This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Shemot (5761)
This week’s Torah Portion section talks about the Exile of the Jews in Egypt and it is filled with questions from the beginning to the end.
Here are a few:
First, what has the title ‘Shmot’, which means ‘Names’, got to do with ‘exile’ the topic of this Portion?
Secondly… Why did G-d put the Jews into Egypt for 210 years of torture and slavery for no apparent reason! Certainly Almighty G-d, could have accomplished what He wanted without all that Jewish suffering.
Thirdly … One of the highlights of the entire Torah (found in our section) is when G-d personally appears in the burning bush (‘Sneh’) (3:2). It is here that Moshe receives what is probably the most historically important message of all time; “I am going to take the Jews from bondage.”(3:8-10).
Why wasn’t such a monumental message given from a mountain of fire, or an ocean of blinding light! Why a ‘Sneh’? A Sneh is a type of bush that doesn’t even have berries! What is the King of the Universe doing in a place like that??!
Finally; in the very end of our section Moshe follows G-d’s orders and convinces the Jews that the exile is over and he is going to lead them to freedom … but instead of freedom the bondage actually so bad that Moshe complains to G-d’ “Why are you torturing these people, why did you send me? Things are only getting worse!” (5:22,23)
What was the point?
To help answer all these questions, here is a story:
Shlomi and Mendel (not real names) had been friends from youth. They went to Cheder and Yeshiva (elementary and advanced Torah school) together, entered into business together and now succeeded and became millionaires together.
Their success had been dizzying. Till just five years ago they had been sitting in Yeshiva learning Talmud all day and had never left Jewish quarter of Minsk and now they were international entrepreneurs.
They were so busy making money that neither had time to get married. And then there was the problem of religion.
It seems that as they rose to riches they jettisoned not only their social and economic pasts but their Jewish ones also. Travel had ‘opened their eyes’ to the colorful cities and free lifestyles of Berlin, Paris and Vienna and the black and white pages of the Torah were dull in comparison.
Most important, they were on the move. In fact at that moment they were in a carriage traveling to Minsk for an important business deal. They had made good time today, the weather was beautiful and their spirits were high.
As the sun was setting, because in those days, over two hundred years ago, night travel was impossible, they stopped in a village on the way and entered an inn in order to have a meal and a good night’s sleep.
The small dining room was empty when they entered but there soon appeared the innkeeper, a rather large friendly old man who greeted them with a smile, showed them to a table and asked them warmly what they would like to eat.
When they requested a menu he stared at them deeply for a few seconds and asked in a pleasant tone, “Excuse me, but are you gentlemen Jewish?” They smiled and looked at each other briefly with raised eyebrows’ and replied, “The fact is that we happen to be Jewish, but what difference does it make?”
“Well” answered the innkeeper “I can bring you kosher food, that’s what you call it isn’t it, ‘kosher’? Well I can get you some; it will just take a few minutes longer, maybe a half hour. Do you want to wait?”
They looked again at one another gave a sigh of sarcasm and answered with a chuckle, motioning with their hands as if to say ‘don’t make a big deal out of it’, “No, no, just bring us some good meat and wine. Don’t worry about the price, just make it the best you have.”
“Fine,” the innkeeper replied, “just wait here for a few minutes, and I’ll be right back with some wine. Enjoy yourselves while I prepare the meat. It will take another few minutes.” And the old man left the room. They sat back and lit up cigarettes, blowing smoke rings in the air and talking business.
Suddenly the door burst open and the innkeeper entered like a wild animal, his face red as a beet with fury and an insane murderous look in his eyes. His sleeve was rolled up baring a muscular arm and in his upraised hand he held …. a huge razor-sharp hatchet.
“You are going to die!!” he screamed, “You are both dead men!! I am a robber and a murderer, and you two fat Jews are just what I’ve been waiting for!! Put your hands on the table and don’t move. THAT’S IT put ‘em on the table fast! One move and I start chopping!” He raised the hatchet even more menacingly, as though any instant he would bring it sweeping down upon them.
“NO!!! NO!!” They screamed, weeping, hands glued to the table, petrified with fear. “NO!!! Please, OH G-d PLEASE NO!!! Take our money! We won’t tell. Oh G-d….. have mercy!!!”
“AAAHH” Said the innkeeper “You Jews like to pray ehh? You don’t look the type, do you!! Well, you know what? If you want to pray I’m giving you a few more minutes. Get up! Hands on your heads!” By this time his son entered the room, frisked them both to see if they perhaps had a weapon, and pushed them into a small bedroom on the first floor. “You have five minutes. The window is boarded in and there’s nothing in the closets so don’t think you can save yourselves. Three minutes!!!”
