PARASHAT BESHALACH – Rabbi Fishel Todd

PARASHAT BESHALACH

Rabbi Fishel Todd

Shulchan Aruch Project

QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF PARASHAT BESHALACH

Who said to whom, and under what circumstances?

(a) The wilderness has locked them in.

(b) Do not fear! Stand fast, and see the salvation of G-d.

(c) For G-d is waging a war for them against Egypt.

(d) G-d shall reign for ever and ever.

(e) Sing to G-d, for he is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.

(f) As we sat by the flesh-pots of Egypt, as we ate bread to satisfaction.

(g) This is what G-d has spoken: tomorrow is a rest day, a Holy Sabbath to G-d.

(h) How long will you refuse to observe My commandments and My teachings?

(i) Is G-d amongst us or not?

(j) The war of G-d against Amalek shall be from generation to generation.

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF PARASHAT BESHALACH

Rabbi Fishel Todd

(a) G-d to Moses – about His tempting Pharaoh to pursue the Israelites by changing their route, giving him the impression that the Israelites were stranded in the desert. (14:3)

(b) Moses to the Israelites – as they saw the Egyptians in pursuit. (14:13)

(c) The Egyptians to each other – realizing the power of G-d as He gave them a rough ride in their chasing the Israelites though the parted Red Sea. (14:25)

(d) Moses to the Israelites – as a conclusion to the Song of Moses in thanksgiving for the miracles of the Red Sea. (15:18)

(e) Miriam, to the women, in leading them in the Song of Miriam, sung in thanksgiving for the miracles at the Red Sea. (15:21)

(f) The Israelites, to Moses and Aaron. They were complaining about the food in the desert, looking at the past in Egypt with rose-colored spectacles. (16:3)

(g) Moses to the Israelite princes, when they reported the double portion they received on the sixth day of the week. (16:23)

(h) G-d to Moses – following the disobedience of certain Israelites who went out to gather the manna on the seventh day. (See the commentaries section for further explanation of this verse.) (16:28)

(i) Moses – in calling the place of the Israelite protest Masa U-Meriva (strife and quarrel). He records that they were ‘testing’ G-d, as they had contended ‘Is G-d amongst us or not?’ (17:7)

(j) According to the simple context of the verse, it is Moses declaring that war of G-d against Amalek shall be from generation to generation. Amalek is the permanent enemy of His people. (17:16)

Rabbi Fishel Todd

QUESTIONS ON RASHI TO PARASHAT BESHALACH

Rabbi Fishel Todd

From where, within Rashi’s commentary, may the following values / rules be found?

(a) One ought not to demand the impossible from one’s children.

(b) G-d makes Himself known to humanity as He enables good to triumph over evil.

(c) There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action. The two should not be confused with each other.

(d) G-d punishes the wicked according to their degree of evil.

(e) G-d does not only bring distress to those who actually harass Israel, but to those far away who support the harassment.

(f) When a person complains and protests, he should do it in a decent manner.

(g) A person should ask for what he needs in whatever he is doing, not for luxuries.

(h) It is forbidden for a person to travel a substantial distance from his own settlement into an uninhabited area on Shabbat.

(i) G-d has His ways of supporting those who study Torah.

(j) It is important for a leader to give his people the benefit of the doubt.

(k) One should respect one’s students as one respects oneself.

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON RASHI TO PARASHAT BESHALACH

(a) The text recalls that Joseph adjured his descendants that his final resting place should be in the Holy Land, and that his remains should be transferred there when the Israelites finally leave the country. Unlike his father Jacob, he did not command his children to bury him in the Holy Land immediately after his death. For Jacob had a son – Joseph the Viceroy of Egypt – with enough authority to carry it out: Joseph himself did not. (13:19)

(b) The text states that after Pharaoh pursues the Israelites, G-d ‘will be honored though Pharaoh’ – through the miracles forming His judgement over him. (14:4)

(c) As the Egyptians approached the fleeing Israelites, G-d told Moses not to stand in prayer, but to direct the Israelites to travel forward. (14:15)

(d) The text of the Song of Moses states that some of the Egyptians drowned ‘like stone’ (v.5), others ‘like straw’ (v.7) and yet others ‘like lead’ (v.10). This shows that each Egyptian was treated according to what he deserved. The worst were tossed about like weightless straw – incessantly thrown around – suffering the most. The best of the group sank like lead – a quick death, and those in the middle sank a little slower – like stone. (15:5)

(e) The text states that the ‘princes of Edom will panic, the powers of Moab will tremble’. (15:15) Even though these people did not actually oppress the Israelites, they are made to suffer deep unease and fear. This is because the power they had faith in and supported against the Israelites was hurled into the abyss in such a spectacular manner. (15:15)

(f) We may learn the importance of asking for essentials in a respectful manner in Rashi’s comment to 15:25 – where he states that the Israelites should have asked Moses to pray to G-d to send them water, rather than merely grumble to Moses and Aaron (15:24) about the lack of water.

