הרב יגן

How Did We Get Into Egypt?

Avraham’s Question

On Pesach, everyone speaks about being taken out of Egypt. But my question is: What got us into Egypt in the first place?

The Torah relates that when Hashem[1] promised Avraham Avinu[2] the Holy Land as an inheritance, Avraham asked, “How shall I know that I will inherit it?”[3]

Subsequently, Hashem told him, “Know that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own — and they [the Jews] will serve them, and they [the gentiles] will oppress them — four hundred years.”[4] In these words, Hashem informed Avraham about the Egyptian bondage.

The Gemara[5] states that the Egyptian bondage was Avraham’s punishment for asking, “How shall I know that I will inherit it?”

This requires explanation. After all, we’re talking about the world’s number one believer! Avraham’s emunah, his faith in Hashem, was awesome. When the Chaldean king Nimrod ordered him to deny God or be thrown into a fiery furnace, Avraham unhesitatingly chose the furnace.[6] When God asked him to offer up his son Yitzhak, he willingly went to do it. Avraham never doubted Hashem.

The Maharal explains as follows:

When Avraham asked how he would know, Hashem replied: There is a microscopic flaw in your emunah — a flaw so small that I alone can detect it. But the tiniest flaw in the father’s emunah will burgeon into total denial of God in the offspring. I will have to treat the disease by bringing them to Egypt, enslaving them, punishing the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues, and taking your offspring out of Egypt with spectacular miracles — all so that they will see that I am the Creator and Director of the world, and they will be permeated with emunah.

This can be understood through a parable.

Reuven buys a tender apple sapling to plant in his garden. As he is carrying it home, he meets an agronomist. “Don’t plant this sapling,” the agronomist tells him.

“Why not?” asks Reuven.

“I see a black speck on the root,” says the agronomist.

“So what?” asks Reuven. “Who cares about a black speck?”

The agronomist explains: “With this speck on the root, the tree will yield apples too bitter to eat.”

Similarly, Hashem told Avraham: You are the root of the Jewish people. Since there is a speck of deficiency in your emunah, the tree that comes from you will yield bitter fruits. I will have to take measures to heal this tree.

Thus, the Jewish people went into Egypt to correct a speck of imperfection in emunah.

War Reparations

After telling Avraham that his offspring would be enslaved and oppressed, Hashem comforted him with a promise: “Afterward, they will leave with great wealth.”[7]

What kind of comfort is that for people who were enslaved and oppressed in the Egyptian holocaust?

“They made their lives bitter,”[8] like in the Holocaust. Their situation was unbearable. At various times, families were separated; husbands were enslaved; newborns were thrown into the Nile; three hundred children were slaughtered daily so that Pharaoh could bathe in their blood; if a father failed to complete his quota, his children were cemented into the wall in place of the missing bricks; women would give birth in the fields and flee, leaving the babies behind¼.

Can billions or even trillions of dollars compensate for such suffering?

Besides, is it conceivable that Hashem would ascribe such importance to money? A single mitzvah in the Torah is worth more than all the money in the world!

What, then, is this “great wealth,” if it isn’t gold and silver?

The answer is surprising.

The great wealth is¼ the ability to be an eved. This word actually means “slave,” but Western ears often prefer the translation “servant.” An eved has nothing of his own — no money, no time, not even the right to exercise his own will. He and all that is his belong entirely to his master, lock, stock, and barrel.

We were put into Egypt for the purpose of acquiring this truly great wealth: the ability to be an eved.

Why? What is so desirable about being an eved?

Imagine a prince living in wealth, ease, and comfort. He is free to do whatever he wishes and indulge in any pleasure he fancies. Suddenly, he begins to receive commands: “Wake up early!” “Pray with concentration!” “Study intensely!” “Keep calm even when someone yells at you!” “Put on your right shoe before the left!” “Eat this!” “Wear that!”

Even if he wants to, the prince will find it extremely difficult to obey, unaccustomed as he is to taking orders.

During the decades[9] when they were enslaved to Pharaoh, the Jews no longer had mastery over their houses, their children, or even their time. There was no such thing as “I’m tired” or “I don’t feel like¼.” They were pulled out of bed at two in the morning to do forced labor, and they had to work hard on pain of death. They lived in a constant state of stress and exhaustion.

Hashem told Avraham: After they grow accustomed to slavery, they will be ready to receive the First Commandment:[10]

I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

This sounds like an introduction. Where is the commandment?

“I am¼ your God” — you must serve Me as an eved serves his master. True, it is hard, but you are incomparably better off serving Me than serving an Egyptian.

In addition, the more you serve Me, the less you will have to serve the Income Tax authorities and other taskmasters. “Whoever takes on the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities will be removed from him.”[11]

To put it bluntly, man was born to be an eved. His only freedom is to choose whose eved he would like to be. The more of an eved he is to Hashem, the less of an eved he will be to others.

Moreover, the highest honor to which a person can aspire is the title “Hashem’s eved.” Hashem didn’t call Moshe Rabbenu  “king,” “redeemer,” or “lawgiver,” but “My eved.[12]

Don’t Take It Easy

If a person wants to take it easy, nothing will come of him. The Mussar[13] classic Mesillat Yesharim[14] teaches that we are here in this world not to rest, but to work.

A person who gets used to eating, sleeping, and walking in a leisurely manner will find it difficult to wake up early for morning prayers, cut his dinner short for evening prayers, do a mitzvah that is inconvenient, or go out to study Torah. Worse still, says Mesillat Yesharim,  a person who has accustomed himself to leisurely living “is not his own master to do the opposite when he wishes — for his will has been chained in the prison of habit!”

What, then, is the right way?

He should treat himself like a¼ soldier¼, whose meals are quick, whose sleep is snatched, and who is always ready for battle.

Paradoxically, “the more we accustom ourselves to this, the easier our work will be.”

Calev: A Different Spirit

In addition to Moshe, there were a few more rare individuals that Hashem honored with the title “My eved.” One of these was Calev.[15]

In the desert, when Moshe sent great men to spy out the Holy Land, ten of them sinned by bringing back negative reports. Only Yehoshua[16] and Calev spoke well of the Land.

But when Hashem praised Calev, what did he say about him?

My eved Calev — because a different spirit was with him and he followed Me wholeheartedly¼.[17]

Hashem does not say that Calev spoke well of the Land, but that “a different spirit was with him.”

Much of what a person becomes in life depends on whether “a different spirit was with him.” Among the young men who study in yeshiva, some only acquire a little knowledge, and at the other extreme are those who acquire “a different spirit.” They allow the Torah to shape their character and outlook and turn them into elevated individuals.

Even a chance encounter in the street can lead to this sort of total transformation, as in the case of Avi and Bracha Cohen.[18]

They were newlyweds, barely traditional, and living out of town when a baal teshuvah[19] bumped into them in the street and said, “Come with me to Rabbi Yagen in Jerusalem.”

They came. I saw that they knew next to nothing about Judaism but seemed willing to learn. “Leave your job,” I urged Avi. “Take an unpaid vacation, and come learn in our kollel[20] for half a year.”

“The rabbi is right,” Bracha told Avi. “On Friday night, you didn’t even know how to make Kiddush. It’s a great idea for you to learn the basics of Judaism.”

