Give a little bit …

One doesn’t usually think of the rock group Supertramp when studying Mishna … but maybe we should.  Towards that end, maybe you’d like to play this song in the background as you read the below post.

The Mishna in question is the very first to appear in the Tractate of Shabbat, while the topic in question is the halacha relating to carrying on Shabbat, or more specifically, the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat.  Here is the Mishna along with the translation provided by the excellent website Sepharia.org:

מתני׳ יציאות השבת שתים שהן ארבע בפנים ושתים שהן ארבע בחוץ

MISHNA: The acts of carrying out from a public domain into a private domain or vice versa, which are prohibited on Shabbat, are primarily two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person inside a private domain, and two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person outside, in a public domain.

The mishna elaborates: How do these eight cases take place? In order to answer that question, the mishna cites cases involving a poor person and a homeowner.

העני עומד בחוץ ובעל הבית בפנים פשט העני את ידו לפנים ונתן לתוך ידו של בעל הבית או שנטל מתוכה והוציא העני חייב ובעל הבית פטור:

The poor person stands outside, in the public domain, and the homeowner stands inside, in the private domain. The poor person lifted an object in the public domain, extended his hand into the private domain, and placed the object into the hand of the homeowner. In that case, the poor person performed the prohibited labor of carrying from the public domain into the private domain in its entirety. Or, the poor person reached his hand into the private domain, took an item from the hand of the homeowner, and carried it out into the public domain. In that case, the poor person performed the prohibited labor of carrying out from the private domain into the public domain in its entirety. In both of these cases, because the poor person performed the prohibited labor in its entirety, he is liable and the homeowner is exempt.


When I first studied this Mishna I, like most students I imagine, focused on the laws of carrying on Shabbat, the intricate details of what is a public domain and a private domain, and how one must act in order to avoid violating the prohibition of transferring an item from one domain to the other.

And then it hit me!  All this is interesting – and important – of course.  But even more significant, I believe, is the example the Rabbis chose to utilize to make their point: A relatively comfortable individual trying to help out a relatively poor individual.  In short, an act of Tzedaka.

So many other examples of carrying could have been highlighted, but the Rabbis chose this one as the paradigmatic action one is customarily involved in on Shabbat.  That, in itself, is radical; after all, most tzedaka involves money, and handling money of course on Shabbat is prohibited, so the Rabbis must have been alluding to a more permitted activity such as providing food for the holiday.  Certainly that’s a possible scenario that might take place in one’s life, but by no means a necessarily common one.  How often do poor people knock on your door on Shabbat?  Or more intriguing: How often do you knock on the door of a poor person on Shabbat?

That the Rabbis bring this example suggests a few things.  First, of course, we should always be thinking about how we can help others – even when learning about what otherwise appears as a relatively ‘ritual’ mitzvah between me and God alone, like carrying on Shabbat.  One doesn’t often think of Shabbat as a time to perform tzedaka – with its connection to money and all – but here the Rabbis remind us that through a little ingenuity the opportunity to help out nevertheless exists.

Second, perhaps we shouldn’t even have been thinking of this halacha – carrying on Shabbat – as a mitzvah between man and God alone.  Perhaps, as the somewhat out-of-place mention of tzedaka suggests, our concern about not carrying actually relates to relations between people.  And indeed it does: What might our motivation for carrying on Shabbat be?  Maybe to bring food to a Shabbat meal where one has been invited.  Or to help a young child – or an elderly person – move around on Shabbat.  The possibilities are endless.  And, of course, what is the mechanism by which we enable carrying to take place?  An eruv.  One on hand, this device seems highly technical and perhaps even a little ‘loophole-y’ but as one who understand the logic behind this law will attest, the philosophical essence of the eruv is to transform a large area of separate homes into a communal living space shared by all.

A third lesson suggested by the use of this example is to remind us of the importance of tzedaka in general, not only on Shabbat – the day in question in this Mishna – but throughout our lives.  The importance of this mitzvah can be appreciated by a quick survey of Rabbinic literature.  For example, Rav Assi states that “tzedaka is as important as all the other commandments put together.” (Bava Batra 9a)  Rabbi Eleazar explains the verse “To do righteousness (tzedaka) and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (from Proverbs 21:3) to mean that charity is greater than all the sacrifices (Sukkah 49b).  Moreover, tzedakah hastens redemption (Bava Batra 10a), ensures that the doer will have wise, wealthy, and learned sons (Bava Batra 19b), and atones for sins (Bava Batra 9a). Together with Torah and prayer, giving to others is one of the pillars on which the world rests (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Furthermore, giving charity does not impoverish and not giving is tantamount to idolatry (Ketuboth 68a). In short, tzedaka is key to a religious life.  (Interestingly, the word religion itself suggests as such, since its latin root, religia, literally means to connect – like a ligament).

And thus the Rabbi’s use of this example, an essential part of our lifestyle, to help understand Shabbat, an essential day in our week and basis for much of our theology, makes perfect sense.

So give a little bit …




Meet Alvin Wong

An oldie but goodie: In 2011 the New York Times set out to find the happiest man in America.  Based on a series of data connected to health, spiritual well being, satisfaction, and other factors relating to happiness, the newspaper revealed the following conclusions: “He is a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 years old and married with children and lives in Hawaii …”  A few phone calls later and the paper finds that this profile actually exists … in the form of Alvin Wong.

The full article can be found here.


With Purim approaching I thought perhaps a little Torah on happiness might be appropriate:  The Talmud in Hulin (139) informs us that Haman is alluded to within the story of Adam and Eve.  Where? you ask.  According to Rav Matna, it is when God challenges Adam after he disobeys God and eats from the Tree of Knowledge.  In the language of the Torah, “Ha’min ha’etz asher …” or in English, “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?”  The first word of that question is “Ha’min” – which just so happens to be composed of the exact same letters as Haman.

What should we learn from this connection?

Perhaps if we consider Haman’s perpetual state of dissatisfaction we can begin to offer a possiblerollingstones suggestion.  Haman, after all, is the one individual you would think would be quite happy.  As second in command of the nation, he had wealth, power and everything else one could possibly want … except for the respect of one particular Jew, Mordechai.  And that drove him nuts.  And thus, rather than enjoying all that he had, he was only capable of focusing on that which he did not have.  As Haman himself said, “But all this is worth nothing to me” (Ester 5:13).  That, of course, was his downfall.

And that, of course, is also at play in Adam’s downfall.  God offers him every fruit in the Garden of Eden – literally, the Garden of Eden! – and yet he becomes consumed by the one item he is not permitted to consume.  Again, a lack of satisfaction leads to a great sin.

The way we repair the sin of Haman – and Adam for that matter – should therefore be fairly clear.  We must rejoice in what we have.  Be satisfied by our good fortune, not obsessed with our failures.  Focused on our blessings, oblivious to our lackings.

When Adar enters  we are commanded to increase our happiness.  That does not necessarily require us to increase those things that usually help us to be happy – feasting, drinking, celebrating – but it does require a perspective of ‘growing’ our appreciation of what we already have.


A Giant Hug

Here is my column from nearly a decade ago about our love for Jerusalem.

Was Yakov and Accountant?

Parshat VaYetzei

One of the famous scenes in this week’s Torah reading is Yakov’s dream of the Angels ascending and descending a ladder placed on the ground and whose top is somewhere in the heavens.  And one of the most famous interpretations of this dream is provided in the Midrash: The angels represent different nations, such as the Babylonian and the Roman Empires.  Their ‘Angels’ will ascend – they will conquer eretz yisrael and am yisrael and subjugate our people.  But in the end, the Midrash comforts Yakov, they will also descend and self-destruct.  In the end, Am Yisrael will persevere and remain standing. 