(g) The Israelites complained about the lack of bread and meat in the desert. Bread is an essential – therefore the ‘bread from heaven’ fell at the convenient hour in the morning. Meat is a relative luxury – and in any case they still had cattle from the spoils of Egypt – therefore G-d showed His displeasure in bringing the quails at inconvenient evening hours. (16:8)

(h) G-d’s telling Moses that on the seventh day ‘everyone should remain in his place: let no person leave his place on the Sabbath day’ (16:29), is used as a source by the Talmud as a basis for the Rabbinical rule that a person may not travel more than two thousand cubits into uninhabited territory, and if he does, he may not travel more than four cubits until Shabbat is over.

(i) The text states that a small amount of Manna was to be set aside in a suitable container as a reminder to future generations that, as in the desert, G-d has His ways and means of looking after His people who serve Him (16:32-33).

(j) When the Israelites suffered thirst at Rephidim and they complained vociferously to Moses, he cried out to G-d with ‘what can I do for these people – they are about to stone me’! (17:4) Although the people did not protest in the most polite way, they did not personally threaten Moses. In G-d telling Moses to ‘pass before the people’ he was demonstrating to him that he should see for himself that the Israelites did not have violent intentions towards him even in the most extreme circumstances, and that he should have given them the benefit of the doubt.

(k) Moses is recorded to have told Joshua to ‘choose men for us’ (17:9) to go into battle against the Amalekites. Joshua was Moses’ student, yet he treated him as an equal…

QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO PARASHAT BESHALACH Rabbi Fishel Todd

Rabbi Fishel Todd

(a) Why, according to Ibn Ezra, did Moses tell the Israelites to wait for Divine Intervention against the pursuing Egyptians, rather than urge them to physically go into battle, as he did later with the Amlekites?

(b) Why, according to the Ohr Hachayim, did G-d tell Moses not to stand in prayer as the pursuing Egyptians approached, but to order the Israelites to go forward – into the Red Sea?

(c) What, according to the Ramban, is the relevance of ‘G-d shall reign for ever and ever’ (15:18) to the content of the Song of Moses?

(d) G-d declared that He would give a daily supply of food to the Israelites, so that He ‘would test them – whether they would follow… (the) Torah or not’. (16:4) What was that actual test according to Rashi, the Ramban, and the Ohr Hachayim?

(e) On Shabbat, some people went out to gather Manna and found none. For that, the text states, G-d said to Moses: ‘How long will you refuse to observe My commandments and My teachings?’ (16:28) Why was that rebuke directed at Moses instead of at the errant Israelites? – according to Rashi, and Ibn Ezra.

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO PARASHAT BESHALACH

(a) Ibn Ezra suggests that the Israelites were incapable of fighting without miraculous Divine intervention, because generations of being slaves to the Egyptians had destroyed the necessary initiative and fighting acumen. That is why only Moses’ prayers enabled them to later overcome the Amalekites.

(b) The Ohr Hachayim states that this was not the time of prayer for the following reason. The Israelites had to have the merit of showing faith in G-d in order that they might be saved through Divine intervention. That was that they should ‘journey forth’ (14:15) – and demonstrate that faith by entering the Red Sea when it was in full flow… It would be that act of faith – not the prayers of Moses and Aaron – that would make them worthy of G-d’s salvation at the Red Sea.

(c) According to the Ramban, these words link the miracle of the Red Sea to G-d’s salvation in the future. Just as He destroyed the might of Egypt, so may He reign forever, saving His faithful from those who seek their harm.

(d) The test connected with the Manna was, according to Rashi, whether they would keep the intricate laws of Shabbat associated with it or not. The Ramban prefers a simpler interpretation – would the Israelites follow Me even though they do not have food for the next day? The Ohr Hachayim places the emphasis on ‘Torati’ (16:4) – now all their needs are taken care of, would they employ their free time to Torah study and service of G-d?

