Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sefiras HaOmer: Short, straight and simple

How do we understand Sefiras HaOmer in simple and practical terms? Many of us struggle with understanding Sefiras HaOmer for a few reasons. One reason for our difficulty in understanding this time period is because besides counting the days towards Shavuos, there is no specific concrete action that one is required to take to sanctify himself or to evoke a spiritual high. Second, the days of Sefirah are tinged with sadness because of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the terrible massacres perpetuated by the Crusades during this time period. Most commentators view these issues as a contradiction, as on the one hand we are anticipating the receiving of the Torah, and on the other hand we are in a state of mourning.
Although much has been said and written to resolve this apparent contradiction, I would like to offer a fresh perspective on this issue. Let us examine a different period of mourning, which is the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha Baav. The Chachamim instituted restrictions during that time period so that we can reflect on our loss of the Bais HaMikdash and the spiritual descent of the Jewish People throughout history. Commencing on the seventeenth of Tammuz, we begin a countdown towards Tisha B’Av. Do we wonder how we can countdown to something tragic, when we are simultaneously attempting to be inspired to become better people and that hopefully HaShem will have compassion on the Jewish People and restore the Bais HaMikdash as in days of yore?
Obviously there is no contradiction in that regard, because the closer we come to Tisha B’Av, the more we are sorrowed that we have not yet reached the level where we can have the Bais HaMikdash restored. In a similar vein, although we are saddened by the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, we should certainly be inspired to improve our character and our relationships with fellow Jews, and then we will merit an uplifting Shavuos, when the Jewish People stood at Har Sinai and were united, as one man with one heart.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Chagiga Kickoff

The Menoras HaMaor quotes the Medrash Tanchumah, which does not appear in our version of Tanchumah, as follows:

There was once a pious man who was secluded in a certain area and he studied Masechet Chagigah. He would study the Masechet over and over, until he learned it so well and he was so familiar with the Masechet. He did not know any other Masechet in the Talmud, and he would only study Masechet Chagigah. When he departed the world, he was alone and there was no one who knew of his passing. The apparition of a woman arrived and stood before him, and she raised her voice in wailing and eulogy. She moaned and cried so loud until a crowd gathered. She then told the people who had gathered, “Eulogize this pious man and bury him and show honor to his coffin and you will all merit the World to Come. The reason I ask you to do this is because he honored me his entire life and I was not forsaken and forgotten.” Immediately all the women came and sat with her and they made a great eulogy and the men took care of the deceased’s shrouds and all of his burial needs. They then buried him with great honor and the woman was wailing and crying. The people asked her, “What is your name?” She responded, “My name is Chagigah.” Subsequent to the man’s burial, the woman disappeared from view. Immediately the people understood that she was really Masechet Chagigah, who appeared in the image of a woman. She had appeared at the time of the man’s death so that he would be eulogized and cried over, and that he would receive an honorable burial. This was all due to the fact that he had constantly studied Masechet Chagigah and was diligent in studying it. This teaches us a kal vachomer: If this pious man who only studied one tractate received all this honor, then certainly if one studies much Torah and teaches Torah to others, and gains many students, certainly he will earn a great reward.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


We recite in the Haggadah: The wicked one, what does he say? "What is this service to you?!" He says 'to you', but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, must blunt his teeth and say to him: "'It is because of this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt';'for me' — but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"

The commentators ask: How are we so certain that he would not have been redeemed? Weren't there evil people in Egypt that were redeemed; the most famous being Dasan and Aviram?

We mention in the Haggadah: Had the Holy One Blessed Be He not have taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our sons and our grandchildren would still be subjugated to Pharaoh in Egypt. The commentaries question as to how we can make such an assertion. Surely the Jewish people would have left Egypt sometime in the future? Perhaps they may have been released? Or eventually the Egyptian empire would collapse or be overthrown?