The Torah Shlema brings another midrash that challenges this above understanding slightly.  Yes, the nations of the world will ascend and subjugate Am Yisrael.  But, says this Midrash, Yakov you don’t need to be a passive spectator in this historical phenomenon.  “Yakov” calls out God, “you can ascend as well.   You need not wait until the end to merely survive the others, simply outlast them; you can actually thrive now.”  Yakov hears this offer but, according to the Midrash, is fearful.  “If I ascend, won’t I suffer the same fate at the others and eventually descend as well.”  Hashem tells Yakov not to worry, that he will be next to God, and just as God is eternal and steadfast, so too will Yakov be.  But Yakov is too afraid to listen; he refuses the offer and remains on the ground.

The midrash then goes on to say that Yakov’s fear was punished, that Hashem was so disappointed in Yakov that He decided to bring future punishments on all of Am Yisrael as a result of his hesitancy.

We could end here and simply conclude with the following message: One must not fear.  One must take chances and be filled with courage.  One cannot accomplish great things without the possibility first of failing at great things, but it is worth the risk.

But I would like to go a step further because I am bothered by something the midrash suggests.  It says that Yakov was punished for his lack of courage. 

Why?  Yakov certainly had every right to be a little jittery at this point in his life.  His brother was trying to kill him.  He was going into exile as a result.  He was all alone in the world, and had no idea what the future held in store.  To be apprehensive seems to be the most natural response possible.  Why punish him for simply responding as one might expect he would respond.

Moreover, let us remember that this was just a dream.  Even if he deserves punishment for not seizing the moment in real life, this was NOT real life.  He merely dreamt it – but he didn’t actually fail to demonstrate courage in real life. 

How are we to explain the midrash’s severe treatment of Yakov?

Perhaps the answer can be found by understanding why the midrash treats another individual in the Torah so positively.  Here I am referring to Leah.

Though the Torah text itself describes her as the ‘hated wife’ of Yakov, and goes on to suggest she herself felt embittered by her marriage – for example, when she names her first son, Reuven, we are told it is because God has now seen (re’ah) her suffering (ani’i) – the midrash describes Lea in an inspiringly positive fashion:

Picking up on the fact that it is she amongst Yakov’s four ‘wives’ who is buried next to him in the Cave of the Patriachs, the midrash suggests that she became in the end the one most beloved by him. 

 When the Torah first introduces us to Lea and Rachel we are told one is the ‘bigger’ and the other the ‘smaller.’  Why that language?  When the Torah describes Lot’s daughters, we are told that one is older and the other younger.  Why the difference.  Because, says the midrash, Lea actually had a ‘bigger’ impact on Am Yisrael than Rachel.  Not simply because she had more children, but also because her children had a more powerful and long lasting effect.  Consider Rachel’s physical and spiritual descendants: Yoseph, Shaul, Shilo and Moshiach ben Yosef.  And Lea’s: Moshe and Aron, David, Yerushalayim and Moshiach ben David.  Yoseph was of course an inspiring figure, but he was also a transitional one, while Moshe became a more permanent fixture in our tradition and the ultimate liberator of our experience in Egypt; Yoseph simply alleviated suffering, Moshe redeemed us.  Shaul was the first king of Israel; but David will be the eternal king.  Shilo is where the mishkan was erected, but again only temporarily.  Yerushalayim, which has some connection to Rachel as well given that it connects to Binyamin’s portion, is surrounded by Yehuda’s portion.  And of course the beit hamikdash is built here, and is more permanent than the mishkan.  And finally the difference between Moshiach ben Yoseph, who ushers in the messianic era, and Moshiach ben David, who fulfills it.  In all these cases, Rachel’s descendants prove powerful, but temporal, while Lea’s descendants are both powerful and enduring.

And even the Torah’s description of Lea’s sorrowful naming of her first born Reuven … even this, the midrash turns into a positive.  Reu – look! – shouts Lea to all those who will listen, and see the difference between (ben) my son and my mother-in-law’s son.  Her son, of course, is Reuven, and her mother-in-law’s son is Eisav, Yakov’s brother.  How did Eisav react when he felt his birthright was stolen?  He threatened to kill Yakov.  But how did my son, Reuven, react when he lost the ‘first born’ status to Yoseph?  He tried to save his life by pulling him up from the pit his other brothers threw him into.

And the examples go on and on.  Each time we think we understand Lea to be an object of pity the midrash transforms her into an object of admiration.  Why?

Before we explore the answer of Chazal, let me offer a little scientific background:

In 2004 a person was arrested and sentenced to 4 years of jail for refusing to turn off his phone during a flight from Egypt to England.  Why?  Because he was too enmeshed in his game of Tetrus.  He just couldn’t stop.

For those of you who have played this game, you may just understand his addiction.  You may also understand what happened to a group of Harvard students who participated in a Tetrus experiment for three days during which they played the game constantly.  Afterwards, many of them reported seeing the game in their mind repeatedly, sometimes even trying to match different physical object as if they existed on a Tetrus board.  For example, one student said he would walk the cereal aisles of the local supermarket and try – in him mind – to have different cereal boxes turned on their sides to make a perfect line.

Scientists have written about the Tetrus effect, concluding that something biological actually happens when you play the game for any length of time: Your brain neurons actually become rewired so now you are better prepared to play the game. 

And this happens not only with tetrus but with many activities that one does repeatedly. 

As you can imagine, this sometimes has quite the negative impact.  Consider, for example, the life of an accountant.  All day he spends time looking for errors in tax audits (of course there are many accountants that also spend all day looking for opportunities for their clients; I’m referring her to the former group).  According to one study, this tendency to find mistakes soon transmigrates from his work to his home.  After all, his brain has now actually become rewired to find mistakes wherever he looks.  Now, to the chagrin of his family, he has become “predictively encoded” to see mistakes in their lives.  One accountant even told a friend that he had prepared an excel sheet with all the errors his wife made the past year; he thought she’d be greatly appreciative of the effort.

Why does this happen?  Scientists point out that we receive hundreds of pieces of information every day, and from every 100 bits of information we can actually only integrate about one.  We have ‘spam filer’ on for all the rest.  And how do we set the spam filter?  Basically, by how we tell our brain to consider information, and we do that by repeated actions.  So in the case of the accountant, he repeatedly looked for mistakes, thus telling his brain that mistakes are the things he is interested in seeing.  When positive things came along, aware that one’s brain cannot handle too much information before becoming overloaded, they were simply ignored and placed in spam.  So he never even saw them.  But when a juicy mistake came along, it was immediately placed at the top of his inbasket.

Fortunately, what works in the negative also works in the positive.  If one goes out of their way to find the positive in life, well then his or her brain will be predictively encoded to see more and more positive things wherever that person is.  In one study, for example, a group of people were told to write down three positive things they experienced every day for a week.  A month later those who participated still were finding more positive things in their life than a control group that was never asked to participate in the experiment in the first place.  Same thing occurred 3 months and then 6 months later.  And the impact of ‘finding more positive’ things inspired a greater sense of gratitude, which in turn inspired a greater ability to cope with and succeed in life.

OK, what does all this have to do with Lea?


According to Chazal, the quality that Lea possessed more than any other was gratitude.  Indeed, she names her fourth son Yehuda – basically, ‘thank you.’  The midrash points out that this is a sign that Lea was the first person to ever really thank God. 

What does that mean, to really thank God?  Well, prior to Lea, certainly, there were others who thanked God.  But they had reason to do so.  Lea, on the other hand, did not obviously have a strong reason to thank God.  As we pointed out earlier, she had many challenges confronting her throughout her life, not the least of which was a husband that hated her.  But in spite of that, Lea – who may or may not have felt unloved – felt grateful for her lot in life. 

She, in contrast to our accountant friends, saw the positive.  Her spam filter was set to disregard all the negative and pinpoint – and then celebrate – the positive.  And it is for this reason, I imagine, that all her actions had such a long lasting impact on Am Yisrael.