(e) According to Rashi, the rebuke was directed at Moses as he had failed to impress on the people that they were to receive a double portion on the sixth day for Shabbat. Ibn Ezra, however, argues that although the rebuke was directed at Moses, he was not its object – he was the spokesman to convey that message to those who were actually guilty Rabbi Fishel Todd.

ITEM FOR DISCUSSION ON PARASHAT BESHALACH

We read in the Hagadda shel Pesach that ‘in every generation they rise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One… saves us from their hands’. Of all our enemies why is the nation of Amalek – who was the grandson of Esau – singled out as the worst of all our attackers? as reflected in the Mitzva of ‘you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens’. (Deut. 25:19).

 

Rabbi Fishel Todd

 

PARASHAT VA-EIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd

PARASHAT VA-EIRA

Rabbi Fishel Todd
Rabbi Fishel Todd

QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND ON RASHI’S COMMENTARY ON PARASHAT VAEIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd

Questions marked with a * refer to Rashi’s commentary.

1. *How may the opening words ‘I am G-d. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, be seen as G-d’s rebuke to Moses?

2. *Why are the genealogies of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi – but no other tribes, listed in this Parasha?

3. Did G-d actually ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ as He declared he would before the Plagues commenced?

4. What fraction of his life had Moses spent by the time he stood before Pharaoh on the threshold of the Ten Plagues?

5. Which plagues were initiated by Aaron, *and why?

6. How do the text and *Rashi’s commentary suggest that the third plague – that of lice – was a greater miracle than the first two?

7. In which two places in the text does Pharaoh actually break his word?

8. How did the fates of the frogs in the second plague differ from the wild animals in the fourth plague, *and why?

9. What, according to the text, were the true purposes of the Plagues?

10. *Moses declared that he had to actually leave the city to pray for the hail and fire to stop crashing down. Why?

 

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND ON RASHI’S COMMENTARY ON PARASHAT VAEIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd

1. This is for the following reason. The end of the previous Parasha relates Moses’ protest to G-d that his mission had caused the lot of His people to deteriorate instead of to improve. The opening words of this Parasha relate the substance of G-d’s reply to Moses – in the form of a sharp castigation. G-d speaks harshly to Moses, and He compares him unfavorably with the Patriarchs who maintained their faith without complaint, even though they went through much suffering and anguish and did not live to see the fulfillment of G-d’s promises to their descendants. By contrast, Moses’ protest: ‘Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you send me?’ (5:22) implied lack of faith even when told that the Redemption was at hand.

2. The simple explanation (actually expanded by the Ramban) is to illustrate that Reuben and his tribe retained the rights of the firstborn in regards to genealogy – that right not extending to Moses and Aaron however great they were. Rashi, quoting Midrashic sources, states that the Torah confirms the first three tribes’ importance despite Jacob’s sharply reproving them before his death.

3. Although G-d said that He would ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ (7:3), he did not actually do so until after the sixth plague (9:12). This issue is discussed by the commentaries and taken up in answer to question 3 in the next section.

4. Moses was already eighty – two thirds of the way to his hundred and twenty years – at the time he stood before Pharaoh (7:7), on the threshold on initiating the events that were to set the Exodus in to motion.

5. The first three plagues: blood, frogs, and lice, were initiated by Aaron and his stick. The reason Rashi gives broadly follows the principle of ‘do not cast stones into the well from which you drank’. Thus Aaron, rather than Moses, used the stick to make the Nile turn to blood and expel the frogs onto dry land, and the dust to turn into lice. Such an action done by Moses would have shown ingratitude to the waters of the Nile which were instrumental in saving his life as a baby, and to the dust of Egypt which concealed the dead Egyptian that he himself struck.

Rabbi Fishel Todd
Rabbi Fishel Todd

6. The text states that although Egyptians sorcerers could replicate the first two plagues, turning dust into lice was beyond them (8:14). Rashi implies that units of dust are too small for sorcerers to work on.

7. Pharaoh declared after the fourth and seventh plagues that he would release the Israelites to serve G-d in the wilderness, but on both occasions he changed his mind after the plagues stopped, thus breaking his word.

8. The frogs did not return to the Nile, but died on land and putrefied it (8:9-10). ‘He (G-d) removed the wild animals… not one remained’. (8:27) Rashi states that dead animals had commercial value for hides; dead frogs were foul-smelling and useless. The plagues were for the enrichment of the Egyptians.

