Jan 23

Judgement Place


Immediately following the Ten Commandments in last week’s reading, G-d instructs Moshe to tell the people to build a Mizbeyach, an Altar. And then, He goes on to say, at the beginning of this week’s portion: “And these are the judgments which you shall place before them” [Ex. 21:1].

judgment1The word Mishpatim, judgements, represents a particular category of the Commandments. These are the ones governing the conduct of civil society, which, had they not been given in the Torah, would have to be enacted in order for civilization to function. Governments around the world prohibit murder, assault, and kidnapping — major crimes. But they also have rules about minor crimes, and even regulations about construction and obstacles, things which might harm another person. And in the situation that one party causes damages to another, whether physical or financial, whether deliberately or inadvertently, there are laws and court precedent explaining how the matter can be settled.

Rashi focuses our attention on the opening word v’Eyleh, “and these.” He explains that this word is consistently used to add on to what came before. In this case, v’Eyleh teaches us that just as the Ten Commandments were said at Sinai, these rules were also said at Sinai. And furthermore, Rashi says, the intervening verses about the construction of the Altar teach us a lesson as well: that the Sanhedrin, the High Court, should sit in judgment near that Altar.

What is the Torah telling us? Why is it important that these rules were also given at Sinai? And why should the High Court hear cases right next door to the Holy Altar?

A person might think that in order to get into G-d’s “good book,” as it were, the important things are what goes on between us and G-d. And although the Ten Commandments include interpersonal ones as well, they are all very serious. So a person could still think that little bit of dishonesty might be forgiven. How we act in the synagogue is the key, not how we do business.

The Torah is telling anyone thinking like that: these laws also come from Sinai. And if you get in an argument with your neighbor, do you know where the ultimate authorities sit in judgment? Right next to the Altar!

We all need to know that the interpersonal laws were also given as Commandments. It’s not enough to go to shul, it’s not enough to study. Our interpersonal lives have to be governed by a sense of religious obligation, as well.

I want to add a special note, as we approach 30 days since the passing of Rav Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l of Jerusalem, who left this world on the Sabbath, Parshas Va’eira. It’s a name that, if you’ve read through my Divrei Torah here, you’ve seen well over a dozen times.

I never attended any school in which Rav Rubenstein taught. But shortly after my arrival in Jerusalem to study at “Lakewood East,” someone pointed out that there was a Rav who spoke each Thursday night at 11 PM, and his apartment was just one floor up from the one rented for several of us by the yeshiva (rabbinical school). So I went, and I was captivated.

Rav Rubenstein was a straight “American boy” who went over to Israel to study — and never stopped. His Thursday night talks were always about the Torah portion, and often inspired by (and peppered with anecdotes about) his own teacher, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l. Both were masters of Jewish ethics. Rav Rubenstein could entertain you, make you laugh, and a moment later make you realize your own shortcomings, and inspire you to do better.

I once asked him how he prepared for these one-hour lectures, how he found material. His response was both simple and profound: just look in Rashi, the work of Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki, the provider of the basic, succinct commentary known to even beginning students of Torah and Talmud. I think it’s obvious, if you’ve been reading my material for even a few weeks, the extent to which his brief answer guided me in this area.

He was an American, and understood American students and our concerns. His advice was straightforward, practical, and incisive, and always came with a warm helping of genuine concern. You knew he cared about you and was looking out for your best interests, making it very easy to trust his wise counsel. He even knew what he could say to us in Jerusalem, that would be perceived as too harsh a criticism if said back in America!

If you would like to read and hear more about this incredible person, please visit the site of Rabbi Yosef Tropper, who has written his own recollections and collected those of others, both written and recorded. Over ten years of Rav Rubenstein’s classes are available for purchase or membership download from our Torahmedia.com library; the funds will now, of course, be paid to his family.

Jan 17

Mission Statement


The Medrash says that when all the Jews were told to assemble at Mount Sinai, the souls of all their descendants, and those of all future converts, were brought to join them. Everyone had to be there, personally, at the moment when G-d Himself spoke to the Jewish People. This was when He was going to give them their “marching orders,” to be a Nation of Priests, spreading knowledge of G-d.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe Medrash also records that when G-d spoke to the People directly, their souls left their bodies. They all died! The people couldn’t handle it. They had to have Moshe transmit the message. That is why the 10 Commandments begin with “I am HaShem your G-d,” but by the third speaks of G-d in the third person: “you shall not take the Name of HaShem your G-d in vain” [Ex. 20:2, 7].

