before we discuss it, we should be careful to distinguish between what questions and why questions. This is a why question, and any explanation that we give will probably not satisfy every detail of the Halacha, because Hashem is infinite, Torah is infinite, and we are not. But we're going to make an attempt to at understanding this Halacha with the hopes that it enhance the way we learn and live...”

So let's explain:

The Private Space of a Jew

In the US, the right of privacy is a basic law. The extent of this right has been hotly debated, and its implications on security is at the heart of many legal battles. This notation of private space, however, is not the Torah's idea of Reshus HaYachid. Modern privacy is designed to keep people out, the Torah's Reshus HaYachid is a space that keeps us in.

The Shelah HaKadosh (בשלח תורה אור) explains: “Reshus HaYachid” is not a private domain. It is can best be translated as “Domain of Hashem, the One Who is Singular”.

On Shabbos, we are instructed to live in a space that is defined by our intimate relationship with Hashem. It's a space of wholeness where nothing more is necessary, and nothing is missing. To that end, we have no need to bring in anything from the outside, and everything we have is sufficient – the way it's supposed to be. On Shabbos, we have no desire to bridge the gap between this intimate space and the world outside. It's a moment to refocus on the joy of who we are, who we're with, and what we have.

Any attempt to bring something in, or take something out is to violate the wholeness and completeness of our date with Hashem. The prohibition against carrying on Shabbos is the greatest expression of “All I need is You.”

But most of us don't think about Shabbos this way. We don't anticipate the opportunity of בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – between Hashem and the us. We don't always see Shabbos as a refuge from the craziness of life, because we've trained ourselves to run to other things when we're overwhelmed or distressed.

This is the part that has me concerned, for myself, my family, my community and my students.

Where Are We Running?

Reb Tzadok HaKohen (י”ג מדות והדרכות) presents a litmus test for understanding ourselves, and the direction we're going in life:

אל מקום שאדם בורח בעת צרתו משם ניכר שהוא שורשו. ואם בורח לדברי תורה בידוע ששורשו מן התורה אף על פי שתולדתו אין כן

The place that a person runs to when they are in distress indicates where they are rooted. And if a person runs to Torah, it is clear that they have rooted themselves in Torah, even if they were not born with that inclination.

He proves this notion from the Mishna (כלים י״ז:יג):

כֹּל שֶׁבַּיָּם טָהוֹר, חוּץ מִכֶּלֶב הַמַּיִם, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא בוֹרֵחַ לַיַּבָּשָׁה, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא Rebbi Akiva says: (If one make vessels from the skin of) any aquatic creature, they are pure (and not susceptible to impurity), except for the seal. When a seal is in distress, it flees to dry land (making it a land animal.)

Reb Tzadok is teaching us a fundamental principal of identity: The places we run to are the places we feel most at home.

Where do we feel most at home? Where do we run to when we're stressed and distressed? Phones? Screens? Mindless scrolling? Substances? Or perhaps we are turning to friends, family, exercise, mitzvos, Tefillah and Torah?

Are We Guilty of Phubbing?

I learned a new word this week – Phubbing. It's a tragedy that the word even exists. It's a portmanteau of phone and snubbing: the practice of ignoring one's companion or companions in order to pay attention to one's phone or other mobile device.

In other words, phubbing is the habit of running away from our Reshus HaYachid – our places of relationships and intimacy. It's defaulting to the empty and infinite planes of the online Reshus HaRabim. The more we do it, the more distant we become, and the more our roots are tied to the endless mindlessness of an ever more anonymous internet.

But Reb Tzadok tells that none of this is permanent. We can always change, no matter where we are, or what our nature is.

Truthfully, the process of choosing a life of Reshus HaYachid over Reshus HaRabim is the definition of being a Jew. The Torah, this Shabbos, describes how Yisro came to become one of our people, with a strange phrase: וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ עַל כׇּל־הַטּוֹבָה – And Yisro rejoiced over all the kindness.

