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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Shemot

Parshat Shemot

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter

Shemot Newsletter
21st of Tevet, 5780 | January 18, 2020

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein
What is Yiddishkeit?

Some time ago, a girl from a religious, Orthodox family, who had received a strong Jewish education throughout elementary, middle and high school came to me. She had just returned from seminary, yet was clearly upset and disturbed. Something was clearly bothering her.

“I don’t want this anymore,” she said. “I am done. I don’t want to be religious!” I was startled and shaken up to hear such a confident and bold statement. Here was a girl who had gone through many years of a sound Jewish education and been immersed in a world of Torah and mitzvos, yet now wished to discard it all. What happened? But before she continued, I had one question to ask.

“Before you tell me why you don’t want this anymore, tell me what exactly you don’t want. You say that you don’t want to be religious, but what does ‘religious’ mean to you?”

“I can’t take all these rules,” she said. “There are just too many of them. I cannot live with all these rules!” I paused. “But Judaism is not rules,” I replied. She didn’t understand. “What do you mean? Judaism has 613 rules. And then there are Rabbinic rules too, and even more rules added on in addition to those. There are a lot of rules!”

“Let me answer you with a story,” I said. She leaned back in her seat, eager to hear what I had to say.

“When my daughter turned sixteen, she wanted to get her permit. Of course, before you can go to the DMV and wait in line for hours upon hours to take your actual driving test, you must study a book which details all the rules of driving. After my daughter got a hold of the book and began studying, I curiously took a look at it one day. And there I saw dozens of pages enumerating rule after rule relating to driving:

If your blinker doesn’t work, stick your hand out the window to signal; begin signaling one hundred feet before making a turn; be cognizant of incoming traffic; be familiar with signs for railroad crossing, flooding, yielding etc. etc.’ As I perused through the countless rules, I could not help but wonder why everyone is willing to drive if there are so many rules?

At this point, I turned to the girl and posed the question to her. “What do you think? What is driving about? What does it mean to drive?” She was a smart girl and knew what to respond. “Driving is about getting from point A to point B.” I paused, allowing her to hear her own words. “Exactly!” I exclaimed. “So tell me, if I would fill up an entire room of teenagers and ask them to translate the word ‘driving,’ why would no one respond, ‘Driving means yield, stop sign, red light, green light etc.’? No one would say that because that is not what driving is about. Driving is about traveling from one destination to another. And that is why, even though there are hundreds of driving rules, no one ever says, “I don’t want to drive because there are so many rules! I can’t handle needing to always keep to a speed limit, put my seat belt on, look at my side mirror and rear view mirror…”

No one ever says that because that does not define driving.
Furthermore, even when kids fail their driving test at one site, they go elsewhere to take it again and find an easier instructor. They’ll go from place to place to place, until they find that one instructor who can barely see and will say when they back up and actually hit the car behind them, ‘Good parking! Good parking!’ What happened? Why all of sudden, despite the difficulty and numerous rules involved, no one gives up driving? Why doesn’t anyone associate driving with all these rules?”
Good question.

“Let’s take a similar example,” I continued. You get on a plane and land on the other side of the country. After you deplane, your friend approaches you and asks, ‘How was your flight?’ ‘It was great!’ you say. ‘If I may ask,’ your friend continues, ‘what is flying about?” Well, it is about getting from point A to point B by means of traveling in the air.’

Now imagine the conversation progressing a slightly different way. ‘How was your flight?’ ‘Well, let me tell you. Flying is about rules – seatbelt, oxygen mask, luggage etc.”
This is not the way people view driving or flying. While both modes of travel require rules and guidelines, ultimately, the rules are only there for one’s safety. They do not define the essence of driving or flying.

“Judaism is the same way,” I explained. “It is about getting from one point to another. From the minute a person’s soul enters this world until it returns to Heaven, it is on a trip. Yet in order for the soul’s journey to be safe, it needs 613 safety regulations. But Yiddishkeit is not the rules. It is life itself. It is about our travel in this world.

“So,” I finished telling the girl, “when you say that you want to give up religion, you don’t mean Yiddishkeit. You mean the rules. But Yiddishkeit is not rules. It is life.”