The Shulchan Aruch writes that one should put his best and most ornate vessels on the table for the Seder. The Maharil had expensive ornamental vessels that he had accepted as collateral from the non-Jews to whom he lent money. He kept these vessels in storage for most of the year. For the Seder night, though, he would set them up in the dining area so as to make the Seder table appear extremely nice.

Most commentators explain the Maharil only to mean that the table was set with these utensils; they could not use them since that would be regarded as stealing.

The Chasam Sofer, however, offers a novel approach. When it came time for the Jews to depart from Egypt, they were commanded to ask their Egyptian neighbors for utensils of silver and gold, in fulfillment of Hashem's promise to Avraham Avinu many years earlier - that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth. the Chasam Sofer cites the words of Chazal that the Egyptians offered them more than they asked for. Why was this? It is well known that eating with utensils from a non-Jew that were not properly immersed in a ritual bath can result in grave danger and causes impurity to the one who eats from food cooked with these utensils. The Jews could not immerse the utensils that they borrowed from the Egyptians because they did not belong to them. The angel appointed on the Egyptians knew this and intended that the Jews should use these utensils and become spiritually impure. The abundance of sanctity that Hashem poured on the Jews on the night they departed from Egypt nullified the impurities contained in those utensils and they were able to use them without endangering themselves.

This level of sanctity returns every year on the night of the Seder. The intense desires displayed in the telling over of the exodus from Egypt accomplishes that no impurity can effect us and it is therefore permitted to set up the Seder table with the utensils from the non-Jews and even use them without any fear regarding the impurities contained in those utensils.

Yaakov said to his father, "I am Esav, your first-born; I have done as you have told me." Rashi explains: Yaakov did not lie; rather, he said I am who I am, Esav is your first-born. The Chasam Sofer states that even that explanation is inconsistent with what Yaakov Avinu stood for. He was the pillar of truth; how could he utter words that would appear to be an outright lie? He answers: It was only because of the influence he received from wearing the garments of Esav. One who dresses like a non-Jew talks like one,as well. It was only because that this occurred on the night of Pesach, the sanctity of that night protected Yaakov, and he was able to express himself in a manner that could be interpreted as the truth and because of that, he was able to receive the Blessings from his father Yitzchak.

(One should be extremely careful in regards to the clothing that he or she wears. Clothes that are considered 'goyishe' clothes should not be worn. Besides the fact that the halacha mandates that they are forbidden to wear, one will become effected by those clothes; he will begin to speak like a goy, think like a goy and eventually act like one too. Clothes that are against halacha can be regarded as clothes of a non-Jew.)

It is written [14:3]: Pharoah will say to the Children of Israel: they are wandering in the land and the desert closed in on them. Rashi explains that it means that he will say it about them because he could not possibly say it to them since they already left. Yonasan ben Uziel interprets this passage literally, explaining that Pharoah will tell Dasan and Aviram, who had remained in Egypt, that their fellow Israelites are lost. Dasan and Aviram did not leave together with the rest of the Jewish people. They stayed behind according to this interpretation.

Dasan and Aviram are a testimony to what would happen if the Jewish people would not have left at that precise moment. When Dasan and Aviram left soon afterwards, they witnessed the splitting of the sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, the giving of the Torah and many other miracles in the Wilderness. How could they not believe in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant? How could they have remained in such a wicked state? The answer is because once they sunk to the fiftieth level of impurity, there was no climbing out of that. Witnessing all the miracles could not have any effect on them. They were not capable of becoming inspired through the receiving of the Torah.

The Jewish people who did leave Egypt at that time merited the special sanctity of that night. Hashem instilled in them an abundance of sanctity in order to overcome their lack of spirituality and this enabled them to become inspired when witnessing the splitting of the sea and eventually prepared them for the ultimate prize, the receiving of the Torah.

This is what the Haggadah is informing us and this is what we tell the wicked son. If he would have been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed together with the rest of the Jewish people. That would result in his sinking to the fiftieth level of tumah, a state which one cannot climb out of.