Now let us return to Yakov and his dream.  Yakov, too, had a very difficult life, but unlike Lea he perhaps got stuck in the mud of this negativity.  Perhaps he didn’t see the positive in his life, or at least in the same way that Lea was able to totally transform her experiences.  Yes, his brother wanted to kill him … but didn’t.  Yes, it appeared that his father favored his brother … but his mother favored him.  Yes, he was alone … but he had a close relationship with God at the same time that many of us would envy.  So yes, Yakov had his problems, but he also had his great successes.  Perhaps the midrash we first quoted takes Yakov to task for allowing his subconscious – his dream world – to dwell too much on the former and not enough on the latter.  Perhaps he was struggling with his spam filter, not yet sure which settings were appropriate.  In the end, he will meet Lea and she will help set the filter for him. 

The Torah tells us that Yitzchak re-dug many of the same wells that his father Avraham had dug in his lifetime, an act necessitated by the fact that these earlier wells were filled in by the local inhabitants in the interim.  The Torah seems to emphasize the importance of these acts by having Yitzchak actually name the wells he re-digs.  Many commentators ask why the Torah needs to tell us this seemingly mundane fact.  Some even point out that doing so embarrasses Avraham; after all, it suggests his activities ultimately were for naught.

Traditional answers abound.  The emphasis on Yitzhak’s re-digging highlights his absolute commitment to perpetuating Avraham’s mission; the duplication of Avraham’s behavior is not a negative but the opposite – a positive sign of continuity in faith and behavior.

Another explanation suggests that ‘digging’ is a metaphor for spiritual activity – as in ‘digging’ deep into one’s soul to find out who he or she really is.  Yitzchak did not rely on Avraham’s spiritual journey to suffice for his own; he, too, needed to engage in such a process.

I’d like to offer an additional possibility based on the answer to another question about this week’s parsha.

Prior to the (in)famous incident of Eisav selling his birthright to Ya’akov, the Torah tells us that Eisav has just returned from the field and is starving from hunger.  As a result, he asks Ya’akov for the food he has just prepared, to which Ya’akov agrees so long as Eisav will sell his birthright.  Eisav’s response is fascinating.  Of course he will sell it; he’s about to die from hunger, so what good would the birthright do for him if he doesn’t make the deal – he’ll be dead anyway.

What makes this response so interesting is the fact that Eisav, if he really was about to die, ‘asked’ for the food.  Why didn’t he just take it.  He certainly was not embarrassed about stealing (and worse), so why the hesitation now, especially given the fact that he might even be justified from a halachik perspective.  After all, if someone is truly dying, pikuach nefesh (saving life) would permit him to steal food in order to live.  He certainly was strong enough to take it as well; why didn’t he?

A related question: If in fact Eisav was about to die, did Ya’akov even have the right to withhold the food since doing so might have caused his brother to die?

There is a wonderful answer provided by the Hizkuni that answers all of these questions.  But before we explore it, allow me to offer a little background.


Shawn Achor, the author of the book “The Happiness Advantage” and a professional speaker to boot once asked his audience to sing the song ‘Row Row Your Boat’ in a continuous fashion until he told them to stop (he quickly added: “And I mean to yourself, quietly” – apparently afraid of the sound produced by a roomful of tone deaf business executives singing together).  At the end of the experiment he asked everyone how long they ‘felt’ they had been singing.  The answers varied – from under a minute to as long as five minutes (when he did it in Singapore, the gap was even larger, from 20 seconds to more than eight minutes).  He then revealed that the real time was 70 seconds.

Why did everyone have such a different sense of how long it took?  Because, our author pointed out, everyone was in a different mindset despite being in the same physical space.  People who thought his presentation was going to be boring and couldn’t believe they had to sit through it often thought the experiment took much longer.  Those who were excited about it often thought it took shorter.  Same experiment; same amount of time; but due to ‘being elsewhere’ in their minds, a different sense of time followed.

Here are a couple of additional experiments that make this same point, namely that it is possible to change one’s present by ‘travelling in time’ to a different location and mindset.

The first one was conducted in 1979 with a group of men all of whom were 75 years old.  This group was taken on a weeklong retreat where they all had to ‘pretend’ to be 55.  The TV shows screened all were from 1959 (20 years earlier), as well were the magazines placed throughout the retreat center.  The men were asked to talk about their jobs when they were 55, and some even dressed how they would have dressed back then.  They talked about Eisenhower as the president.

At the end of the week the men were subjected to a battery of tests – such as vision, memory, posture and the like – all tests they had also taken prior to the retreat.  Somewhat amazingly, all the men improved dramatically … as if they had actually become younger.  Their vision improved by 10%, while their memory and posture also showed significant signs of improvement.  Strangers were shown before and after pictures of the group of men and asked to estimate their age for each individual.  On average, the strangers assumed the men after the retreat were three years younger than the men prior to the retreat.

But nothing changed physically.  They simply changed their mindset – travelled in time to 1959 and behaved as if that was their reality.  And in many ways, it did in fact become their reality.

The second experiment I want to share suggests that one can change his or her present also by travelling to the future.  In this case, experimenters told a group of highly allergic people they were rubbing poison ivy on one of their arms.  As it turned out, the bush they rubbed on their arms was a harmless shrub.  But it didn’t matter.  The subjects anticipated what they thought would happen – and it indeed did happen.  All of them began showing signs of infection, such as hives and boils.

On the other arm, then, the experimenters actually rubbed poison ivy, but this time told them that it was harmless.  Only 2 out of the 13 actually demonstrated signs of infection in this case, despite all of them actually being highly allergic.  Again, what they thought was going to happen actually influenced their present.

From these studies – and countless others – scientists conclude that it is possible to change one’s present by changing one’s mindset, that going in one’s mind to either the past or future can actually transform one’s present.  Moreover, very often when one ‘imagines’ an event in a different spatial or time zone, the brain neurons fired during that imagination are actually the exact same ones – and to the same degree – as if the person were presently experiencing what he was only imagining.


Let’s take what we’ve learned from these experiments and return to the Hizkuni.  Remember, he asked why did Eisav not simply take the food if he was going to die anyway.  His answer: Eisav wasn’t actually going to die, but was merely speaking metaphorically.  After all, he – along with Ya’akov – would have been familiar with God’s statement to Avraham, their grandfather, that they would one day inherit the land.  This statement, of course, is the content of the birthright.  Whoever possesses it possesses the land.  However, that is not the full statement made to Avraham.  God also promised him that this inheritance would not be immediate, that prior to it taking effect Avraham’s descendants would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years.

With this in mind we can now understand what Eisav actually said.  “I’m going to die, so what good is the birthright to me” really means: “I’m going to die before the birthright ever becomes relevant to my life; it’s more than 400 years off in the future, and by then I’ll be dead.  So what good is it for me if I’ll never enjoy the benefit.”  With that perspective, we now understand why he was happy to sell it, why he didn’t simply take the food, and why Ya’akov didn’t feel a need to give it to him right away; after all, he wasn’t actually dying.

From this insight we learn two important lessons.  One, of course, relates to delayed gratification.  Just because you don’t see the benefit immediately, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and not coming down the road.

Second, and how we can fortify ourselves to delay our gratification, relates to the experiments we discussed earlier.  I believe Ya’akov was a time traveler.  Yes, he knew like Eisav that he probably would never see in his lifetime the benefits of the birthright.  But that didn’t matter, because in his mind’s eye he could see how the birthright would benefit his children – his nation.  He no doubt enjoyed the same neurons firing as if he actually benefited directly himself.  He moved himself to a different time and that transformed his present and his present valuation of the birthright.