9. The true purpose of the Plagues was not only to put increasing pressure on Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but to establish in Egypt that G-d is the Almighty and above all humans and idolatry. ((7:4-5)

10. The reason is that Pharaoh’s metropolis – rife with idolatry – was an unsuitable location to approach the Divine Presence in prayer. From that, it may be learnt that one should only pray in appropriate surroundings Rabbi Fishel Todd.

QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO THE TEXT OF PARASHAT VAEIRA

1. What, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, are the precise events alluded to by the four expressions of redemption (6:6-7) which have since been linked with the four cups of wine at the Seder?

2. The Holy Land promised to the Israelites is not merely a ‘yerusha’ – an inheritance, but a ‘morasha’ (6:8) – a heritage. What is the meaning of that difference according to the Ha-emek Davar?

3. In the first five plagues, ‘Pharaoh’s heart hardened’ and in the final plagues ‘G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart’. The latter implies that Pharaoh had no free choice – in the later plagues, he could not have released the Israelites even if he wanted to. How does this justify the further plagues and suffering for not releasing the Israelites – according to (a) Rashi, and (b) the Sforno?

4. The Hagada relates that R. Judah groups the Ten Plagues into three: ‘detzach, adash, be-achav’. What, according to Marcus Lehmann (in Lehmann’s Passover Hagada) is the point that Rabbi Judah is making?

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES TO THE TEXT OF PARASHAT VAEIRA Rabbi Fishel Todd

1. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, the four expressions of Redemption refer to four very specific stages of the process, namely:

(a) ‘Vehotzeiti’ – I shall take you out (from the burdens of Egypt) – subsequently linked to the first cup of wine – denotes the end of the actual slavery which, following Rabbinic tradition, stopped some six months before the actual Exodus.

(b) ‘Vehitzalti’ – I shall save you – subsequently linked to the second cup of wine – refers to the actual leaving of Egypt.

(c) ‘Vegaalti’ – I shall rescue you – subsequently linked to the third cup of wine – refers to the splitting of the Red Sea in the face of the pursuing Egyptians.

(d) ‘Velakachti’ – and I shall take you – subsequently linked to the fourth cup of wine – links with the spiritual climax of the Redemption: the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

2. The Ha-mek Davar makes the following distinction between ‘yerusha’ and ‘morasha’. The former is something that belongs to the person when he is in possession of it. The latter is connected with the person even when not in possession. Thus the Holy Land was a ‘morasha’ to the Israelites even when they were slaves in Egypt and throughout all the succeeding exiles.

3. According to Rashi, G-d did actually deprive Pharaoh of free choice after the sixth plague, as the text states that He ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’. That is because his level of corruption was of such a degree that G-d’s only purpose in keeping him alive was to use him as a means of demonstrating His Power and His Might (7:5), and the implied folly of relying on sorcery and idolatry. The Sforno understands the words ‘G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ differently to Rashi. They do not mean that he took away his free choice, but that he expected a higher degree of repentance. G-d’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart meant that He gave Pharaoh more strength to absorb the suffering of the plagues. Were he to repent, it would not be because of the pain, but out of sincere and true repentance; in the spirit of acknowledging that ‘G-d is the righteous and that I (Pharaoh) and my people are the wicked’. (9:27)

4. According to Lehmann, the rhythm of ‘detzach, adash, be-achav’ is the rhythn of the plagues. The Nile turned to blood – outside people’s homes. The frogs actually entered the houses, and the lice went one better – got into people’s actual flesh. Logically the next plague should have killed the people off entirely – instead, the wild animals terrorized those outside near the wild, the pestilence went a little closer affecting property (cattle), and then the boils, like the lice, actually got to the people themselves. With the seventh plague the cycle repeats itself… the hail destroyed crops outside, the locusts were a little more intimate, but it was the darkness which, like the lice and the boils, actually bought normal existence to a stop. (Thus the three cycles of ‘far, closer, and closer’ were a ‘three time warning’ to Pharaoh.) But after the Plague of Darkness, Pharaoh did not see it that way. Instead, he assumed that the next plague would be the start of the fourth cycle. He was wrong – as he ignored the first three sets of warnings, the tenth plague was the logical extension of the third cycle: further away / closer / still closer / and then (at the Killing of the Firstborn) closest: namely death.