The Cohens packed up and moved to Jerusalem. As the six months in our kollel stretched into several years, Avi turned into a God-fearing, observant Jew with knowledge of Torah and a Jewish outlook. Eventually, he decided to return to his hometown in order to strengthen it spiritually.

Years later, a young man brought me regards “from my rabbi, who was your student.” He told me that Rabbi Avraham Cohen had rented a building, established a synagogue, and founded a kollel that he himself headed. By now, an entire community was under his leadership.

“A different spirit was with him.”

In Every Generation

Going from slavery to freedom is not just a historical fact. It is an ongoing process. “In every single generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.”[21] Each of us must be keenly aware that both our first exile, with its slavery and suffering, and our first redemption, with its spectacular miracles, had a continuing purpose: to inculcate us with steadfast emunah and to turn us into Hashem’s eved.

Being Hashem’s eved requires us to put His Will before our own desires and opinions. In practical terms, it means asking ourselves, “What does Hashem want from me now?” At all times and under all circumstances — day or night, married or single, in the framework of school/ yeshiva/ work or on vacation, in pain or pleasure, in whatever mood we’re in — we must always ask ourselves, “What does Hashem want of me now?”

 

2

And Yoseph Was in Egypt

How Yaakov Avinu Got to Egypt

As we saw in the last chapter, Hashem informed Avraham, “Your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own — and they [the Jews] will serve them, and they [the gentiles] will oppress them¼.”[22] To fulfill this decree, Yaakov Avinu had to go down to Egypt with his entire family.

Our Sages[23] teach that Yaakov should have gone to Egypt in iron chains to fulfill the decree, but his merit caused it to happen differently. Hashem said,[24] “Yaakov is My firstborn; shall I bring him down there in disgrace? Rather, I will lead his son before him, and he will follow.”

The son whom Yaakov followed into Egypt was Yoseph. So it was with Yoseph that the exile in Egypt actually began. Let us take a look at this remarkable figure.

Cause of Jealousy

Look at the cause:

Israel[25] loved Yoseph more than all his sons, for he was a child of his old age (ben zekunim); and he made him a tunic of fine wool.[26]

And look at the result:

His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak to him peaceably.[27]

On the surface, it appears that the brothers were jealous of Yoseph because of the tunic. The Gemara[28] seems to confirm this interpretation:

On account of two extra weights of fine wool that Yaakov gave Yoseph, the brothers became jealous, and this resulted in our forefathers’ descent to Egypt.

In fact, the wordפסים  (“fine wool”) foreshadows the slavery into which the brothers would soon sell Yoseph on account of the tunic. Yoseph would change owners four times. The unusual word פסים is an acronym of the four purchasers: Potiphar, merchants (socharim), Ishmaelites, and Midianites.[29]

Now I ask you: How is it possible that Yaakov’s supremely righteous sons — the shevatim, each of whom became the ancestor of one of the Tribes of Israel — would be jealous of their brother? Besides, why would they care a hoot about a few dollars’ worth of fabric? The family was wealthy. Each of the brothers could have gone to the tailor and ordered dozens of fine woolen tunics for himself without making a dent in his bank account!

Clearly, we need help from the commentaries in understanding the verse:

Israel[30] loved Yoseph more than all his sons, for he was a child of his old age (ben zekunim); and he made him a tunic of fine wool.

The word zaken, “elder,” can refer to age or wisdom. Look at how Rashi explains “for he was a ben zekunim to him”:

Onkelos renders: “He was a son of wisdom to him.” Whatever Yaakov learned from Shem and Ever, he transmitted to Yoseph.

Aha! We’re beginning to get to the root of the matter. The brothers sold Yoseph into slavery out of jealousy. Why were they jealous? Because Yaakov taught the Torah that he had learned in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever to Yoseph and not to them.

Yaakov taught all his sons the Torah he had learned from Avraham and Yitzhak. What he taught exclusively to Yoseph was only the Torah of Shem and Ever.

Why did Yaakov do that? And in what way was the Torah of Shem and Ever different from the Torah of Avraham and Yitzhak?

To answer this question, let’s go back to the period when Yaakov studied under Shem and Ever.

The Torah[31] relates that after Yaakov took the blessings, Esav wanted to kill him. Just then, Yitzhak sent Yaakov to Lavan’s house in Haran to take for himself a wife.

A God-fearing person does not disobey his rabbi, certainly not if he is the leading sage of the generation — all the more so one of our Forefathers! Yet Yaakov did not go straight to Lavan’s house. Instead, say our Sages, he made a fourteen-year detour to study in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

How was Yaakov permitted to do so?

Because Yaakov was truly God-fearing, he was afraid to go to Lavan, who was both crooked and an idolater — lest Lavan’s wickedness influence him.

This we learn from his prayer as he set out. He prayed that “I will return in peace to my father’s house.”[32] Rashi explains:

“In peace (shalom)” — whole (shalem) from sin, that I should not learn from Lavan’s ways.

In addition to praying, Yaakov took practical measures to maintain his spiritual level in that negative environment. He prepared himself by sitting and learning in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

All his life, Yaakov had studied Torah under his father, Yitzhak. What was different about the Torah of Shem and Ever?

Yitzhak grew up in the sanctity and purity of Avraham’s house. Noah’s son Shem and Shem’s great-grandson Ever were different. Shem grew up in a generation so morally corrupt that Hashem had to destroy the world in the Flood; and Ever grew up in a generation so heretical that Hashem had to mix up their language and disperse them.

From Shem and Ever, Yaakov sought to learn how to cleave to Hashem in an evil environment. Only then could he hope to survive his sojourn with Lavan.

Afterward, in Lavan’s vicinity, Yaakov married and built a family. Eventually, he returned to the Land of Israel “in peace,” without having learned from Lavan’s evil ways.

Yaakov foresaw that his son Yoseph would also need to know the Torah of Shem and Ever, which would teach him how to stand firm under all circumstances and in all situations. The other brothers, who grew up in the pure environment of Yaakov’s house, did not need this special knowledge.

But the brothers did not understand this. They were jealous of Yoseph. They, too, longed to learn the Torah of Shem and Ever.

And Yoseph Was in Egypt

The exile in Egypt began with Yoseph, who was sold into slavery and wound up in Egypt, where the Torah of Shem and Ever stood him in good stead. Eventually, Yaakov (also called Yisrael) and his children and grandchildren joined Yoseph in Egypt.

And these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt¼. All the people who descended from Yaakov were seventy souls. And Yoseph was in Egypt.[33]

Good morning! Don’t I know by now that Yoseph was in Egypt? The Torah described in detail how Yoseph was sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, and bought by Potiphar; how he resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife, who then had him thrown into the dungeon under false charges; and how, upon interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he turned from an imprisoned slave to viceroy of Egypt. After all of this, does the Torah need to tell me that Yoseph was in Egypt?

Besides, weren’t Yoseph and his sons included in Yaakov’s seventy descendants?

Rashi explains that the verse is telling us something different:

“And Yoseph was in Egypt” — ¼the same Yoseph who tended his father’s sheep is the Yoseph who was in Egypt and became a king; he maintained his righteousness.

In other words, Yoseph was Yoseph — in the Land of Israel or in Egypt, in the home of Yaakov or in the house of Potiphar, in freedom or in slavery, in an underground dungeon as a convict or on top of the world as a viceroy, Yoseph was the same Yoseph.