Rabbeinu Bachya (י״ח:ט׳) explains that the word וַיִּחַדְּ – rejoice, is the same as the word for unity and oneness:

ויחד מלשון אחדות לפי שנתגייר וייחד את הש”י וברך אותו We may also see the word אחדות as intimately related to the word ויחד, “he united.” This meaning would reflect that Yitro had converted and accepted the אחדות, the “Unity” of God.

In other words, Yisro fled the world of the Rabim, and entered the world of the Yachid, seeing Hashem as the source of everything. He built a connection, a relationship, a unity with Hashem and His people.

Everyone gets overwhelmed. Everyone has challenging times when we need to emotionally and cognitively disconnect from the stress and tune out the noise. When those moments come, where are we running to?

The answer to that question might be revealing something about ourselves than we're not happy with. So this Shabbos, Hashem invites us to begin to change. If Yisro could learn to run to the Reshus HaYachid, we can certainly do so as well.

Hashem should give us the courage to carve out new places, in time and space, where we can turn to Him, to our families and to ourselves.

By mile nine I knew that the Miami Marathon was not going well for me. It was my fourth marathon, and by all standards it was my most painful and disappointing race to date.

Sure, the weather in Miami was brutal; it was hot, humid as well as windy. That certainly accounted for some of it. But I felt undertrained and overtired. All of those little details compounded together to a feeling of sluggishness that I had never felt in a race.

In the Miami Marathon, there is a point around mile 12 where those running the half marathon turn left, and those running the full marathon turn right. I have never felt such a strong desire to quit half way as I did at that moment. Simply turn left go home. Of course, running a half marathon is nothing to be ashamed of, but that was not my goal for the day.

Somehow, I mustered the courage to turn right, knowing that the pain I was already experiencing would only increase. At that point, I had no idea just how painful things would get. By mile 17, my legs were cramping, my muscles burning, and I wanted nothing more than to escape the torture to which I had willingly subjected myself. This was all before hitting “the wall” around mile 20.

Marathon runners are all familiar with “the wall”; it's the point in the race that you run out of juice – physiologically as well as psychologically. In many ways, the marathon distance is perfectly designed to ensure that almost everyone hits the wall. It's the moment that every fibre of your being is screaming for you to stop. The entire purpose of the marathon is to keep going at that point. Keep on running, and not to quit.

It might sound insane (and perhaps it is), but the main reason that I kept on running was to get another glimpse at the other side of that wall. It provides a rare vantage point into ourselves that is only earned through the immense desire to keep going, and I wasn’t sure I’d have enough strength or courage to run another marathon this year if I didn’t finish this one. Perhaps more importantly, the practice of running, for me, has always been more about learning than speed. And I knew that I was on track to learn a lot about myself if I continued.

Beyond “the wall” there’s a mental place where the pain, cramps and exhaustion don’t matter. It's all still there, but something else takes over. It's a small taste of how the the Navi (זכריה ט:ט) describes Moshiach: As an עָנִי וְרֹכֵב עַל־חֲמוֹר – a poor man riding on a donkey. The Maharal (גבורות ה׳ כ״ט) explains this vision as a person who is in total control of their physical self – רוכב על החמרית – riding above the material. I wanted to feel that feeling if only for a few moments, to learn from that experience. Perhaps I might find something of value to share.

With Hashem's help, there were a lot of things that I found behind the wall this past Sunday. Some of them, I am still processing. Some are far too personal to share. But there is one line of of thinking that reverberated almost ceaselessly, and contending with it provided an education with far reaching implications for life, and Avodas Hashem in general.

The thought began softly and carefully. At first I thought it was my Yetzer Tov, looking out for my well being. But with every passing step, it became clear that this was the voice of my Yetzer Hara. It screamed out “you should quit.” More specifically, it said: “You're unprepared and exhausted. This is no way to run a marathon, you should be ashamed of yourself. This will be a your worst finishing time ever. Get yourself together, and quit already. You can try again when you're better trained.”