Rabbi Fishel Todd
Rabbi Fishel Todd

ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION ON PARASHAT VAYEIRA

1. Moses spoke before G-d: “Behold the Israelites have not listened to me – how will Pharaoh listen to me? I have sealed lips” (6:12). Bereishit Rabba (92:7) states that this is one of the ten times where the kal va-homer (a fortiori deduction) appears in the Torah. Why was Moses so sure that Pharaoh would not listen to him? And in addition, why didn’t Moses give the more obvious reason – that he had been unsuccessful, as G-d had told him, and it was now time for Him to intervene? G-d had told Moses that the Redemption from Egypt would not take place through Moses directly, but through Divine intervention: For I know the King of Egypt will not let you go… I shall set forth My Hand and smite Egypt… and afterwards he will let you go (3:19-20). Moses and Aaron had already pleaded to Pharaoh once, and he responded by intensifying the sufferings of the enslaved Israelites.

2. The Passover Hagadda links the ‘strong hand’ and the ‘outstretched arm’ to the Plagues that G-d imposed on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, to persuade them to release the Israelites. As the Hagadda relates:’With a strong hand’ – that is the plague of pestilence (fatal animal disease), as Moses warned Pharaoh, ‘Behold the Hand of G-d is on your animals – horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, to bring them a very heavy pestilence’ (9:3). Why was the ‘strong hand’ of the Exodus related specifically to the plague of pestilence – the fifth out of the ten plagues? What special qualities did the death of the Egyptians’ domestic animals possess over and above the other plagues, so that it was the crucial one that helped the Israelite Exodus to take place?

 

Rabbi Fishel Todd

Parsha Shemot Rabbi Fishel Todd

Rabbi Fishel Todd

Moses grew up went amongst his people and observed their burdens… (2:11)

http://shulchanaruchproject.com

The Torah records little about the early life of Moses. By the time he ‘stood before Pharaoh’ he was already 80 years old (7:7): and entering the last third of his life.

What is recorded develops with three incidents where he firmly and effectively applies the principles of leadership and social justice. These bring out the vital characteristics Moses needed to do his life’s work. That was to found the Israelites as distinct people: a ‘holy nation’ (19:6). It was his task to deliver and enforce the message of G-d. That would determine the precise terms of their being able to be, and continue as, a ‘holy nation’.

Rabbi FIshel Todd
Rabbi Fishel Todd

These leadership features are within the fabric of the stories. He needed courage, and at the same time discretion: when he saw the Egyptian beating the Hebrew ‘he looked this way and that way and saw no man. He struck the Egyptian…’ (2:12) There was courage, and yet discretion. He was no more sympathetic to the Hebrew who was beating a fellow Hebrew (2:13). There was consistency in justice; not one law for insiders and another for outsiders. He intervened on behalf of Jethro’s daughters, who were being unfairly elbowed and shoveled by the brawny shepherds to the back the queue (2:17). Might was not to conquer right. And he also knew his place in the hierarchy. He was given seemingly impossible orders by G-d to put the Exodus in motion. He did not fear to voice his gravest doubts and ask for help, but still placed himself in G-d’s hands (4:10-18).

Rabbi Fishel Todd These qualities balanced humility before the Creator with the vital qualities of leadership, justice, determination, and impartiality needed to win the confidence and command of the nation.

Yet there is one thing that is missing from the account. That is Moses previous experience as a leader of an important division of the Egyptian army, for Pharaoh. There are records (both in the Midrash and in Josephus, as well as a passing hint in ‘the Ethiopian wife that Moses married’ – Num. 12:1), but the text is silent about Moses’ previous successful campaign on behalf of Pharaoh on the southern border of the Egypt against the people of Ethiopia.

The reason for the silence could be as follows. It is to teach that new tasks are precisely that. Some values – humility before G-d, courage, determination, and social justice are applicable to all situations. Others are counterproductive. Indeed many people who transfer positions in life are unsuccessful because they will not learn the job afresh. They just put ditto marks and say: ‘It’s one more job, it should (and it better had) be like the last place’.

Moses knew that. The Israelites were not the Egyptian army. They were a very difficult group of people who did not have Pharaoh’s backing in carrying out Moses’ orders. His previous experience was not only irrelevant, but potentially counterproductive – had he led the Israelites as though it was an army, he would have failed.

Instead – it was back to the drawing board – with the burning bush.

 

 

Rabbi Fishel Todd A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people: ‘Behold! The children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us…’ So they appointed taskmasters over them in order to afflict them with their work… (1:8-11)

The text relates how the rapidly-grown Israelite population in Egypt was frightening the host population. On one hand, their loyalty to Pharaoh and Egypt was beginning to become suspect. On the other, they were too useful a sub-group for Pharaoh to be permitted to leave the country.

