Talk Torah

Leadership Lessons and Parsha Insights


Leave a comment

Parshas Beshalach: Song Celebrates Salvation

Dear Friends and Family,

Welcome to Shabbas Shira, the Shabbas of Song. In this week’s parsha, the Red Sea splits, klal Israel sings the song at the sea (the first song to G-d ever recorded), Manna appears, klal Israel gets Shabbas, Moshe hits a rock for water, and Amalek attacks. What a combo!

Summary: Song channeled properly lifts up our Emuna, sense of holiness and community to incredible heights. When we recognize the beauty of each other’s harmony, and we’re all following the same path in different ways according to the variety Hashem has provided in His Torah, together we craft a masterpiece.

Have a Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Parshas Beshalach: Song Celebrates Salvation

Q: Shem Shmuel asks: A Midrash explains this is the first song for Hashem. Why didn’t the Avos sing songs after their salvations (Akeidas Yitzhak, Surviving confrontation with Esau, Joseph living through being thrown into a pit, slavery, imprisonment until finally becoming ruler of Egypt)?

A: The Avos (forefathers) experienced 1. individual salvations and 2. temporary conditions. But if not for Hashem redeeming Klal Israel at that moment, they would have been forever lost, both into slavery and out of their connection to Hashem.

Song represents not only salvation, but shared revelation. A song can be experienced by many people simultaneously, and becomes more powerful the more people join in and experience it. Accordingly, art or a picture gain less from communal experience than music.

When the Hebrews were taken out of Egypt, it wasn’t until the splitting of the sea that G-d made clear his separation of the Jewish people and his designation for all of them to play a role.

The lesson: Song connects people to higher purpose — the more people, the clearer they are in harmony, the better the song.

May we all be blessed to harmonize along G-d’s purpose for humanity.

Q: What purpose does each Jew serve?

A: Rav Kook gives a beautiful analogy. Klal Israel is an orchestra — there are many instruments, many individuals playing each instrument, and many different notes each performer must hit. In this metaphor, the instruments represent each tribe, or unique mode of expression that a class of people has. Some people are more analytical and studious, other’s more giving and helping, other’s more organization and planning minded. Each note represents a different Mitzvah.

Each person gets so much reward for playing their piece correctly. When they are among inspirational Mitzvah observers, then when they hit a wrong note, they notice it and can fix it. In doing so, they come ever closer to playing the masterpiece of the great Composer.

But the real beauty comes when the entire assembly plays together. When the various elements and players and instruments compliment each other, each hitting their own correct notes, and harmonizing with the whole. This is analogous to many different types of Jews, all with very different modes of expression, but in unity in recognizing the central title of the piece as G-d’s Torah.

At Shira HaYam, when Klal Israel sang together, they showed this singular moment of perfect Emuna, faithfulness, in Hashem. They recognized their own greatness to be selected as the ones to perform his masterpiece, and thanked him with complete heart. Their song was the perfect expression of gratitude, love and communal togetherness.

May we be blessed to see the good in every Jew, to constantly grow in our own observance and appreciation of the masterpiece designed for us.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Q: What does Amalek have to do with all this?

A: Remember when we talked about Amalek, way back in Parshas Vayeitzei? There, we explained how Amalek’s parents, both racked by doubt on how to understand and live a Jewish lifestyle, became the worst enemies of Hashem and the Jews. Because of that doubt. They were closely connected and invested in the fate of the Jewish people, and they thought they got Israel. As a result, they mocked and attacked and sought his destruction. What Amalek represents is still very much alive today.

This week, immediately after showing such togetherness at the parting of the sea, with every man, woman and child fully committed to following G-d, the Children of Israel test Him. These verses appear back to back:

“Is Hashem in our midst or not?”

“Amalek came and battled Israel in Rephidim.”

(Shemos 17:7-8)

The moment the people begin to doubt G-d, Amalek appears to attack them and prey on that doubt. The nations of the world were terrified of klal Israel after the Exodus. They saw that Hashem was with the people and powerful enough to defeat the biggest empire around. But Hashem’s allegiance to the Jewish people is reflected in the people’s allegiance to Him. Duties of the Heart asks in the fourth gate, Trust in G-d (c.3),

“If, however, one relies on the Creator while at the same time he rebels against Him, how ignorant is such a person, how weak is his mind and his intellect! For he can see that [in human relationships], when an individual is charged with a certain responsibility by another person — who either commands him to attend to one of his affairs or cautions him about something — and he violates this person’s command, if word of his violation then reaches the one who commanded him, it will be the strongest reason for nonfulfillment of that for which he had relied on the other.

Thus Avos 2:4 writes, “Do His Will like your will, so that He will do your will like His Will. Nullify your will before His Will, so that He will nullify he will of others before your will.”

The Midrash describes G-d as previously standing, and only after the song of the sea, was he finally able to sit upon his throne, as his throne only then became sturdy enough. What’s going on?

The answer comes in the final Rashi of the Parsha. Verse 17:16 goes, “For there is a hand on the throne of G-d; Hashem maintains a war against Amalek, from generation to generation.”

Why is the word “Throne/כסא” spelled without the א, as כס? Rashi says, “Hashem swore that His name is not whole nor His Throne whole until the name of Amalek will be completely eradicated.”

When a person stands, he holds himself up completely independent of his surroundings. When he sits, he trust the chair is built sturdy enough to support him.

After the splitting of the sea, when klal Israel sang with complete Emuna for Hashem, they showed complete trust and willingness to accept Hashem’s leadership and will. A King only takes the throne when He has a people to rule. Finally, Hashem had a people who completely trusted him and who he could trust to support His Throne.

That’s the big danger of Amalek. When klal Israel wavers in commitment, Hashem doesn’t feel comfortable sitting down and coming down to us. If He stands up, then He rules independent of the Jewish people and we get less reward from helping Him. Our song builds and shows our connection to Hashem.

