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Leadership Lessons and Parsha Insights


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Spice up your Seder: Highlights from Exodus

Dear *|FNAME|*,

Spice up your Seder: Highlights from Exodus

The Haggadah dedicates a large number of pages to preamble completely unrelated to the actual story of Exodus of Egypt. Many families think the number of pages dictate the pace of the Seder and spend a long time reading these cryptic passages about 10 miracles vs 40 vs 400 and so on.

R. Taub’s key advice: Read through the printed preludes quickly, and spend the bulk of your time off the page, telling the story in as much interesting and passionate detail and excitement as you can.

Get the entire table involved off the page to truly feel you’re reliving the story!

A few favorite highlights from the Exodus story:

(They all come from the excellent Me’Am Loez Anthology of Midrashim (Volume Exodus 1-4 Israel in Egypt))

I. The story is full of logical deductions that reveal moral priorities — Pharaoh decides how to diminish the Israelite population, knowing G-d will avenge them in a similar manner. “We must therefore kill them by drowning, since their G-d has sworn never to bring another flood on the earth (Gen. 9:11). We know that the Israelite G-d always makes the punishment fit the crime. We must therefore kill the Israelites in such a way that such a fitting punishment will be impossible.”

The Israelite midwives (incl. Moses’s mother, Yochebed and Miriam) similarly knew that by Torah law, abortion (even upon birth!) is not considered murder if the alternative is martyrdom and thus, they could have obeyed Pharaoh’s decree. However, they learned from the Akeidah (when Avraham was ready to sacrifice his only son Isaac), that a Jew hurries to do the Creator’s bidding even against the thoughts of man. In risking their lives, the midwives too went far beyond the requirements of logic and law to fear G-d more than any man.

The midwives even ensured that all Israelite children received sufficient food, even the many that went uncircumcised, further modeling the ways of Avraham and Sara whose house was open to all guests without inquiring as to their character.

When Pharaoh realized, he confronted the midwives (Ex. 1:18-19). The midwives answered how Pharaoh thought, “The Hebrew women give birth naturally, like wild beasts, without requiring our help. As to why we provide their food, we don’t do it out of love for the children. We devised a plan to gain a reputation for providing food for indigent families. This would provide an inducement for women to seek our services, and we would then be able to obey your orders and kill the babies.”

Pharaoh could not find fault with their argument, and accepted what they told him. Thus, their fear of G-d gave them the strength and merit to produce a Moses and usher the Exodus.

May the example of the midwives inspire us to give generously with our entire being and guide our logical thinking through fear and love of Hashem.

II. I’ve never seen a legitimate claim from Torah sources that Jews built the pyramids. To the contrary, the Chumash speaks of the Jews building the storage cities of Pithom and Rameses (Ex 1:11) only. The word  מסכנות means “build”, “danger”, or “poor man”. The walls of the buildings were so high that workers were killed by falling or by having bricks fall on their heads. The more they worked, the more the cities fell apart. Engaging in building such as this can be financially ruinous — a small estimate grows into a massive expense. The material crumbled easily and crumbled even more once Pharaoh refused to supply their straw.

Women were made to do men’s backbreaking work, and men were made to do women’s labor, unable to help their wives. Pharaoh decreed that if a man did not make his quota of bricks, either he or his child would have to be placed in the structure to make up for the missing bricks.

III.  The Egyptians issued four harsh decrees against the Israelites:

1. Appointed slave drivers over them and forced them to build Pithom and Rameses.

2. Forced backbreaking work and made their lives bitter with harsh labor.

3. Decreed every male infant be drowned in the Nile.

4. Stopped giving them straw, demanding the same quota of bricks as before.

Paralleling these four decrees, G-d announced he would rescue His people in four different ways:

1. “I will bring you out from the subjugation of Egypt.”

2. “I will free you from their slavery.”

3. “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”

4. “I will take you to Me as a nation.”