The problem with this voice in my head was that it was, of course, entirely factually correct.

But running is not the only time that I have heard this voice. Most likely, you've heard it it too. It's the voice that says that you should quit learning Daf Yomi because you're too far behind. Or forget about coming to minyan because you're running too late, or that, since you've missed minyan half a dozen times this week already, there's no point in coming today at all.

It's the voice that says there's no way you're going get through everything you need to cover for the final, so there's little point trying to study.

It's the voice that says you might as well get an extra dessert, and start the diet tomorrow; or after Shabbos, or maybe after vacation.

It's the defeatism that tells us that it was our poor parenting which produced this mix of challenges in our children. And also, that we are now incapable of doing anything to make it better. It tells us that our marriage is in a rut, and will stay that way because we've messed it all up already.

It's the voice that now demands perfection where only imperfection is available. The voice that says it's not worth attempting at all if it's not going to be your best. It's the voice of self-doubt, worthlessness and destructive criticism.

This voice is the sound that plays in our ears when we hit “the wall” in marathons, and in life. It was also the sound of the very first wall that Klal Yisrael encountered after coming our of Mitzrayim.

The Torah tells us that at the splitting of Yam Suf: וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם – the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Chazal (מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל י״ד:כ״ט) note that the word חֹמָה (wall) in the pasuk is spelled without a “vav”, allowing for the word to also be read as חֵמָה – anger:

...והיו מלאכי השרת תמהים לומר בני אדם עובדי עבודה זרה מהלכין ביבשה בתוך הים ומנין שאף הים נתמלא עליהם חמה שנ' והמים להם חומה אל תקרי חומה אלא חמה

The Angels were astounded, saying, “how could Hashem allow these idol worshipers to cross through the sea on dry land?!” The sea was likewise angry, filled with rage.

The Angels demanded an explanation as to why the Jewish idolators should be spared, while the Egyptian idolators should be destroyed. How does Hashem answer these accusations of the inadequacy of Jewish people? How does Hashem get us over the wall?

The Meshech Chochma (שמות י״ד:כ״ט), paraphrasing the Medrash (ילקוט שמעוני) explains that Hashem answers the sea:

On the surface they may appear to carry the same idol worship as their Egyptian tormentors, but in truth, they have already abandoned the ways of Egypt. They slaughtered the Egyptian gods, and gave a Bris Milah to their sons. They have followed Me into the desert. And all of this they did when they were no longer enslaved! (Since the plagues ended their servitude six months before they left Egypt.) All of their failures were a result of the pain of exile and slavery, but the moment they had a little freedom they chose Me.

Hashem is telling us: The secret to getting over the wall is knowing that we've already come so far. We're already out of Mitzrayim, learning Torah, making it to minyan, controlling our tempers and temptations. We have achieved more than we ever thought possible, and we've got a lot to be proud of.

For me, it took a little humility to recall that four years ago I was almost a hundred pounds heavier, and could barely run a mile. With the incredible support of my family and community, and more than my fair share of Siyata D'Shmaya, that's not me any longer. I have more than enough to be grateful for. To quit because “it wasn’t going as planned” smacks of an arrogance that I hope to avoid. 

Of course, none of our success and self confidence absolves us of our responsibility to actually rid ourselves of the Egyptian Avoda Zara in our pockets. We still need to catch up the Daf, work on our relationships with our parents and children, and eat less cake. Much like running faster necessitates getting fitter, and training harder. Everything still needs work. But allowing ourselves the latitude to focus on what we've achieved opens a pathway to see beyond the wall.

With Tu B'shvat around the corner, the Beis Yaakov of Izbihtz would remark that he could taste the difference between a fruit that held on throughout the cold and windy days, and the fruit which gave up and was ready to fall. Nothing can compare to the sweetness of a Jew of that holds on despite their challenges and failures.