What are we to learn from this?

Some people remember Hashem when they are poor and despised but forget Him if they become rich and respected. Others find it easy to serve Hashem in prosperity, but if they go bankrupt, their troubles distract them.

Yoseph, who was holy and pure in Yaakov’s house, maintained his spiritual level under all circumstances.

For twelve years, the refined young Yoseph was locked up under humiliating conditions in a malodorous, unsanitary, rat-infested pit that was the Egyptian dungeon. Anyone else in his situation would have succumbed to depression and self-pity. Yet Yoseph remained happy and sang all day long. From where do we learn this?

The Vilna Gaon points out that after ten years in the dungeon, as the Torah relates, Yoseph deciphered the dreams of the chief baker and the chief butler. How? Through Divine inspiration. We have a principle that the Shechinah does not rest on a person who is sad, but only on a person who is happy with the joy of a mitzvah.[34] This proves that Yoseph retained his joy at all times.

Overnight, Yoseph became viceroy of Egypt. Then, too, he did not let wealth and power go to his head. He remained the same Yoseph who had tended his father’s sheep.

In Pharaoh’s palace or in Potiphar’s house, Yoseph was the same tzaddik[35] that he been in Yaakov’s home. He prayed at sunrise, reviewed his Torah studies, and served Hashem. The Midrash[36] relates that when Potiphar’s wife came to speak with him, he would bend his head to avoid looking at her.

We, too, are sometimes forced to be “in Potiphar’s house.” For instance, we may have to sit in a doctor’s waiting room where there are all kinds of people and magazines. At such times, we can acquire either Gan Eden[37] or Gehinnom.[38] Gehinnom — if we look all around at what we shouldn’t. Gan Eden — if we guard our eyes and read a few chapters of Tehillim, in which case we may recover even without the doctor.

Eventually Yoseph, now viceroy, invited Yaakov and his family to Egypt and took care of them all. But after Yaakov died, the brothers feared that “perhaps Yoseph will hate us and will repay us for all the evil that we did him.”[39] They sent him a message asking for forgiveness and then “fell down before him and said, ‘We are ready to be your slaves.'”[40]

Yoseph’s reaction showed his supreme righteousness. “Fear not, for am I instead of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.”[41] And he even added, “I will sustain you and your young ones.”[42]

Remember that we’re not talking about the kind of family squabbles that are unfortunately common today. When Yoseph was only seventeen years old, the brothers had judged him as a “pursuer” and sentenced him to death, then relented and sold him as a slave instead.

Instead of actively taking revenge against them or even passively bearing a grudge or hating them, Yoseph helped them generously. His thinking went like this: They made a mistake in their ruling. So what? All that happens is decreed Above. As he told them, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.”

How could it be that “Yoseph was in Egypt” — that Yoseph was Yoseph under all conditions? What gave him the strength to maintain his righteousness through the extreme situations in which he found himself?

As he had told his brothers years before, “I fear God.”[43] Only fear of God can keep a person strong under any and all circumstances, at home or in exile — and today, we are all in exile.

Ephraim and Menasheh

At the end of his life, Yaakov told Yoseph that henceforth Jews would bless their children by saying, “May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.”[44] Every Shabbat evening when a father returns home from the synagogue, he gives each of his sons this blessing.

Why did Yaakov single out Ephraim and Menasheh? What was wrong with Yehudah, Issachar, or Levi — or, better yet, all of them together? Why shouldn’t fathers say, “May God make you like the shevatim”?

To answer this question, let’s look into Yaakov’s thoughts when he went down to Egypt with his family.

Yaakov worried: What will happen to the Jewish people?

The house of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov in the Holy Land was so pure that angels were seen there. But Yoseph’s children grew up in Egypt, which was so full of idolatry that Moshe Rabbenu had to leave the city to pray.[45] Ephraim and Menasheh grew up in impure, materialistic, idolatrous Egypt. No wonder that “Israel saw Yoseph’s sons, and he said, ‘Who are these?'”[46]

Yoseph replied, “These are my sons, whom God has given me here.”[47] Yoseph meant that Ephraim and Menasheh kept up their guard against the impurity of Egypt and did not allow it to influence them in the least.

Ephraim and Menasheh had grown up alone in a foreign culture, without benefit of a Talmud Torah, a yeshiva, a supportive society. Yet remarkably, they turned out exactly as holy and pure as Yaakov’s other descendants, who had grown up in the shelter of the Patriarchal home.

Yaakov knew that in the course of history, the Jewish people would have to cope with the negative influences of the outside world, including many “isms.” He therefore said: May all Jewish children be like Ephraim and Menasheh, who remained loyal, righteous Jews despite the society in which they grew up.

Sandbags at the Door

My friends, the Torah is not a history book. It teaches us lessons for life. From Ephraim and Menasheh, we learn how careful we must be of evil influences.

I heard the following account directly from Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, Rabbi of Kovno and later Rosh Yeshiva of Mir in America.

During the First World War, the Brisker Rav fled to Kovno with his family. Rabbi Kalmanowitz heard of his arrival and went to welcome him. He knocked at the door.

“Who is it?” asked the Brisker Rav.

“The Rabbi of the city,” answered Rabbi Kalmanowitz.

The Brisker Rav instructed his family to open the door. It took a long time. Why? The Brisker Rav had barricaded the door with sandbags.

Rabbi Kalmanowitz asked why. There was no war in Kovno!

The Brisker Rav explained that the halachah required the door to be barricaded nevertheless.

Rabbi Kalmanowitz was unaware of such a halachah. “Where is it written?” he asked.

The Brisker Rav cited the Rambam:[48]

In his traits and deeds, a person is naturally drawn after his friends. He behaves like the people of his country. So he should join the righteous and sit with the Torah scholars in order to learn from their deeds, and distance himself from the wicked¼.

If he is in a province where the customs are evil, he should go to a place where the people are righteous¼. If all the provinces¼ conduct themselves in a way that is not good, as in our times¼ he should dwell alone¼. If they are evil and don’t allow him to dwell in the province unless he mixes with them¼, he should go out to the¼ wilderness¼.

“Here, in this city,” the Brisker Rav told Rabbi Kalmanowitz, “there are deniers, and one must go to the wilderness. Since this is impossible in wartime, I made my house a wilderness. What is a wilderness? A place that is difficult to access. I barricade the door so that it takes half an hour of work to open it. This way, the children know that we have no connection to the deniers. We are alone here in the ‘wilderness,’ isolated from the outlook, words, and deeds of the people in the city.”

Cockledoodledo!

In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, too, the influence of the environment was problematic.

There is a well-known story that one Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov instructed the hazan[49] in his bet midrash[50] to continue saying the Selihot prayers for hours after nightfall. Instead of going home to eat, the congregation continued to fast and pray.

At last, an illiterate chicken farmer came in. He heard the congregation crying out loudly to Hashem. He didn’t understand what they were saying, but he wanted to join in. With all his might, he cried out, “Cockledoodledo!”

Only then did the Baal Shem Tov let the hazan conclude the prayers.

Later, the Baal Shem Tov explained to his disciples, “I saw that Heaven had issued a harsh decree against the congregation, and with all our prayers, we were unable to cancel it. Only when the farmer cried out was the decree canceled. Why? Because he prayed with simple faith, from the depth of his heart.”

The story usually ends there. But what had brought about the evil decree?

