Parah Adumah – It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-zt”l

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you: … just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cow: This is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3

מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

In Torah literature the Parah Adumah is known as THE Chukas haTorah, THE (most) irrational mitzvah of the Torah (preceded with the definite article.)  In a broad sense the entire body of Torah law covering the rules of purity and impurity contains only chukim-irrational mitzvos.  After all, the states of ritual purity or impurity rise above sensory perception.  We can neither see taharah-purity nor smell tumah-impurity.  Similarly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason when trying to connect the dots between cause and effect in either tumah or taharah or in endeavoring to understand their various levels.  But what makes the Parah Adumah a category of chok unto itself is the conundrum of it being a factor causing both tumah and taharah.  Those who prepare and handle it contract a low level of tumah while those who were sprayed with the mei chataas regain a state of purity after being in the thrall of the most powerful and fundamental form of tumah.

Tumah is identified with sin while having attained atonement and rapprochement is associated with taharah.  As such, the conflicted nature of the Parah Adumah serves as a metaphor for the convergence of sin and repentance; of merit and the demerits; of kilkul-spiritual ruination, and tikkun– it’s repair and restoration. The Parah Adumah itself is seen as atoning for the greatest of all sins; the Golden Calf.  It is the mother that comes to clean up the mess that her baby left in the king’s palace.

While the Calf is the “child” and the Red Heifer the “parent” oddly enough, in this case, it is the child that gives birth to the parent.  Absent the Golden Calf there would never have been a Red Heifer. The Biskovitzer maintains that the message of the Parah Adumah is that Jewish sins even the most catastrophic an egregious of Jewish sins; are not all bad.  A weed cannot produce a tasty apple.  If we were to see a delicious apple hanging from a noxious weed we would be forced to conclude that there’s more to this weed than meets the eye.  While it may look and smell like a weed, it must contain some genetic material capable of producing such delicious and nourishing fruit.

If ever there was a sin, a metaphysical weed that looked “all bad” it was the Golden Calf.  Yet when considered on a deeper level it was motivated by something virtuous. K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish People wanted (a) god to lead them.  Ultimately HaShem agreed to this and said “and they should make a sanctuary for me and I will cause my Divine Indwelling to be among them.” (Shemos 25:8) And when they besieged Ahron to become their agent to serve/ worship and to build the altar this too remained as a permanent fixture in the Divine service of HaShem, as Ahron became the Kohen Gadol.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, when listing many examples of spiritual/metaphysical darkness that are the necessary prerequisites to the light that follows, goes so far as to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was the primary cause of the construction of the Mishkan and that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was the primary cause of the Mishkan’s holiness.  Still, the Lubliner Kohen pointedly reminds us that, while the light is contained in the darkness and that spiritual purity and sanctity are present in potentia in every Jewish sin, that sin nevertheless remains, well, sinful … and something to be ashamed of. (cp Taanis 11A Tosafos D”H Amar Shmuel). Otherwise, why would it be prohibited to remind those Ba’alei Teshuvah-masters of repentance, who were motivated to repent by the love of HaShem, of their earlier misdeeds?  While we know that repentance motivated by such love has the power to transform premeditated, and even malicious, sins into zechuyos, merits/ mitzvos, there is nonetheless something untoward and unseemly about the original acts which still appear as sins in the historical record.

This explains Ahron’s reticence and sense of shame and apprehension when he first approached the altar to do the Divine service.  Ahron had done absolutely nothing and exerted no efforts to attain the Office of Kohen Gadol.  On the contrary, his culpability in the sin of the Golden Calf would have seemed to torpedo any chances that he had to serve in the Mishkan.  The halachah states that a Kohen who worshipped idols is disqualified from serving again as a Kohen to HaShem, even after returning to the fold and repenting. How much more so for the “enabler” of this foulest idolatry of the Jewish People? It was only his profound sense of shame over his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and his feelings of unbridgeable distance and alienation from HaShem that, paradoxically, brought him closer to HaShem than anyone else. To paraphrase the paytan-liturgical poet, of the Parshas Parah yotzer vis-à-vis Ahron;  HaShem brought forth the premier servant from the most mutinous rebel.