And now we can also return to the initial question about the Torah’s emphasis on the wells  Yitzchak dug.  According to the Ramban, each well represented one of the batei mikdash (Holy Temples).  Mayim Chaim, living waters, do not simply describe what can be found in a well; they also symbolize what the Temples offered to the Jewish people.  The Ramban then goes on to point out that each name given to the wells was significant.  The first one means contention, and indeed this appropriately describes what happened in the time of the First Temple.  There was contention between Am Yisrael and the nations, and the Temple was destroyed.  The second name means enmity, and here too this word describes the situation in the time of the destruction of the second Temple (in fact, this exact word is used in by Haman and others to describe their feelings towards the Jewish people, and then again in the Prophets to describe how the nations of the world felt about the Temple before its destruction).  The third name, however, is quite different – Rechovot, which means broad area, wide open, a horizon.  The Ramban writes that this describes how the 3rd Temple experience will be.  Everyone will have enough space, both physically and spiritually.  “From a narrow space I call out for God’s help, and God answers me from a broad wide open space.”  So, says the Ramban, this is what Yitzchak was thinking at the time of digging the third well.  Yes he may have been amongst strangers in a land not fully his own yet, but in his mind he was envisioning a time when Am Yisrael was safe and secure and able to fulfill its mission to influence the entire world.

And as we know, if that’s where your mind is at, so too are you.


A great number of the customs associated with the Holiday of Shavuot, the day on which the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, seem to hide the true nature of the Holiday.  For example:

1) One of the most popular ‘new’ customs associated with Shavuot is the Tikun Leil, an all-night learning experience where people dedicate themselves to studying Torah in the wee hours of the night (or is it morning already at 3 AM?).  If the study of Torah is really central to the Holiday – and to Judaism in general – why ‘hide’ it in the middle of the night?  Shouldn’t it be celebrated in the most public way possible, at the most popular time possible?

[A brief aside:  I write that this custom is relatively ‘new’ due to the fact that it appears to have begun only in the 1500’s when Rabbi Yosef Karo had a dream in Istanbul informing him that he should stay up all night learning Torah.  It’s interesting to note that it was just about this same time that coffee, which began in Yemen by Sufi mystics interested in staying up all night, and then migrated to Egypt, had just begun to be imported to Istanbul as well.  Perhaps the reason this custom of staying up all night developed and flourished is thanks to this fact.]

2) Perhaps the reason an all-night learning experience developed rather than a day time one was due to a strange Talmudic command that actually forbade learning Torah all day on Shavuot.  That’s right, forbade it.  With other other holidays such a prohibition does not exist.  Usually one would learn a little and feast a little, but of course if wanted to learn exclusively he is permitted to do so.  With Shavuot, though, the text (Pesachim 68b) is clear:  You may not forgo your feast in order to learn Torah exclusively all day.  But if Shavuot is about Torah, why not?

3) One of the main ways we demonstrate our ‘joy’ in a Holiday is by partaking in a feast filled with meat and wine.  The Rambam, presumably quoting the Talmud, actually describes these food items as the definition of joy.  Yet on Shavuot, while there are many who do eat meat, there is a well known custom to partake in dairy products more so than on any other holiday.  Is this another attempt at diminishing the joy of Torah or hiding its significance?

4) The Torah doesn’t even mention the fact that Shavuot is the day on which the Torah is given.  Nor does it tell us the date of this Holiday?  Does it have something to hide?

5) And the most obvious question of all – on Shavuot, unlike other holidays, we have no specific mitzvoth to perform.  No lulav and etrog like on Sukkot.  No Matzah and marror like on Pesach.  No Shofar like on Rosh Hashana.  Why?

To answer all these questions I’d like to suggest that there are actually two ways of understanding Shavuot in particular (and Torah in general), and that one of these ways does indeed require a certain amount of ‘mystery’ in order to successfully convey its essence.

To understand these two aspects of Shavuot, let’s first explore two aspects of what precedes it – the counting of the Omer.

On one hand, it is quite easy to identify the two aspects of this custom.  In one place in the Torah we are commanded to count ‘the days’ between the ‘Shabbat’ of Passover and Shavuot (all 49 of them), while in another place we are commanded to count ‘the weeks’ between the first Omer offering (during Pesach) until the Mincha Chadasha (new offering) of the Two Loaves of Bread Offering (during Shavuot).

On the other hand … what does this mean?

Let’s start with the counting of weeks.  Notice that the Torah is not concerned with the holidays of Passover and Shavuot but rather the ‘offerings’ associated with them.   The goal of counting weeks, then, is to remind us of sacrifice, and more specifically, the Temple’s role in enabling this process.  In so doing, Rav Tzadok teaches, we are also reminded of our national sovereignty.  The pomp and circumstance associated with the Temple was not for my personal benefit, but to celebrate the nation and the nation’s ability to have an impact on the world.  That is why the offering of Shavuot was the Two Loaves of Bread.  Normally we are not thrilled about bringing bread into the Temple; we prefer the ‘humility’ encapsulated by matzah.  But sometimes, writes Rav Tzadok, we need bread as well.  We need the ‘puffing up’ provided by the hametz.  Why?  Because Torah is not meant simply to influence my own personal life, to enrich my personal spiritual experience.  It is meant to have an impact on the world.  Bread symbolizes growth of something small and flat – matzah – to something expansive (yeast literally expands).  By counting weeks, then, we are reminded that Torah must be relevant for the whole world, and must have a public impact.

What then does counting days teach us?

The exact opposite.  It’s about personal growth, about redeeming every small moment – not just the important, global and very public national moments.  Yes, we are to have an impact on the whole world, but don’t forget what the Torah told Avraham: It is through the families of the world that blessing will be bestowed.  That’s why the counting of days doesn’t mention the sacrifices but rather the day after the Shabbat – which is Pesach. Both Shabbat and Pesach emphasize the private life of a Jew.  To the Temple everyone must go; but Shabbat comes to us wherever we are.  Pesach is celebrated in the home, also late at night, also just with the family.  Ultimately a nation is only as strong as the individuals and the families within it.  Thus to strengthen the nation there is no better way than to strengthen oneself.

So these are the two approaches of the counting of the Omer.  What does it teach us about Shavuot?

Rashi points out that the first set of Tablets were given with thunder and lightening and great fanfare … and they were eventually destroyed.  The second set of Tablets were given in modesty and humility on Yom Kipur.

In other words, the Torah was given – and today is learned – both in public and private.  Both are important, but the former can only last if the latter also exists.

Unfortunately, in today’s world that is not only the case.  Many people focus on the public display of Torah, on what others can see – how I dress, what level of kashrut I observe, etc.  But that’s the type of Torah that doesn’t last, nor does it inspire others.  It’s the quiet observance, the day to day Torah study and performance of hidden mitzvoth, seen perhaps by one’s family or more likely by no one at all except the One and All.  That’s the Torah that sticks, and that’s the Torah that makes the national moments so much more meaningful when we eventually arrive at them.

With this insight at hand, let us now return to some of our initial questions about why Torah seems to be hidden on Shavuot of all days.

Obviously it answers why we learn in the middle of the night, far from the public light, as well as why no specific mitzvoth are associated with the day; after all, it’s not about mitzvoth you can see but those that you can’t see.  Perhaps it also explains why we must not forgo our family feasts on this day in order to learn Torah exclusively.  The family, after all, is the pillar on which this ‘hidden’ Torah is built; our table quite literally is the alter on which we learn this special Torah.  We are forbidden to replace the quiet Torah learning of family dynamics with the public Torah learning of the first tablets.

This insight also helps explain the custom of bypassing meat in favor of dairy.  As you may recall I suggested earlier that the Rambam based his position that meat and wine was the definition of joy on the Talmud.  When one reads the Talmud in the original, though, he will find something quite interesting.  It does not say what many of us are accustomed to saying it says, that “there is no simcha without meat and wine.”  Rather, it says that we once had the Temple (and the national experience), and the meat from that experience (the sacrifices brought to the Temple) symbolized that joy.  But now that we no longer have that national experience, we are only left with the joy of wine, the joy that needs to be stimulated from some outside source.

So we see that ‘meat’ symbolized the joy of the national experience of the Temple.  Obviously this is a very important experience, and something that the rebirth of Israel speaks to on a daily basis.  But on Shavuot we are reminded that this nation cannot stand alone; it requires an army of individuals dedicated to celebrating Torah on a daily basis without fanfare, redeeming moments of seeming insignificance from oblivion.