May we be blessed to connect to Hashem with song and complete Emuna, so Amalek can never break us down.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman   

Q: Can’t songs be bad too?

A: There’s a famous story in the gemara of Chazal (Our wise ones, may their memories be for a blessing) debating whether Shir HaShirim, King Solomon’s love song between the Jews and G-d, should be canonized due to it’s graphic romantic imagery. Rabbi Akiva said, “All songs are beautiful, but Shir HaShirim is the most beautiful of all.”

Rav Kook clarifies by explaining there are many different levels of song, as follows:

א

ב

ג

ד

ה

1

2

3

4

5

Self

Nationalist

Humanist

World-concerned (focused on animals/environ.

Communal bound with Hashem

  

Most songs are written in the first four levels. Level one is entirely self-focussed — my concerns, my desires. This is beautiful for the base desires and clarity of expression it shows. Only with some level of passion can a person grow, and even passion focused on the self is a starting point. Apathy is the most difficult point from which to grow.

Level two is for people focused on a very specific community, to the exclusion of others. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger says the early Zionists had an unbelievably beautiful passion to restore the land of Israel. But they were so focussed on establishing the political community that they abandoned the family values, the observance of Mitzvos, the love of the community from which they’d came. Most of the establishers were young men with small or non-existent families, and the culture they created became extremely antagonistic toward Torah-Observant Judaism. Their desire for a community of their own caused a split. Thus, it corresponds to the second day of creation, the splitting of the waters, the only day G-d does not describe as good.

Level three is the communion of head, heart and body. It focuses on the global concept of bringing humanity together. This is beautiful when channeled correctly, but it leans too far toward Chesed without din, freedom without constraint. As a result, it is constantly in flux, and can lead to excessiveness.

Level four is concerned with the physical world even more so than humanity. These people might define themselves by their concern for animals or the environment. While it’s critical to care about the world, excessive care specifically on that area can easily lead one to resent human beings, who as a population are causing untold destruction to the world. A person might care more about feeding starving children in Africa than about feeding their neighbor, and turning a blind eye to their neighbor in need. Caring too much about things that aren’t the highest priority is simply another way to be cruel to those in your vicinity and power to help.

Level five is the symbol of womanhood in Judaism, the bond between G-d and the world. Shir HaShirim is level five. When physical actions are directed toward fulfilling G-d’s vision of the perfect community. When poetry and community come together. The Hey is symbolized by a Daled with a Yud in the middle; hence concern with the physical world recognizing that G-d is inside and leads the plan. This keeps us on the straight path.

One more point: The first appearance of musical instruments is in Breishis 4:21, “The name of his brother was Jubal/(יובל); he was the first of all who handle the harp and flute”, which Rashi explains, “to play music for idolatry”.

The Midrash explains at first, people prayed directly to Hashem. But as they became more consumed by their labors, they transitioned to, in their minds, emissaries. So they prayed to the clouds when it rained, and prayed to the grain when it grew.

Music has the power to transition us between the physical world and the spiritual world. It exposes a person’s inner essence. For this reason, a woman’s singing voice is considered an extremely important part of her beauty, capable of elevating those she shares it with to untold heights. Similarly, we greet Shabbas with song and sing at every Shabbas meal in order to further elevate ourselves further away from physical beauty and into spiritual beauty.

Miriam was introduced as Shifra/שיפרה, who as a midwife helped Jewish children into the world against the orders of Pharaoh. The letters of her name spell Shir Peh, “the song of my mouth.” If our mouths filled with the songs of creation, we would elevate song to the highest heights.

But music used for idolatry or physicality has the opposite effect, encouraging people to suppress their connection to Hashem.

That’s the root of the word Jubilee, also the reference to the Jubilee year, the 50th year in Israel when all slaves are freed, all debts are cleared and all land is returned to their original owners.

The very person that corrupted music by removing it from Hashem is commemorated forevermore as the force that returns the land as Hashem intended it, thus showing that all other forces, and all other humans, have no real power before G-d. And that is truly something worth singing about.

May you be blessed to be spiritually uplifted by your music and carry the song of Emuna with you throughout your life!

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman


Leave a comment

Parshas Bo — G-d’s Movie: Visualizing Transcendence

Dear Friends and Family,

What an exciting time this week. The Jews get their first commandments from Moses (starting with Rosh Chodesh, moving on to Pesach), the Egyptians get the last three Makkot, and the long journey to the land of milk and honey begins.

One line summary: Visualizing the best possible you and acting as if you’re already there is the fastest way to maximize your time and abilities.

Parshas Bo: Loving Torah and G-d works at Every Age

The brief idea: Torah is the only material that can challenge and be understood by five year old and 75 year old alike, and both can be right in their understanding if they approach with the right attitude. Moreover, it is the only text that both 5 and 75 year old can talk to each other about, and both will be interested and perhaps, both will learn something new.

The converse is not true. There are masses who approach Torah with the wrong attitude, and whether they are young or the highest IQ academic, they will come out with extremely incorrect and wrong understanding.

We see this with Pharaoh and his ministers at the beginning of Parshas Bo. Pharaoh and his ministers are the most powerful and intelligent in the kingdom, and though they constantly admit the error of their ways (“I have sinned, Hashem is the Righteous One and I and my people are the wicked ones,” says Pharaoh at the end of last week [9:27]), they immediately come up with rationalizations upon relief. A person who always wants to justify his current ego-driven life and beliefs will never be able to grow. Thus, even a child brought up the right way understands Torah more than the lifelong atheistic academic.

Even when Pharaoh is ready to let the people go, he refuses to let the children go (Shemos 10:10). Even when he agrees to let the children go, he refuses to let the animals go (10:24). Every new discovery, every ounce of insight into Torah, causes him to only budge an inch. It’s beyond him to consider the complete truth, the complete value of what he’s experiencing. Thus, every new revelation is painful instead of glorious, every insight into Torah wisdom is a concession instead of a delight.      