The lesson to us is a simple one: Seize the moment! Become inspired before it is too late.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Four and Fifteen

There are two numbers that play a significant role by the Pesach Seder. One number is four, and the other is fifteen. Regarding four, there are four cups of wine, four terms of redemption, the four Matriarchs, four sons mentioned in the Hagadah, four questions posed in the Mah Nishtanah. There are those who say that the Seder is comprised of four components, as we eat matzah, maror, drink wine, and relate the story of the Exodus. Yet, the commentators are perplexed as to the significance of the number four.
I would like to offer an explanation that not only explains the meaning of four by the Seder, but also sheds light on the number four in general. The word four in Hebrew is arba. A similar word is rova, which means to procreate and multiply. The number three is normally understood to mean a connection, as the word for three is shelosha, and the word for chain is shalsheles. Thus, by adding on to three, one is multiplying and increasing the connection. We find that the Gemara (Brachos 16b) states that there are only three Patriarchs, and they are Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Yet, the Ramban writes at the end of the Book of Bereishis that now the Book of the Patriarchs is completed.
My cousin, Reb Heshy Weissman, Shlita, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Meshech Chochmah in Jerusalem, once remarked to me that it is implicit from the words of the Ramban that Yosef, who is discussed in the last four parshiyos of Bereishis, is also deemed to be one of the Patriarchs. This does not necessarily contradict the statement of the Gemara that there are only three Patriarchs, as we know that Yaakov is in the category of Shabbos. Yet, the Sfas Emes writes that Yosef, the son of Yaakov, reflects Tosefes Shabbos, adding to Shabbos. Thus, while there are only three Patriarchs, Yosef is deemed to be an extension of Yaakov. When we contemplate the number four, we can safely assume that four is not an exclusive number. Rather, four is an extension of three. Thus, Yosef is an extension of the Patriarchs, as Yosef embodied the principles and lifestyle of the Patriarchs.
Similarly, Sara, Rivka, and Rachel were the three primary Matriarchs, as initially Yaakov was only supposed to marry Rachel. Yet, Hashem saw fit to orchestrate history so that Leah would also be counted as one of the Matriarchs. Hence, Leah is an extension of the three Matriarchs. It is noteworthy that when Leah gave birth to her fourth child, she called him Yehudah, as an expression of her thanksgiving to HaShem that she was allowed to beget more than her share of three children. Three children was the expectation, and bearing a fourth child was considered an extra. Leah called her fourth son Yehudah and his name is comprised of the Name of HaShem and an extra dalet. This symbolizes that from Yehudah would descend Dovid, who was essentially the first Jewish king and he and his descendants were to sit on the throne of HaShem. Yet, Dovid went beyond what was required of him and he praised HaShem in a manner that no other human had done prior to him. Moshiach, a descendant of Dovid, will also rule over the whole world, as did his forebear Shlomo, the son of Dovid. Thus, four is an extension of three, as four involves taking what exists and multiplying it.
Upon examining the four questions of the Mah Nishtanah, we will notice that the question of the matzah, maror, and dippings are all justified questions, as they address the deviations that we perform on this night of Pesach in contrast to the rest of the year. The question regarding the reclining, however, needs to be understood, because in earlier times people would recline all year around. The Vilna Gaon writes that for this reason the Mishna in Pesachim (116a) does not mention the question regarding reclining, because when the Bais HaMikdash was standing, people reclined all year round and the reclining was not considered a deviation. Although nowadays it is not the custom to recline throughout the year, it would seem that the author of the Hagadah introduced this question as an extension of the first three questions. Thus, the question regarding the reclining is to lead into the answer of avadim hayinu, where we state that that we were slaves in Egypt and HaShem redeemed us.
Regarding the four sons, it is obvious that the wise son, the wicked son, and the simple son all pose questions. The son who does not know how to ask, however, does not pose a question. Rather, as an extension of the first three sons, we relate the story to him, and this is in accordance with the law that one who does not have a son should relate the story of the Exodus to himself. We can suggest that it is specifically for this reason that the author of the Hagadah states at pesach lo, you open up to him, and the word at is in the feminine form. The reason that the feminine tense is used is because the male is normally the one who influences the female, whereas the female is on the receiving end. Regarding the story of the Exodus, however, one is required to relate the story to himself, i.e. to delve into the details of the Exodus and to reinforce the lessons of faith and trust in HaShem.
Regarding the four cups of wine, which correspond to the four terms of redemption, we can suggest as follows: The first three cups and the first three terms of redemption correspond to the first three stages of redemption, where HaShem took us out of Egypt, delivered us from the slavery, and redeemed us from our oppressors. The forth term of velakachti, and I will take, refers to the giving of the Torah. The purpose of the exodus was so that the Jewish People would receive the Torah. Thus, the fourth term is merely an extension of the first three terms of redemption. In conclusion, the theme of four that is so dominant in the Hagadah reflects the idea that there are certain premises and then there are extensions of these premises.