I saw the answer in a rare old book. The Baal Shem Tov would send his holy disciples, such as the Maggid of Mezritch and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, to remote villages in order to bring Jews back to Hashem. In these places, the disciples fell slightly from their lofty level. The result was a harsh decree.

If even the Baal Shem Tov’s holy disciples were affected by their environment, how careful must we ordinary people be!

Noah’s Ark

The danger of negative influences may be learned from Noah’s Ark.

It took only forty days for the waters of the Biblical Flood to wipe out all living things on the face of the earth. However, Noah spent twelve full months inside the Ark, waiting for the earth to dry.

The Midrash describes how hard Noah and his family worked in the Ark. Each animal required care in a different way and at a different time. The people in the Ark worked around the clock feeding all the animals and tending to their needs. They had no rest the entire year.

Why did Hashem do this to them? It can’t be because the earth needed to dry. Hashem could have dried it in a twinkling and released Noah and all the animals after forty days! Why didn’t He?

To answer this question, let’s back up to the events right before the Flood.

Hashem instructed Noah:[51]

Of all the clean animals, take yourself seven pairs — husband and wife[52] — and of the unclean animals, two — husband and wife.

“Husband and wife”?! Do animals make weddings?

The Gemara explains that only animals that had mated exclusively with their own species were admitted to the Ark.[53]

From here we see that sin pollutes the environment. The moral depravity of mankind had affected the animal world. The result was that even animals, which have no evil inclination, had become deviant and mated with different species.[54]

Now let’s return to our original question: Why did Noah have to stay in the Ark for twelve months?

The Gemara defines twelve months as the time it takes to forget a deceased relative[55] or a lost article.[56] From here we may deduce that it takes twelve months to erase an impression.

Hashem said: I am about to build a new world. But as long as any impression of the wicked remains, a new world can’t be built.

So Hashem kept Noah — together with his family and the animals — in the Ark for twelve months until the negative impression was forgotten.

My friends, from Noah’s Ark we learn how important it is for us to keep the filth and impurity of the street out of the house! We must keep out entertainment and reading matter that are not under religious Jewish auspices [and certainly unfiltered Internet]. The apostasy and lewdness in them are extremely harmful, and the damage they cause is hard to undo.

Why Can’t I Pray?

The Gemara[57] forbids looking at the face of an evildoer, because it has a negative influence.

A Jew once came to the Baal Shem Tov and complained that he couldn’t pray with kavanah.[58] As soon as he opened the Siddur, evil thoughts came into his head.

The Baal Shem Tov told him, “Apparently, a Shabbat desecrator looked into this Siddur, and from there come the evil thoughts. Use a different Siddur.”

He did, and thereafter, he was able to pray with kavanah.

How careful we must be to guard ourselves — and even more so, our children!

Mashiah and Schoolchildren

It is written, “Do not touch My Mashiahs![59] The Gemara comments: “My Mashiahs” are the schoolchildren.[60]

My friends, do you hear? Schoolchildren are called Mashiahs! Each child is a potential Mashiah!

When a baby boy is circumcised, we bless Hashem, “Who sealed [our] offspring with the sign of the holy covenant.”

Today, certain documents require a notary’s seal. Long ago, signing and sealing went together.

Picture a doting father who happens to be a billionaire. The father signs an open check, puts it into an envelope, and hands it to his beloved son. The accompanying note says: “Dear son, I want you to have the best of everything, so fill in any amount you wish. Love, Daddy.”

That is exactly what our Father in Heaven does. He “signs an open check” by sealing our children with the sign of the covenant. We “fill in any amount” by choosing how much devotion and self-sacrifice we will invest in bringing up our children in purity. There are unlimited funds in the account, so if we are devoted enough to raise them correctly, we can produce Mashiahs. The greatness our children will ultimately achieve depends on how we fill out the check.

A young father once brought his three-year old son to the Steipler Gaon and asked for a blessing that the boy become a Torah sage.

“I’m sorry,” said the Steipler Gaon, “but no blessing will help. Fifty percent of success in child-raising depends on personal example of the parent, and fifty percent depends on prayer.”

Today, we are in a terrible spiritual exile, bombarded from all sides with impurity, heresy, immorality, and depravity. Whatever we don’t see in full view outside is available with a press of the button in the privacy of our homes. May we all stand firmly on guard to keep out negative influences and to maintain the purity of ourselves, our homes, and our children, as Yoseph and his sons Ephraim and Menasheh did in Egypt and as the Brisker Rav did in Kovno. If we do, surely we will soon see the fulfillment of the promise, “As in the days of your departure from Egypt I shall show you wonders.”[61]

3

Amram: Bending Down to Listen

The Little Girl Is Right

How did Amram merit becoming the father of Moshe Rabbenu, God’s messenger to redeem us from Egypt and give us the Torah? What was his special quality?

Let’s look at what our Sages[62] tell us about him.

Levi was the TribeTribe that studied and taught Torah. Even in Egypt, they retained this role, and they were exempt from slave labor. Amram, who was a Levite, had become the head of the Sanhedrin.[63] He was the gedol hador, the generation’s leading sage. He was also a family man. Amram had a three-year-old daughter, Miriam, in nursery school.

Amram saw that the newborn Jewish boys were being thrown into the Nile as food for the crocodiles. He said: Why bring children into the world to be killed?

He immediately set a personal example for all Jews to follow by divorcing his own wife, Yocheved.

Miriam saw that all the Jewish men were divorcing their wives, and she soon found out why. The little girl ran away from nursery school and burst into the Sanhedrin. Amram bent down to listen to her.

“Daddy,” she said, “your decrees are worse than Pharaoh’s! Pharaoh’s decrees are only against the males, but yours are also against the females.”

We would have expected Amram to put her in her place and tell her sternly, “How do you know? Do you study Torah? I’m the head of the Sanhedrin, and you — a little girl — dare to tell me that my decrees are harsh?!”

But that’s not what Amram did.

“My daughter,” he said, “you are right. Please go speak to Mommy and ask her to marry me.”

Little Miriam arranged the match, led her parents to the chuppah, and danced before them at their wedding. Following Amram’s example, all the Jewish men took back their wives.

That same year, Yocheved gave birth to Moshe. Because Amram accepted the truth, his son would bring the Torah of Truth to Israel.

Amram’s special quality was that he sought truth and wisdom, and he willingly accepted it from anyone — even from a little girl.

Yehoshua: The Attendant Who Became King

The desire to acquire more and more wisdom also characterized Moshe’s disciple Yehoshua.

When Moshe was about to die, he asked Hashem to appoint a worthy successor to lead the Jewish people.[64] And here came a surprise.

The Midrash[65] relates that Moshe expected one of his sons to succeed him. This is a reasonable expectation, especially in view of the Rambam’s ruling[66] that all high positions and appointments are transferred to direct descendants, provided they are worthy.

But Hashem said: Moshe, it is true that your sons are great men. But there is someone who is better suited to the position.

Who?

The answer came like a thunderbolt.

Yehoshua bin Nun.

Had I been there at the time, I would have said: What, him?

Yehoshua was the least likely candidate. From where do we learn this?