May you be blessed to delight in Torah insights and build a world and family of love and learning.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Parshas Bo — G-d’s Movie: Visualizing Transcendence

This week introduces three of the four sons from the Pesach Seder Hagada. The wise son will wait until Devarim (6:20). What’s the advice given? In the future, when your children ask about your observances, tell your…

Wicked Son: “Hashem skipped over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but He saved our households” (Shemos 12:27).

One who doesn’t know how to ask: “It is on account of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt” (13:8).

Simple Son: “With a strong hand, Hashem removed us from Egypt, from the house of bondage” (13:14).

   A generation later, what’s the message we pass down? Holding onto the mental image of leaving Egypt. Visualizing what we’re living for and what we came from is the single most powerful way to hold on to our Judaism.

Rav Dessler says in the name of the Gershaz, “What skill most develops Gedolim (the most brilliant and learned leaders) of Klal Yisrael? The Power of Imagery.

Judaism has known the power of imagery long before the age of movie screens and portable cameras. The Yetzer Hara’s biggest tool is imagery. It appeals to you with false visions of immediate pleasures, of material desires, nearly always through emotion-sense triggered imagery. But the most powerful tools of our baser instinct can also be used powerfully by us. Fight images with images.

The Piacetzner Rebbe served as Grand Rabbi of Piascetzno, Poland until he was murdered in a Nazi camp in 1943. He wrote a personal diary of his spiritual growth called Tzav V’zeiruz, the only personal diary in publication by someone of his stature in Jewish learning and leadership. There he writes that a person becomes great by “envisioning your ideal spiritual self: envision yourself as already the ideal spiritual person you really are. Just imagine the greatness of your soul… see how your soul shines in G-d’s garden, in Eden… Meditate deeply on these pictures…hold these images in your mind’s eye…inevitably you will be aroused to a higher awareness…savor the bliss of embrace by the great Creator as you yearn to actualize this from the depths of your soul.”

During the Rosh Chodesh Amidah this week, I took a minute to first imagine myself as an older, wizened, version of myself. My posture straighter, my opinion more respected, an advisor and partner to an incredible leader. Then I imagined myself giving a report and holding a business meeting with that leader, only able to see His throne, knowing he was listening to every word. So I spoke clearly and professionally, humbly but with confidence, going over the outline of points to discuss one by one. My Amidah was extremely powerful, more so than it has been in months. All because of visualization.

The Sefer HaChinuch gives reasons behind the Mitzvos, listing each one in the order they appear in Chumash. The sixteenth commandment appears in this parsha, specifically, “You shall not break a bone of it” [the Passover offering] (Shemos 12:46). Rashi explains that these bones “are fit for eating, which has meat on it.”

The Sefer HaChinuch explains: “At the root of the precept lies the purpose to have us remember the miracles of Egypt…For it is not a way of honor for royal princes and counsellors of the land to scrape the bones and break them like dogs. This is fit only for the hungry poor of the people to do. Therefore, at the beginning of our emergence to become the choice of all nations, a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation (Shemos 19:6) and again every year at the same time, it is fitting for us to perform deeds which reflect the great degree of excellence to which we rose that hour. Through the action and the symbol that we perform, we set this matter in our souls permanently.”

One last beautiful point on the power of visualization comes from Rav Nachman. He says that when we dream, we visualize an entire story compounding hours or weeks or years within a few seconds of measurable time. But just as we are completely immersed in the dream world until the moment we awake, so too in this world we feel completely immersed until we “awake”. When we don’t visualize a big goal for our lives, a measurement of success in the direction we’re heading, then days, weeks, years, or decades can pass by in a whirl. Looking back, we might have trouble figuring out where all that time went. In our memories, large chunks of time can take on the nature of the dream.

The solution is twofold, and both involve visualization. First, visualize what you want to accomplish in this life, and constantly check yourself to make sure your thoughts and actions are aligned with that goal. A famous Harvard Case Study found that graduates with a concrete five-year plan were far more successful than those with higher GPAs but no clear vision.

Second, visualize that all our actions and thoughts in this world are but a dream for the world to come. Recognize that every event in your life plays a role in encouraging you toward G-d’s path, and the more you perfect yourself and bring out your greatness within, the more you’re likely to succeed in your spirituality and personal growth.

May you be blessed to visualize our redemption from Egypt in your every day struggles, and may your biggest image of yourself simply be the beginning of unlocking your true greatness.

Great Shabbos,

Ari Melman


Leave a comment

Lech Lecha — How should we act when personal growth conflicts with helping others?

Lech Lecha — How should we act when personal growth conflicts with helping others?

Lech Lecha introduces us to Avraham Avinu, the first Ba’al Teshuva, father of the Jewish people. Unlike with Noach, we are given no background or prior life stories. Instead, the parsha opens when Avraham was seventy-five years old, with Hashem telling him to Lech Lecha, “Go for yourself”.

Rashi explains that leaving his land, birthplace and father’s house is a difficult decision for three reasons —money, reputation and reproduction. When you move, you lose your business connections, your relationships and honor, and your privacy to have marital relations, as you’re staying a guest in another’s home. In short, one loses the three physical cravings, the three things for which G-d had previously punished the world.

G-d attempts to soothe him by blessing him: “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” G-d promises Avram he will be repaid in spades, and moreover, he will be a blessing to all he wishes to bless.

A person’s natural instinct is to pick present gain for future possibility, but Avram defies nature. Avram is teaching the Jews that we must swim against the current, that we must build toward an impossibly ambitious future. By eschewing our physical distractions for what really matters, we will achieve the impossible and change the world for the better.

Our closeness to G-d must be personal. We must have courage to be the minority. Obstinacy and persistence marks the Jew, teaches R. Samson Raphael Hirsch.

That’s all a prelude to another question:

Since Sarai and Lot came with Avram, why doesn’t G-d address the question in the plural, “Go for yourselves?”