The number fifteen is reflected in the stages of the Seder, which are delineated at the onset of the Seder. These fifteen steps are kadeish urchatz etc. The word aviv, spring, equals 15 in gematria, and Pesach is referred to as chag haaviv, the spring festival. There are fifteen Shir Hamaalos, songs of ascent, in Tehillim, and there were fifteen steps that led up to the Azarah, the Courtyard in the Bais HaMikdash.
The idea behind the number fifteen is as follows: kingship is reflected in the number thirty, as the Mishnah states that there are thirty attributes to kingship. The name Yehudah equals in gematria thirty and Yehudah was the king of the tribes and from Yehudah descended the true kings of the Jewish People. The seven middos begin with Gedulah and culminate with Malchus. Yesod, foundation, precedes Malchus. Yesod refers to milah, circumcision, and withstanding immoral temptation. It is said (Yeshaya 26:4) ki bekah HaShem tzur olamim, with the word kah HaShem created the world. The word kah, spelled with a yud and a hey, equals in gematria fifteen. Thus, the world was created with the concept of fifteen. Yet, the word kah only represents half of HaShem’s Name. HaShem’s kingship will only be fully revealed when Moshiach arrives. It is brought in sefarim that the redemption will be predicated on the safeguarding of the bris, i.e. milah and withstanding immoral temptation. Thus, we commence the Seder by stating kadeish urchatz; one must sanctify himself and cleanses himself so he can be prepared for the revelation of HaShem’s kingship.
This can also be the explanation for the fifteen Shir Hamaalos, which are songs of ascent. Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 24:3-4): mi yaaleh vehar HaShem umi yakum bimkom kadsho, niki chapaim uvar leivav, who may ascend the mountain of HaShem and who may ascend in the place of His sanctity? One with clean hands and pure heart… One who wishes to ascend spiritually must sanctify himself and cleanse himself of any spiritual maladies. It is for this reason that the word aviv, spring, equals in gematria 15. Rashi writes that HaShem liberated the Jewish People in a month that is desirable to exit, when it was not too hot and not too cold. This can be interpreted on a spiritual plane. Hashem redeemed us at a time when we were still be to ascend spiritually, as the Kabbalists write that had HaShem waited even a second longer to liberate the Jewish People from Egypt, the Jewish People would have descended into the fiftieth level of contamination, from which there is no return.
HaShem gave the Jewish People the mitzvah of milah to perform as this mitzvah was merit that would allow them to be liberated from Egypt. This also indicates that it is fifteen, i.e. yesod, which is halfway to Malchus, kingship that predicated the redemption. Thus, we declare our praise to HaShem through the number fifteen, because HaShem redeemed us on the fifteenth of the month of Nissan, when we were still able to retain some form of sanctity, and we ascended from the nadir of Egyptian depravity to become Hashem’s Holy Nation and become sanctified through His holy Torah and mitzvos.