She liked the answer. But she had a question.

“Rabbi, I get that. But, I still don’t understand one thing. The rules for driving and flying make sense. It is understandable to require a driver to slow down when approaching an intersection and for a passenger to wear a seatbelt on a plane. But how does the Jewish law of putting on your right shoe before your left shoe make any sense? And what is so important about not wearing wool and linen together? There are many ‘rules’ in Judaism which make no sense!”

“That’s a good question,” I said. “But now, let me tell you another story.

Nechama always dreamed of going to seminary. As a little girl growing up, she had heard of the fabulous and uplifting time so many girls had while spending a year learning in Israel. And then finally, the time arrived. Nechama was soon to graduate high school and she would have the opportunity of going to seminary herself.

But, as the only daughter in the family, her father was of course very attached to her. He loved her dearly and the idea of not seeing his daughter for an entire year was something he knew would be difficult. Aside from this, it was financially challenging to send her away. But Nechama only begged and begged her father to provide her with the opportunity of a lifetime.

Finally, he gave in. “I will let you go,” the father told Nechama, “but only on one condition. Every night before you go to sleep, I want you to light a tealight and say my name.” Nechama stood still, her eyebrows furrowing in confusion. “Dad, is everything okay?” “Don’t ask,” replied her father. “If you will agree to do this, I will gladly allow you to go.” Nechama agreed, not knowing how exactly such a nightly regimen would work out.

By the time Nechama landed, her mind had drifted to other, more immediate matters. But it wasn’t long before she opened her suitcase, and saw over two hundred tealights nicely arranged. The other girls in the room couldn’t help but wonder why she needed so many lights, though they didn’t inquire any further.

For the next few days, Nechama went about lighting a tealight every night and reciting her father’s name. Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night… Finally, her roommates could no longer bear the curiosity. “Nechama,” they all asked, gathering around together, “could we ask why you light a candle every night?” “To be honest,” Nechama replied, “I don’t know. My father said that if I wanted to attend seminary, I needed to do so, and I am just following his instructions.”

The year continued with Nechama carrying out her special practice every night without fail. Whether she spent the time in her room in seminary, or attended a guest’s home for Shabbos, her tealights accompanied her everywhere. It of course aroused the curiosity of those who observed her, but she managed her special routine with as much stride as she could.

As the year came to a close and Nechama returned home, she approached her father. “Dad,” she said, “I really appreciate you allowing me to attend seminary this year. It was wonderful. If I may ask, though, what was the story behind the tealights? Why did you want me to light them every night? People often thought something was wrong with both you and me!”

“I will tell you,” her father said. “I know you very well, and I know how busy you would get while in seminary. I realized that if I would ask you to call me every day, you would say, ‘Of course!’ and then arrive there and forget to do so. You would become absorbed in your learning and involved in your trips. And I respect that, and I wanted you to enjoy yourself and learn and grow. But, I told myself, I am not willing to go for an entire year and not have you think about me. So I came up with an idea. You would light a tealight every night and say my name, and in that way you would remember me every single day. Cleaning out last night’s candle and preparing a new one would force you to think about me. And that is all I wanted. I just wanted you to remember me.”

“This is all Hashem desires from us, His children,” I explained to the girl. “He knows full well that we have busy lives. We have our families to take care of and health and jobs to worry about. If Hashem would tell us, ‘My children, I want you to think of me every day,’ we would certainly give our word that we would do so. But then two days would go by and we would unexpectedly realize that we hadn’t thought of Him. So Hashem came up with a plan.

“I am not going to take you away from your day and ask you to think of Me. Rather, in your day and a part of your work, I am going to provide you with ways of remembering me. When you get dressed, before and after you eat, and as you work in the field and office, I am going to incorporate mitzvos which will remind you of Me. Whenever you get dressed, and place your right shoe on first or ensure your jacket is checked for shaatnez and does not contain wool and linen, you will remember Me.”
Hashem came up with 613 tealights encompassing every facet of our lives. Built into our daily schedule, we are constantly able to connect to Him. And as it relates to some of these tealights, there are those we don’t fully understand.

