Thursday, December 27, 2018



The following speech was delivered by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau to (then) President Barack Obama on March 22, 2013, at Yad Vashem, during Obama’s visit to Israel[2]:
“On April 11, 1945 in the Buchenwald Concentration camp which you recently visited, American troops liberated us. One of the Jewish leaders from the United States, Rabbi Herschel Schachter was there.  He entered the barracks, and crying in Yiddish proclaimed, “Jews you are free!”  We didn’t believe him.  After six years of horror we couldn’t believe it.
“I take this opportunity to thank you, to thank the American people who came finally in 1945, April, to liberate us - not from slavery to freedom, but from death to life.
“But I would like to add something. Two months ago, I had the privilege to speak at the International Commemoration day for the Holocaust.  At that time, I related an experience I had last year. I was in a very small Holocaust Museum in Seattle, Washington, that consisted of only one room.  In front Mr. Leo Hymas, an old handsome brigadier General, stood clad in his military uniform with many medals pinned on. He knew that as a child I survived Buchenwald, and he welcomed me with tears in his eyes. He shook my hand and said “Rabbi, I was one of the liberators of Buchenwald; I served with General Patton. When I heard that you were coming to Seattle, I asked for permission to meet with you. Before I return my soul to the Lord of the Universe, I am asking you for forgiveness… for being late; we came too late! When I saw the horrible sights that greeted us when we arrived to liberate you, I knew we came too late, and I’m asking you to forgive me.” I replied that if he is carrying that pain on his consciousness for sixty-seven years, he must be a great man.
“Yesterday, Mr. President you promised us that we are not alone… I am asking you to make sure that you never be too late... Next week, we will all sit together on the night of the Seder and we will not only to praise the Lord for the past Exodus, but also, we pray for peace in Israel, in the Middle East, and the entire world…”
Hashem informed Moshe that he was to return to Egypt and inform the Jewish slaves that redemption was imminent. Then he was to appear before Pharaoh and convey to him the same message, and that the time had arrived for him to free the oppressed Jewish slaves.
Moshe Rabbeinu replied, “But they will not believe me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say Hashem did not appear to you.”[3] In response, Hashem conveyed to Moshe three signs that he was to demonstrate in front of Klal Yisroel.
First, Moshe cast his staff on the floor and it transformed into a snake. When Moshe lifted it by its tail, it reverted into a staff. Then Moshe placed his hand against his chest whereupon it became white with tzara’as. When Moshe again placed his hand against his chest, his hands retuned to normal. Finally, he was instructed to take some water from the Nile and pour it onto the land, and it would instantly become blood.
The Nesivos Shalom explains that the Jewish people did not lack faith in G-d. Rather, their lack of faith was in themselves. They couldn’t believe that they were worthy of redemption and to be elevated into a holy and elite people. They were so mired in their current misery that they could not fathom a greater future.
Each of the three signs Hashem instructed Moshe was to encourage the nation that they would indeed merit redemption.
There are two words for staff in Hebrew. A makal is a stick used to beat and discipline; a mateh is a staff used for support, such as a walking stick. When G-d asked Moshe what was in his hand, he was asking him what the staff was to be used for. Moshe replied that it was a mateh, symbolizing the fact that he was to be the leader of the nation. He was not there to beat them into submission, but to guide them upwards.
Hashem instructed Moshe to take that holy staff and cast it onto the impure ground of Egypt. As soon as Moshe did so, the staff became a snake, the symbol of evil. But when Moshe lifted it off the floor it immediately reverted into a holy staff.
The nation felt impure, lost in Egyptian society and servitude. The message to the nation was that if they were to be ‘lifted’ from the doldrums of Egyptian influence, they could become elevated, and regain the holy state of their ancestors.
There were many who felt they were beyond help; they felt dead inside. Tzar’as is a symbol of death. When Moshe placed his tzara’as afflicted hand against his chest, it was instantly revitalized. That too was a message to the demoralized nation. Despite the fact that they felt spiritually and emotionally lifeless, they could become spiritually invigorated and emotionally resurrected.
Despite the poignant message of the first two signs, the nation might still be skeptical – how could a nation as powerful as Egypt be overcome?
G-d instructed Moshe to take water from the Nile, the lifeforce of Egypt. When he would pour it out onto the land it would instantly transform into blood, a symbol of the spilling of Egyptian blood and the destruction of the superpower. The message was that G-d controls the Nile. This was the only sign that was not reversed afterwards. The message to the nation was that G-d will destroy Egypt so completely that it will never again regain the status it once had.
After Moshe began his fateful journey back to Egypt, G-d appeared to him and gave him the following message: “When you will go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I placed in your hand, and perform them before Pharaoh.”[4]
Ramban[5] understands that the wonders G-d refers to here were the three signs G-d instructed him to show the Jews.
It is interesting to note that when G-d instructed Moshe to perform the three miracles before the Jews, He referred to them as signs. When He instructed Moshe to perform them before Pharaoh however, He referred to them as wonders.
What is the difference between a sign and a wonder?
Ramban[6] explains that a sign portends events that will occur in the future, while wonders demonstrate absolute power that transcend natural abilities. Shabbos and tefillin are signs, symbols of our faith in the Almighty who created heaven and earth, and of our covenant with the Almighty. Wonders are incredible events that demonstrate absolute control and dominion.
Dovid Hamelech writes in Tehillim[7], “He placed in them the words of His signs and His wonders in the land of Chom.”  Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch writes[8] that what was considered signs for the Jewish people, was at the same time wonders for Pharaoh and Egypt. “These acts of G-d were to be signs for Yisrael from which it should derive for all times the knowledge that G-d is the Creator and Lord of nature, the ruler and judge of men and nations. Then these same acts of G-d, executed upon the Egyptians and in their territory, were to serve for them as wonders, that is, to break their obstinacy and to make them obey G-d’s command.”
It would seem that this is also what occurred with the three signs Moshe performed. For the Jews they were signs of great events that were to come, and of the fusing of an eternal bond between G-d and this people. For Pharaoh and the Egyptians however, it was a small display of the omnipotent power of G-d, a warning of ominous events that would occur if they failed to pay heed to the warnings being issued.