Are the Egyptians the New Jews?

The following article is adapted from Rabbi Pear’s Shabbat HaGadol Sermon: “Are the Egyptians the New Jews? A Jewish Response to the Arab Revolts.”

I recently became a global citizen.  In search of an affordable graphic artist to design a new logo for Shir Hadash I came across a website that ‘puts out to bid’ various projects to freelancers throughout the world.  The client – that’s me – gets to view all these bids and then decide on the best one.  To my surprise, the project I offered – design a new logo for a Israeli based Jewish religious institution – garnered tremendous response.  Two things in particular surprised me.  First, the bids were incredibly low.  There were professionals in India, individuals with college degrees, some with second degrees even, willing to work for me ‘until I was satisfied’ for about $25.  Heck, in Israel, I can’t even get someone to work for me ‘until I’m almost not totally unsatisfied’ for double that amount.
The second thing that surprised me was the tremendous diversity of the respondents.  Yes, I received many responses from India, but also from Pakistan, and Latvia, and Estonia, and Italy, and Mexico and England (the most expensive of course) and many, many other places … including Egypt!  This last respondent was the most fascinating.  He saw that I’m Israeli (in fact, next to my name the website placed a large Israeli flag); he saw that I’m Jewish and he saw that I was asking to have work done for a Synagogue among other things.  Did he flinch? Not at all.  “Shalom” he wrote me.  “I’m not sure you’d be willing to hire an Egyptian, but if you would, I promise I’d do a great job.  I’d love to work for you!”
I was moved.  I had always harbored bad feelings towards Egypt, partly because of that whole slavery thing, and partly for that whole waging war against nascent Israel thing.  Sure there was now peace, but it was most certainly a cold peace at best.
[I think I also have a problem with Egypt partly because of a visit I made there once when I was in college.  After a day of touring I fell asleep in my hotel room, while my two roommates decided to ‘go out’ to check out the Egyptian nightlife.  At around three in the morning I was awakened by a Rooster dancing on my head and pecking my nose.  Apparently my friends bought said rooster during their night out and thought it would be hilarious to introduce him to me while I was deep in sleep.]
So yes, I have always had a problem with Egypt.  But then I receive this wonderfully uplifting note from a total stranger.  Apparently the forces of globalization have some very positive effects.   Which got me thinking … Maybe all those times I had a problem with Egypt, it wasn’t really with Egypt per se, but rather the leaders of Egypt.  Maybe the average person wasn’t so bad after all.  Maybe, in fact, behind all the rhetoric and politics, maybe behind all the headlines and shrill protesting and Israeli flag burning, maybe, just maybe, there were millions of everyday Egyptians ready to say ‘Shalom’ to total Israeli strangers.
And that got me thinking about the Exodus.  What was the situation then?  Was it simply Pharoah running the show; he was a dictator after all.  Did the average Egyptian and the average Jew actually get along?  Or was the anti-Semitism introduced by Pharoah actually a national pasttime?  Did everyone get in on the whole opression thing?
According to the Torah, I tend to think it was the latter.  After all, we are told that every Egyptian, from the mighty Pharoah all the way down to the lowliest water carrier, suffered during the Plagues.  Everyone of them was punished … suggesting, of course, that God somehow held everyone one of them somewhat responsible.
But wasn’t it Pharoah and his taskmasters who did all the enslaving?  What role did that poor water carrier play?
According to many sources, the answer is that Pharoah, as powerful as he was, could not possibly have instituted slavery without the tacit support of the entire population.  If the people had protested, he would have had no choice but to abort his plan.  Thus, when they did not protest, their sin of omission enabled the slavery to take place.
A number of interesting proofs assert this same point.
For example, the Gemara tells us that Pharoah consulted with three people before enslaving the Jews – Bilaam, Yitro and Iyov (or Job).  Bilaam encouraged Pharoah to enslave the Jews – and was thus punished by God.  Yitro would have no part of Pharoah’s plan and ran away in protest – and was thus rewarded by God.  Job simply remained silent.  How did God react to this inaction?  According to the Gemara, not well.  Job’s silence in the face of the Jews’ impending suffering was criminal – and thus God punished him with all the suffering we are familiar with from Job’s story elsewhere.  In other words, if one has the opportunity to protest and he does not, even if his protest may not be successful, he is liable for his lack of action.  It’s almost as if he allowed the act to take place.
Another interesting source is provided by the Vilna Gaon.  He states that Pharoah, no matter how powerful a dictator he was, was nevertheless limited in his behavior by the tacit support of the average Egyptian.  If he was totally out of line, a revolt would have removed him from power.
What’s the proof of this assertion?
The Vilna Gaon points out two things.  First, that the Gemara states that Pharoah told all the midwives a secret – that if the baby’s head was up (while still in the womb) it was most probably a boy, while if it was down it was probably a girl.  Why did they need to  know that information.  Couldn’t they simply have waited until the baby was born, and then kill all the males as Pharoah commanded?  Why did Pharoah think they needed a ‘heads up’ – pardon the pun – beforehand?
His second question relates to the ‘excuse’ given by the two Jewish midwives who refused to murder the male babies.  If you remember the text, they tell Pharoah they couldn’t have killed the babies because the Jewish women give birth so fast that the boys were already born before they, the midwives, arrived.  “So what?” asks the Vilna Gaon.  How is that an excuse at all.  So you kill them after they are born.  Why does it matter that they were already born?
The Vilna Gaon answers the second question by addressing the first.  Pharoah made sure the midwives knew how to determine the sex of the baby in utero because he knew that if they waited until they were born, the mothers – and others – would protest the murder.  By murdering them before they actually left the womb, the mothers didn’t even know their children were being murdered; they simply thought it was a miscarriage.  In this way, Pharoah did not appear overtly evil – at least in the eyes of his own people.  For if they had actually known about his plan, they most assuredly would have protested.  And it is for this reason that the midwives excuse made sense.  Yes, they could have technically killed the babies after they were born, but if they did so, the gig was up; people would know Pharoah’s true intentions and perhaps begin to revolt against him.  We learn from this yet again the power of the seemingly powerless.  If they had protested, Pharoah could not have succeeded with his plans.
And thus, according to these above sources, as well as others, even the lowly Egyptians were guilty because they allowed Pharoah to ‘get away’ with murder.
But not everyone agrees with this assertion.  The Ramban, for example, argues that the Egyptians didn’t know about Pharoah’s plans at all.  He, of course, can draw some support for this assertion from the same Vilna Gaon insight quoted above.  Pharoah obviously was trying to deceive the people so they weren’t aware of his plans.  If that’s the case, then, they can’t be held responsible for not protesting.  After all, they can’t protest what they can’t see.
… which raises an even greater question than the one we began with.
Recall, for a moment, how we started this discussion.  The Torah itself  tells us that all the Egyptians are punished.  Why?  According to most sources, because they all shared some type of culpability.  The one angle we explored was their lack of protest (there are others, but that’s for another time).  Fine.  That makes sense.
But now the Ramban comes along and suggests that perhaps the Egyptians didn’t know what was going on, and therefore couldn’t protest — and therefore also could not be held liable for not protesting.  Which seems to suggest a certain degree of innocence.
But that can’t be.  The Torah has already told explicitly they are punished!
So does that mean the Ramban is wrong?
Perhaps not.  Perhaps there is something else the Egyptians did that made them liable for punishment.  But if not their outright participation in enslaving the Jews, and if not their tacit support by not protesting, then what?
Let us digress for one moment and ask the following question: Who is the key figure in the Hagada that seems to be totally absent from all discussion on Seder night?
My answer: Joseph.
Joseph, after all, is the reason the Jews are in Egypt in the first place.  If he never went down there, and if he never succeeded in becoming the vice-premier, it is doubtful the brothers would have followed him down, and even less so that they would have stayed.
So yes, I think Joseph plays a significant role in the whole story.  And so do the Sages, though not in the obvious way you might expect.  For example, one ritual enacted by the Sages is dipping the Karpas into salt water.  Did you know that some have the custom of dipping it in Charoset because it’s usually reddish (due to the red wine in it), and this reminds them of when the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of an animal in order to show it to their father and claim that Joseph must have been killed?  Or did you know that the world Karpas, according to Rashi, does not mean simply ‘green vegetable’ – like parsely or celery – but rather colorful coat – i.e., Joseph’s coat?
And another thing?  Why do we tell the story of the four brothers?  Some suggest it’s connected to Joseph.  After all, what’s the reason Joseph was sold into slavery?  Because his brothers hated him.  And why did they hate him?  Because their father Jacob favored him at their expense.  Perhaps, suggests some commentators, the reason why the story of the four brothers is included in the Hagada is to teach us that a parent must learn how to relate and educate each of his or her children in whatever way they need educating.
And here’s the clincher to prove that despite his apparent absence, Joseph IS actually a major part of the seder.  We drinkg 4 cups of wine.  Why?  According to the Babylonian Talmud the answer is because the Torah uses four different terms to describe the redemptive process of God taking us out of Egypt.  OK, sounds good to me.
But not to the Jerusalem Talmud.  It offers an entirely different explanation: We drink 4 cups of wine because in the dream of the Wine Steward – the dream that Joseph interprets and is the cause of his eventual liberation from prison – in this dream there are four times the word ‘cup’ is mentioned.
So there you have it.  Joseph is a part of the seder after all.
But what does that mean?
To understand its meaning, we have to realize that Joseph is but one model of Jewish leadership.  Throughout our history, there is a second model as well – and that is Yehuda.
What is the difference between these two leaders?  Joseph represents the Universal, the desire to take Jewish values and spread them throughout the world, even if at times that jeopardizes the uniquenss of the Jewish way along the way. Yehuda, in contrast, is uncompromisingly parochial.  First and foremost he represents the need to strengthen our Jewish identity, our commitment to our uniqueness, and our devotion to one another – even if that comes at the expense of our other mission to reach out to the rest of the world.
We have both models of leaders because, in truth, we need both models of leadership.  It is irrelevant to be able to speak to the world if what we have to say is not particularly meaningful; and thus we need Yehuda’s insistence on understanding the unique Jewish message.  On the other hand, what good is it to survive as Jews and celebrate Judaism if we are unable to spread that message in such a way as to transform the world?
Perhaps the Sages ‘slipped’ Joseph into the Hagada to remind us of this need to synthesize both leadership styles.  Especially on Passover.  After all, one could be forgiven for abandoning the world at such a time.  We were enslaved.  We were murdered.  We were almost destroyed.  “Please,” I hear myself saying, “Give me a break.  You want me to care about the rest of the world right now.  It’s impossible.”  And yet, while one can be forgiven for turning inward when contemplating the Passover experience, the Sages remind us that this is not ideal.  We must also, even at this difficult time, remember the message of Joseph.  That the Jewish story is also meant to play a role in the lives of the whole world.  We dare not ignore others.
OK, now I believe we can return to answer the question on the Ramban.  Recall the problem: The Ramban said average Egyptians were not guilty of enslaving the Jews, but the Torah tells us they are punished nevertheless; so what was their sin?
Perhaps – and here I am summoning the Joseph within me – their sin had nothing to do with their relationship with the Jewish people.   Perhaps their sin was something not against Jews but against themselves.
Consider this.  The message of the exodus is not simply that the Jews needed to be free, but also that the entire world needs to be free.  That only with freedom can a person – any person – fulfill their ultimate potential and ultimate service to God.  Moreover, it is also a message of God as liberator, as lover of freedom, and of man created in God’s image, and thus also a lover of freedom.
Perhaps the sin of the average Egyptian is not that he enslaved others but that he allowed himself to become enslaved.  That he allowed a dictator to rule over him, to establish a caste society in which no movement, no moral freedom and no independence was permitted.  That he allowed himself to remove all possibility of serving the one True God because he refused to even attempt to throw off the shackles of one so-called god-dictator.
… and of course, once this Egyptian gave up all hope for his own freedom, the absolute enslavement of another became inevitable.
Let us now take this lesson and apply it to the various popular revolts spreading throughout the Arab world.  As a Jew and and Israeli, yes, I am a little concerned about what might follow.  Nothing is guaranteed, and yes, it is quite possible that extremists will replace the old regimes, who may have been corrupt, dictatorial and oppressive, but also stable and something Israel knew how to deal with.  Yes, that is all possible.
But so too is something very different.  Maybe, just maybe, the decision by millions to throw off the shackles of their oppression, and to finally insist on their own freedom, maybe this is a sign of good things to come.  Certainly they are not doing this for our sake.  But that doesn’t matter.  For far too long they weren’t even prepared to do it for their sake.
This change in attitude portends well for their societies and ultimately for the world as a whole.  No, everything will not be punky dory by tomorrow.  And yes, there might be some extremists that take over in the interim.  But if the average person continues to insist on his freedom, continues to raise his voice in protest every time someone rises to usurp his liberated status, well, then, in the long run not only will his society benefit but so too will all of ours.