Yehoshua was one of the Spies whom Moshe sent to investigate the Holy Land. The Torah lists the Spies in order of their importance[67] — and Yehoshua wasn’t first or even second. His name appears fifth on the list![68]

Perhaps you think that fifth isn’t so bad; at least they were “heads of the Children of Israel.”[69] But the Baal HaTurim explains that they were “princes of fifties” — each one was the head of fifty men, one class in school. Over them were six thousand princes of hundreds, over whom were six hundred princes of thousands. Let’s keep in mind that leadership in the Torah sense has nothing to do with politics, but rather with righteousness and wisdom. In short, Yehoshua was far from being the greatest sage.

Why, then, was Yehoshua chosen to lead the entire Jewish people?

The Midrash[70] presents the answer that Hashem gave Moshe:

Yehoshua constantly served you and accorded you much honor. He came early to your bet midrash and stayed late; he arranged the benches and spread the mats. Since he served you with all his might, he is worthy of serving Israel¼, to fulfill the verse,[71] “He who guards a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who waits on his master will be honored.”

This answer is all the more puzzling. So he was the attendant who turned on the lights and the air conditioning, set up the chairs, put back the Siddurim, and made tea for everyone — for this he was appointed Israel’s leader?!

Let’s delve deeper into the significance of Yehoshua being an attendant.

One of the places where the Torah calls him Moshe’s attendant is at Sinai. “Moshe arose with Yehoshua his attendant, and Moshe ascended to the Mountain of God.”[72] Yehoshua escorted his teacher as far as permitted. After that, he did not return to the camp; when Moshe descended, Yehoshua had no idea of what was happening there.[73]

Yehoshua left the camp of Israel, the manna, and the Clouds of Glory; he left his home, his bet midrash, and his people. There, at the foot of the mountain, he pitched a tent and waited for forty days, in the fierce daytime heat and the evening chill of the desert.[74] He would have starved had Hashem not sent manna down especially for him.[75]

Why did he do that?

So that the second Moshe descended from the mountain, he would be able to attend him. Anything to be in his teacher’s presence and to hear Hashem’s words a few minutes earlier. Such was Yehoshua’s love of wisdom!

Because he loved wisdom so, Hashem filled Yehoshua with wisdom and made him the next leader of the Jewish people. As the Gemara[76] says:

Hashem saw that words of Torah were extremely precious to Yehoshua, as it is written, “His attendant Yehoshua bin Nun was a youngster; he would not depart (לא ימיש) from inside the tent.”[77] Hashem told him, “Yehoshua, are words of Torah so precious to you? ‘The Book of the Torah shall not depart (לא ימוש) from your mouth.’[78]

Forever Young

There is something strange about the verse that the Gemara cited.

His attendant Yehoshua bin Nun was a youngster; he would not depart from inside the tent.

At that time, Yehoshua was fifty-two years old, the age of early retirement — and the Torah calls him a youngster (naar)?!

Yes, because youth represents a stage in life in which energy, ambition, and enthusiasm abound; the young are eager to learn, develop, and grow.

This is what Hashem is looking for. Not someone filled with knowledge — such a person is a computer — but someone who seeks more knowledge.

An “adult” is the type who says, “Leave me alone; I’m already old. Let my children learn.” A “youngster” is the type who is still burning with desire to learn and to know even at the age of a hundred nineteen.

The characteristic of youthfulness is what Hashem loves about the Jewish people.

When Israel was a youngster, I loved him, and since Egypt I have been calling out to My son.[79]

The Midrash[80] on this verse quotes Moshe’s farewell instructions to Yehoshua:

These people that I am delivering to you are still kids; they are still children. Do not be strict with them¼, for even their Master was not, as it is written, “When Israel was a youngster, I loved him, and since Egypt I have been calling out to My son.”

When did Hashem overlook what the Jews did because they were “youngsters”?

When they stood before the Sea of Reeds, and they saw the Egyptian army approaching in hot pursuit, they said to Moshe, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert?”[81]

The Midrash continues:

At the sea, they were rebellious, as it is written, “They rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds.”[82]

The angels said, “They are rebelling¼, and You are silent?”

Hashem replied, “They are youngsters, and one is not strict with youngsters. An infant emerges dirty from its mother’s womb, and they bathe him. The same applies to Israel. ‘I washed off your blood, anointed you with oil, and clothed you in embroidered garments¼.'”[83]

In case you were wondering why Hashem called even the senior citizens of Israel “youngsters,” listen to the proof that Hashem gave the angels:

“You find that at the Song of the Sea, they did not start singing by themselves. [Rather, ‘Then Moshe sang[84] and the Children of Israel’[85] — Moshe began to sing, and then the Jews joined him.] But the Song of the Well they sang themselves, as it is written, ‘Then Israel sang.’”[86]

Hashem said to the angels: Do you see? The Jewish people are learning. At first, they sang after Moshe, but now they sang themselves. This is a sign that they are making progress. So even if they err and rebel, there is hope that they will mend their ways.

Newborns are released from the hospital when they begin gaining weight, because that is a sign of growth. As long as a person is in a process of growth, however slow, there is hope for him.

The Keruvim

We find this principle in the resting place of the Shechinah — the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle in the desert and later of the Temple in Jerusalem. There, in the most sanctified place on earth, stood the Ark of the Covenant with two golden figures — the Keruvim — atop it.

What did the Keruvim look like? The Gemara[87] says that they had the faces of children.

From the millions of creatures in the spiritual and physical realms, Hashem chose the image of a child. Why not an angel? Or Avraham Avinu? Or perhaps a sage — the Hafetz Hayyim, for instance?

Herein lies a wonderful secret.

A child always wants to know more. By choosing the image of a child for the Holy of Holies, Hashem is teaching us just how much He values eagerness to learn, grow, and improve.

This quality is more than precious; it is absolutely crucial. Without a powerful ambition on our part to acquire wisdom, the Temple cannot remain standing. The Gemara[88] states: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they weakened the Torah study of its schoolchildren.

A person who knows a lot is not a wise person; he’s a computer. A wise person is someone who wants to learn more and more. His whole life, he remains a student. That is why Torah scholars are called talmidei hachamim, “students of the wise.”

The Wisdom of Solomon

Shelomo HaMelech[89] was the wisest person who ever lived or will live until Mashiah comes. How did he obtain his wondrous wisdom?

The prophet[90] tells us:

Hashem appeared to Shelomo in a dream of the night, and God said, “Ask, what shall I give you?”

Why didn’t Hashem offer Shlomo his heart’s desire while he was awake?

When a person is awake, his conscious mind is working, and it will only permit making a request that it considers proper. But when he is asleep, so is the censor, and he will reveal his true desire.

For many people, their heart’s desire is wealth, but they are embarrassed to admit it.

A multimillionaire once gave me a donation for our institute and requested a blessing. I thought he wanted fear of Heaven or spiritual growth. Just to make sure, I asked, “What would you like?”

To my surprise, he replied, “A good livelihood.”

But Shelomo, even in his sleep, gave a different reply. “Give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and evil.”

Hashem was delighted with his reply.

It was good in the Lord’s eyes that Shelomo had requested this thing. God said to him, “Because you have requested this¼ behold, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, such that there never was anyone like you before you, nor will anyone like you ever arise. Also, what you did not request I have granted you — also wealth and honor, the likes of which has never been found among kings¼.”

This is in keeping with Hashem’s statement in the Torah: “In the hearts of all who are wise-hearted, I have put wisdom.”[91] Hashem gives wisdom only to those who, in their hearts — in their innermost desires and aspirations — seek it.

