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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Beshalach

Parshat Beshalach

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter    Print Version

Parashat Beshalach
11th of Shevat, 5778 | January 27, 2018

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Rabbi Zev Leff
Taking Egypt out of Us

Prior to leaving Egypt, the Jewish people carried out a very strange mitzvah: “Each woman shall request from her Egyptian neighbor… silver vessels, golden vessels and garments; and you shall put them on your sons and daughters” (Shemos 3:22). As instructed to Moshe Rabbeinu by Hashem, the Jews were meant to take the Egyptian’s clothing upon leaving Egypt and place it on their children in the desert.

It seems quite strange though. Chazal (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5) tell us that one of the four merits which warranted the Jewish people leaving Egypt was not changing their style of dress to mirror that of the Egyptians. How then can it be that they were instructed to not only take Egyptian clothing with them as they departed Egypt, but dress their children in it? Why would Hashem command this?

The lesson to be derived from this is extremely important, especially in our day and age. Were we to peruse through the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, we would not find anything inappropriate or immodest about the Egyptian’s clothing. After all, were that the case, the Jewish people would not have given them to their children to wear. What then was the problem with the Jews dressing in such clothing while in Egypt? If they were permitted and even instructed to wear them in the desert, what was wrong with wearing them in Egypt?

In truth, the issue was not simply the style of dress. It was the implications of wearing such clothing, which represented a non-kosher ideological stance of wishing to dress and act like the Egyptians, that was the problem. The Jews wore this very same clothing in the desert and there was no problem whatsoever because it was done outside of Egypt and not in the context of following the Egyptian way of life. In Egypt itself, however, where such dress did bear such consequences, it was to be avoided at all costs.

During my high school years, the craze in the world was the Beatles. As a rock band in Liverpool, England, the Beatles took the world by storm and created new fads that captured the imagination and realities of thousands of people. For one, until then, mostly Hippies and Bohemian men had long hair. Aside from that, seldom would you come across a respectable doctor, lawyer or businessman with lengthy hair. But shortly after the Beatles came on the scene, long hair became stylish, and such a trend trickled down into even Jewish circles.

One time, a few of my schoolmates in high school allowed their hair to grow wild for a few months. One Friday, the rebbeim at the high school called over these boys. “You have a choice,” they told them. “Either you please get a haircut for Shabbos and return on Sunday or you remain out of school until your hair has been cut.”

My friends were not daunted by that, and somewhat humorously replied, “But Rebbe, a nazir (one who refrains from cutting his hair and consuming meat and wine for the sake of abstinence) has long hair and he is a holy man; we just want to be holy people!” Their argument did not last long, as the rebbeim reiterated their point and awaited to see what the boys would decide. Sure enough, they were there at school on Sunday with shorter hair.

It may be that certain styles of hair are completely permitted from a purely halachic (Jewish law) standpoint. However, if it overrides the Jewish spirit and is done for the reason of mimicking non-Jewish style, it becomes a different story.
This was the very lesson Hashem wished to instill within the Jewish people. “I want you to take that clothing out of Egypt,” Hashem told the Jews, “and put it on your children. You should know that such clothing is completely kosher and appropriate while in the desert. But while you find yourselves in Egypt, to don such garments and follow in the ways of the Egyptians would be a breach in keeping to Jewish values.”

Insulated, Not Isolated

We are a nation that dwells apart from the rest of the nations of the world. We are not meant to live in isolation, but rather be an ohr la’amim, a light unto the nations, and influence the world to live up to higher ethical standards and lead upstanding lives. We are not meant to be isolated from the world, but insulated from the world. Our standards and values are intended for us to live as strongly identified Jews in the world but not with the world.

In this vein, our Sages compare the Jewish people to oil and the nations of the world to water. An alternative Midrash draws the comparison between the Jews and non-Jews as respectively being similar to fire and water. Fire and water cannot mix unless a pot is put between the two, wherein the fire actually helps the water and affects the cooking process. The separation is what ensures their peaceful coexistence and workability. The same is true of oil and water. Oil can float atop water with a certain surface tension separating them. The oil will protect the water and the water will support the oil.

The same is true with regards to our relationship with the outside world. We can survive and thrive among the nations of the world so long as we remain insulated. If we try to mix fire and water directly, however, the water will extinguish the fire.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner thus famously coined the phrase, “Either the Jew can make Kiddush, or the non-Jew can make Havdalah.” We can either choose to sanctify ourselves and separate from the nations of the worlds with respect to the way we act and hold to our values, or we can push our way into the non-Jewish culture, which has proven throughout history to have less than favorable consequences. Egypt made havdalah and drove us to the ground with unbearably harsh labor, as did Spain and Germany.

Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg points out that our attitude towards the outside world is such not because we consider them to be abominable, but because we understand who we are. The Kotzker Rebbe in fact formulated a profound line along these lines: “If I am myself because I know who I am, and you are yourself because you know who you are, then we both have identities. But if my only identity is that I know I am not you, but I don’t know who I am, and your identity is that you know you are not me, but you don’t know who you are, then neither of us have an identity.” We do not define ourselves by the fact that we are not non-Jews. We define ourselves by understanding our own identity and leading lives in consonance with those ideals and values.

The Torah therefore tells us, “And I have separated you from the nations of the world to be unto Me” (Vayikra 20:26). Rashi cites Chazal who explain the import of this verse. “If you separate yourselves from the other nations, you are Mine. If you do not, however, you belong to Nevuchadnezzar and his cohorts.” Simply understood, the Torah here means to underline that if we, the Jewish people, distance ourselves from the other nations, Hashem will protect us. If we do not, however, we are endangering ourselves. But Chazal do not say exactly that. They do not state that we will be handed over into the hands of our enemies, but rather that we will “belong to Nevuchadnezzar and his friends.” Why use such an expression? Moreover, we had plenty of enemies before Nevuchadnezzar and after him; why do Chazal specifically single out Nevuchadnezzar as the ruler we will be subject to?

The answer to this provides one of the most fundamental principles of life as a Jew living in our world.

As Jews, we have a mission in this world. “And you will be unto Me a nation of priests and a holy people” (Shemos 19:6). Whether we accept it or not, we are G-d’s representatives to the world. How do we exactly accomplish this? By fulfilling the latter half of the verse, that of leading lives as a holy people. The rest of the world is enjoined by G-d to be moral, but they do not necessarily need to be holy. Morality for the non-Jew entails living a life in consonance with basic societal rules which prevent the destruction and distortion of mankind. But he need not live a life filled with kedusha, holiness. A Jew, in contrast, lives on an entirely different plane. It is one of holiness, of purity and more than simple morality.

Let me share with you a small personal example which occurred many years ago.

It was in my small three-bedroom home in Israel that, bli ayin hara, thirteen people lived together: my wife and I and our six sons and five daughters. Our six boys shared one room and our five daughters shared another room. I had a second house where I kept my seforim, which contained two bedrooms. As my children grew up, and two of my daughters entered their teenage years, they approached me and my wife with an idea. “Would we be able to move into the house with the seforim? We are getting older and would like to each have our own bedroom.” My wife and I listened to their request, which made sense, and agreed to allow them to move.

Everything was fine until it was Pesach. It had nothing to do with cooking or cleaning, but with an uncle of ours who would visit every year and stay with us between Pesach and Shavuos. As was usually the case, he would stay in the house accompanied by my seforim. Now, however, with my daughters living there, we would run into an issue of yichud¸ the halachic requirement that a man and woman not remain secluded in the same enclosed environment. I explained to my daughters that due to the halachos of yichud, they would be unable to remain in the same house as their great uncle and would thus need to move back into their previous rooms with their three other sisters for the next month and a half.

“Tatty,” the said to me, “why do we have to move back? We can both share a room and our uncle can take the other room!” “That would be very nice,” I replied, “but that is not halachically permitted.” “But Tatty,” they continued, “our great uncle is an elderly man. We promise that nothing is going to happen.” I reiterated what I had said just before, and added the following reason.

“You are absolutely right. Morally, there is nothing wrong with you staying in the same house as an old man. But we as Jews need to be a holy, and there is a difference between being moral and being holy. For a non-Jew, such an arrangement would be one hundred percent okay, but it is not kedusha. It is not representative of our relationship with Hashem.”

This is what the Torah tells us. “I have separated you from the nations of the world to be unto Me.” We are meant to be separated from the best of the best of the other nations. The Torah is not referring to the lowliest of the gentiles, but to the most refined, most moral and most upstanding of them. In respect to them, we are charged to lead lives of the highest order of holiness.

During one presidential election decades ago, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l kept on asking a boy in his yeshiva who had won the election. After some time, the boys grew curious as to why Rav Aharon was so intrigued as to whom would be the next President of the United States. “I want to know what to have in mind when I recite the blessing, ‘Shelo asani goy,’ ‘Who has not made me a gentile.’” This blessing refers to the most respected and refined non-Jew, which in Rav Aharon’s mind was represented and symbolized by the President of the United States.

It is not that anything is wrong with the non-Jews, but that something is different about us, the Jews. It is not that our respect for the outside world is in any way diminished; it is that our respect for ourselves is so great that we hold ourselves to such high standards. If we therefore insulate ourselves from the best nations of the world, we will serve as G-d’s ambassadors to the world for we are living lives of holiness, and not mere morality. If we do not, then we are not serving as G-d’s representatives to the world, and are destroying that G-dliness that we possess within ourselves which is meant to shine outwards.