Avram was the epitome of Chesed, of loving kindness and connecting to G-d through helping others. He was willing to forsake prophesy with G-d for the entire time Lot, described as a rasha/wicked one, was with him (Rashi, Br. 13:14). G-d knew Lot wavered too much to fully commit himself to creating a bold world-changing future. Had G-d said, “Go for yourselves”, Lot’s wavering would have doomed the project from its start.

A Midrash (Rashi, Br 11:28) explains that Lot’s father, Haran, witnessed when Nimrod cast Avram into a fiery pit for destroying his father’s idols. “Haran said in his heart, ‘If Avram emerges victorious, I am of his. And so too if Nimrod.’ When Avram was saved…Haran said, ‘I am of Avram’s supporters.’ They cast him into the fiery pit and he was burned.”

Haran didn’t die believing in G-d; he died believing in Avram. He followed others rather than genuine commitment. Since his faith flip-flopped with the winners of the moment, he was consumed.

Lot follows his father’s path. Although Avram tries to reform him, and successfully imbues him with the habits of a refined man, he doesn’t desire to grow himself. Lot saw Sodom “like the garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt.” Rashi explains, “Lot chose their neighborhood because they were steeped in lewdness, sexual immorality” (Br 13:14). Lot became the high justice of Sodom, using the habits of morality he got in Avram’s home, and the shared wealth Avram got in Egypt, in order to feed his three physical desires: money, reputation and illicit relations.

So now we understand why G-d couldn’t say “Go for yourselves” to include Lot.

Why then, did Avram go to such lengths to take care of Lot?

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Br. 4:9) Cain asked after killing his brother.

Avram is modelling the approach for one governed by Chesed, the extreme extents to which we must care for our brothers. Even though Lot is his nephew, Avram refers to him as brother, particularly when Lot gets kidnapped in Sodom and Avram must drop what he’s doing instantly to rescue him.

Since Avram was the focussed expression of lovingkindness, he reached out to many people, made many souls (“brought them in under the wings of the shekinah/divine presence” says Rashi on Br 12:5), and was even willing to lessen his personal relationship with G-d in order to bring others closer. The greater our Chesed, the better our influence on our community.

We each must make a personal evaluation of how we best connect to the world. As members of a community that’s mixed of Jews of all sorts of observances, we all can learn from Avram’s kindness. The best way to help one that’s disconnected is to show them kindness and model a praiseworthy way for them. But we must also recognize that our connection to Hashem, mitzvot and creating a better world does not rest on how those around us react to us. Show kindness, hospitality and willingness to fight and rescue, but “Go for yourself.”

When Lot is captured, Avram immediately goes to rescue him, trusting that G-d will protect him. The fugitive (Og) that told him about Lot’s capture wanted him killed so he could marry Sarah (Rashi, Br 14:13). Lot, immediately upon being rescued, returns to Sodom. There’s no sense of gratitude for Avram risking his life and spiritual level to nurture, raise and then save him. Even in next week’s parsha, after Sodom was destroyed and the angels begged Lot to return to Avram, he refused, opting instead for a cave all alone with his two daughters.

A person moved by loving kindness doesn’t care about the response, or the other person’s gratitude. They follow a deeper calling, led by their personal mission and directed by Hashem. Instead of merely not killing our brother, we’re given a role model who endangers his own life, both spiritually and physically, to save one even remotely connected to him.

Now we understand the first Rashi, where he says “Go for Yourself” means “For your pleasure (physical) and for your benefit (soul).” When we direct ourselves toward what really drives us, when we ignore the distractions and fleeting pleasures of now for the impossible dreams of tomorrow, we get both physical and spiritual pleasure. We accomplish the impossible, defeating four armies of trained warriors on faith and hard work alone.

My blessing for you is that you learn from Avraham Avinu how to do good in the world. Don’t get discouraged when people don’t respond the way you’d like. Take your mission to heart, believe in it with all you have, and be a force for good in the world. The challenges of now could be what brings on the Mashiach tomorrow.

Bonus Kabbalah thought: The Zohar, our great Kabbalistic text, writes “With his prophetic vision, [Avraham] saw the Messiah, son of David, would descend from Lot.” Lot’s daughter gave birth through him to the Moabites, the ancestors of Ruth, David’s grandmother. For all the confusion and wavering, ultimately his bloodline led to Israel’s greatest king, from which the Messiah will emerge. We cannot know the effect our good has, for it stretches far beyond our knowledge. All we can do is dream the impossible, and work to achieve it every day.

Good Shabbas!   


Leave a comment

Parshas Shemos: The Meaning of Snow — Hardships Foster Truth and Growth

Purpose of Snow:

1) Seems cold but actually insulates ground and keeps it warm throughout winter.

Lesson: What seems bad is actually for the good

2) Comes down piece by piece, each snowflake unique, but easy to mistake as one big homogeneous sheet.

Lesson: When you judge someone, you freeze them in place and don’t appreciate their uniqueness.

3) Encourages us to go inside. What negatively affects our outside can improve our inside.

Lesson: Introspection is the key to recognizing our weaknesses and growing from them.

A story is told of the Ponivitcher Rav, the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust, the youngest of five boys in a very poor family. They only had one pair of winter boots.

When the snow came down, Mother said, “Whoever mother awards them too will get to walk to cheder (school) and learn tomorrow.”

Mother wakes the oldest at 5AM.

“Did I get it?” He asks.

“No. I got it,” Mother said.

She carries him and leaves him at the school’s doorstep. And returns for the next child. On and on until all the children were taken to school. In the evening she picked them up the same way.

The harshness of snow created an opportunity for such a powerful memory that all her children became massive learners and teachers. Although only the Ponivitcher survived, his contribution to Jewish learning after the Holocaust helped rebuild the Yeshiva system and keep Jewish knowledge strong.

Dear Friends and Family,

The birth of Moses, the enslavement of the Hebrews. The most known and thus most misunderstood chapter of the Torah begins this week.

