Parshas Yisro

Just Follow Orders: Advice for the Gabbai; Advice for the Jew

By: Rabbi Frand

These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: Tape #756, The Kosel Video Camera.

When Moshe explained to his father-in-law what took up so much of his time, Moshe says: “When they have a matter they come before me and I adjudicate between a man and his fellow man and I make known to them the statutes of the L-rd ‘Chukei Elohim’ and His laws ‘v-es Torasav'”. [Shmos 18:16] The Netziv, in the HaEmek Davar, explains why the Torah is referred to as ‘Chukei Elohim’. The Netziv says that the most appropriate word to describe all of Torah is the word ‘Chukim’. The Netziv sites as proof the pasuk “If you will walk in my chukos” Vayikra 26:3. In that pasuk, “chukos” refers to keeping the Torah. Chukim is the one word that encompasses all of Torah.

The connotation of the word ‘Chukim’ is those mitzvos whose reason evades us. We usually relate the term to those commandments where we do not understand why they were given. The classic ‘chok’ is the mitzvah of the Parah Adumah [Red Heiffer]. Shatnez [forbidden mixtures] is another famous example. However, when one thinks of Torah as a whole, the vast majority of mitzvos are not chukim. The Medrash in Bamidbar Rabbah says that there are only really four chukim in all of Torah.

If the chukim occupy such a relatively miniscule proportion of Torah, why is it appropriate to call Torah in general ‘chukei Elokim’? It would seem more appropriate to call the Torah ‘Mishpetei Elokim’ or ‘Eidosav shel Elokim’. ‘Chukei Elokim’ seems to color the whole majority of Torah with a terminology that applies to only a small minority of mitzvos.

Perhaps that which the Netziv had in mind can be derived from the following story involving Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (the famous Or Sameach).

Rav Meir Simcha, as was the custom of many Rabbonim in Europe, had a Gabbai who was his personal assistant. The Gabbai would execute whatever task or errand Rav Meir Simcha asked him to execute. Today, such a position would be called “Chief of Staff”. He executed the orders of the Rav.

After a cetain shaila came to the attention of Rav Meir Simcha, he instructed his Gabbai regarding what to do. The Gabbai objected to what he was being asked to do and told Rav Meir Simcha that he did not agree with the Rav regarding this issue. Rav Meir Simcha told him, “You never agree with what I have to say.” The Gabbai was startled. The Gabbai said, “What do you mean I never agree with what you have to say? This is the first time that I ever disagreed with you!”

Rav Meir Simcha explained what he meant. “Why is it” he asked, “that you never objected before? It is because every other time you agreed with me. Therefore, you did what I said because you felt I was right. The first time you did not agree with what I had to say, you told me so. That means that you never really agreed with me. The only reason you did what I said in the past was not because you nullified your will to what I have to say. You did it because you felt that it was the right thing to do. That is not the role of a Gabbai. The role of a Gabbai is not a sounding board who is supposed to give the Rav validation. The role of the Gabbai is that I am the Rav, you are the Gabbai. You do what I tell you to do.”

This is the same with Torah as well. True, the Torah contains a majority of Mishpatim and mitzvos that we understand. However, that is almost beside the point. We are not supposed to do mitzvos because we happen to agree and think it is right and proper, ethical and moral. The reason we are supposed to do mitzvos is for one reason: Because it is “Chukei haElokim”, because that is the Will of the Creator. This is the “Higher Intelligence” (Daas Elyon). Whether we understand the mitzvos or do not understand them is really beside the point.

We do not need to do it because we agree and think it is the right thing. Ultimately, we need to do it because the Ribono shel Olam said so. That is why the appropriate title to address and define what all Torah is about is Chukei haElokim. That is why observance of the Torah in general is expressed as “If you will walk in my Chukim”. [Vayikra 26:3] In the final analysis, that is why we keep every mitzvah.

Just as Rav Meir Simcha told his Gabbai about his job — Our job is not to “sign off” and acquiesce to G-d’s commandments. Hashem does not need our approbations. We do it because He said to do it.