These four different steps of redemption parallel the four cups of wine drunk at the Seder. The first two cups represent our Exodus from Egypt (the past), and the second two cups, drank after Hallel, represent our redemption in the Messianic era, the goal to which we strive (the future). Pesach commemorates our constant growth in freedom from physical constraints toward spiritual union.

IV. How come the plagues started as ones the Egyptians would be able to duplicate? If Moses began with miracles the Egyptians couldn’t duplicate, they wouldn’t have tried. But now that they had duplicated several of Moses’ signs, they would have no excuse when they were unable to duplicate the rest.

How come the first miracle they showed was Aaron’s staff (Ex 7:13) consuming the snakes of the Egyptian occultists? Furthermore, the staff didn’t become bigger, nor change at all, as it swallowed the many snakes on the floor. Answer: If Aaron’s staff had such power, it could swallow Pharaoh and his throne without leaving a trace. As soon, as Moses and Aaron left, Pharaoh railed for their deaths, but as soon as they returned, he became impotent as a dead stick.

The snake (as we know from the Garden of Eden) represents our physical desires. The staff represents the straight path, the path of the Israelite, ישר קל, one who lives straight with G-d. Aaron showed that the Israelites, although they might seem corrupted and seeped in the physical world of the Egyptians, could become straight and correct all their previous deviations in an instant. Once corrected, they could approach physical pleasures in the correct way, and imbue them without straying an inch from the straight path. That is the mission of the Jew — to elevate all the physical pleasures in this world into proper use.

V. What’s the reason for the plague on livestock (Ex 9:6)? The Egyptians forced the Israelites to tend their flocks in the distant deserts and mountains, to keep them from being with their wives and having children. They also made the Israelites do the work of beasts, as David recalls, “The plowers plowed with my back and they made long furrows” (Psalms 129:3). Since the Egyptians used Israelites like animals, they were punished by losing their animals.

The greatest danger Pharaoh posed was killing as many Israelite children as he could. Thus, the essence of our tasks on Seder night, these first two nights of Pesach, is to relive the story and tell it as powerfully as possible to our children. Even if there are no children present, and even if everyone at the table is well versed in the story, we are still obligated to tell the story with as much detail and excitement as possible? Why is that?

The Bilvavi writes that the heart thinks like a little child — it does not respond well to complex intellectual ideas. It lights up with simple, powerful, meaningful connections. No matter how developed we’ve become, our heart still responds best to the simplicity of emotional connection, and no matter how far it matures, it still listens best in the manner you’d teach your children — slowly, repetitively, with as much feeling and excitement as possible.

May you be blessed to have a Seder ignited with passion, with storytelling, with questions and answers galore, and with renewed enthusiasm to serve Hashem, to unleash the chains on your soul, and to bring on the coming redemption in our days.

Have a Great Passover!

-Ari Melman

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Parshas Tzav: The Meaning of Matzah

This week’s Dvar Torah comes via Yosef Platt at CKD Kollel. Yosef is a Cherry Hill raised Talmud Chacham.

I will be sending out much shorter emails in the near future, as I’ll be switching to a more rigorous Yeshiva and learning schedule. Thank you for joining me on the adventure.

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman

Summary:

Matzah represents Alacrity and Humility — Upon leaving Egypt, the Jews baked quickly and didn’t let it rise (ie. become haughty). Thus, we must move fast in performing Mitzvot (which shares the same letters as the word Matzah) and be humble and appreciative of what we have.

The biggest impediment to gratitude is when we think we deserve or earned everything we get. To fix this, envision what would our lives be like without this kindness in our life. By recognizing what lack would feel like, we will be more inspired to appreciate what we have.

Parshas Tzav: The Meaning of Matzah

The Mincha offering prohibits bringing Chametz, and requires bringing Matzah. Only the Thanks offering (תודה) and the Two Loaves allow Chametz offerings on the alter (מנחות נב:). The Ramban explains that both the Thanks offering and the Two Loaves share the common denominator of giving thanks (Ramban, Vayikra 24:17). Chametz normally lacks the quality of “thanksgiving”, which matzah provides.