This week, I consider the second parsha (attached in printer friendly format), more interesting and better sourced. But it’s also more aligned with the demand of traditional values. The first one should be accessible and friendly to Jews of all backgrounds and orientations.

Did you know Moses convinced Pharaoh to give the Jews a Shabbos day of rest as good investment strategy? That way, he told Pharaoh, the slaves would live longer and work harder. Thus, on Shabbos morning amiddah, we say, “Let Moses rejoice in his portion (ישמח משה במתנת חלקו)” (Tur, Orach Chaim 281).

Let us rejoice in our portion.

Great Shabbos!

-Ari Melman

P.S. My Brother arrived safely back in the United States. Thank you for thinking of him. We had a very nice time in Jerusalem.

Question of the week: How are pain and hardship a good thing?!?

Parshas Shemos: The Meaning of Snow — Hardships Foster Truth and Growth

Brrr… we got snow this week, and snow gets a mention in the parsha, “[Moshe’s] hand was stricken with tzaraas, like snow” (Shemos 4:6). So what better topic to open with than snow!

Three (3) is a critical number in judaism, representing the balancing point between physical and spiritual (head, heart, and body, the three elements of each human’s reasoning process). Just to contrast that rather vague statement with the meaning of other numbers, 1 represents G-d’s unity which is beyond our comprehension, 2 represents separation (the separation of the waters), and four represents complete physicality (the four corners of a 2-d plane).

Snow in hebrew is שלג. In Gematria, ש is  300, ל =30, and ג=3.

Most adults don’t look forward to snow. After the first few hours, it clogs traffic and makes people cold. So why does it have the treasured wording of 3,3,3 the representation of balance?

R. Moshe Dovid Volle, chevrusa(study partner) of the Ramchal, explains. Snow gets absorbed more into the ground than water because it sits on the ground and gets absorbed gradually. Water splashes over the ground, providing so much that most of the water flows away.

Snow provides the bountiful abundance of Chesed/kindness that rain provides, mixed with din/contraction/restriction.

The enclosed air provides an insulating blanket the keep the soil warm and prevent frost that would kill the valuable bacteria, ants and earthworms constantly tilling the soil. Under the snow, animals sleep through the winter, and Eskimos build houses of snow for warmth. White repels the sun-rays, allowing the snow to warm the earth all winter long without melting. Thus David sings the praise of G-d, “He who gives snow like wool” (Tehillim 147:16) (Avigdor Miller, Awake My Glory, Pg. 287).   

Even though we don’t like cold/din, it is good for us. What appears as harsh and bad is actually the best thing for the soil. The soil emerges from winter still warm and hydrated, ready to flower when the good times come. Precisely what appeared as harsh and cold turns out to be where our greatest gains come from.

We’ve been trained to think of going to a court as the worst case scenario, and hearing rebuke as the worst sign of our failure. In Jewish thought, those are extremely praiseworthy events, for in the moment of judgement, the truth of your actions and the ability to recognize a new road of growth become clear. If you truly are striving for truth and greatness, being told which areas you need to improve on are a blessing in disguise.

Tzaraas, commonly mistranslated as leprosy, is a spiritual disease that appears as a result of lashon hara. It goes away when the afflicted repents for their sin, a process which requires 1) forsaking the sin, 2)confessing you did wrong, 3)creating fences so you don’t do it again and 4) praying to G-d for forgiveness (Rambam, hilchos Teshuva, perek 1, halachah 1). Miriam got tzaraas temporarily when she spoke badly about Moses, and it’s one of the six moments G-d requires us to remember every day (the others are the Exodus, Amalek, Golden Calf, Shabbos, and receiving the Torah).

Moses had to pull out his hand to recognize he got Tzaraas (“then he withdrew it and behold, his hand became stricken…”). But the moment he had repented and put it back in his coat, even before he withdrew it, “it had reverted” (Shemos 4:7). Rashi explains that we learn from here that divine goodness comes quicker than divine punishment.

If we recognize that the cold is actually exactly what we need for growth, that the hardships in life are not simply sickness but an opportunity for reflection and growth, then even painful events in our lives take on great positive significance. We can see this as one of the most difficult and critical concepts in Judaism.

The Hebrew slaves had their hardships increased after Moses told Pharaoh to let them take a three day trek to the desert to praise G-d. The Jews left Egypt at the 49th level of impurity out of fifty, practically on the point of extinction. Yet they became the most holy generation and the closest to G-d that ever existed. Similarly, the messiah of Yosef will emerge from the brink of Jewish destruction and usher in the  greatest era of Jewish spirituality.

The most successful entrepreneurs have the longest record of failures behind them. The information you best remember and the moments of your life that stand out decades later are the ones that were the most emotionally stimulating and tumultuous. Duties of The Heart explains regarding these signs of wisdom, only the most intelligent and insightful appreciate (Second Gate:Reflection, 3). Treasure the hardships and obstacles you encounter, for in them will lie your greatest challenges, and your greatest triumphs.

May you be blessed overcome challenges throughout your life,  so you can constantly grow and craft a better world.

Great Shabbos,

Ari Melman

I forgot the Ponivitcher rav story of mother walking through the snow!

Parshas Shemos: What seems soft is harshest of all. What seems harsh is softest of all. The paradox of hard work and life-long struggle as the only path toward becoming alive.

Pharaoh ordered that every “son that will be born, into the Nile river shall you throw him” (Shemos 1:22). Moses’s mother, who first appears as Shifrah because she beautifies (שפרה/שמשפרת) the child at birth” and serves G-d over Pharaoh (Rashi, Sh. 1:15).

The Nile was Egypt’s god and Pharaoh demanded all the Hebrew boys as a sacrifice to his empire and rule. Thus, Moses was placed in a reed basket above the nile, showing his ascendance above Egypt’s power. No matter whether Egypt persecutes the Jews with the seeming softness of the water or the harshness of drowning, with the seeming softness of integrating them or the harshness of removing the straw, the Hebrew will rise above because they move according to G-d’s will. Thus, Rashi explains why the basket was made of reed: “It is a flexible thing, and can withstand both that which is soft and that which is hard” (Sh. 2:3).

