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Leadership Lessons and Parsha Insights


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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 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