This leaves a major question and a beautiful answer:

1. What does matzah (and it’s counterpart, chametz) symbolize?

The Answer

Symbol 1: זריזות

Rev Wolbe asks, “What’s the biggest impediment to gratitude? It’s when we think everything we get, we deserve. Or we earned. The way to fix this is to envision what would be if this kindness wasn’t in my life.

The Sefer Hachinuch (מצוה קיז) explains that Matzah reminds us to have fervor, by not delaying, in Serving G-d. We must be light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the Mitzvot. Matzah is a great symbol for that because the dough turns to bread instantly.

This week, I visited my Rabbi’s matzah making factory, where the entire process, starting from mixing flour with water, to pulling the matzah out of the oven, takes less than 18 minutes. I hadn’t realized before that the matzah is only in the oven for a few seconds! It forms instantly. This must be the speed with which we form our resolve to serve Hashem.

The Ramchal in Path of the Just (פרק ח) defines זריזות, alacrity, as, “When one recognizes the good Hashem provides, he desires/cherishes/feels an obligation (חובה/חיבה) to return good. This is already inherent in a Thanks offering, and thus doesn’t need Matzah as an added symbol to internalize the message.

Symbol 2:  רחוק מגאוה

The Sefer Hachinuch continues that Matzah represents the absence of גאוה, translated as haughtiness/arrogance/pride. Rambam (הלחות דעות פרק ב הלכה ג) famously explains that in every middah/character trait EXCEPT anger and arrogance, one should strive to take the middle path. But one should avoid those two completely. Even that has an exception. Rambam says elsewhere that arrogance/pride for learning can be useful, even necessary. After all, one who thinks he’s the best in the class will work harder to keep up his reputation, and thus gain in learning.

Rev Wolbe says that young students/bachrim shouldn’t work on the character trait of pride because it could cause them to be less successful. Rev Berkowitz illustrates this with a story of R. Eliyashev, one of the giants of the last generation who was famous for learning non-stop, day and night, his entire life. A student came to him and told him he’d been studying diligently for fifteen years and still didn’t have clarity in his learning. Rev Eliyashev responded, “I also don’t have clarity in my learning.” A pride in learning Torah isn’t actually pride at all — the more one learns, the more he realizes the depth and impossibility of complete understanding and he cannot be arrogant.

Connecting Pesach to Shavuos:

The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the primary reason we were taken out of Egypt (Pesach) was to receive the Torah (Shavuos). We made Matzahs because we needed to leave Egypt quickly. Rashi recognizes the word Matzah shares the same letters as Mitzvah — Just as we shouldn’t let our matzah turn into Chametz by acting slow to make it, so too we shouldn’t let our Mitzvahs turn into Chametz by being slow to act on them. We must act with alacrity, and a genuine recognition of the joy of serving G-d. When we hear our neighbor is sick, when we prepare for Shabbas, when we work honestly in business, and all the other areas of life which our Mitzvahs govern, we must perform with fervor and humility. The person who makes himself humble, like Matzah (or the desert) will fill with Torah and connection.

Shavuos, the day we received the Torah, is thus a day for thanking Hashem. If it wasn’t for Torah, we wouldn’t have a path toward greatness.

In the Talmud (פסחים סח:), Rav Yosef demonstrates the idea that to be grateful, envision what life would be like without that kindness, without the Torah. Rav Yosef says that he never would have merited his positive attributes and great stature if not for the discipline and growth process imbued through the Torah. Without the Torah, there would be no qualitative difference between individuals — everyone would have their genetic gifts and nobody could be judged according to the level they developed themselves. But because we do have Torah, we are given this roadmap for closeness and betterment.

Envision your life without Torah, without the close relationships and tight family and loving community and connection to Hashem that Torah has given us. Without it, we’d still be successful in our careers, we’d still have families, we’d still have our exteriors, but how much would we be missing? Appreciate what you have, by imagining what life would be like if you didn’t have it.