This is demonstrative of an important idea in Judaism – we don’t view events and life in the same manner as the rest of the world. We don’t see anything as happenstance or coincidence. A Jew must always search for the messages contained in everything that occurs in his own life, and in the world generally.[9] What the world views as wondrous events, we see as signs.

No matter what spectrum of American politics one is on, the election of Donald Trump was an absolute shock[10]. The pundits said that it absolutely could not and would not happen. The truth is that most of the recent elections had shocking results. President Bush won based on a recount of a few elderly people in Florida, Obama, a young senator with practically no experience, defeated Hillary Clinton in his own party, and then defeated John McCain, a war hero and respected politician. But there is unquestionably no greater surprise than the election of Donald Trump.
We do not have prophets to inform us of G-d’s message and why things happen. But it is a clear reminder from on high that G-d runs the world, and only G-d can deem what is impossible.
The world sees it as an erratic wondrous event. We know that it is the Hand of G-d, with reasons beyond what we can know.

“So that they will believe that Hashem has appeared to you”
“His wonders in the land of Chom”

 Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] The following is the lecture I delivered in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Shemos 5777
[2] Note – I have edited the wording to make it flow better in writing
[3] Shemos 4:1
[4] Shemos 4:21
[5] In his second explanation
[6] Parshas Re’eh; Devorim 13:2 – Ramban is discussing a false prophet who tries to prove his legitimacy by performing signs or wonders. The Torah warns that one not be duped by him.
[7] 105:27
[8] Commentary Tehillim ibid; the morning I was preparing this lecture I had read this chapter of Tehillim and had the thought to learn Rav Hirsch’s commentary.
[9] The greatest danger is that we often feel we know the message G-d wants to give to everyone else. But we have a very hard time thinking about the message that pertains to us personally, and the personal improvements we can make in our own lives.
[10] President Trump was sworn in as president on January 20, 2017, the week this lecture was delivered.


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