As I finished with my story, I clarified what the answer was to the girl. “Putting on your right shoe or not wearing shaatnez is not something we understand; so why are there such
commandments? Because when you think about this while getting dressed, you are connected to Hashem and your tealight is on. You will need to spend a moment remembering Him, and that is all He wants. G-d did not tell us to remember Him by fasting for forty days. He tells us to connect to Him during our very busy day of gathering in our crop from the field, preparing our food and before and after eating our meal. And although some things we know the reason behind and some things we don’t, at the very root of it all, all Hashem asks of us is to think about Him and stay connected to Him.”

The girl walked away from the conversation a changed person. She had learned the lesson she had missed out on for so many years. Yiddishkeit is not simply rules; it is life. And even more so, the many mitzvos we have, some of which don’t make sense, are there because they are our tealights. And when we light our tealight and remember our Father in Heaven, we connect to Him in the most intimate of ways. He sends us down to earth with 613 features and guidelines which are there to benefit our travel on earth and keep us safe, and all He wishes is that we remember Him during our travel. And when we in fact adhere to these beneficial guidelines and keep our beloved Father in mind, we will one day arrive home, happily and fully accomplished and truly appreciative of our beautiful and wonderful trip we so immensely enjoyed.

Rabbi Yehuda Stern
The Animal School

Once upon a time, a group of animals decided to do something heroic to meet the problems of a new world. And so, they decided to organize a school. After adopting a curriculum of running, climbing, swimming and flying, the school was ready to go. One important proviso was added, though, to make it easier to administer the curriculum: everyone needed to attend all the different classes.

That being the case, here’s how it went:

The duck was excellent in swimming, in fact better than his instructor, although he just barely received passing grades in flying and was poor in running. Considering his slow timing in running, he needed to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This schedule continued until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. His intense regimen of exercise and practice in order to become a better runner damaged his webbed feet, and now instead of being a great swimmer, he was only an average swimmer.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running. But he was forced to drop the running course because of so much make-up work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the tree-top down. He also developed charley horse from overexertion and then earned a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was viewed as a problematic child and was disciplined severely. Why? In the climbing class, he beat everyone else to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own, “quicker” way of getting there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceedingly well and also run, climb and fly had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dog stayed out of school because they would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum.

And so, the eel and prairie dog apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs to start a successful, private school.

This may seem like an odd anecdote, yet there is much truth underlying it. We all have certain abilities unique to us. Some of us are meant to run, some of us are meant to climb and some of us are meant to swim. But we are not all climbers, we are not all swimmers, and we are not all runners. Yet if the swimmer will spend too much time trying to run and the climber will spend too much time trying to swim, not only will the swimmer and climber not excel in that respective skill, but they will hold themselves back from progressing in their own area of expertise and passion, and no longer be as good in their own distinct area of strength.

Above all else, we must learn what our strengths are and learn to focus on them, instead of counterproductively struggling to become someone we are not. Be unapologetically yourself and develop your own beautiful strengths and capabilities to their maximum capacity. Because if you do, there’s nothing stopping you from becoming your absolute best and attaining your dreams.

Rabbanit Amit Yaghoubi
The Secret of the Worm

Throughout the one hundred and fifty Psalms of Tehillim composed by Dovid Hamelech, one verse is particularly striking. Dovid, describing himself, states, “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalms 22:7). Why does Dovid Hamelech choose to depict himself out of all things as a worm?

Anyone who has ever observed a worm has come across the intriguing reality that it is capable of penetrating its way through soil. Digging to the most subterranean levels of earth, the worm slowly makes it way downward. Even the most dense and solid dirt presents no challenge to the worm. Yet wherein lays this unbelievable strength?

Chazal (Mechilta, Beshalach 2) teach that the power of the worm lies in its mouth. Digging little by little deep into the earth, it maneuvers its way underground not by means of its strong body, but its mouth. In describing himself as a worm, Dovid Hamelech means to illustrate the same idea. A human being’s greatest capacity is his power of speech. With it, he can connect to Hashem through prayer and Torah study and change the lives of others by offering uplifting and encouraging words. A person’s mouth does no less than effect changes on himself and the world in wondrous ways.

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