This is a great goal to focus on through the 49 days of counting the Omer — verbally express gratitude for what you do have. If you do this even once a day, by Shavuos, you will feel truly connected and thankful for Torah.

May you be blessed to recognize all the good in your life and appreciate what you do have ever more.

Great Shabbas and Great Pesach!

-Ari Melman (This dvar was presented by Yosef Platt, a Cherry Hill raised Talmud Chacham)

  


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Parshas Yitro: Stand Before Hashem, Awaken the Spiritual You

Parshas Yitro: Stand Before Hashem, Awaken the Spiritual You

Dear Friends and Family,

Imagine you are standing before Mt. Sinai. Thunder and lightning crack through the air. You see the sound of the shofar and hear the sight of the Ten Commandments being formed.

You are standing on holy ground. Having a conversation with your Creator. For this moment, He is listening carefully to your every word, your every request. Only He has the power to make your dreams and desires come true.

Everyone is trembling, afraid to hear His response. Are we pure enough? Are we accomplished enough? But He tells us to ask anyway. “Keep my covenant and be a treasure to Me from among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine. Be to Me a kingdom of leaders and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).

Today, we are commanded to remember every day receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We must visualize in our minds as if we were truly there, experiencing it.

That’s because we were there, through the unbroken link of tradition. But the verse speaks in the present tense, “On this day, the Children of Israel arrived at the wilderness of Sinai” (Sh. 19:1). Rashi explains: “What is meant by ‘on this day’? That the words of Torah should be new to you as if it was given today.”   

There’s a concept that all possible varieties of personalities among the Jewish people were present at receiving the Torah. Reincarnation in one concept can be seen through parallel behaviors, seeing aspects of other people in ourselves and fixing the areas they and we are weak in. In such fixing, we learn about and repair ourselves. In this sense, we are connected to those standing at Mt. Sinai. We go through the same struggles, experience the same doubts both personally and communally and learn the same Torah.

Every time we pray, every time we speak G-d’s name, every time we study Torah, we stand at Mt. Sinai.

Imagine. Allow yourself to tremble before Hashem. Fill with wonder and awe.

See your ancestor, who is really you, with all your strengths and all your weaknesses, but on the level of prophesy (Ramban), hearing G-d. This is the spiritual you.

Embrace your spiritual you. You are beautiful. You are a spark of holiness. You are fulfilling the life of the Living G-d.

May you be blessed to tap into your spiritual you and stand before Mt. Sinai, stand before G-d, inspired every day of your life.

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman

How is “I Am Hashem” a commandment? And why did the Jewish people need to hear the first two commandments directly from G-d?

Q: There’s a major argument whether the first commandment can be “I am Hashem your G-d” (Sh. 20:2). You can’t be ordered until you accept the authority. That Hashem gave the mitzvot is a pre-requisite to believing the mitzvot. Why do Rambam and Ramban list it as a Mitzvah?

A: Rambam: It’s a mitzvah to know G-d — Rambam offers “proofs” in Guide to the Perplexed. Hilchos Tshuva 10/6 writes that a person cannot connect to Loving G-d unless he develops and grows throughout life. Love of G-d is directly related to one’s knowledge of G-d. A person who understands and reflects on science, Torah, and the social fabric of our world in a way that helps him understand the creator will come to Love of G-d.

A2: Ramban: The prohibition of serving other gods is the negative commandment form that comes out of the positive commandment of serving G-d. Not serving other gods wouldn’t have any meaning without recognizing the true G-d.

Most prophets take nature and bring out its ethical content (with metaphors and miracles). Avoda Zara is false ethical content in nature, ascribing ethics to the separate parts rather than the combined whole. A person needs prophesy to realize true ethical content of nature is that nature serves G-d. So the people needed prophesy to hear the first two commandments.

A second level of understanding the commandment “I am Hashem”:

Rambam: Pursuing G-d through the intellect.