The Ohr HaChayim translates the word mi-menu ‘from us’. He suggests that the words Pharaoh used to incite his population against the Israelites were: ‘The children of Israel are too many and too mighty – and that came from us – the Egyptians’. In other words: ‘They flourished at our expense – by taking advantage of our hospitality during and after the famine (c.f. Gen. 47:21,27). And now is the time to take back what really belongs to our own people’.

No mention of it being Joseph’s wisdom that kept them alive. Had Joseph not organized the Egyptian land, finance (and effectively become the first Israelite banker), and grain reserves, they would have no longer been around. As they themselves declared generations ago: ‘It is you that has kept us alive’ (Gen. 47:25).

This aspect of selective memory shows how it is possible to put together a series of facts each not necessarily false, but when joined together give a picture that is an entire distortion of the truth. It is that principle which has been the basis of much anti-Semitism ever since. When they were needed, the Jews were treated well. When it was in the national interests to treat them with suspicion or dispense with them completely, the selective memory came into play.

And further light on this subtle form of anti-Semitism is shown in the story of the conflict between the shepherds of Isaac with the shepherds of Gerar (the host population) over the well that Isaac’s servants had dug. (Remember that the Patriarchs had lots of sheep and cattle, with local water shortages keeping them on the move until towards the end of Jacob’s life when the lack of water made them move down to Egypt.)

Rabbi Fishel Todd
Rabbi Fishel Todd

As the text states:

Isaac’s servants dug in the valley. They found a well of fresh water. The servants of Gerar quarreled with the servants of Isaac saying: ‘The water belongs to us’ (Gen. 26:19-20).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observes that Isaac’s servants supplied the initiative labor, but King Abimelech’s servants – the servants of Gerar – claimed that the water was theirs. He emphasizes that ‘the enterprise and the work was yours, but the products are ours’ is the part of the mechanics of anti-Semitism. Even when there would have been no water at all, but for the initiative of Isaac’s servants…

Similarly with Pharaoh and the Israelites – ‘the initiative for saving us was theirs, but the benefits are all ours…’

Haftorah Shemos

“So in an obscure speech and a foreign tongue they [the prophets] speak to this nation. But who will say to them, ‘This is transquility, bestow it to the weary, this is inner happiness!’–for they do not want to listen.” (Isaiah 27:11-12)

Rabbi Fishel Todd Picture for a moment the life of the Jew in seventeenth century Europe. He is shut out from most occupations; he lives in a walled-in ghetto area. He is always in danger of attack from the Gentiles who surround him, and who have been known in the past to attack and plunder his community on one pretext or another. When he travels outside the ghetto walls, he is eyed with mistrust by the non-Jews, who feel no affinity with him.

But within the home! There we find another scenario. There is found peace and harmony. On the Shabbos, the candles bestow their glow over a home transformed and infused with the radiance of the holy Shabbos day. The old, faded bookshelves hold the precious, worn out sefarim over which the man pores late into the night. There in the home the Jew may find respite from all the hardships, all the travails which await him outside. “This is tranquility, bestow it to the weary, this is inner happiness!” The sanctity-filled life which the Jew led made all the difficulties bearable; indeed, through it he was even able to find cheer and inner peace, despite the obstacles which the world heaped before him.

Rabbi Fishel Todd Now let us shift the scene and envision this man’s einekle (descendent) two centuries hence. The walls of the ghetto have come tumbling down, the world lies invitingly before him. Intoxicated with the spirit of the new era, our friend has drunk deeply of the world’s culture. He is a man of taste. He can rub shoulders with the highest born and the urbane sophisticates. On a shelf at home he possesses a fine bound copy of Mendelsohn’s Biur, the commentary of the Pentateuch written in classic, flowing German. The book has gathered quite a bit of dust from years of sitting usused on the shelf. For the Torah, though translated now into the rich cadences of the German tongue, has ceased to speak his language. “In an obscure speech and a foreign tongue they speak to this nation.” The Torah’s teachings fail to resonate in the ear of our newly Enlightened friend.

Rabbi Fishel Todd
Rabbi Fishel Todd

If we find that the Torah’s words don’t strike true in our own hearts, then we must look within ourselves. These same words provided solace to countless of our ancestors in generations past; if they now appear to be foreign ideas, then it can only be we who have distanced ourselves. Hashem’s teachings are tailor-made especially for us; they alone contain the key which can enable us to truly understand ourselves. It is our job to relearn the language.

Rabbi Fishel Todd