If that was the case, why was it so important that everyone hear Him directly? After all, when Moshe asked to see G-d, He responded that it was impossible for Moshe to see him and live [Ex. 33:20]. So tell the People the same thing, even if they wanted to hear Him directly!

But everyone understands the idea that what you hear directly from the source is very different from what you hear from a third party. You can always doubt that the third party understood and repeated precisely what he heard. With everyone gathered there, everyone heard HaShem’s Voice directly. At that point they asked Moshe to listen and repeat the message, knowing that he was repeating precisely what he heard, and that they weren’t hearing it directly only for their own well-being.

Much is made of the idea that the Jews are a “Chosen People.” But it’s like soldiers selected for a mission — it’s only a true honor if they are successful! We are supposed to develop ourselves as G-dly, ethical people, aiming for a very high standard of conduct in order to elevate the world around us. And it is obvious to everyone that our success is limited. But as Rebbe Tarfon says in Chapters of the Fathers 2:21, “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate from it.” It is too big a task for any one person or any one lifetime, but it is still the responsibility of every Jew to do his or her part — to learn Torah, to do the Commandments, and to develop our spiritual selves.

We have to get out there, and aim to complete the mission!

Jan 10

Let’s Get To Work!



When the Egyptians pursued the Israelites that they had just freed, the Jews were very afraid. They turned to Moshe and said, “was it due to a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us out to die in the desert?” [Ex.14:11] From which we learn that sarcasm is an ancient Jewish tradition.

Moshe reassured them, and said that G-d would fight for them, they just have to watch. And then in the next verse, G-d says to Moshe, “why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should go forward.” [14:15]

Rashi says that this tells us that Moshe was praying — that after reassuring the Children of Israel, he turned to G-d and prayed for help. And G-d told him, this isn’t the time for long prayers, Israel is in distress! Moshe needed to be reassuring the Children of Israel, and implementing practical solutions to get them out of trouble. While it was certainly true that only Divine Mercy saved them, the needs of others required that Moshe spend his time making efforts on their behalf, rather than praying for G-d’s help.

When I was a yeshiva student, there was a fellow who lived in the neighborhood who was a consistent supporter of the yeshiva (Ohr Somayach Monsey) whose daughter got married. So the yeshiva hosted a celebratory meal (called a “Sheva Berachos,” after the “Seven Blessings” said after each such meal held during the week following the wedding). And as we were eating, one of the rabbis got up to speak. “I have to tell you something about Joel here. Joel isn’t too frum. He’s not too religious.”

Now how could he say such a thing about a fellow out celebrating his daughter’s wedding, in the middle of a religious institution? He explained. “When a poor person comes to his door, Joel doesn’t say ‘G-d should help you’ or ‘G-d will provide.’ He opens his wallet!” Joel knew when it was time to pray, and when it was time to work to help someone in distress.

It has become well known that, sadly, Jewish communities did not do everything they could during the Holocaust, even once they learned the true extent of the atrocities committed during that time. Every generation has its fights and trials, and ours is fighting a wave of assimilation that threatens to decimate the Jewish people all over again. The way forward is to share Jewish knowledge. Are we doing everything we can?

Jan 03

Teaching Torah to our Children


boy-learning-torahAfter the plagues had killed the Egyptian’s animals and most of their crops, Moses and Aharon tell Pharoah that unless he lets the Jews go into the desert to worship G-d, locusts will be sent to finish off whatever the hail didn’t destroy. Pharoah asks them, “exactly who will be going?” And Moshe responds, “with our children and our elders we will go, with our sons and daughters, our flocks and our cattle we will go” [10:8-9]. At this, Pharoah gets very angry, and refuses to let the children go.

Why does he care? Because without the children, he can still lose the battle and win the war. He can still destroy the Jewish people.

The Talmud says that “Jerusalem was not destroyed, except because they stopped the learning of little children” [Shabbos 119]. That can be interpreted as a matter of spiritual protection: the learning of children is always pure and holy, and the Divine Presence is with Israel when they study. But just as a practical matter, there always has to be another generation of Jews — and it is Jewish learning that preserves our nation from one generation to the next.

This is why it is so crucial that every child be given a solid Jewish education. One motivation to study and learn on our own is, as the Torah says later, that we should be able to pass on what we know — “and you will make them known to your children and your children’s children” [Deut. 4:9].

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