“The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with Parach/ פרך . Parach means crushing/backbreaking labor, it can also denote the two words peh rakh (פה רך), meaning “soft mouth”. Originally, Pharaoh asked the Jews to voluntarily help out, then increasingly made work a higher and higher priority, to the detriment of families, Torah study and personal projects. The roles of men and women (and adults and children) were frequently exchanges, with women forced to plow, hew, lumber, and build. They gave them material that would crumble and increased their workload until their lives would crumble. The word parach can also mean “crumble” (Yalkut Shimoni// Meam Loez pgs.19-20).

The last point to make here is they had the Hebrews build ערי מסכנות  / storage cities. The word מסכנות/mascanot can mean either storage or danger. The walls were built so high with material so flimsy there was physical danger. Building such a big project like this with poor materials can ruin a person, forcing them to spend much more money, time and resources than originally planned. It can also ruin the workers, who are forced to work ever longer hours and getting no sense of creative resolution. All of this was part of Pharaoh’s plan (Yeffeh Toar, p. 6//Zohar, Yitro//Meam Loez 4 p. 16).

“Why is Egypt compared to Maror/bitter herbs? Just as Maror is first soft and later hard, so the Egyptians were gentle in the beginning but afterward became hard” (Pesachim 39A). This is a universal pattern and lesson of life. If you invest early on with hard work to protect and deeply understand the fundamentals of any field, you will be much better prepared to handle the complex challenges down the road. But if you take it easy when the work is easy, then you will be ill prepared for when it becomes hard. If you marry someone based only on light hangouts and easy times, you won’t establish a strong foundation and the relationship will become hard over time. If you assimilate to a society because it treats you well, you will be ill-prepared to stand up to it when it turns against to you.

Moshe first experienced prophesy at the burning bush that was not consumed. G-d revealed himself to Moses in a lowly thorn bush because G-d himself partakes in Israel’s suffering, as He says, “I am with Israel in time of trouble,”(Psalms 91:15). Israel’s status was extremely lowly in the world, like that of a thorn bush among trees (Shemos Rabbah). It is very easy to place one’s hand into a thorn bush, but when one tries to remove it, his hand becomes torn by the thorns. The Hebrews found it easy to integrate, but ever more difficult. The Egyptians found it very easy to accept and enslave, but were severely wounded when the Jews left.

Why did Hashem show Moses the fire burning inside the thorn bush? Bnei Israel is compared to fire, as “The House of Yaakov will be fire” (Obadiah 1:18. Also the divar torah on Vayeishev last month), while the wicked are compared to thorns and thistles. The fire of Israel will not consume the thorns of the nations, nor will they ever douse the flame of Israel which is the Torah. However, in the time to come, the fire will consume, as it says, “Nations will be burning for lime, thorns cut down that are set on fire” (Yeshayah 33:12) (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer Chapter 40).

The central message of Pharaoh vs Moshe can be reduced to: Difficulty with purpose leads to good. Taking the easy road leads to difficulties later on without purpose.

May you be blessed to great tests and even greater victories, to discover strengths in yourself once thought impossible.

Great Shabbos,

Ari Melman        

Purpose of Snow:

1) Seems cold but actually insulates ground and keeps it warm throughout winter.

Lesson: What seems bad is actually for the good

2) Comes down piece by piece, each snowflake unique, but easy to mistake as one big homogeneous sheet.

Lesson: When you judge someone, you freeze them in place and don’t appreciate their uniqueness.

3) Encourages us to go inside. What negatively affects our outside can improve our inside.

Lesson: Introspection is the key to recognizing our weaknesses and growing from them.

A story is told of the Ponivitcher Rav, the only one of his family to survive the Holocaust, the youngest of five boys in a very poor family. They only had one pair of winter boots.

When the snow came down, Mother said, “Whoever mother awards them too will get to walk to cheder (school) and learn tomorrow.”

Mother wakes the oldest at 5AM.

“Did I get it?” He asks.

“No. I got it,” Mother said.

She carries him and leaves him at the school’s doorstep. And returns for the next child. On and on until all the children were taken to school. In the evening she picked them up the same way.

The harshness of snow created an opportunity for such a powerful memory that all her children became massive learners and teachers. Although only the Ponivitcher survived, his contribution to Jewish learning after the Holocaust helped rebuild the Yeshiva system and keep Jewish knowledge strong.


Leave a comment

Parshas Va’Eira — How G-d’s Name Reveals Himself to the World

Dear Friends and Family,

This week, Hashem reveals himself to the world. I hope to share some insights into the purpose and choice of the ten makkot, commonly simplified as plagues but more accurately described as Signs and Wonders (אתתי ואת מופתי – Shemos 7:3).

The quick drash: When Moses tells Pharaoh to let his people go, why does he only ask for three days?

As the verse says, “Let us please now go for a three-day journey in the wilderness and we shall sacrifice to Hashem our G-d” (Shemos 5:3). We know that Moses intended to take the Jews out permanently!

Rav Hutner explains that Pharaoh first deceived the Jews with soft words and only later gave hard labor (Pesachim 39A, recall last week’s drash). Because Pharaoh deceived with soft words, Moses spoke to him measure for measure. Sometimes, the only way to combat a wicked force is by using their own tools against them.

While we shouldn’t attempt this on fellows, this is an incredible tool for fighting our own evil inclination. When something’s difficult for you, tell yourself you’ll do it only another five minutes. Then another five. And so on. In so doing, you’ll accomplish a goal you first thought impossible.

