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Parshas Shemini: Defeating the Yetzer Hara — The Connection between Snakes and Egypt

Parsha Shmini summary: Frightening deaths of Nadab and Abihu for drunkenly bringing offerings. We also get the laws of keeping Kosher

Chametz represents the yetzer hara — the source of physical desires that promise joy but actually bring an endless source of discontentment.

We make matzah today only because of the mitzvah attached to it — thus, when we eat it, we truly feel the primary reason is not to satisfy our stomachs but to connect to Hashem and our Jewish identities. In so doing, we replace our natural physical desires with desires for growth.

Have a Fantastic Passover!

-Ari Melman

Defeating the Yetzer Hara: The Connection between Snakes and Egypt

Vayikra 11:42 states, “All that goes on it’s belly [גחון]…of every creeping creature that creeps upon the round, you may not eat them, for they are an abomination.” The word גחון has an enlarged vav/ו in the text. Rashi explains that the word also means, “a snake. The term means bending low, for it goes bent low and fallen on its stomach”. The vav is a straight line, mimicking the orientation of a snake, without legs or extensions.

As we know from the Garden of Eden, the snake also represents the yetzer hara, the lure of physical desire. At the end, the snake is punished — “Upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life (Gen. 3:14).” Chazal wonders why this is a punishment — after all, Adam must eat “by the sweat of your brow”, but the snake is constantly surrounded by food, literally living in his sustenance. Many worms and snakes even lay eggs inside fruit and grow inside the fruit, literally living inside their sustenance (R. Bachya). Shouldn’t being surrounded by your food, without too much work, be a dream come true? Isn’t that what Eden was?

To emphasize this even more, when G-d tells the Jews about Israel, he contrasts it with Egypt. In Egypt, the Nile provided all the water you needed, whenever you wanted. But in Israel, you will be completely dependent on the rain, or else you will experience famine and drought. Is such poverty really a selling point?

Here’s the answer: After G-d bans Jews from eating creepy crawlies, he explains, “For I am Hashem Who brings you up from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you; you shall be holy, for I am holy (Vayikra 11:45).” Rashi explains, “In all verses that refer to G-d taking Israel out of Egypt, it is written, ‘I brought you out’, but here it is written, ‘who brings you up’. R’ Yishmael taught ‘had I not brought Israel out of Egypt for any reason other than that they do not make themselves impure through creeping things, as do the other nations, it would have been sufficient cause for them to have been redeemed, and abstaining from creeping things is an elevation for them.’”

   When all of our physical needs are provided for, we have a much easier time denying G-d’s presence.

R. Zev Leff tells the story of a 17-year-old who had recently attempted suicide. Why? His rich father was about to remarry, but the new wife would only agree on the condition he boot out his son. So dad handed his son two keys, one to a penthouse apartment, the next to a sports car, and a credit card. His parting words to his son were, “Treat yourself, but never try to contact me again.”

This boy was the most miserable person R. Leff had ever met, even though he had his whole life provided for him. But he was missing the most important component: love. His father’s gifts were the exact opposite of love — ‘I’ll give you everything you need now, so that I never have to see your face again.’ This was Hashem’s punishment to the snake — you so completely opposed me, that I’ll give you everything you need now so as not to have a relationship with you.’

Eretz Yisrael is completely dependent on rain for survival — thus, in every season, we must tap into our connection with Hashem and request help from Him to continue. This reminds us of our true desire, our true source of joy — feeding the soul, not the body.

The Bilvavi writes that the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, but desire. The yetzer hara feeds off the sadness we feel when we slip up, when we sin, and hedges on that to create more desire. If a person breaks a diet and has a small piece of cake, the yetzer hara grows most powerful when it convinces the person they might as well eat the entire cake now that they broke their diet. But the desire for cake won’t bring happiness — it can only bring more desire. What brings happiness is removing the desire and returning to the state where your happiness wasn’t conditional on externals. True happiness is built only on a strong sense of self, purpose, and connection to Hashem, internal measures that nobody and no thing can take away.

That is our blessing — we must work hard to achieve this state, we must toil “by the sweat of our brow”, but we can have a constant connection to Hashem, a constant joy.

May we be blessed to leave Egypt in our minds, to not be among the snakes too comfortable in material comforts, but rather in a constant state of joy, with friends, family, and Hashem.

Have a Fantastic Shabbas and Passover!

-Ari Melman

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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 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