In this week’s parsha we are commanded to Love thy Neighbor as Thyself, or in the original, ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  The question is: Is that even possible?  Can I ever love a person as much as I love myself?

Even Rabbi Akiva, who of course promoted this commandment above all others, understood there were limitations in applying it.  For example, when two people are lost in the desert and there is only enough water for one of them to survive, Rabbi Akiva writes that if you are the one in possession of the water you do not need to share it with your friend.  If you do, you both will die, so it is better to have at least one of you live, and since you already have the water, it should be you.

If the shoe were on the other foot, is that what you would really want?  Is that truly loving one’s neigbhor as one’s self?

Or take for example the case of Hillel.  He, too, was a champion of the this commandment, equating it as the basis of the entire Torah.  But he, too, had some problems with applying it practically, and therefore when asked by the convert what is the Torah’s essence, he didn’t quote this commandment accurately from the Torah.  Rather, he reformulated it into the negative; that which is hateful to you, don’t do to others.  A little less lofty than the love required in the Torah, but perhaps more manageable as well.

And the list of limitations go on and on; Rabbi after Rabbi extol the commandment but then tell us it only applies in certain situations.

Which leaves us with another question: If this commandment cannot be fulfilled, why is there at all.  Why not begin with the limitations?

Perhaps there is another way of reading this commandment, one that allows us to take it at face value but also fulfill it at the same time.


Before exploring that possibility, let us look at another commandment from this week’s Torah portion, the mitzvah of honoring one’s elders.  I first began to think about this mitzvah due to an e-mail sent out by Yeshiva University to its former Rabbinical students.  In this e-mail, a link was provided to a humorous, though disturbing, story that took place in Japan.  Apparently an elderly woman got onto a bus and asked a young 18 year old man to vacate his seat so she could sit down instead.  He refused, despite the seat he was occupying was specifically designated for the elderly.  What was her response?  She took her cane and beat him senselessly, breaking his nose and bruising him all over.  Needless to say, she got her seat.

Contrast this scene with something I witnessed here in Jerusalem a few years back.  An elderly woman entered the bus, at which time a young man instantly got up from his seat to give it to her.  Before he could do so, though, another individual entered the bus behind the lady; this second individual was blind.  Now there was a traffic jam at the front of the bus.  The young man couldn’t get out unless the elderly lady either walked past her seat or went in reverse and pushed back the blind man.

So what happenned?  The elderly lady instantly sprung into action, performing some type of yoga move where her arms reached across the aisle while her legs straddled some seats.  The blind man kept walking down the aisle – below the cat like elderly lady – without even knowing she was there.