The Stepiler Rav once served guard duty in Russia over Shabbos. The guard before him left the winter coat on a tree branch, making it muksa (forbidden to touch). In the freezing cold, the Steipler Rav told himself he’d take the coat in five minutes. He checked himself every so often to make sure he was still healthy. In so doing, he kept Shabbos in its entirety the entire night. That self-will and control made him great. It came five minutes at a time.

May you be blessed to overcome hurdles with many small steps, and deceive the negative voices in order to accomplish impossible dreams.

Great Shabbos,

Ari Melman

P.S. Attached are an explanation of the first seven makkot in detail as well as the Maharal’s exposition on the name Hashem.

P.S.S Summary: Hashem is G-d’s name of truth. A name represents how the outside world perceives the thing. Thus G-d wants to teach the entire world that he is the only world power. Any benefits humans get from subjugating others or the land, they need to credit to G-d and treat with care and respect. Otherwise, they are acting falsely and selfishly.

Constantly grow in truth and goodness, and you’ll understand more and more the incredible complexity required to see truth. Such that only G-d could have full knowledge. Thus, by trusting and studying his works, you come ever closer to truth and beauty.

Meaning Summary of the 10 Makkot/Plagues

Strangersגרות in their own land

Slave owner <- Slave  עבדות

Imprisonment ענוי

Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch

Abarbanel

Where plague came from:

Blood דם

Frogs צפרדע

Lice כנים

Signs (Rashi)

G-d’s Existence

Below or on Ground

Mixture of wild animals ערוב

Plague דבר

Boils שחין

Signs  (Rashi)

His Divine Providence over nations and individuals

Above ground

Hail of ice and fire ברד

Locusts ארבה

Darkness חשך

Wonders (Rashi)

His Divine Omnipotence

Heavens

Pharaoh told on the bank of the Nile (in private)

Pharaoh told in his royal court (in public)

No warning

Parshas Va’Eira — How G-d’s Name Reveals Himself to the World

This parsha focuses on two main sections:

* The name Hashem (יקוק) is officially revealed to the world and the Jewish people.

* The first seven Makkot/Plagues strike Egypt, with Pharaoh throughout begging for relief and immediately refusing freedom upon getting the relief.

At first, this seems troubling. G-d’s name (Hashem) appeared throughout Breisheis, yet this parsha opens by G-d saying, “I am Hashem. I appeared to Abraham, Issac and Jacob as K-el Shaddai, but through My name Hashem I did not become known to them” (Shemos 6:3). What does this mean?

Rashi explains, “I was not recognized by the forefathers in My aspect of truth…I am faithful to uphold My word, for I promised, but have not yet fulfilled.”

The forefathers recognized G-d through a personal, private connection with him. Although Abraham and Sarah converted many souls in Haran, those converts didn’t have a clear experience with G-d and are not heard from again. All of the miracles performed for the fathers were hidden, whether it be the angels pulling Lot out of Sodom, Avraham defeating the four kings with his tiny army, Pharaoh and Avimelech getting leprosy when they lusted Sarah, or Jacob using super strength to move the lid off the well when he saw Rachel. But the signs and wonders G-d presents in Egypt will be a public announcement of G-d’s complete authority over the world, a sign for the Jews forever and for the rest of the world to open their eyes and get the message.

What’s the purpose of a name? A name is a trait that describes the object for the outside world, since the outside world cannot know the inner world of the named thing.

Your name, while it’s your favorite word, is only useful for allowing others to identify you. The name Hashem is G-d’s aspect of mercy and absolute truth.

What is truth אמת? Truth is when every piece of information fits into a complete picture. A researcher looking for causal relationships can come to a completely wrong conclusion if he doesn’t identify an important factor. Understanding the complexity of the world, both scientifically, in daily decision making, and in understanding Jewish law, is our obligation to have a clearer idea of what complete truth could look like. Only G-d knows all the factors at play, all the various mitzvot and averas being committed. The closer we come to understanding how important each little detail is, the more we appreciate G-d’s overarching greatness.

My rabbi studied with a boy who ran away from home as a teenager. In his early twenties, he became a ba’al teshuva, and re-established relations with his family. The boy then found out that his grandmother had spent the last years of her life weeping tearful prayers every day that her grandchild would return from the path her children had left. Those tearful prayers, many years later, were fulfilled. Whether a prayer is fulfilled now or many years later is beyond human comprehension, but it helps us to see the power of G-d’s ways.

When G-d appears as Hashem to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, he fulfills the promise he made long ago to the fathers. In so doing, their descendants are able to see the truth and place for every promise, every sign that G-d directed in the world.

May you be blessed to constantly search for truth and find G-d’s guiding hand wherever your life journey goes.

Great Shabbos,

Ari Melman

The Maharal explores the meaning of Hashem’s name:

The name (יקוק) is a conglomeration of three words — היה, הוה, יהיה. He was (before time), He is (with us in every moment), he will be (after time). Hashem is beyond space and time, and has complete knowledge and control.

Maharal breaks the name down by the letters as follows:

Yud = Future (Olam Haba) — The Yud is the 10th letter, symbolizing unity (see the 6th perek of Pirkei Avos for many examples of ten elements in creation, commandments, temple miracles, minyan to pray, etc.) The digits are 1-9, but with 10, they all come together.

Hay = Present reality. Hay (5) represents G-d’s presence in this world. The Hay is made up of a daled with a yud inside. The daled is an x/y axis, representing the 4 corners of a 2d, physical plain, with the yud of G-d infused within.

Vav = Extension. The vav means “and”. It represents that reality is such now (the six physical dimensions of the world), but it only continues because there’s a force at play continuing it.

Hay = The second hay is the ability of the world to produce more. This world is our work. It’s up to us to manifest G-d’s name in physicality.

When G-d appears as Hashem, the aspect of complete truth, he is demolishing the Egyptians. Their god of wisdom was the Serpent Sophia, whose followers “Ophites”, means “Serpent People”. The Serpent Wadjet is the patron and protector of all Egypt with an all-seeing eye of wisdom and headed all other deities and pharaohs.