A Sense of Embarrassment Kept People In Their Places -But No Longer

Following the listing of the Asserres HaDibros [Ten ‘Commandments’], the Torah says that the people became afraid of the experience of hearing the Words of the Almighty. They begged that Moshe relay G-d’s message to them instead. Moshe responded: “Do not fear, for in order to elevate you has G-d come; so that the awe of Him shall be upon your faces (u’bavur tiheyeh Yiraso al pneichem) so that you shall not sin.” [Shmos 20:17]

The Mechilta comments that the expression “the awe of Him shall be upon your faces” refers to shame, the fact that people have a sense of embarrassment. Rabbeinu B’Chayei asks how it is that the Mechilta takes a pasuk which, on the surface, seems to speak of Fear of G-d (Yiras HaShem) and refers it to shame (busha). What is the connection? Rabbeinu B’Chayei answers that Fear comes from the heart. We do not normally speak of “fear appearing on a person’s face”. The attribute that IS evident on a person’s face is the attribute of shame, which is noticeable when a person turns red from embarrassment. If the pasuk is speaking of something that “shall be upon your faces,” it must be referring to shame – busha.

The idea conveyed by the Mechilta is that a sense of shame brings a person to fear sin. If a person has a strong sense of busha — which emerges from recognition of his great and ongoing debt to the Almighty, he will not be able to sin. A sense of embarrassment keeps a person in his place.

Rav Schach once met with a group of educators and asked them to state their opinions as to why the spiritual level of our society in today’s times has deteriorated to such a low level. Rav Schach went around the table. Each teacher expressed his opinion.

One educator mentioned the general concept of the “descent of generations” [yeridas haDoros]. Rav Schach took issue with this theory and told the educator. “This is incorrect. In my time, when I was young Europe, was far from perfect. There were all sorts of philosophies and movements that swirled around and entrapped people with their attraction: Socialism, communism, Bundism, humanism, the Yiddishists. There are many people that went off the straight and narrow path and left the fold. However, it was nothing like what is happening today. What is the difference?

Rav Schach finally explained that up until very recently, there was a sense of shame that existed in society. People were never perfect. They always had their foibles. But at least there was a sense of embarrassment. There are certain things you just do not say. There are certain things you just do not talk about. People’s inhibitions have always put a certain moral constraint on society.”

Today we are seeing a fulfillment of what the Mishneh says at the end of tractate Sotah — that in the period leading up to the coming of Moshiach (Ikvesa d’Mishicha), brazenness will become blatant. The problem we see today is not just the natural decline of every generation, as it moves one generation further away from Sinai. Today we are seeing a breakdown in society that has nothing to do with Jews or with Judaism. It has to do with humanity. Human beings (as opposed to animals) have always had a sense of embarrassment. Animals do anything in public because they do not realize that there is anything to be embarrassed about. Human beings used to refrain from doing certain things in public because of a sense of shame. “You just do not do that or talk about that in the open.”

This generation has removed the sense of busha from humanity. All a person needs to do is turn on the radio or even look in the newspaper. Things that people would not have dreamed of saying 20 years ago have become common language.

Our problem, especially the problem that we have with our children, is that society has lost its sense of BUSHA and children have lost their sense of BUSHA. The genie is out of the bottle. Unfortunately, I do not think it is going to be put back into the bottle until the coming of our Moshiach Tzidkaynu, may he comes speedily in our days.


Yisro – A Man Of Conviction: 

This was taken from Reb Yochanan Kirshblum’s book Thinking Outside the Box:

The Talmud in (Sotah 11a) tells us that Pharaoh had three advisers: Yisro, Iyov and Bilaam. When Pharoh was deciding the most prudent method to exterminate the Jewish people, he sought the opinion of each of his three advisers.

Bilaam, the grandson of Lavan, was an evil man and relished the prospect of eradicating the Jewish people. It was he who advised Pharaoh to kill the male Israelites.

Iyov was opposed to any plan to destroy the Jewish nation. Rather than display his true feelings on the issue, he refrained from offering any opinion. Perhaps he knew that his objections would be met with resistance. He most likely rationalized that he could do more to help the plight of the Jewish people at a later date by remaining in his position as advisor. As a result, he decided not to oppose or accept Bilaam’s proposal, but remained silent.

Yisro, on the other hand, vocally rejected Pharaoh’s idea of exterminating the Jewish people. Yisro believed it was wrong that these people should be made to suffer for no crime other then being Jewish. Yisro’s loud protests angered Pharaoh and Yisro had to flee Egypt in order to save his life.

The Talmud continues by telling us that each of the three advisers was rewarded or punished according to his deed. Bilaam, who encouraged the execution of thousands of innocent Jews, was killed by the very people he sought to exterminate. Iyov, who remained silent in the face of Jewish oppression, was afflicted with a life of pain and suffering. Yisro, who fled because of his opposition, sacrificing his position of leadership and life of comfort and wealth in Egypt, eventually became the father-in-law of Moshe and his descendants became prominent judicial leaders of the Children of Israel.