That's my Tefillah for myself and for you. That Hashem grants us the sweetness of being able to hold on, and the strength never to let go. That when we face our next walls, we will be able to overcome them, and perhaps when we've conquered them, we'll find a new closeness to Hashem, עומד אחר כתלנו משגיח מן החלנות מציץ מן החרכים – the One Who stands behind our wall, watching from the windows, peering in through the cracks.

In our last Halacha Shiur before Yeshiva break, I announced our vacation “Tefillin Challenge” to my 9th grade Talmudic. The rules are simple: Every day of Yeshiva break (that isn't a Shabbos), you need to take a selfie of yourself wearing Tefillin and post it to our group chat. Doing so for all ten days of the break will earn you a free test grade of 100% for the current quarter.

The purpose of the challenge is obvious. I want to make sure that my students feel a sense camaraderie and accountability in their Shmiras HaMitzvos. One of the guys raised his hand incredulously. “Rebbe, we're all planning on putting on Tefillin already!” I'd like to believe that that's always the case, but being a high school student comes with challenges that are not always easy to overcome.

So we discussed how everyone is susceptible to the trickery of the Yetzer Hara:

“Although you guys were all planning on putting on Tefillin already, there are days when you might wake up late, miss minyan and feel bad about yourself. You might get distracted, rush out for some activity and only get home after sunset. When you see your phone buzzing with your friends putting on Tefillin, that's exactly the kind of encouragement that will beat back the Yetzer Hara of distraction and procrastination.”

That seemed to resonate.

One of the guys started questioning the rules. “Rebbe, how will know that the picture was taken that day?! Maybe we'll take a few on one day and then just use those?” I explained “It's certainly doable. But I might catch you, and that won't be fun. But are you seriously considering going through all that to avoid putting on Tefillin, which you already believe in and agree is important?” He agreed.

Another Talmid wondered “What happens if someone doesn't put on Tefillin and post their picture? Will they get a bad grade?” I told him that their grades would be fine, no points taken off, they would simply miss out on the free 100%.

But our shiur then began to consider that perhaps there's a bigger question to ask: How should we explain ourselves, our lives and our choices if the threat of a bad grade is a greater motivation than Ratzon Hashem?

This question is not only for high school boys putting on Tefillin. It's a question that we all need to ask ourselves in every aspect of our Yiddishkeit. Are we doing Mitzvos because we're trying to avoid punishment, or do we believe in the inherent value of doing what Hashem wants us to do.

Of course, we recognize the concept of “Yiras HaOnesh” – fear of punishment. But that’s the lowest level of motivation. It’s the catch-all, the backstop, the thing that holds us back at the last moment.

Every good parent knows that a threat is the nuclear option. When a parent says “clean your room” or “brush your teeth” the ultimate goal is that the child will care about the value of having a clean room and good dental hygiene. Threats are only relevant when our values are in question, or when we need external motivation to help us prioritize our the values we know to be true.

Changing Our Motivation Paradigm

Though we might not want to admit it, this challenge is sometimes as real for us as it is for our children. It's the part of Mitzrayim that we're still working to free ourselves from.

In fact, freeing ourselves from the “punishment perspective” might well be a central theme of Yetzias Mitzrayim, as the Torah describes:

This Shabbos, Hashem reveals the entire play-book to Moshe; every step of the mission. Moshe and Aharon will engage Pharaoh, asking him to let the Jewish people go. Behind the scenes, Hashem is strengthening Pharaoh's resolve, famously “hardening his heart.” This will enable Pharaoh to withstand the pain the plagues, allowing for Hashem to “increase His signs and wonders in the Land of Egypt.” (See Sefono here.)

Nevertheless, Hashem continues, וְלֹא־יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will “place My hand on Egypt.”

This final phrase וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם is peculiar. What does Hashem mean by “placing His Hand”? He has already described the ten plagues and the disassembling of Egyptian society. What more might this add?

The HaKsav V'HaKabalah (ז:ד) explains that this short phrase encapsulates the entirety of Moshe's mission and the lessons that we need to learn from it.