We are all, as Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains, microcosms of the Beis Hamikdash. The Torah tells us that G-d will dwell “within them,” which simplistically refers to the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash, but likewise refers to each and every one of us. G-d dwells within the heart of each and every Jew. If a Jew therefore does not accept that mission of leading a life of holiness and being that representative of G-d to the world, he is essentially destroying that G-dliness and miniature sanctuary within himself. He thus aligns himself with a very select group of Nevuchadnezzar and his colleagues who years ago destroyed the standing Beis Hamikdash made of wood and stone. A Jew who opts out of his mission of leading a life of kedusha basically does the same, and thus belongs to such a cohort.

The Land of Israel Outside of Israel

Once the Jewish people left Egypt, they began setting their eyes on their eventual destination: the Land of Israel. But the process of arriving there was progressive, explains the Sforno. The exodus from Egypt formed the preliminary steps to the Jewish nation arriving at a clear understanding of G-d and their mission as His people. The purpose of settling in Israel was to create a society which would be insulated from the nations of the world and allow the Jews to devote themselves to G-d’s overarching mission for mankind. We would form different ideals and values, those which would provide a beacon of light and spirituality to the rest of the world and reflect a life of kedusha. But achieving such lofty standards required that we first go through the process of exile and slavery, and come full circle to understanding our place in this world as G-d’s priestly nation and holy representatives.

As we have it today, we still remain in exile. Though we may not physically be living in Egypt and may have homes in Israel, we live in exile nevertheless. What though replaces that spiritual experience we once had of living in the Land of Israel, wherein G-d’s presence was acutely sensed and perceived?

“And I have been for them a small sanctuary in the lands where they arrived” (Yechezkel 11:16) – This refers to the synagogues and study halls outside the Land of Israel (Megillah 29a). The Jewish communities, made up of shuls, schools, yeshivos, seminaries and places to learn and grow insulate us from the culture and nations of the world and promote our spiritual growth. They provide us with an environment akin to the Land of Israel of yesteryear and put us in touch with G-dliness and holiness.

But there is also one other very important place which allows for such spiritual growth. The Midrash (Paneiach Razah, Parshas Noach) says in reference to the verse, “According to their families they left the Ark of Noach [after the flood]” (Bereishis 8:19) that “from here we derive that when leaving shul one should leave family by family.” Simplistically, the Midrash is drawing upon the similar usage of the word teivah, ark, which refers both to the Ark of Noach in the Torah’s vernacular and an Ark which houses a Torah scroll in Mishnaic terminology. What though is the deeper meaning behind this?

We live in a world wherein if we do no insulate ourselves, we will drown within the cultures surrounding us. The Meiri writes that “evil in the world is akin to the sea, and the way to escape it is with a boat.” Ostensibly, the Meiri’s words make little sense. You escape the sea not by means of a boat, but with an amphibious raft which can make its way onto dry land.

The words of the Meiri, however, are precisely correct and exactly as they seem. It is impossible to escape and isolate ourselves from the negative influences in our world today. They exist in every corner of the globe. We cannot escape the raging waves of the sea. The best we can do is insulate ourselves. What we must therefore do is build a boat that is water tight and does not allow those negative influences to seep in.

What are these boats made of? As mentioned, Jewish communities which comprise of shuls, school, yeshivos, seminaries and places to learn and grow. But there is one problem. Most of us will not be spending our entire day in a shul or school or the like. How can we then temporarily leave these bastions of spiritual growth and step into our world yet still remain protected? To that, the Midrash states, “from here we derive that when leaving shul one should leave family by family.”

We can leave the mother ship and still remain safe if our life boats consist of our families. If our families maintain the same standards and values as the larger Jewish community and shuls, then we can still physically leave these places for the moment, yet stay spiritually afloat. If our homes and personal families are built upon the same fundamental values as reflected by our shuls and study halls, then we will continuously lead spiritual lives filled with Torah, holiness and connection to Hashem.

A Short Message From
Rabbi Eytan Feiner

When Rav Chaim Brisker applied for the position as the head of the yeshiva in Volozhin, amid his tryout drasha (lecture), he was posed with a question which challenged his entire premise. After listening to the question and thinking for a moment, he replied that he did not know the answer. And with that, he stopped speaking. When later asked about this, Rav Chaim remarked that he in fact had numerous answers to the question, yet he did not feel that they were one hundred percent honest answers. When this fact was discovered, he was told, “If you can admit to the truth like that, you should be taken as the head of the yeshiva.”

While admitting to the truth and our limitations may seem to oftentimes be the end of our career or other life endeavor, in truth, it may be just the beginning. It demonstrates our true special character and earns the respect and admiration of those we encounter.

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