Friday, February 1, 2019



In his Haggadah, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, relates a personal story.
One year on Pesach, he led a Seder for soldiers of the Israeli air force and their families. There were about one hundred and fifty men, women, and children, including pilots and other army personnel. It was a tremendous challenge to engage such a large crowd for an extended period without a microphone.
Rabbi Lau began reciting the opening paragraph of Maggid, Ha lachma anya, and translating each phrase into Hebrew. As soon as he completed the paragraph, a soldier stood up and raised his hand. Rabbi Lau looked at the base commander unsure whether he should accept the question. They had just begun and still had a long way to go. The commander replied that the soldier was mature and serious, and he should be allowed to ask.
The young soldier began, “Honored Rabbi, as I listened to your explanation of the paragraph, I had the feeling that the words are antiquated and inapplicable. You said, “This year we are here; next year in Eretz Yisrael. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free men” I was born in Eretz Yisrael and have lived my entire life here. I was born into a democracy and never knew of anything different. If those opening words don’t apply anymore, perhaps the entire Haggadah is also outdated and antiquated!?”
Every eye in the room was locked on Rabbi Lau. He calmly replied, “I personally knew Rabbi Lazer Shach, Rabbi Elya Lopian, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach. These great men never allowed an untruth to escape their lips and they were honest to a fault. Yet, with my own ears, I heard them reciting the vidui (confession) prayers on Yom Kippur, “For the sin that we sinned before you”. Each of them then proceeded to list a litany of sins that I am absolutely sure they never committed. Some of the sins they enumerated are so severe that one must sacrifice his life so as not to transgress them. How could such great men have made false statements on the holiest day?
“The answer is they weren’t only praying for themselves. Our problem is that it’s always about me, me, me! But they were praying on behalf of the entire Jewish nation. They did not only worry about their own fate on the day of judgement, but also that of their fellow Jews who may have committed severe sins.
“The same is true about the opening words of the Haggadah. You may have indeed been born into freedom in this Holy Land, but what about the rest of your fellow Jews? What about the Jews in the diaspora who don’t have that privilege? What about Jews living under persecution among hateful enemies? What about the myriads of Jews who don’t have matzah, wine, and a seder plate before them tonight? 
“We have to stop thinking only about ourselves. We are a nation that endures through unity and love for each other. What better way is there than to commence the Haggadah by thinking about our fellow Jews? The Haggadah’s timeless words indeed apply today as much as ever.”
With that Rabbi Lau proceeded.