When Hashem says “וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי”, this is not a threat. Quite the opposite. Literally, these words mean that Hashem is “extending His hand” to Pharaoh. (The HaKsav V'HaKabalah characteristically provides multiple sources in Tanach that support this reading of the text.)

To understand the message here, we should review what made Egypt the great superpower of the ancient world: From the perspective of the Egyptian monarchy, might is right, and to the victor are the spoils of war. This philosophy worked well for the ancient Pharaohs, transforming their nation into the longest surviving regional superpower in human history.

Enter Moshe and Aharon explaining Jewish theology to Pharaoh: “There is One God in the Heavens and on Earth. He has chosen the Jewish people to be His, and He requests that you free them from slavery so that they will serve only Him.”

Impressive as this all sounds, Pharaoh has one thought preventing him from entertaining these claims. “If this God is indeed unique, singular and omnipotent as you say, then why on earth are you here asking me to free his people?! If He is infinitely powerful, let Him take these slaves for Himself!”

The rationale behind Pharaoh's unwillingness to accept the reality of Hashem is not that he cannot imagine Hashem's strength; it is because he cannot understand Hashem's kindness, patience and goodness. “If He can take these people, why is he sending you to ask?”

Hashem is teaching us here that the values of Torah stand in contrast to the cruelty of Egypt. Diplomacy, patience, conversation and education is always preferable to threats and violence, even when greater power is readily available. It was this lesson that Hashem wanted to display through his sending of Moshe and Aharon.

The Ksav V'Kabalah concludes by explaining the Pasuk: “The reason that Pharaoh will not listen to you, is precisely because I am extending My Hand to Him.” To the Egyptians, kindness is weakness. The fall of Egypt is that tragically, they will only listen when kindness is replaced with a display of vastly superior power.

The Mitzvos of Yeshiva Break

More than any other, vacation is a time to consider the reason that we do mitzvos. This is true for parents and children at every stage of our growth and development. Away from the homework, tests, attendance sheets and car pool lines, do we value davening, learning and cheesed? Do we find Simcha in our Yiddishkeit when the communal and academic stakes are lowered? Or perhaps we have conditioned ourselves to engage in Torah and mitzvos only because we are afraid not to comply?

If you're not sure which side of this you're on, or if you'd like to upgrade your perspective, try this: Choose a mitzvah that you're planning on doing anyway. Spend a few minutes before thinking about why you're going to do it, what you hope you will achieve and why it's a meaningful way to spend your time. The results might be surprising, delightful or disappointing. Either way, it's a opening to grow.

Hashem should help us these weeks to refocus on what matters; the values that we are trying to live up to, rather than the repercussions if we don't. We should feel his hand reaching out to us in our lives, pulling us out of the last chains of Mitzrayim.

In 1976, the Lubavitcher Rebbe arranged to meet with a group of disabled Israeli war veterans who had been brought to the United States by the Israeli Ministry of Defense; the group included men who had been badly wounded during Israel’s wars (most recently, the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and in army mishaps.

All had suffered severe injuries, some were crippled, and all were maimed. Referring to the fact that such people are designated in Israel as nechei Tzahal, “handicapped of the Israel Defense Forces,” the Rebbe addressed the men as follows: “If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that God has also given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass [in other areas] the achievements of ordinary people.

You are not disabled or handicapped, but special and unique as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not. I therefore suggest”—the Rebbe then interspersed with a smile—“ of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them—that you should no longer be referred to as ‘disabled veterans’ but as ‘exceptional veterans’ [metzuyanim], which more aptly describes what is unique about you. “Therefore,” the Rebbe concluded, “I would be honored to shake every one of your hands, for the great honor you have given me for visiting me.”

He then walked over and spent time in conversation with each and every veteran, grasping their hands in his.

A Shift in Perspective

The Torah, this week, introduces the story of Galus – exile, and Geula – redemption from Egypt. There will yet be ten plagues, awesome miracles and wondrous displays of Hashem's power and presence. All of this is designed to create a shift in perspective – both in the minds of Paroah and the Egyptians, and in the minds of the Jewish people.