This somewhat hilarious scene got me thinking.  The mitzvah of honoring one’s elderly includes the halacha of standing up for people over the age of 70 when they walk in front of you.  This is a real halacha, not just a nice idea.  If an elderly person walks within four amout of you, you stand.  What is the halacha, I thought, if this elderly woman was also blind … and for good measure, let’s throw in deaf as well.

In other words, what is the halacha vis-a-vis standing for an elderly person if that elderly person will never know whether or not you stood for them, and maybe won’t even know that you were there in the first place.  If they can’t see or hear you, they will have no way of knowing about your behavior, and thus also, they cannot be offended in anyway if you don’t stand for them.

So do I have to stand in such a case?

The answer is yes; and the reason why is quite simple.  When we stand for the elderly, we are doing so not just for them to feel honored, but we are also doing so for us, and for society as a whole.  We are reminding ourselves about the importance of elderly, about the wisdom they represent, and how we should desire to pursue that wisdom.  And thus, even if they will never know if we showed that honor or not, it is important for us to do so to insure we remember that what they represent is important to us.

The Meshech Chochmah takes this idea and applies it to other cases of showing honor, such as the commandment to show honor to one’s parents.   To make his point, he first reminds of the famous Rashi that teaches us that one may not violate Shabbat even if ordered to do so by one’s parents.  Rashi tells us that we learn this law thanks to the juxtaposition of the commandments to honor the Shabbat and honor one’s parents found within the Ten Commandments.  The Meshech Chochmah asks: Why do we need this special learning, why a specific source?  Why would we ever think that we could violate Shabbat (a mitzvah ben adam l’makom) in order to fulfill honoring one’s parents (a mitzvah ben adam l’makom)?  He answers by quoting the Gemara which states that honoring one’s parents is really ‘only’ a hechsher mitzvah – the preparation for a mitzvah – and therefore might not be protected in the same way a regular mitzvah is.  In this way, he continues, honoring one’s parents is like building the Beit HaMikdash.

Rather than clarifying matters, this initial insight creates more fog.  First, why call honoring one’s parents and building the Beit HaMikdash hechsher mitzvoth?  Aren’t they actual mitzvoth?  Second, and if they are ‘only’ hecksher – preparation – for the mitzvah, then we would think they are even less important, and surely we don’t need a specific learning to teach us that you must not violate a bein adam l’makom in order to fulfill them.

The key to explaining the Meshech Chochmah is to focus on his use of the hecksher mitzvah of building the Beit HaMikdash.  That mitzvah, of course, is also (like Shabbat) a bein adam l’makom; by comparing it with honoring one’s parents perhaps suggests that honoring one’s parents also has such a component.  And if so, then we might need a specific learning to teach us that Shabbat takes precedence; after all they’re both on the same level without such a teaching.

And one more thing.  The use of the term hecksher mitzvah to explain the building of the Beit HaMikdash is very different than the use of the same term to describe other acts.  For example, hecksher mitzvah can be used to describe the act of chopping wood that will eventually be used for a Sukkah.  The mitzvah, of course, is the Sukkah; the chopping of the wood is one of the acts that precedes this mitzvah, but is not a mitzvah in it of itself.  Not so with the building of the Beit HaMikdash.  So why call it a hecksher mitzvah if in fact it’s really a mitzvah itself?  Because in addition to being a mitzvah by itself, it enables the fulfillment of so many other mitzvoth.  Without the Beit HaMikdash we are not just lacking that one mitzvah but an entire world of mitzvoth made possible by its existence.

So, too, says the Meshech Chochmah with regards to honoring one’s parents.  Yes, it is a mitzvah by itself.  But it also accomplishes – and enables – so much more.  By honoring one’s parents one is not simply providing a service to them; he is also gaining something personal for himself.  Like with the case of honoring the elderly, it’s not just about doing something for others, but also about becoming who I am supposed to become.

In this case, the benefit is as follows: In honoring one’s parents, one is connected to the tradition, the wisdom of the Torah and ultimately the strength of our past generations.  In honoring one’s parents, one gains access to the wealth of collective teachings, and begins the journey all the way back to standing at Har Sinai.  Honoring one’s parents, then, is also a hecksher mitzvah – it opens up the door to allow me to fulfill all the mitzvoth in the world.  That is why I need a specific learning that tells me in the instance of a conflict with Shabbat I should not violate Shabbat.  Without that learning, well then, obviously, I would follow the ‘honoring one’s parent’s’ mitzvah because it is usually what allows me to appreciate mitzvoth to begin with.


I would now like to take this idea and apply it to our initial question, of how we are to understand the mitzvah of “love your neigbhor as thyself.”  What I’d like to suggest is that there is a component of this mitzvah very much akin to the hecksher mitzvah component of honoring one’s parents.  To explain …

There once was a study completed that demonstrated people favor other people that somehow remind them of themselves.  In this experiment, researchers hired two different types of people to pretend to get sick at a mass rally taking place again Richard Nixon on the National Mall in Washington DC.  One type of person looked like the protestors – hippy dress, bearded, placards nearby protesting against Nixon.  The other type of person looked like a ‘young Republican’ – suit and tie, well groomed, etc.  Each ‘actor’ would pretend to get sick and see how people reacted.  If when they bent over in pain, someone asked how they were doing, they would go a step further and ask them to help them stand up.  If they agreed, they’d go a step further and ask them for a glass of water.  If they agreed, then another task – perhaps to walk them out of the crowd.  If they were still with them, they they’d ask for bus fare to get home.  If still there, then they’d have the gaul to ask them to accompany them home, about 7 miles away.

What was shocking was the different reactions elicited by the different actors.  The ‘like’ individual, the one who looked like the protesters, was helped tremendously.  Many people stopped; many helped; many even gave him money and a few accompanied him home.  Not so with the ‘other-looking’ actor.  Most ignored him.  The few who didn’t ignore him didn’t go too far out of their way to help.

From this we learn that the first step in a long process of aiding another depends very much on how you look at that person.  If you look at them as someone like you, then many of the subsequent steps are easy.  If you view them as different than you, then many of those subsequent steps become impossible.

Nechama Leibowitz has an interpretation on a verse in our parsha — other than the “love your neighbor’ one – that could be applied to our verse in such a way as to suggests the same teaching offered by this experiment.

First, let’s look at her verse, which happens to appear in our parsha just a few verses after our verse appears.  There it describes the importance of respecting the stranger, explicitly stating that one should “Love him like yourself” — pretty similar to our verse of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But this second verse has something our verse doesn’t — an explanation why.  “ואהבת לו כמוך כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים” – We are to love the stranger because we can identify with his situation, since like him, we too were strangers in a foreign land and understand what that means and how that feels.  In other words, Nechama Leibowitz reads the ‘like yourself’ not as an adjective describing your love but rather as a motivation enabling it.  The ‘like yourself’ does not relate back to “love him” but rather the second half of the verse “because you were strangers.”

Let’s take this idea and apply it to our ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  It should not be read as love your neighbor as you love yourself, but rather: Love your neighbor – period.  And how do you accomplish this?  By כמוך – by viewing your neigbhor as yourself, as someone similar to you.  For once you see him as someone like you, then the loving him is much easier.  Once you see him like yourself – just as the protesters saw the actor as one of them – then all the subsequent acts of love are much easier.  In this case, that means that not only is loving him much easier, but so too is fulfilling ALL the mitzvoth ben adam l’chavero that might come up between two people.

This, then, is another ‘hecksher mitzvah’ as the Meshech Chochmah understands the term.   By looking at a person a certain way, you make so many other mitzvoth with that person – and others – possible.

… all of which leaves but one more question: How are we to achieve that ability of seeing people who look different than us as ‘us’ – as people who are כמוך.

The answer to this question follows our verse, as well as the verse Nechama Leibowitz quotes.  “Because I am the Lord your God.”  By realizing that there is One God that means God is not only my God but the other’s God as well, and then by definition, we are both God’s children.  We are a like after all.