We know that a very basic tenet of Judaism is that G-d repays a person measure for measure. Therefore, we can clearly understand the reward and punishment of Yisro and Bilaam. However, why was Iyov’s punishment so severe? Iyov did not support the decree of persecution against the Jewish people. In fact, even if Iyov had objected, Pharaoh would have still enacted his decree. Iyov’s only sin was remaining silent. Why then did he have to suffer such a harsh life, one where tragedy followed tragedy?

The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, explains that the infliction brought upon Iyov was indeed a punishment measure for measure. Iyov reasoned that he would not accomplish anything by objecting to Pharaoh’s decree, therefore he did not raise his voice against it. As a punishment for his silence, G-d brought upon him terrible pains and suffering. Due to his terrible plight, Iyov was provoked to cry out to G-d and complain. Wasn’t Iyov the same person who chose not to raise his voice to Pharaoh’s decree? Didn’t Iyov believe that protesting accomplishes nothing? If this is so, then why was Iyov objecting now?

Iyov raised his voice in protest now, because it was Iyov who was personally suffering. When one suffers, he instinctively yells out in pain. Although yelling may not alleviate the pain, it does register a strong sign of disapproval. Iyov was now raising his voice as a sign of his disapproval of his painful personal situation. He was no longer silent. Thus Iyov’s punishment stirred him to react in a manner that in turn demonstrated the error of his failure to raise his voice in protest against Pharaoh’s heinous plan.

The Rambam (Hilchos Ta’anis, chapter 1) states that it is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and sound trumpets when disaster threatens the Jewish people. He bases that on the verse “When you go to war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall call out with trumpets so that you shall be remembered before the L-rd your G-d and you shall be saved from your enemies” (Bamidbar10:9).

The Rambam explains that the concept of trumpeting and calling out is not only in times of war, but for every impending tragedy. It is a signal for the individual and for the masses to evaluate their situation. They must determine if it is their own misdeeds that have brought the threat upon themselves. Without that signal, the threat will merely be accepted as a fact of life and the purpose of the tragedy will be for naught.

Today, the Jewish Nation is faced with a great many threats. There are threats from enemies on the outside and from enemies within our own ranks. Too many of us remain silent; our voices are not heard. Many of us feel that protests will not accomplish anything. They are the Iyov’s of our generation. The pain of our brothers and sisters must be felt as if it is our own pain. We must sound out the trumpets of our conscience. We cannot stand by as though we are neutral. As Dante said: The worst place in purgatory is reserved for those who are neutral in times of crisis”.



Divine Authenticity of Torah:

By: Rabbi Pinchas Winston

On the third day in the morning, there was thunder and lightning, and heavy cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of the shofar was very strong. The people in the camp trembled. Moshe directed the people out of the camp towards God, and they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain. (Shemos 19:16-17)

Once I gave a class to a group of secular Jews, most of whom were just traveling through Israel and happened to be invited to a class while visiting the Kosel. I’m surprised they said yes, but there they were sitting patiently in front of me, attentive (or so they appeared), waiting to hear what I might say.

What a coincidence. I was also waiting to hear what I might say. Looking at them, all of a sudden, the material I had prepared didn’t seem to be right for the setting, and fighting back panic (it was my first time doing this), I scrambled to think of something appealing, something that might not turn them off from Judaism for the rest of their lives, if they weren’t already. The idea of saying, “Let’s all go for a coffee!” popped into my mind, but that probably wouldn’t have gone over too well with the administration.

That’s when the following words just seemed to flow from my mouth, and I wasn’t exactly sure, at the time, where they came from.

“What is more logical,” I asked them, “that a person check out the validity of the Bible, or ignore its claims?”

A hand immediately went up, and after acknowledging it, the person answered, “It’s more logical not to check it out.”

“Really?” I asked, baiting the person a little.

“Really,” he answered. “Otherwise more people would being doing it.”

Looking around the class, I asked the others, “Does everyone agree, or does someone disagree?” and was pleasantly surprised by the reaction and the amount of participation. All of a sudden, the class seemed to have a life of its own, and I knew that I was going to enjoy myself, and that they might too.

Most people agreed with the first opinion, as was to be expected. So I asked them, “Are you sure? The Torah makes some pretty powerful claims …”

Of course, no one changed his mind, though I did read some growing doubt in the eyes of some of the people who had volunteered an answer, a look that I thought said, “What claims?” So, we spent the rest of the class speaking out some of those claims, and an hour later, many in the group somewhat uncomfortably, agreed that, based upon the claims, it was more logical to check out the Bible than not check it out.