Now let’s go a step further and look at Shelomo after he was granted wisdom.

“He became wiser than all men.”[92]

Our Sages explain: even wiser than lunatics.[93]

What?! Tell me that he was wiser than professors or geniuses. Why “wiser than lunatics”?

We have obviously translated the verse incorrectly. Let’s back up and look for an alternate translation.

The Hebrew mikol, “than all,” can also means “from all.” So let’s plug this into the verse and try again:

“He became wise from all men” — even from lunatics.

Indeed, the Mishnah[94] says:

Who is wise? He who learns from every person.

Why? Because the measure of wisdom is not how much someone knows, but how badly he wants to know.

Rabbenu Yonah explains: He who knows a lot but does not love wisdom is a fool. But he who loves wisdom and desires it — even if he knows nothing now — is called wise. Ultimately he will attain true wisdom.

The World Is a Textbook

My friends, the entire world and all that occurs in it is a textbook for mankind. We can — and should — learn and acquire wisdom from everything we see. And wisdom does not mean amassing facts, but refining our characters and living in accordance with Hashem’s will.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who founded the Mussar movement, learned from everything he saw. Once he saw a shoemaker repairing shoes late at night by the light of a candle.

“Why are you still working?” he asked the shoemaker. “You can continue tomorrow!”

The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, one can still do repairs!”

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter wept and said, “How true! As long as a person is alive, he can still do teshuvah.[95]

Shelomo’s father, King David, said, “From my enemies, You make me wise.”[96] We can learn even from our enemies. What can we learn from Arab terrorists? Mesirut nefesh, self-sacrificing dedication. Suicide bombers are willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause in which they believe. From them we should learn to inconvenience ourselves for other Jews, for Torah, and for Hashem.

We should learn from “natural” disasters and other calamities. Hashem is shaking up the world to arouse us to repent. If we don’t look, learn, and take to heart, He is wasting His efforts, so to speak.

Shelomo found something to learn even from lunatics, and Amram learned — and accepted rebuke — from his three-year-old daughter.

Shelomo said, “He who hates rebuke will die.”[97] Now, Shelomo was certainly not cursing the sinner! Rather, he is telling us that the nature of being human is to err and sin. If we accept rebuke, we can correct ourselves, ascend, and continue on. But a person who rejects rebuke is in trouble. He will eventually die in his sinful state and lose this world and the next.

We sin; it happens. We’re only human, and Hashem does not make unreasonable demands. But from every fall, we can rise, and from each rebuke, we can grow.

“A tzaddik falls seven times and rises.”[98] Rabbi Dessler explained: This doesn’t only mean that a righteous person knows how to get up again; even a sheep that falls will get up. It means that he rises even higher after the fall. How? By using the fall itself as a springboard for growth.

Hashem is looking not for perfection, but for progress and improvement.

The Gemara[99] states: He who parts from his friend should not tell him, “Go beshalom (in peace),” but “Go leshalom (to peace).” Why?

Maharal explains that shalom means shelemut, perfection. “Go beshalom (in peace)” conveys: You are already perfect. There is nothing more for you to learn. You have completed your task.

If so, it is time for him to die.

Instead, we should say, “Go Ieshalom (to peace)” — go toward perfection. You still have much to learn and accomplish in life.

We are reminded of this by the Keruvim. In the Holy of Holies, on the Ark of the Covenant, were the images of two innocent children, symbolizing development. Infants are beloved to their mother even when they are soiled. Mother knows that in time, they will be toilet trained.

Little by little, children progress. They learn to smile, turn over, sit, crawl, stand, walk, and talk. There is always something new.

Hashem loves newness. “In His goodness, He renews every day, always, the work of creation.”[100] And He loves people who progress and learn — like Amram, who learned from his little daughter; like Yehoshua, who would not miss one minute of learning with Moshe; and like the Children of Israel, of whom it is written, “When Israel was a yDisoungster, I loved him, and since Egypt, I have been calling out to My son.” Hashem loves people who, with youthful eagerness and enthusiasm, renew themselves and ascend step by step toward His Throne of Glory.

4

The Mighty Midwives

Brave Defiance

We have seen that Moshe’s father, Amram, had the outstanding quality of accepting the truth from whoever spoke it. Although he was the head of the Sanhedrin, he accepted the rebuke of his three-year-old daughter.

What was the outstanding quality of Moshe’s mother, Yocheved?

Let’s see what the Torah writes about her,[101] while keeping in mind the Gemara’s statement that Shifrah is Yocheved, and Puah is her daughter, Miriam.[102]

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shifrah and the name of the second was Puah, and he said, “When your assist the Hebrew women at childbirth and you see on the birthing stool that it is a son, you are to kill him, and if it is a daughter, she shall live.”

But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt told them. They kept the boys alive.

The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, that you have kept the boys alive!”

The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are experts. Before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth.”

God did good to the midwives — and the people increased and became very strong. And it was because the midwives feared God that He made houses for them.

Ancient Egypt was a superpower surrounded by an iron curtain that prevented the escape of slaves. It was under the iron rule of the diabolically cruel Pharaoh, who literally bathed in blood twice daily in his golden bathtub. Undoubtedly, the brilliant ruler had an enormous Gestapo and KGB with whom the private citizens collaborated. Our Sages describe one of the chilling tactics used to ferret out hidden Jewish infants to be killed. The Egyptian women would bring their own babies to the entrances of the Jewish homes and pinch the babies to make them cry, so that the carefully hidden Jewish infants would hear and cry too.

When this Hitler decided to have all Jewish boys killed at birth, he did not send one of his many messengers to convey the order. Surprisingly, he summoned the midwives (perhaps the chief midwives) to the royal palace and spoke to them personally. He was determined to make sure that his cruel order would be carried out. Failure to carry out orders meant immediate execution without a trial.

If we were in their position, what would we have done? If we were both righteous and brave, we would have abandoned our post, undergone plastic surgery, obtained false identity papers, and gone into hiding in order not to carry out Pharaoh’s orders.

But Yocheved and Miriam didn’t do that, lest Jewish women become discouraged and frightened. These midwives remained at the post and actively disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders. They did not even do a stealthy, quick delivery and disappear. Their nicknames — Shifrah, meaning “cleansed,” and Puah, meaning “cooed,” “poured,” and “revived” — indicate that they cleansed the newborns, cooed to soothe them, poured wine for them, and revived them when they seemed dead.[103] Moreover, “they kept the boys alive” — by praying that the babies be born unblemished and by collecting food and water from the rich with which poor mothers could sustain their children.[104] Miriam and Yocheved would go from house to house encouraging women who were giving birth, giving them food, keeping them alive, and in general, taking care of all their needs.

What breathtaking mesirut nefesh! What awesome kindness! What heroic bravery!

The midwives’ chances of survival were below zero. The secret police found out about their doings and informed Pharaoh, as the midwives knew they would. The mighty king summoned them and screamed, “Why have you done this thing, that you have kept the boys alive!”

The midwives gave a ridiculous excuse. “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are experts. Before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth.”

At that moment, “God did good to the midwives” and miraculously protected them from execution.