But all of this is yet to take place. For now, Moshe is debating Hashem by the burning bush, and challenging Him that “The Jewish People will not listen to me.”

Hashem responds by providing Moshe with a sign: Throw down your stick. וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיְהִי לְנָחָשׁ וַיָּנׇס מֹשֶׁה מִפָּנָיו – He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moshe recoiled from it.

Hashem then tells Moshe to grab the snake by its tail. וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיַּחֲזֶק בּוֹ וַיְהִי לְמַטֶּה בְּכַפּוֹ – Moshe put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand.

This trick will be performed with much fanfare next Shabbos, when Moshe and Aharon present themselves to Paroah. Ultimately, Aharon's stick/snake will devour those of Paroah's magicians.

The relationship between snake and stick is not simply a matter of power, illusion or magic.

Throughout the Torah, the snake is representative of the Yetzer Hara, en emblem for evil that drives humanity towards negative thoughts, speech and behaviors. As for the stick? It is miraculous. An instrument, a tool, with which to transform the Egypt, turn water into blood, to split the sea and bring forth water from a rock.

This duality, however, runs far deeper. The Malbim (191 הכרמל ע׳) quotes from the Ari HaKadosh that Moshe's stick was made from the wood of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In essence, it is mixed – it has the potential for good and evil. In the hands of Moshe and Aharon, it is a stick with which to do miracles, but the moment that they let it go, it turns into a snake.

The question that we, like Paroah, must face, is asking whether the challenges that we encounter, both externally and internally, are really a snake, or really a stick.

This is true of our interactions with our spouses and children. How do we interpret their actions and behavior? Snake or stick? When a child throws a tantrum, does it mean they're a bad kid, or a good kid having a bad day? When spouses act distracted and dismissive, does it mean they don't love each other, or maybe they're just tired? And when a boss or colleague dishes out an unfair comment, is he or she a bad person, or perhaps simply under pressure?

This question lies at the root of every relationship, job, pastime or hobby that we engage in. Do we look at the world, at other people, as fundamentally evil, with the chance of good? Or do we see the world as fundamentally good with failures, fissures and fractures, that we are invited to fix? Are we, on average, positive, optimistic and hopeful, or are we negative, pessimistic and disappointed?

And of course, each one of us needs to ask this question of ourselves: Am I a fundamentally good person? Am I worth it? When I want to do something that I won't be proud of; when there are two conflicting voices in my head, which one is really me. Am I a good person with flaws? Or an imposter trying desperately not to get caught.

Scrolling through our social media feeds; have we become so jaded from seeing stories of tragedy, or does each one still affect us? Do we anticipate that the world will be good? That our future is bright, Chas V'Shalom the opposite?

Who's Holding the Stick?

The Sfas Emes (וארא תרנ”ג ד״ה בענין המטה) explains that the entire Story of Yetzias Mitzraim is the Story of Moshe Rabbeinu grabbing the snake by the tail, and restoring it to a stick. This is why the Makos must begin with this miracle. Understanding that no-one is inherently evil, that the world is not inherently bad, is the most basic construct of Yiddishkeit. And of course, this power is not granted to Moshe and Aharon alone. The Sfas Emes continues:

ובכח איש ישראל לבטל הטבע, ואז נעשה מנחש מטה It is within the power of each and every Jew to nullify the instincts within them, and then from a snake, a stick can be (re)created.

The ultimate question is always: Are we willing to take control of the negative forces in our lives and to see them for what that are: Tools in our hands that can be used or abused. Tools that are given to us with which to become Chayalim Metzuyanim – excellent soldiers, rather than Chayalim Nachim – handicapped soldiers.

Hashem should help us in all of our challenges; both internal and external and grant us the strength to take control. That our snakes should become sticks, and our challenges, opportunities.

In the past week which I spent in Eretz Yisrael, I had the privilege to daven with a lot of different Jews. Every minyan is a cultural melting pot of accents and customs, homage to the generations of exile from which our people is emerging.

