Thursday, January 7, 2021







Dedicated l’refuah shelimah for נטע יצחק בן רחל


          A guest once arrived in Kotzk to the court of the Kotzker Rebbe. When he introduced himself to the rebbe, the rebbe asked him why he had come. The man explained that he had come to find G-d. The rebbe replied that it was a shame that he had traveled all the way to Kotzk to find G-d, when G-d is to be found everywhere. When the man then asked the rebbe why he should have come, the rebbe replied, “To find and discover yourself!” 


          Chumash Shemos details the inhumane oppression that the Egyptians imposed upon the nascent Jewish nation. The Gemara[2] relates that Klal Yisroel was forced to build on quicksand. As soon as the buildings began to have some structure, they collapsed, and the purposelessness construction had to begin again.

          Pharaoh seems so foolish. The ancient Egyptians are known for their incredible construction feats. The great pyramids remain one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Why would Pharaoh have the Jewish slaves working for a futile cause? Imagine how much more they could have accomplished from the Jewish labor?

          Even the ruthless Nazis gained tremendously from their prisoners. The German companies of I.G. Farben, Krupp and others made billions of marks worth of profits from the slave laborers. Why didn’t Pharaoh do the same?

          Rav Avrohom Pam explained that whereas the German companies were motivated by greed, Pharaoh was motivated by a desire to break the Jewish spirit which would then undermine the Jewish population explosion. 

          A person must always feel he is accomplishing. We often don’t recognize or give ourselves credit for our growth. If one stares at a tree for three weeks, he may not notice any significant growth. However, if he returns a few months later, he will see that the tree has grown significantly. The Torah[3] compares man to a tree. A person too, may not recognize his own growth or accomplishments. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the subtle growth is occurring.

          Rav Pam related that there was a prisoner in Communist Russia who was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia. He had to push a large wheel in a circle all day long. It was monotonous and exhausting. When he asked what he was accomplishing, he was told that the wheel was attached to a mill outside his jail cell, which helped ground wheat.  Once he heard that the prisoner would conjure mental images which kept him going throughout the day. He would think of a mother slicing bread for her young children, bread produced from the wheat he helped produce. He would think of an old lonely woman eating a hot bowl of oatmeal produced from the wheat he helped create. Those images kept him going throughout his painful days of servitude.   

          Somehow, he survived the grueling ordeal and after 25 years was finally freed. On the day of liberation, he asked the commanding officer if he could see the mill he had turned for so many years. At first, the officer looked at him quizzically. Then he burst into laughter. He took him to the next room where he showed him that the pole was attached to nothing. At that moment, the former prisoner came to the shocking revelation that for 25 years he had been accomplishing absolutely nothing. The grief was overwhelming, and the man had a heart attack and died.[4]

          Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the words "צמח- growth" and "שמח- happy" are connected. Inner happiness results from a feeling of growth and accomplishment. It’s important to always be growing and it’s important for a person to recognize his own growth, subtle as it may be.

          A bochur once approached Rav Meir Stern[5] and said that he wanted to learn additional things from what they were learning in yeshiva, because he didn’t feel like he was growing in his learning. Rav Stern told him that he’s like the young boy who complains to his parents that he’s so short and never grows. Meanwhile when his grandparents come for Yom Tov every six months, they can’t get over how much he has grown.

          The wickedness of Pharaoh was that he ensured his hapless slaves didn’t even have the satisfaction of accomplishment. The pain of working so hard for absolutely no reason is overwhelmingly defeating. There is hardly any worse fate than to devote one’s entire being into a worthless endeavor.



          When the Torah describes creation, it repeatedly says, “Hashem saw that it was good”. The only exception was regarding the creation of man. G-d proclaimed “Let us make man… G-d created man in His image”[6]. However, G-d never stated that man was good.

          Unlike the rest of creation, man was not created 'good', in the sense that he was not created as a complete and finished entity. G-d endowed a person with the potential to ‘become good’, but it requires his investment and efforts.

            The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that when G-d proclaimed, “Let us make man”, He was speaking to man himself[7]. G-d provides us with body and soul, but it’s up to us to develop those gifts and to use them wisely.

          Each morning, before reciting Kerias Shema in Shacharis, we recount what happens in the celestial heavens as the angels gather to sing to Hashem: “V'chulom mikablim alayhem ol malchus shamayim zeh mizeh- They all accept upon themselves the yoke of heaven from one another”. What is the ‘yoke of heaven’ which angels are subjected to?

          On the one hand angels do not possess an evil inclination. But on the other hand, that means that they are spiritually stagnant. That stagnancy is the angels’ yoke of heaven. It is unable to fail, but that means it is unable to grow either. This is contrast with a human whose life is one struggle after another. Mesillas Yesharim writes that every component of life and every life situation is another test. Man has no rest from the internal and external struggles that comprise his life. But that also means that man has the ability to transform and transcend, to become G-dly and holy. The angels look at man and see his ability to grow spiritually and they are jealous. Yet, they accept it with love and serve Hashem as they are commanded.[8]

          While they were enslaved in Egypt, the nascent Jewish nation were paralyzed by their servitude and couldn’t even dream of spiritual growth.

          An integral part of the redemption was attaining the ability to grow and develop a national and personal connection with their Creator, the ability to grow and accomplish in all situations.


          “They all accept upon themselves the yoke of heaven”

          “Let us make man”

Rabbi Dani Staum


[1] This essay is based on an essay originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website

[2] Sotah 12a

[3] Devorim 20:19

[4] Rabbi Avrohom Pam would relate this story and connect it to what Pharaoh inflicted upon Klal Yisroel. 

[5] Rosh Yeshiva in Passaic

[6] Bereishis 1:26

[7] Rashi understands that G-d was speaking to the angels and that it was an expression of humility.

[8] We also speak of man being מקבל על מלכות שמים – accepting the yoke of heaven. It seems to be a very degrading terminology to use when referring to accepting the will of G-d. Baruch Shea’amar on tefillah explains that the yoke refers to all the impediments that hinder our efforts to accept the will of heaven upon ourselves. Feeling close to G-d is the greatest feeling one can have. The yoke is the challenge and struggle it entails until one achieves that feeling of connection.