As soon as the bedroom door closed the two men fell to the ground and began weeping to G-d for forgiveness. What good was their money now, or the plays and operas they had attended or the ‘connections’ they made? Every moment they had wasted on that foolishness returned and burned like poisonous needles in their hearts. All they wanted to do was to clean their sinful souls before …. the end. They tried to remember prayers from the siddur (prayer book) they were sobbing, begging and promising they would do ANYTHING if G-d would just save their lives.
Ten minutes later the door opened gently and the innkeeper stood with a kind smile on his face. The hatchet was gone and he even bent over to help them to their feet.
“I wasn’t really going to kill you” he said apologetically, “G-d forbid, I’m not a murderer or even a thief. Are you both all right? Sorry that I scared you, but I had to do it.” He was brushing them off. They couldn’t believe their eyes, was it a miracle? Or maybe a dream?
“Let me explain, come sit back down here at the table and I’ll explain.” The innkeeper escorted them back to the table, brushed them off a bit, sat opposite them and continued.
“About twenty years ago in the middle of winter, near the end of the war with Napoleon, there arrived at my inn here a whole group of about 30 Jews in carriages. Not Jews like you, real ones, religious Jews with beards. And they tell me that their Rabbi is in one of the carriages sick and needs a place to sleep. I didn’t really want to give them a place, but I went out and took a look at their sick Rabbi.
“Well, I want to tell you that I never saw anything so pure and Holy in my life, it made me feel like a little baby and I almost started crying.
“I told them that I would give the Rabbi a place if he promised me three things. First, that my oldest son not get drafted into the army, second that I live a long healthy life, and third that my inn should succeed. So far I’ve received all three; my son who was healthy like a bull, got thrown out of the draft office the minute he stepped in, I’m over eighty years old and have never been ill, and my inn has been very successful.
“Anyway, the Holy man promised and I let him in. After short time he passed away and was buried nearby in the town of Haditch. But before he died he requested from me that if ever two Jews enter and refuse to eat Kosher food I should frighten them and threaten them even with death, but G-d forbid not to harm them. And you are the first Jews since then that fit that description”
Our two heroes were so affected by the story that they traveled to Haditch and discovered that the Holy man was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya and first Rebbe of Chabad. (The 200th anniversary of his passing; the 24th of Teves is this coming Sunday Jan. 6). They prayed and wept at his grave, then traveled to Lubavitch to the Rebbe’s successor, at that time Rebbe Menachem Mendel, and completely returned to Judaism.
The point of the story is that these two men had to suffer, humble themselves and connect to the Rebbe in order that the Judaism hidden within them should awaken and manifest itself physically.
Just like reviving an unconscious man by calling his name.
And that is why this Parsha is called ‘Names’. A name can awaken one’s inner being to return to physical consciousness.
The purpose of the Egyptian exile was to awaken the Jews, like a ‘name’ and like the two businessmen in our story; to teach them humility, attach them to Moshe and prepare them to receive the Torah in order to make this world a G-dly place. (Until the giving of the Torah, except for circumcision, the Jews had no physical commandments).
That is the purpose of the Jewish people, and the theme of this entire chapter and the entire book ‘Names’; to bring the will of G-d into the physical world.
(That is why Moshe at the burning bush asked G-d for His Name; Moshe’s job was to show the Jews how to link the hidden to the revealed.) That is why G-d revealed Himself in a burning bush.
Moshe’s main feature was wisdom and his greatness was the Torah.
Therefore G-d showed him that the place where the real fire of Judaism and holiness is really found is in the simple, humble people. The ones that, like the ‘Sneh’, have no fruit; they aren’t geniuses, popular or powerful … all they have is HaShem. In other words; although the Torah is the heart, soul and backbone of the Jewish people, the essence of Judaism is simplicity.
But the last question is the most difficult. Why didn’t HaShem release the Jews immediately when Moshe announced that the time has come? Why did things get worse?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us that we must ask ourselves that same question several times every day.
The Talmud taught us that Moshiach is LONG overdue (San. 98) and the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that the Moshiach has arrived; the redemption is beginning!
So why doesn’t HaShem release us immediately, why must the Jewish people and the rest of the world have to suffer ????
The answer is that it all depends on us; one more good deed, word or even thought can tip the scales and certainly bring………
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