After the Torah lists the many laws introduced in Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah returns to its discussion of the events that occurred at the time of Matan Torah. There are a couple of cryptic pesukim, which require explanation:
“Then Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Yisrael ascended. And they saw the G-d of Yisrael, and beneath His feet were the making of a sapphire brick, and the essence of heaven in purity. But to “Atzelei” (nobility of) B’nei Yisrael He did not send forth His Hand, and they ate, and they drank.”[2]  
Rashi explains that on their lofty level, Nadav, Avihu, and the elders lacked a modicum of reverence when they gazed at the divine presence. Staring at such an incredible revelation of G-d was disrespectful. Truthfully, they should have died immediately, but G-d did not want to mar the joy of that day, so He detained their punishment. Instead Nadav and Avihu died on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, while the elders died at the tragic event of the complainers, detailed in Parshas Beha’aloscha[3].
Rashi then explains the incredible vision they saw when they gazed heavenward. They saw a brick of sapphire, which symbolized the suffering of the Jews during the Egyptian servitude, positioned beneath the feet of G-d, as it were. The brick was symbolic of the fact that G-d did not forget the suffering of His people, even after their redemption. The essence of the heaven in purity symbolized the joy of redemption which was also in the presence of G-d, as it were.
The pasuk is revealing to us an incredible truth. Sometimes when a person suffers, his pain is compounded by the feeling that he is suffering in silence and needlessly. The symbolism of the sapphire brick at G-d’s feet, teaches us that any suffering one feels is not only not forgotten, but remains in the presence of G-d, even long after the suffering has passed. No person ever suffers alone, and no person’s pain is ever forgotten. G-d remembers and cherishes every tear.
On the flip side, our joy comprises ‘the essence of the heaven in purity’. Our celebration is divinely orchestrated, and G-d celebrates with us, as it were.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch offers a vastly different explanation of these verses. He explains that it is rare for the Torah to refer to G-d as “Elokai Yisroel” (G-d of Yisrael)[4]. When that encomium is used it is at a special occasion and with emphasis to refer to the unique personal relationship G-d maintains with His nation.
At Sinai the nation had forged a covenant with G-d, and it was then that He truly became Elokai Yisrael. When they had been slaves to Pharaoh, the nation had prepared bricks in futile service of Pharaoh. Now, as servants to G-d, they had the opportunity to prepare “bricks” in Service to the Almighty. With every mitzvah they performed another brick was laid. The first brick was created from their national unified declaration ‘na’aseh v’nishma’. “Everything material, earthly, which is brought in faithful service to this building joins itself to the heavenly, becomes permeated with the heavenly, becomes heavenly sapphire.” Every brick is part of “the essence of the heaven in purity”.
Rav Hirsch continues that the expression “Hand of Hashem” is often used to refer to the spirit of G-d which manifests as prophecy. He explains that the word “atzelei” refers to those who are distant.[5] Thus the pasuk is saying that those Jews who were more distant from the mountain, those who were the opposite of nobility, the common Jew, did not merit prophecy at Sinai. Still they had an ‘inner vision” (vayechezu) of Hashem through the mundane components of life – such as eating and drinking. Without being raised above the ordinary, normal, everyday matters, they were able to perceive G-d and draw close to Him. That experience that they had at Sinai is one of the most important ideas in Judaism. Holiness is not only to be found when one divorces himself from this world, but when one engages in this world and elevates it. “They enjoyed the bliss of feeling the proximity of G-d, in the midst of material, earthly life, the highest normal result of Jewish Torah life.”

Parshas Mishpatim commences with G-d instructing Moshe: “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” Rashi explains that when a topic begins with the opening words “these are”, it means to exclude and disconnect the new topics from the previous one. However, when a topic begins with “and these are”, the conjunctive “and” connects the new topic with the previous one.
The latter half of Parshas Yisro contained the revelation of Sinai, including the incredible and unprecedented excitement surrounding it. Parshas Mishpatim on the other hand, discusses laws involving mundane life, including laws of personal responsibility and liability involving interpersonal relationships.
There are individuals who are very pious and holy regarding ‘parshas Yisro matters’. They learn Torah with fiery enthusiasm and daven intensely. When they step out of the Bais Medrash however, and when they are involved with monetary matters, it’s a different story completely. They aren’t very good with ‘parshas Mishpatim matters’. The problem is that parshas Mishpatim is inextricably connected with parshas Yisro, and it’s not enough to have one without the other. Kabbolas HaTorah was not only about accepting the excitement of Torah and mitzvos, it also meant accepting all the laws regarding money and personal responsibility.
We aren’t meant to serve Hashem in a vacuum. We are a nation that stands united and bears the burden of being the examples to the world of divinity, morality, and ethics. When a Jew is dishonest, he shames every Jew.  
A Jew must strive to feel the pain of others. Perhaps more challenging - a Jew must also strive to rejoice with others, and not allow jealously to overwhelm him. Above all, a Jew must always strive to live his life in a manner that sanctifies the Name of Hashem.

“Beneath His feet a sapphire brick and the essence of heaven in purity”
And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor
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[1] The following is the lecture I delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, Parshas Mishpatim 5778
[2] Shemos 24:9-11
[3] See Bamidbar 11:16
[4] In fact, it only appears three times in the entire Torah.    
[5] “Aitzel” means next to, meaning there is a division of space


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