Thursday, January 26, 2012

Knock knock. Who's there? Death.

There is a famous question regarding the events that transpired on the night of the plague of the firstborn in Egypt.
On the one hand, Hashem tells the Jews that they should prepare the korban Pesach and daub its blood on their doorposts. Further, they are instructed to remain behind their blood-marked doors and not venture outside during the night. This is a protective measure, for in seeing this, "… G-d will pass over your doorway and not allow the destroying angel into your houses to kill." [Shemos 12:23]
On the other hand, though, is the assertion that Hashem himself is the one who will be performing makkas bechoros, as He says, "And I will pass through Egypt on that night and I will smite every first born …" [Shemos 12:12]
So what destroying angel is Hashem protecting us from ?
The Vilna Gaon answers the question by pointing out that while G-d himself is performing the smiting of the Egyptians, there may be one or two Jews who have reached the end of their allotted time on this earth and are up for collection by the angel of death. If they were to die, the heavenly retribution against Egypt would be incomplete since they could legitimately point out that Jews died that night also. (It can be compared to a scorecard. Even though 236,986 to 2 is still an overwhelming victory – it's not that same as a shutout). It is to prevent this intrusion by the malach hamavess, and its unwelcome inference, that the blood is to be daubed on the doorposts.
The implications of this idea are awesome and staggering. An entire nation (estimated at 2-3 million people) performed a complex ritual and remained closeted in their houses all night to save the lives of one or two Jews! Surely, this display of profound unity is one of the merits that the fledgling nation managed to come up with to deserve Hashem's redemption.
And us? What would we do for the 'achdus' of our people, or for 'kavod shamayim'? And have we done it lately?


Thursday, January 19, 2012

To Speak or Not To Speak

Moshe keeps on referring to his own speech impediment by the term "ערל שפתים" which is loosely translated as "thick lipped". Rashi teaches us that every instance where there is something coating or blocking a particular limb, it can be described as an "ערלה". When the Navi seeks to offer comfort to a wayward people, he tells the Yidden that Hashem will remove the 'orlah' from their hearts and they will be able to devote themselves to Him wholeheartedly.
We know that Moshe was 'thick lipped' since his unfortunate encounter with some hot coals in his infancy when Pharaoh wanted to be certain that he was not angling for the Egyptian throne. This may have caused Moshe some speech impediment, but in what way are his lips 'blocked' or sealed? Shouldn't Moshe more appropriately describe it as having handicapped lips? (As he does in Shemos 4:10 "כבד פה וכבד לשון" – heavy of lip and of tongue)
When Moshe pleads unable to fulfill G-d's mission due to his 'lips', Hashem answers him by appointing Aharon to do the talking. Why wouldn’t Hashem simply remove Moshe's blockage, in effect 'circumcising' his lips, and leave him to do the job?! Because having lips that are blocked is an asset and not one that Moshe wants to give up. Years of tending flocks of sheep in the wilderness had given Moshe time to introspect and hone a lofty spiritual character. This 'blockage' is not just a remnant of his coal scarred lips, it is actually an achievement on Moshe's part. How does having your lips blocked manifest itself? In the inability to speak.
The Chofetz Chaim quotes the saying that many limbs were given one 'gate' yet the tongue was given two, teeth and lips. The Gemara also says that if you would pay a selah (a coin) for the right to speak, you should pay double for the right to remain silent (Megilla 18a).
Moshe has, by virtue of his humility, and perhaps aided by his natural speech difficulties, chosen to place a third barrier upon his mouth, a blockage of the lips. This 'orlah' is what distinguishes him as the mouthpiece of the shechina par excellence, not the ability to orate in a polished fashion, but rather the conviction to stay quiet. This is what elevates him to the status of 'father of all the prophets'. Because prophecy has nothing to do with your own words, it is merely serving as a vessel for the holy words of the Ribonno Shel Olam.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that Moshe doesn't just mention to Hashem that he is an 'areil sefasaim', he mentions it before Hashem (see Shemos 6:12, 30). The implication here is one of petition. Moshe is beseeching G-d and telling him, "Hashem, here I am, with an extra layer of watchfulness over my speech, how can I ruin that and come before Pharaoh?" Incredibly, Hashem agrees. Most of the mundane aspects of the back and forth dialogue were spared from the "פה שעתיד לדבר עם השכינה".
Through this extra barrier upon his speech, Moshe merited to be the one to storm the heavens and return with the Torah, our treasure for all time. What will we accomplish if we place a little barrier of our own?
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Know When To Hold 'Em

One of the most interesting points of the Parasha is Pharaoh's attempts at controlling the Jewish population. He issues chilling orders to the Hebrew midwives, telling them to dispose of any male child before its first breath. The midwives respond in a clever and devious manner, openly accepting Pharaoh's murderous missive while secretly rejecting it completely. When Pharaoh challenges them, they respond by lying and telling him that they were unable to reach the Jewish women in time

The entire incident begs the question, why didn't they just refuse openly? The answer forms a powerful lesson in dealing with the forces of evil, internal or out.

When you face up to a tyrant or an evil impulse – there is an overwhelming response. If the Hebrew midwives would have refused him, he would simply have had them killed. Same goes for the yetzer hora, sometimes when we stand up to him, he counters with a strong show of manipulative force and we find ourselves doubly tempted! By paying lip service to his scheme, the Hebrew midwives were able to insure that no one else was given their job, certainly not anyone who would have caved in and followed orders.

Sometimes we need to fight the yetzer hora in the same way. We don't always need to challenge him in an overt fashion. By paying him lip service we can sometimes get in beneath the radar. If there is a particular action that is beneath us and inappropriate, we need not declare it in bold terms. We can simply tell the yetzer hora "not now", "I didn't get a chance", or other excuses of that ilk. Before you know it, the yetzer hora's urgency will have passed because he assumes that you are already sold on his plan. Yet, just like the Hebrew midwives, you will actually be heroically forging ahead, right under the yetzer hora's nose!

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, January 06, 2012

Too Much, Too Fast


Why did Reuven, the actual firstborn, not receive the birthright portion from Yaakov? After all, Yaakov Avinu was very sensitive to the subject – he fought his own brother over it in an epic struggle that lasted more than twenty years!

In his final message to Reuven, Yaakov tells him exactly that, why he didn’t get the birthright.
"You are too much like water, and you didn’t leave anything over" [Bereshis 49:4]
The Netziv explains that water possesses two qualities, both of which are linked to its consistency. Water will pour out faster than other liquids (which are thicker) and water will pour out cleaner than other liquids, leaving fewer droplets in the utensil from which it was poured.
These were Reuven's two faults. He was rash to act quickly and he stubbornly clung to a commitment once he made it – "going all in". At face value these seem like excellent qualities, who wouldn't want a leader who is alacritous and steadfast? At second glance, however, we see these qualities in a truer light. To look before you leap is not a contradiction to swiftness and commitment is wonderful but should not replace levelheaded analysis.
It was these two failures that prevented Reuven from earning his rightful place at the throne of the twelve sons of Yaakov.
The next time a decision come our way, will we think it through or act recklessly? When we are at a crossroads, will we go forward without leaving a drop in the bucket, so we can reassess and reconfirm, or will we go all in, and never change regardless of the consequences?

Let us learn from Reuven's example and utilize both our zeal and our intellect to their utmost capacity in the service of our Creator.

Hatzlacha !!