I don’t know if anyone actually ever did, but that’s cognitive dissonance for you. However, who knows? Maybe one of them, down the road, did go to a Torah class somewhere else because of the revelation. It wouldn’t be the first time a person has had a delayed reaction to what he or she has learned.

The point is that there are billions of people walking around out there who couldn’t care less about Torah and the people who observe it, assuming that is an irrelevant relic from the past. Logic dictates, at least to them, that they have no need to waste their time checking it out, even if they were born Jewish.

Even more amazing is how many people refute those claims without ever having really investigated them, and proven them false. People will claim that they are false, but no one has ever proven them to be false. Granted, there are some important questions to be answered regarding the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, but they are answerable, if a person is prepared to give Torah the time of day, and check out what it says and why.

For example, there is the claim that God dictated every word of the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu, letter-by-letter. Other religions have claimed that their codes of ethics were Divinely-inspired, but no book or document, except for the Torah, has ever claimed that it was given entirely directly by God to man, certainly not word-by-word.

There is a reason for that, and it is not honesty for honesty’s sake. It is about salability. For example, if you came to a large group of people and told them that God told you, word-by-word, that it was okay to be promiscuous and take advantage of the meek, there might not be a lot of people who would take you at your word, but there would certainly be a lot of people who would want to.

But try and make the same claim while selling commandments that go against a person’s yetzer hara, and see who’s even willing to listen to such a claim—unless they know it is true. How much more so when there are 613 such commandments, and a myriad of instructions about how to fulfill them. You might find a few unstable people to follow you, but not too many logical and clear-thinking people who also have yetzer haras.

However, things become more probable when the people making the claim of Divine origin for Torah happen to also be logical and clear-thinking with yetzer haras. The implication is that somebody knows something that others may not know, something that validates the Torah, and if he is write, then not only does God exist, but the Torah is true, and we are expected to live by it, or answer for why we didn’t. At the very least, that is worth checking out. At the very least.

There are other less global claims that make Torah worth looking into for our own, everyday good. For example, if you live by Torah, you will be a better person, a better son or daughter, a better spouse, and a better parent, whatever the case may be. Who doesn’t want to be better at all of that? You will be a happier person. Who doesn’t want to be that?

But, one can argue, that the bookstores are filled with human beings making similar promises, some making millions of dollars off people who buy their books, tapes, and cds, just to hear their take on life. Hence, the Torah is competing in a very competitive market today. In fact, when was the last time an Orthodox rabbi was invited to speak on a popular talk show to share the Torah’s viewpoint on all of these everyday current and burning issues? Exactly.

Here’s the difference. In life, there are only absolutes, and opinions. If something is not an absolute, then it can only be, at most, an opinion. We humans are not able to make absolutes, only to perceive them, because our big picture is still quite small when it comes to knowing everything about the universe there is to know, and are unable to control reality absolutely. Only God knows all of that, and can do that.

The problem with opinions is that they vary. They can work for one person, but not necessarily another, or at some times, but not at all times.

Sometimes, when it comes to opinions, it is hit-or-miss, and even the hitting often requires what others call “good luck,” but what we Jews call Hashgochah Pratis—Divine Providence.

So, yes, there are a lot of competing authors out there pushing their wares and fairs to help others to be more successful in life, usually based upon their own personal experiences and insights, and most of all, their own personal opinions. No doubt there is wisdom in their words, some more than others, but no doubt, there is also a lot of mistaken notions, or at least mistaken generalizations.

However, God is the watchmaker, so-to-speak. He made man, and knows what makes him tick, why it makes him tick, and how it makes him tick. He knows man better than man will ever know himself, and best of all, He is totally unbiased, absolutely objective, and, well, absolute. If he says something will make you a better person, or a not-so-good person, He is right, 100 percent of the time. You can bank on it, if you’re willing to work at it. Which is why His book, with all of its absolutes, is less popular amongst the non-religious crowds, than secular books dealing with similar issues.

It is because human authors know that humans want success, but with minimal effort. Marketing and advertising knows that most people will not bite the bullet if they don’t have to, or at least perceive they won’t have to. We’re all looking for success, but we’re also looking for shortcuts to success, and the absolute truth is that they’re are none. None.

I remember the first time I “went” through the Talmud, inspired by the upcoming birth of my first child. One night, as I sat on our living room sofa and pondered the change of life our new child would bring, it also occurred to me, for the first time, that if the child happened to be a boy, he could end up knowing more Torah than me by the age of nine. For, I had been religious and learning Torah for only about five years at that time, but my child would start early.