Thus, when Aaron’s staff turns into a serpent and consumes all the staff serpents of Pharaoh’s best magicians and necromancers, they are sending a clear message. Your pantheism is false, your wisdom is empty. There is one true G-d, one truth greater than your masses of falsehoods.

The deeper meaning of the Makkot (Plagues)

The Makkot are G-d’s way of making himself known to the world as sole controller over the universe. The Egyptians prided themselves on great natural resources, which gave them mastery over the world. The Nile provided water and streamed throughout the land, so they weren’t dependent on rainfall, as Canaan would be. They were military leaders which no country dared fight. They were slave masters, wealthy and abusive. They had the luxury to consider their slaves sub-human and there are countless midrashim of their cruelty. When they stopped providing the straw, they told the Hebrew slaves that if they didn’t maintain the quota, the missing bricks would be made up with their dead bodies or their children. They frequently employed the women in physical labor, and allowed no rest or sanitation for the slaves as they spread lice or sunburnt-boils.

1. Turning the Nile into blood — The Nile was a major god of the Egyptians. G-d first struck the nile to show that Egyptian gods had no power without Him. The Nile provided their water. The word Dam shares the Aramaic root דמא meaning, money. One understanding is that the Jews, whose water stayed clean, made lots of money when their slave-masters had to submit to them to buy water from them. Another explanation is that the blood was a visceral reminder to the Egyptians of the horror they committed by drowning countless Hebrew babies in the Nile.

2. Frogs — When David finished Tehilim, he was proud of his accomplishment in praising G-d. A frog said to him, “I sing G-d’s praises more than you, so don’t be proud. In my every breath, there are 3000 mashuls/analogies for G-d’s greatness.” The chumash writes the frogs swarmed into houses, beds, “ovens and kneading bowls” (Shemos 7:28). They were so willing to serve Hashem, they gave their lives by jumping into live ovens. The stench “became foul”, making it extremely difficult for the Egyptians to cook or eat any hot foods for a long time afterwards. The physical pleasure of good food was taken away from them.

At Pharaoh’s entreating, “Moses cried out to Hashem, על דבר הצפרדעים , lit. Because of the talking of the frogs. Maharal explains the cracking of the frogs caused such din the Egyptians could not endure. With every sound, they voiced G-d’s supremacy. This is supported by the very word for frog, צפרדע, meaning “bird of knowledge”. A bird sings G-d’s praises throughout it’s life. Thus a frog does so on the ground, even willing to express G-d’s name in death. That’s an extremely high level.

3.  Lice — Rashi expands on a midrasnhic explanation comparing the plagues to a military siege. First the water supply is destroyed, then the trumpets are sounded [Frogs], then the army shoots arrows [lice], infantry is unleashed against the enemy [wild animals], lancers enter the battle [pestilence], enemy bombarded with burning projectiles [boils from ashes in the air], and with artillery [hail]. The main body is then sent into battle [locust]. The enemy is pinned down to their positions [darkness]. Finally, the high officials are executed[slaying of the firstborn] (Midrash Tanchuma, Bo, Ch. 4).

4. Mixture of Wild Animals — This marks the divine providence from being on G-d’s side, for G-d “shall distinguish the land of Goshen upon which My people stands, that there shall be no mixture of wild beasts there, so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.” Egyptians might think that they drove out the animals and conquered the land, but since G-d is the one truly in charge, the animals can return on a moment’s notice, ready to serve their creator. They also left on their own rather than die, as Rashi explains (8:27) so the Egyptians could not benefit from the hides.

5. Plague — Now that Hashem made it clear he helps those who wish to serve him, he sends an epidemic “and not a thing that belongs to the Children of Israel will die.” Additionally, Rashi explains (9:10) that “An Egyptian who feared the word of Hashem brought his livestock into the houses.” Thus, G-d undermined Pharaoh’s rule step by step, rewarding those who strayed from evil and toward good. However, because those Egyptians didn’t do so from a pure heart, but merely from selfish interests, their animals still suffered in the following plagues. This teaches that when we repent/ do Teshuva, we must do so out of a true desire to be better and follow the right path. If we simply move with the flow, our behaviors will as quickly turn to bad as they do to good. This is a foreshadowing of the golden calf, which the non-Hebrew Egyptians who decided to join the Jews built. The moment the tide seemed to turn against Moses, they were the first to flip their allegiances.

6. Boils — The boils are the first time Pharaoh’s necromancers couldn’t stand before Moses. Up till now, even though they couldn’t replicate the vast majority of the signs, they refused to recognize G-d. The lesson is one still applicable today — no matter how clear the signs are to those who benefit from it and who open their eyes, there will always be well-educated, intelligent people that create vast depths of false explanations or naturalist explanations that allow them not to change their behavior.

7.  Hail of ice and fire — It almost never hails in Egypt. It absolutely never pours “hair and fire blazing inside the hail — very heavy such as had never been in the entire land of Egypt” (9:24). The mixture of opposites, the coming together of contrasting elements, are a miraculous occurrence, as Rashi explains, “by nature they do not coexist, yet to perform the will of their Creator, they made peace between themselves.” This is a lesson that can apply to all of Klal Israel — although we have many different personalities, and many contrasting outlooks, we still come to peace to perform the will of our Creator. That’s why the gemara is a series of debates, and why Jewish life is entirely dedicated to arguments for the sake of heaven. We are made to marry “a helper against us”. Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel engaged in “arguments for the sake of heaven.” Our differences are what make us great, and despite everything that makes us separate, following Hashem brings us together in peace.

That’s the meaning of truth — seeing how all the various elements, so contrasting, so different from one another, truly come together to create a better world. That’s the big lesson for us to take away, the fundamental precept of Judaism.

May you be blessed to follow the Creator’s signs and path, and find yourself always on the right side, striving to perfect the world.

Next week are the last three makkot. Until then, have a Great Shabbos!

-Ari Melman