In the long term, Hashem was so impressed by their deeds that “He made them houses” — dynasties — that would endure until the end of time. Every Levi and Kohen, including every kosher Kohen Gadol, as well as every king from the house of David, culminating with Mashiah, is descended from them.[105]

The Torah also gives the reason for this unbelievable reward. Surprisingly, the reason is neither their breathtaking mesirut nefesh nor their awesome kindness. What does the Torah say?

It was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.

Here the Torah reveals an important secret.

Without fear of God, even the greatest deeds are worthless, and even the loftiest characteristics will not endure, as we will show with a few examples.

The Collapse of Culture

When Avraham Avinu went to Egypt and to Philistia, he asked his beautiful wife Sarah Imenu (who was also his relative) to say that she was his sister, lest they kill him in order to marry his widow “legally.”[106]

These places were not anarchies. They were monarchies, with law and order! Why didn’t Avraham simply go to the appropriate government office and register Sarah as his wife so that the law would protect them both?

Avraham explained why not. “For I said, ‘There¼ is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me on account of my wife.’”[107]

What about the king, government, and laws? What happened to the judicial system and police department?

The answer is that when these are not based on fear of God, they will not hold up. If there is no fear of God, they will kill me and take my wife.

This remains as true in modern times as in the ancient past. What culture the Germans had: music, art, and literature; science, engineering, and industry; law, order, and discipline; refinement, nobility, and etiquette.

The Germans were so refined, sensitive, and cultured that they protected the rights of animals. The German parliament passed a law that cows were not to be slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law because it was “cruel.”

In kosher slaughter, the shohet[108] examines the knife with his fingernail beforehand. Why? The neck of the cow is similar to a fingernail. If the shohet feels any sensation in his fingernail, the cow will feel it — and because discomfort is caused, the slaughter will be invalid, and the cow will be forbidden to eat.

A few years later, these same refined, sensitive, cultured Germans uprooted men, women, and children from their homes; robbed them; packed them like sardines in sealed cattle cars; deprived them of food, drink, rest, and sanitary facilities; subjected them to forced labor, disease, heat, and cold; conducted medical experiments and set their dogs on them; humiliated, terrorized, tortured, shot, and asphyxiated them; and cremated the ones whom they didn’t force to dig their own graves.

How is such a thing possible? Weren’t there time-honored laws in the German books against murder?

Of course there were. But as we have said, all the governmental laws in the world will not hold up if there is no fear of God.

Deposed

The Germans were not the first to look for a final solution.

Back in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh and his government convened a meeting to debate the Jewish question.

“Behold, the people, the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come, let us outsmart them lest they multiply, and it may be if a war will occur, they, too, may join our enemies and wage war against us¼.”[109]

The Midrash[110] relates that when the Egyptian ministers first broached the subject, Pharaoh told them: Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? Don’t you remember how our viceroy Yoseph saved Egypt from starvation? How he gathered and stored huge quantities of grain during the years of plenty and successfully treated it to prevent spoilage? How he filled our coffers with the money of the surrounding nations, who came to buy food here during the great famine? How he served us faithfully without a bit of corruption? Bottom line, Jews contribute to the Egyptian economy!

How did the ministers react?

They deposed Pharaoh.

After three months, Pharaoh gave in and agreed to do whatever they wanted, whereupon they reinstated him.

Thus, the Torah says, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Yoseph.”[111] The remarkable viceroy of Egypt had died not long before. Didn’t the new king of Egypt know at least the recent history of his country?

Rashi[112] explains:

“A new king” — his decrees were new. “Who did not know” — he made himself as if he did not know.

And without blinking, Pharaoh signed into law the decree: “Every son that will be born – into the river shall you throw him!”[113]

What happened? Where did Pharaoh’s noble gratitude disappear to?

Gratitude and any other considerations shriveled into nothingness in the face of Pharaoh’s self-interest, of his one overriding concern: the throne.

Unless a fine deed or trait emanates from fear of God, it will disappear the minute it doesn’t sit well with our self-interest.

The Donkey and the Diamond

The other side of the coin is illustrated by the following Midrash.[114]

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah asked his disciples to buy him a donkey to ride. They bought one from an Arab, and afterward found a gem hidden in its hairs. The halachah did not require that it be returned.

They happily presented the donkey to their teacher and added: “Rabbi, Hashem’s blessing has made you wealthy.” From now on, you will be able to study Torah without any disturbances.

“I bought a donkey,” said Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah.  “I did not buy a gem.” And he insisted that the gem be returned.

The disciples went searching for the Arab, found him, and brought him to the yeshiva. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah returned the gem.

The Arab declared, “Blessed is Hashem, the God of Shimon ben Shetah!”

Why didn’t the Arab simply thank Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah? What prompted him to go a step further and praise Hashem?

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian answered: The Arab recognized that returning a valuable item takes moral heroism. He understood instinctively that this can come only from fear of God. So he exclaimed: Blessed is Hashem, Who has uplifted the Jews by giving them Torah, emunah, and the strength to do exalted deeds.

There is no great man without fear of a great God.

A Mitzvah Every Second

Now let’s be honest. Who among us is afraid of Hashem, even just occasionally?

Yet fearing Hashem is a mitzvah in the Torah, like keeping Shabbat or putting on tefillin. But unlike Shabbat and tefillin, the mitzvah of fearing Hashem applies every second!

The Rambam wrote:[115]

This honored, awesome God commands us to love Him and fear Him, as it is written, “You shall love Hashem, your God,”[116] and “Hashem, your God, shall you fear.”[117]

He also wrote:[118]

He commanded us to¼ be afraid of Him¼. We should fear His punishment at all times¼.

My friends, fear of God is a positive mitzvah that is incumbent upon us at all times. The fear must be strong enough to influence our character and all our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Precisely Which Minute?

Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik told me that during the Holocaust, there was a time when he and a friend walked forty kilometers in the snow every day. Many died along the way and were not even buried.

Fifty years later, this friend, who had become a rosh yeshiva in the United States, said to him, “Do you remember when we were marching in the snow, that we once recited Shema at the very last moment before the prescribed time limit? Perhaps you recall whether we were a minute past the limit?”

Rabbi Zaitchik replied firmly, “I tell you, we were a minute before the limit!”

Amazing! Fifty years later, when a Jew recalls the Holocaust, the march through the snow, the mortal danger, what does he think about? Did I or didn’t I miss the time of reading Shema!

This is true fear of God.

The night before an early morning flight, a person sets a few alarm clocks, and even so, he doesn’t sleep all night for fear of missing the flight. Shouldn’t we feel at least the same about missing the time of Keriat Shema, which is a mitzvah in the Torah?

What Worried Yaakov?

How did Yaakov Avinu merit having his image inscribed on the Heavenly Throne?

Let’s follow Yaakov as he leaves the home of his parents, who have sent him to Haran to take a wife from the extended family. He is fleeing his brother Esav, who is determined to kill him, and going to Lavan, a treacherous swindler. Who knows what the next day will bring? Will he get married or murdered?

At night, Hashem appears to him in a dream and says, “I am with you. I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land.”[119]

What wonderful tidings!

Yaakov wakes up, but instead of dancing for joy, he weeps with sorrow. “Hashem is present in this place,” he laments, “and I did not know!”[120] Rashi explains: Had I known that this was a holy place, I would not have slept here.

Yaakov is not concerned about dreams, about marriage, about Esav or Lavan. What concerns him? How could I have slept at the site of the Temple?!