There was something very unsettling about that thought, and as difficult as learning Talmud was for me at that time, I decided that I had one choice: either to put on the burners and put some learning distance between my child and myself, or eat his learning dust, so-to-speak.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing a father wants more than seeing his children succeed in life, especially in ways that he could not. What parent does not want the very best for his or her child, even if it means that they will end up being much greater than he or she ever became. That is success as a parent, and I can’t wait for that day to happen, for each of my children, b”H.

However, for it to happen by the time my child was only nine years old would be a little early, kind of embarrassing, and probably quite frustrating. A child, especially in the Torah world, wants to know that his father has been around in the world of learning, at least until he is old enough to know what that actually means.

So off I went on my journey of the Talmud (before ArtScroll produced their translated and annotated Shas), like a hiker beginning a long ascent up a huge mountain. At first it was very difficult, but intriguing, until I realized how big a project it was that I was undertaking. But, like a mountain climber, you try not to look up and see how far you have to go, lest you despair (which I did on more than one occasion), looking instead just at where you have to place your next foot.

As it turned out, and I guess somewhat to my relief, my first child ended up being a girl. However, that did not change too much, since a boy could easily come within two years, and did, and besides, I had already been bitten by the Shas bug. I had to continue, so I did.

Over the years, as I became more proficient at Aramaic and the methods of the Talmud, I began to look for all kinds of shortcuts to allow me to speed the process up, while at the same time remembering most of what I was seeing. So I developed all kinds of systems and methods for learning, adjusting them as I went along and as I became more experienced.

When I finally finished and made my first siyum on the Shas, I reflected on what I had done, and how I had done it, only to realize that, 10 years later, my shortcuts had not been shortcuts. Indeed, I realized that there weren’t really any, and what I had thought were shortcuts, had been, in fact, distractions, like the mountain climber who talks to himself as he climbs to take his mind off his task.

The only shortcut, so-to-speak, when it comes to the word of God is to put in the necessary time and energy to learn it well, and remember it even better. As the rabbis taught, “According to the effort is the reward” (Pirkei Avos 5:26), and remembering Torah requires Heavenly help (Megillah 6b), a reward for the effort that one makes to learn and remember Torah. Then you won’t have to learn the same thing from the start all over again, but build, instead, on what you know.

Because there is so much to know, so much, and on so many different levels. But, unfortunately, you can’t tell a person what that means; he has to see it for himself. Indeed, one of the most frustrating things in life, when it comes to Torah, is having seen things that you know if you could show it to others, they’d have no trouble believing that Torah is from God. But, of course, to do that, the person has to be willing to listen, and have the time to learn, because it would take a lot of it to bring the person up to speed just so he can relate to the concepts.

Personally, I have spent the last few years trying to write up for others, with less background, Kabbalistic concepts I have learned recently, in a way that they can appreciate the ideas themselves. In the beginning, it was just about sharing the beauty and depth of Torah, the prime reason I began to write in the first place.

However, more recently, it has been about trying to show people how God runs His world, how we know exiles are coming to an end, and why anti-Semitism always resurfaces with a vengeance at the end of them, and what to do about it. Ironically, such life-saving information exists on deeper levels than most people learn, perhaps part of the reward for having taken Torah seriously, and spending the time to delve into it.

It is not easy, but it is extremely rewarding. First of all, the process has forced me to learn the ideas better than I thought I already knew them. Secondly, after spending time writing the ideas, and then editing them, until they make sense even for someone with little or no background, it feels as if a work of art has been created. There is something profoundly beautiful about bridging the intellectual gap between the abstract and the practical, without sacrificing the sanctity of the concepts.

That, too, is part of the Torah experience. That, too, is a reason why a Jew, who has doubts about the Divine authenticity of Torah, should check it out. These are serious and profound claims, and there are only two types of people who can make them: mad men, or people who know the truth. Given the level of intelligence of the people who have made those claims over the millennia, a person really ought to prove the Divinity of Torah for himself.


Quick Lesson From The Parsha:

“Even though I’ve told you ten times I don’t want to sell that watch, you are such a nudge, I’ll sell it to you.”

When you want someone’s object so badly that you force them to give it to you, and according to most commentaries even if you pay for it, you have violated “Thou shall not covet” (Shemos 20:13-14) of the Ten Commandments!!

Understanding what really belongs to us and what really belongs to others is quite critical to our success in Judaism. It also prevents the inevitable blurring that results from coveting that which is not one’s own.

Quote Of The Week:

“If a person would be able to access the sweetness of the Torah, he would go out of his mind (literally).
                                                                                                               -Ohr HaCahim

“Torah is not oxygen- it is life itself.” -R’ Boruch Ber Leibowitz

Filed Under: Torah


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