Time Travellers

In the Hagada we are presented with what obviously must have been a very important historical seder, the seder of Rabbi Akiva and the other four sages.  The question is: Why was the seder at Rabbi Akiva’s place?  After all, the other sages mentioned were of equal stature.  Among them was Elazar ben Azariah who became the head of the Sanhedrin at the amazingly young age of 18.  ere teachers of Rabbi Akiva, founders of the Yavne Academy, the President of the Sanhedrin.  There was also Eliezer, the star pupil of Rabbi Yochanan (and a teacher of Rabbi Akiva), about whom it was said, “If all the sages of Israel were on one pan of a balance scale, and Eliezer were on the other, he (and his wisdom) would outweight them all.”  There was also the famous – and humble – Rabbi Joshua (another teacher of Rabbi Akiva), as well as the tzadik Rabbi Tarfon about whom the Gemara tells us fulfilled the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents more so than anyone else ever had.  So again, why was the seder held at Rabbi Akiva’s?  Shouldn’t protocol have dictated it be at one of the more senior sages?  And if you want to say that their yearly seder rotated locations, so why then does the Hagada choose this particular year – in this particular place – to freeze in time as the seder of memory for all generations?

Another question that might shed some light on this first query:

It is an universally accepted tradition to retell the story of our freedom by first discussing our g’nut – or disgrace – and then follow it with shevach – our elevation, or redemption.  What is less univesally accepted is what exactly is meant by these two terms.  In the Gemara, for example, there is an argument about them, where one opinion holds that our disgrace was physical – our slavery in Egypt – and thus are elevation was physical as well – namely our exodus from Egypt.  The other opinion holds, however, that our true degredation was when we were idol worshippers – as in the time before Abraham – and our elevation therefore was not something physical but spiritual: We once were idol worshippers but now we believe in the one True God.

The Hagada, of course, tells both stories, starting with 1) the Avadim Hayinu answer to the four questions – which represents the g’nut of slavery followed by the shevach of freedom – and subsequently 2) the Ovdei Avodah Zara answer – with the g’nut of idol worship followed by the shevach of monotheism.

In contrast to the Hagada, the Rambam suggests in his Mishne Torah that we should reverse the order, that yes, we start with g’nut and end with shevach, but that the first g’nut should be about idol worship and only afterward should one discuss the physical slavery and subsequent freedom.

That position in it of itself is not overly shocking; after all, such an opinion existed in the Gemara as well.  But what is shocking is that the Rambam’s own Hagada did not follow the Rambam’s actual halachik opinion.  His Hagada, like all of ours, starts with Avadim Hayinu and then goes onto the idol worship question.

So why doesn’t the Rambam hold like the Rambam?

According to some (such as Rav Rimon from Alon Shevut), the Rambam believed in two types of Haggadot – one for Eretz Yisrael in the time of the Beit HaMikdash and one for Galut, exile.  In the latter case, when one is in exile, one has to be especially concerned about one’s physical predicament.  In the galut, a Jew could disappear easily.  He could – as history demonstrates – be threatened and challenged and even destroyed at any moment.  Such a Jew, therefore, must first ensure his physical freedom and avoidance of slavery; such a Jew, therefore, should start his recitation of the answer to the four questions by focusing first and foremost on physical redemption … and then only afterwards does he have the luxury to turn to spiritual matters.

A Jew living in the time of the Beit HaMikdash, however, must realize that physical freedom is not the end goal.  It is the means to the end.  It enables one to fuflill his ultimate purpose of serving God free of outside influence and without being prevented by outside forces.  Therefore, when a Jew lives in his own land, when he doesn’t have to worry about the physical slavery of the galut, then he must begin his answer with a spiritual focus, by discussing how we once lacked the knowledge of God but now we have it – and we must do something special with it.

The Rambam lived in the exile and therefore used the Hagada of the exile; he first addressed physical slavery and then only afterwards discussed spiritual matters.  His halachik ruling, though, was not for his time – and not for his place.  It was for the ideal situation, when Jews are free to live in their own land and pursue their ultimate purpose.  In that case, one focuses first and foremost on the spiritual.

What I take away from this insight is the Rambam’s special ability to ‘time travel’ – to live in one place but to constantly have his eye and heart elsewhere, in Jerusalem, in a land of freedom, with a people focusing on fulfilling their ultimate purpose, not just ‘getting’ by.

I experienced a glimpse of this idea during our own seder as well.  It was just the family so we decided to go all out and make it a very special – and fun – event for the kids.  Towards that end I designed a game to keep the kids’ attention at high alert.  It was called ‘Get Moshe into the Nile’ and included the following rules.  The kids would have to pass their baby brother from one to another, all the while avoiding being captured by me, who represented the big bad Pharoah.  As I have three girls, they represented some of the heroine of this part of the story – Yocheved (Moshe’s mother), Miriam (his sister) and Batya (his rescuer from the Nile).  The eventual goal was to get their baby brother all the way to a wading pool I had set up on the balcony; and not just to the pool, but to the baby bathtub – Moshe’s ark – in the center of the pool.

As it turned out, the baby was sleeping, so we decided to use dolls instead of a live child – which in turn made the game a little more fun.  Rather than handing the ‘baby’ from one to another, now the kids could throw the dolls to each other, over my head, under my legs and any way possible to keep him out of my reach.  When I was lucky, I would be able to bat the baby down, preventing them from winning; they would quickly grab the doll and start over.   As my wife watched the game unfold, I think she was particularly happy our baby made the wise decision of falling asleep.

At one moment in the game something fascinating happenned.  One daughter passed baby Moshe to the other.  She then jumped on a ledge on the balcony and called for her sister to pass Moshe back; after all, she was already past me, and if her sister could lob baby Moshe over my head, she would catch him and then have a free pass to throw (they gave up on placing a long time ago) Moshe into the pool.  Her sister heard her and tossed Moshe over my head.  He landed in the hands of the other sister … but only for a moment.  He was too high, and thus she could hold onto Moshe only for a moment.  In the next second he slipped from her hand and fell off the balcony several floors below.

We all gasped.  “Moshe” we all cried.  And then we laughed.

For me, the most interesting moment was the cry of “Moshe’s name.”  For that one moment, we were not playing a game but actually in Egypt trying to rescue Moshe.  We were experiencing a different time and place, something only humans can do.

Of course, we not only can relive the past unlike all other animals, we can also project ourselves into the future.  And amazingly, when done right, we can feel the past and the future in the same way we feel the present — real, live and happenning.  Sometimes, when we’re really good, we can even experience these three times at the same time!  That is when we get a taste of eternity, a taste of a moment that breaks all limits of time.

This, I think, is what made Rabbi Akiva so special.  Yes, he was a great scholar.  But so too were all the others.  No, it had to be something else that made all of them want to spend seder with him.

Think for a moment about a famous scene in which we are told Rabbi Akiva comforted others: He and some fellow scholars are on the Temple Mount bemoaning the destruction of the Temple.  Everyone is crying – but Akiva is laughing.  How is that possible? they ask.  He responds by telling them just as the prophecy that foresaw this destruction came to fruition so too will the prophecy that envisions its rebuilding come true.

For me, it is his laughter that is key.  To believe in a better future is one thing.  But to laugh about it is something entirely different.  Laughter is a sign of an emotion.  He wasn’t just envisioning the future; he was there!  He was feeling it at that moment.  He thus transcended his present and took his friends on a time travel journey to the future.

This is why I believe they all wanted to be with Rabbi Akiva on seder night.  They needed someone to take them to the past and then to the future, to span all time zones and all generations, to truly make it a night like no other.

And of course that is our mission as well.  To return to the past and really, really feel it, so much so we experience the same emotions one might have if he were actually there.  And to be catapulted to the future, to a time when we have returned to Israel and begun the process of redeeming Her completely.  And then even further in the future, to a Messianic age of complete redemption.