At the end of one particular minyan (Anglo-Israeli-Modern-Dati), a man walked in wearing the tell-tale garb of a Chareidi Rav: A long black frock, and a Homburg. His dress was as distinguished as it was out of place.

He approached the Gabbai, who nodded noncommittally, then walked around the minyan as men were wrapping their tefillin, and handed out a photocopied letter. The moment the final kaddish was done, he stood by the bima and declared: “I am a Jew who spends all day learning, from morning to night. I have many financial obligations, and I need your help to meet them. By helping me, you are assisting someone who completes Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi every year! I have letter attesting to my needs and stature....”

I couldn't catch the rest. It was drowned out by the sound of people shuffling out the door. I'm not sure that poor man collected anything significant that morning. Perhaps a few shekels from the people closest to where he was standing who couldn't comfortably escape without feeling guilty.

I overheard some guys snickering and muttering as they left “maybe he wouldn't have so many financial obligations if he got a job...” I must confess, I also had the same thought. “Perhaps I could learn all day, and you support me...”

But as the episode played over in my mind, questions arose....

Let's assume for a moment that the man is indeed telling the truth about his scholarship and commitment (which obviously cannot be taken for granted). Let's also assume that he could make a living in some honest way (which, perhaps might be an unfair assumption as well).

There are multiple questions that arise, some in Halacha and some in Middos and Derech Eretz. Some of these questions have clear answers in the poskim, others less so: – Does a person have the right to choose to spend their time learning and not to work for a living, and thus depend on the generosity of others in order to pay their bills? – Is a member of the minyan obligated in any way to contribute when solicited for support? – Does the value of supporting Talmidei Chachamim override other needy or more local causes?

In the world of Hashkafa and Middos this short episode raises further pivotal questions, touching on the some of the most important issues of Emunah and Bitachon. – How much time working is enough Hishtadlus? How much is a lack of Bitachon? – Where do we draw the line between trusting that Hashem will provide vs. laziness? Is there a problem of enabling by financially supporting someone who is capable of working but chooses not to? – If Hashem decides our Parnasa on Rosh Hashana, what is the purpose of working at all?

Each of these questions is a major sugya, and much ink has been spilled discussing them. (Perhaps we'll do a series in the future?)

Needless to say, the entire experience after minyan that morning left me a little unsettled. There is one question, however, that has gnawed at me since, as I write this on the plane coming back to Boca: What exactly irked me and the rest of the minyan so much? Is my discomfort appropriate? Or is it somehow rooted in a lack of Kavod HaTorah?

The notion that Klal Yisrael would have people dedicated to learning and people dedicated to learning is cemented in this week's Parsha. Yaakov Avinu famously forges the partnership between Yissachar and Zevulun. But long before this relationship would see fruition, there were other sons who exemplified these roles.

Before his descent to Mitzrayim, Yaakov sends Yehuda ahead: וְאֶת־יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו. Rashi comments (מ״ו:כח): לְתַקֵּן לוֹ בֵּית תַּלְמוּד שֶׁמִּשָּׁם תֵּצֵא הוֹרָאָה – to establish for him a House of Study from which Teaching would go forth.

The Rambam (הל׳ ע״ז א׳) notes the centrality of Talmud Torah as the mission of Klal Yisrael, and explains:

וְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ לִמֵּד בָּנָיו כֻּלָּם וְהִבְדִּיל לֵוִי וּמִנָּהוּ רֹאשׁ וְהוֹשִׁיבוֹ בִּישִׁיבָה לְלַמֵּד דֶּרֶךְ הַשֵּׁם וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְוַת אַבְרָהָם. וְצִוָּה אֶת בָּנָיו שֶׁלֹּא יַפְסִיקוּ מִבְּנֵי לֵוִי מְמֻנֶּה אַחַר מְמֻנֶּה כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא תִשָּׁכַח הַלִּמּוּד. וְהָיָה הַדָּבָר הוֹלֵךְ וּמִתְגַּבֵּר בִּבְנֵי יַעֲקֹב וּבַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְנַעֲשֵׂית בָּעוֹלָם אֻמָּה שֶׁהִיא יוֹדַעַת אֶת ה'.