That is fear of God.

Clinical Death

We are sorely lacking in this area, as Hashem told the prophet: “Their fear of Me is like rote learning of human commands.”[121] Even our fear of God is superficial, external, mechanical.

This was the main charge against a religious young woman in the Heavenly Court. How do I know? She returned to life after a clinical death and told me about her experience. This is what she reported:

After the accuser presented his charges, she pleaded, “Send me back down! I have little children who need me!”

They said, “We’ll take care of them.”

She tried another argument: “They’re praying for me on earth.”

“Come, let’s go see if this is true,” they said.

They went around to several synagogues with her and saw that although a note had been posted, no one was praying for her.

At last, her righteous father came before the Heavenly Court and pleaded on her behalf, and they returned her to life.

Now, we’re talking about a religious woman who served Hashem. Yet the Heavenly Court was about to convict her on the charge that all her service of Hashem was mechanical!

Isn’t ours, too? If so, we need to develop real fear of God.

A Farewell Blessing

The Gemara[122] relates that when Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai was on his deathbed, his disciples said to him, “Our teacher, bless us!”

“May it be His will,” he said, “that the fear of God be upon you like the fear of men.”

His disciples were astonished. “No more than that?” they asked.

“Would that it be even this much!” he replied. “For when a person commits a sin, he hopes that no man will see him.’”

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai did not tell them to be diligent or abstinent, to fast or weep, but only to fear God as much as they fear a simple person. That is, our fear of God should be real, tangible, inner fear.

Once, I experienced real fear. It was when two enormous dogs came toward me. After the dogs left me, I began to weep — because I realized that I feared the dogs more than I feared Hashem.

We are afraid of everything but Hashem. Without even realizing it, we ignore this positive command that applies every second.

Let’s recall the heroic midwives in Egypt, who did the exact opposite of Pharaoh’s orders. Let’s remember that the Torah does not emphasize their self-sacrifice or their loving-kindness, but only their fear of God.

How can we hope to acquire real fear of God?

By praying for it. Even the righteous King David found it necessary to pray, “Dedicate my heart to fear Your Name.”[123] We ordinary folks surely need to plead with Hashem: Please, instill in our hearts pure fear of You that will drive all our thoughts, words, and deeds.



[1] God.

[2] Our father.

[3] Bereshit 15:8.

[4] Bereshit 15:13.

[5] Nedarim 32a.

[6] God miraculously rescued him.

[7] Bereshit 15:14.

[8] Shemot 1:14.

[9] The Jews spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. At first they were free. Opinions differ as to whether the bondage lasted 89 or 130 years.

[10] Shemot 20:2.

[11] Avot 3:5.

[12] Yehoshua 1:2.

[13] Ethics and character development.

[14] “Path of the Just,” Chapter 9.

[15] Caleb.

[16] Joshua.

[17] Bamidbar 14:24.

[18] Names are fictitious.

[19] A formerly non-observant Jew who has begun to keep Torah and mitzvot.

[20] Yeshiva for married men.

[21] Pesach Haggadah.

[22] Bereshit 15:13.

[23] Shabbat 89b.

[24] Bereshit Rabbah 86:2.

[25] Yaakov.

[26] Bereshit 37:3.

[27] Bereshit 37:4.

[28] Shabbat 10b.

[29] Rashi, citing Midrash. The list is not in order; Potiphar bought him last.

[30] Yaakov.

[31] Bereshit 27:41–28:5.

[32] Bereshit 28:21.

[33] Shemot 1:1–5.

[34] Shabbat 30b.

[35] Righteous person.

[36] Tanhuma, Vayeshev 5.

[37]Paradise.

[38] Purgatory.

[39] Bereshit 50:15.

[40] Bereshit 50:18.

[41] Bereshit 50:19–20.

[42] Bereshit 50:21.

[43] Bereshit 42:18.

[44] Bereshit 48:20.

[45] Moshe said to Pharaoh, “When I go out of the city, I will spread out my hands to Hashem” (Shemot 9:29) — I cannot pray now, while I am inside the city, because it is full of idols. (Rashi, based on Midrash Shemot Rabbah).

[46] Bereshit 48:9.

[47] Bereshit 48:10.

[48] Hilchot Deot 6:1.

[49] Prayer leader.

[50] Study hall.

[51] Bereshit 7:2.

[52] Literal translation of the Hebrew ish ve’ishto.

[53] Sanhedrin 108b.

[54] Rashi.

[55] Berachot 58b.

[56] This is implied by Bava Metzia 24b.

[57] Megillah 28a.

[58] Intent.

[59] Tehillim 105:15; Divrei HaYamim I 16:22. The Hebrew meshichai is usually translated “My anointed ones.” The word Mashiah, Hebrew for “Messiah,” literally means “the anointed one.” Jewish kings were “coronated” by being anointed with a special oil.

[60] Shabbat 119b.

[61] Michah 7:15.

[62] Sotah 12a; Shemot Rabbah 1:13.

[63] Supreme Rabbinical Court.

[64] Bamidbar 27:16.

[65] Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 776.

[66] Hilchot Melachim 1:7.

[67] Ramban, Parashat Shelah.

[68] Bamidbar 13:8.

[69] Bamidbar 13:3.

[70] Bamidbar Rabbah 21:14.

[71] Mishlei 27:18.

[72] Shemot 24:13.

[73] Shemot 32:18.

[74] See Rashi.

[75] Yoma 76a.

[76] Menachot 99b.

[77] Shemot 33:11.

[78] Yehoshua 1:8.

[79] Hoshea 11:1.

[80] Yalkut Shimoni, Hoshea 527.

[81] Shemot 14:11.

[82] Tehillim 106:8.

[83] Yehezkel 16:9–10.

[84] The Hebrew yashir is in the singular.

[85] Shemot 15:1.

[86] Bamidbar 21:17.

[87] What is a keruv? Said Rabbi Abahu: keravya, “like a child,” for in Babylon, a child is called a ravya (Sukkah 5a).

[88] Shabbat 119b.

[89] King Solomon.

[90] Melachim I 3:5–13.

[91] Shemot 31:6.

[92] Melachim 1:5:11.

[93] Cited in Shem Olam by the Hafetz Hayyim, part 2, chapter 5.

[94] Avot 4:1.

[95] Repentance.

[96] Tehillim 119:98.

[97] Mishlei 15:10.

[98] Mishlei 24:16.

[99] Berachot 64a.

[100] Morning prayers.

[101] Shemot 1:15–20.

[102] Sotah 11b.

[103] Shemot Rabbah 1:13, Rashi.

[104] Shemot Rabbah 1:15.

[105] Rashi.

[106] Bereshit 12:10–13, 20.

[107] Bereshit 20:11.

[108] Ritual slaughterer.

[109] Shemot 1:9–10.

[110] Shemot Rabbah 1:8.

[111] Shemot 1:8.

[112] Citing Sotah 11a.

[113] Shemot 1:22.

[114] Devarim Rabbah 3:3.

[115] Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1.

[116] Devarim 6:5, 11:1.

[117] Devarim 6:13, 10:20.

[118] Sefer HaMitzvot.

[119] Bereshit 28:15.

[120] Bereshit 28:16.

[121] Yeshayahu 29:13.

[122] Berachot 28b.

[123] Tehillim 86:11.

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