Ramban: Pursuing G-d as ethical decider.

Why is humanity born with a desire to pursue ethical and scientific discovery and understanding? Because G-d wants to communicate with us. When we have the proper lens, study is a means of informing us of our creator.

What is so remarkable about this? When we study for the right purpose, to connect to Hashem and become better people, then even if we get the wrong answer, one overturned or disproven by later generations, it doesn’t diminish our fundamental purpose. Because our fundamental purpose is Love of Hashem. Discovering truth brings us closer to Love of Hashem, but even discovering only a partial truth still brings us closer to Love of Hashem.

Secular philosophers can argue for greater truth generation after generation without reaching any sense of correctness or completion, but for Jewish philosophers, the means are the ends! Thinking as critically as they can about Hashem’s wonders of Creation is itself the ultimate goal, and thus every person is capable of coming closer to Hashem.

The first 2 commandments are that G-d wants to communicate with us. They are the means of informing us of our Creator.

The last 8 are what he wants from us. They are a compressed version of every commandment in the entire Torah.

Non-Jewish nations were offered Torah. They said, “I want to think about it!”

No! The Jew says, “Let me do and then understand.”

Rav Soloveitchik says all ethicists agree: When you’re in my house, play by my rules. Otherwise, get out.

If G-d created the world, I must follow his rules. It’s his house. This comes from reflecting on the wonder of Creation and recognizing this as G-d’s house (Rambam’s view).

Hillel said, “That which you wouldn’t want done to you, don’t do to your friend.” Rashi explains that friend here refers to G-d. Hillel follows Ramban’s view of ethical relationships stemming from communication and relationship with Hashem.

Every Mitzvah, every halachah has a intellectual command and an ethical aspect.

May we be blessed to grow in intellectual and ethical understanding of Torah and Hashem throughout our lives.

God Trusts Women More

Q: What’s the first words G-d tells Moshe on Mt. Sinai?

A: “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and tell to the Sons of Israel” (Sh. 19:3). Rashi explains the House of Jacob are the women and the Sons of Israel are the men.

The Midrash on this verse explains: Speak to the women first because they are closer to spirituality. They have greater emotional intuition and have the leading role raising the children to be close to Hashem. They accept the truth of Mitzvot more readily than men and stay more committed even when they don’t have an intellectual answer on hand to answer the doubters.

G-d trusts the women more because the women intuitively trust G-d more.

Chovos Levavos/Duties of the Heart writes, regarding human relationships, “When an individual is charged with a certain responsibility…and he violates this person’s command, if word of his violation reaches the one who commanded him, it will be the strongest reason for nonfulfillment of that for which he had relied on the other. This is certainly true then of one who rebels against G-d” (P.381 Gate 4/3).

That trust in G-d, the commitment to do and understand at all times throughout history, is stronger in women than in men, and the most important factor in passing on Judaism from one generation.

May you be blessed to stay strong in your trust of Hashem and spread love of Hashem on to the future.

Q: Why is the parsha giving the Ten Commandments named Yitro? He isn’t even present at Har Sinai!

A: He taught Moses to appoint judges for as few as every ten people, taking the vast majority of judicial power out of his hands. Beforehand, Moses was basically an absolute monarch.

The entire premise of Mitzvot is that every individual has the obligation to rule over himself or herself, in order to maximize their humanity and connection to their Creator. To foster that, the Jewish people need a culture that cultivates vast numbers of judicial leaders. Ideally, everyone would be a judge over themselves. Only when they lack knowledge or slip do their peers help them realign themselves.

Rashi says that the episode of Yitro advising Moses to appoint judges comes after the giving of the Torah, even though it appears out of order beforehand. The Torah tells us that for a Torah environment to function properly, every community, every individual must channel their din, their personal checks and balances to grow. Wherever our level of Torah observance or personal challenges, the Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people.

May we be blessed to continually judge ourselves and grow ever closer.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman


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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


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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.