Yaakov taught all of his children. He selected Levi and appointed him as the leader. He established him as Rosh Yeshiva to teach them the way of Hashem and observe the mitzvot of Avraham.

He commanded his sons that the leadership should not depart from the descendants of Levi, so that the teachings would not be forgotten. This concept proceeded and gathered strength among the descendants of Yaakov and those who collected around them, until there would be became a nation within the world which knew Hashem.

It's clear that the purpose of the Jewish people is the study and dissemination of Torah. Yet, simultaneously, there was other son who was ensuring that Bnei Yisrael would survive physically: Yosef HaTzadik – הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכׇל־עַם הָאָרֶץ – The provider for all the people of the land.

Which of these is the more noble, lofty and important pursuit? We traditionally see these goals at odds with each other. But Chazal (סנהדרין צ״ב א) see them far closer:

ואם למדו מה שכרו אמר רבא אמר רב ששת זוכה לברכות כיוסף שנאמר (משלי יא, כו) וברכה לראש משביר ואין משביר אלא יוסף שנאמר (בראשית מב, ו) ויוסף הוא [השליט על הארץ הוא] המשביר לכל עם הארץ

If one teaches halakha rather than withholding it, what is his reward? Rava says that Rav Sheshet says: He is privileged to receive blessings like Yosef, as it is stated “But blessing shall be upon the head of one who provides [mashbir]” (Proverbs 11:26). And mashbir is referring to no one other than Yoseph, as it is stated: “And Yosef was the governor of the land, and he was the provider [hamashbir] to all the people of the land” (Genesis 42:6).

The Maharsha questions this Gemara. How is Rav Sheshes learning the reward for teaching Torah to proving food? Are these not opposite pursuits?

He explains:

לפי שהתורה היא מזון הנשמה כמו הלחם לגוף וכמו שזכה יוסף לברכות שכלכל את אחיו ועמי הארץ בלחם כן יזכה הת”ח המכלכל אחרים בלחם התורה ומלמדה להם.

Since Torah is food for the soul, as bread is to the body. And since Yosef received great blessing for sustaining the people of the land and his brothers, so too will a Talmid Chacham be blessed for providing others with the bread of Torah and teaching them.

Clearly, both “Yehuda/Levi” and “Yosef” and crucial to the survival and success of our nation. It is important to note, however, that neither are defined by what they do, but by what they give. And herein lies the solution to our conundrum, as well as an opportunity for honest reflection.

Our communities are irked by a Talmid Chacham requesting assistance to enable his learning without earning a living or providing Torah in return. But I wonder if we hold business people and professionals to the same standard. We are bothered by a full time learner who doesn't contribute his learning. Are we equally bothered by a full time earner who doesn't make time to learn or support Talmud Torah?

A while back I met up with an old friend from Yeshiva who describes himself as an “aspiring philanthropist”. I love the term; it certainly gives meaning to the more common pursuit of amassing wealth. More over, it upends the American Dream of “financial freedom.” He told me that he came to the realization that in the Torah there is no such thing as financial freedom. We don't strive to amass wealth for the purpose of “being able to do whatever we want.” There is only one question: How can I use what Hashem gave me to bring Him into the world a little more?

Reb Tzadok (צה״צ נג) writes that even today each of us can trace our interests, skills and talents to the Shevatim. Each of us can find ourselves in the Brachos that Yaakov gave his children. This means that whatever it is that we are driven to do, can, should and must become a part of the march forward from Mitzrayim to redemption. None of it is a personal venture – we're in it together.

Hashem should help us to take our place in that great journey – each of us in the roles that Hashem has entrusted us to play. And as I leave Eretz HaKodesh, I'm looking forward to being back there, together with all of you soon.

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