The Biskovitzer concludes that while ritual purification from contact with the dead is required in order to consume any of the korbanos we read Parshas Parah before Pesach because they convey the identical message.  During the Exodus from Egypt the ministering angels “challenged” HaShem’s salvation of the Jews and simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians by saying; “these and those are both idolaters.”  Yet, during the night of the slaying of the firstborn, HaShem “passed over.” He, kivyachol-as it were, leapfrogged from one Egyptian occupied home to the other while leaving the Jews occupying the homes in the middle, unscathed.  On a level so profound, deep and imperceivable that even the angels could not grasp it, there was, indeed, a difference between Jewish idolatry, and the concomitant descent into the 49 gates of impurity, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.  While both Egyptians and Jews worshipped idols, the Jews had suffered terribly for k’vod Shamayim-for god’s greater Glory.  Jewish idolatry was not all bad, somehow the purity and sanctity of Mattan Torah-the revelation at Sinai inhered in the degradation, defilement and, yes, even in the idolatry of the Jewish slavery experience in Egypt.

~adapted from Neos Desheh Parshas Parah
Takanas HaShavin 5 page 21
Resisei Laylah 24 pages 3031

This post is An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

Rav Uri Zohar’s Gift

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Rav Uri Zohar ztz”l, who passed away last week, arguably had a greater impact on the Jews in Israel than anyone else in the last fifty years. When he first appeared on the talk show he hosted in 1977 wearing a kippah, the audience and all those watching at home did not know whether to treat it as part of a skit or real. Until then, he had personified the Ashkenazi secular elite that dominated the country in its first three decades.

His move toward a Torah life made teshuvah a real possibility for every single Jew in Israel: If the Torah could win over Uri Zohar, how could anyone feel safe? Amnon Dankner, who would later become editor of Maariv, wrote at that time of hearing of another old friend entering Ohr Somayach every week, and described himself as like an “apple swaying on a tree,” not knowing which way he would fall.

Uri Zohar’s “conversion” simultaneously infused the still small (by today’s standards) Torah community with newfound confidence. Nothing could explain Zohar’s sudden shift other than his conviction of the truth of Torah, for in choosing a Torah life, he put his marriage at grave risk, and sacrificed the material success and fame he had achieved.

My life twice intersected with Rabbi Zohar’s. I was privileged to adapt into English (as a junior partner to Rabbi Doniel Baron) his pamphlet on dealing with struggling children: Breakthrough: How to Reach Our Struggling Kids (Feldheim 2016). I reread it after his passing, and remain convinced that it is required reading for every Jewish parent.

His advice on building a loving relationship, based on open lines of communication, with each child long before they reach their teenage years is invaluable. That means creating time to speak — and much more important, listen — to each child every day. Be careful not to respond with pre-packaged Mussar lessons, lest our children learn that there are subjects it does not pay to discuss with their parents. And don’t live vicariously through your children. “What score did you get on the test?” should not be our most frequently asked question.

Rabbi Zohar wrote about struggling teens from much personal experience with his own children, and of their eventual reconnection to Hashem. The resulting sefer is at once filled with common sense and based on deep Torah insights. (He was a serious talmid chacham, with particular command of the esoteric writings of the Vilna Gaon, Maharal, and Ramchal.) The writing is clear, logical, compassionate, and succinct. The sefer can be read easily in under three hours.

A child’s religious struggles strike parents at their most vulnerable points: their aspirations for their children and their self-image. And consequently, they trigger a host of negative emotions — shame, guilt, fear, and anger — which make it difficult to think clearly, at precisely the moment when thinking clearly is most needed.

Most parents, for instance, recognize that confrontation and denigrating comments are not the likeliest tools to bring their children back. After all, they smile and try to engage their neighbor’s off-the-derech child in friendly conversation. But with their own children….

Rav Zohar showed parents how to remove themselves from the equation in order to focus on helping their child. Rule one: Don’t worry about the opinions of your neighbors. Rule two: Avoid all reactions “cultivated by institutionalized religion, but which do not necessarily reflect true Torah values.” If we obsess, for instance, over a child’s jeans or hairstyle, we may end up driving away not only the legs wearing those jeans, but the heart and head attached to those legs as well.

Some degree of teenage rebellion is almost inevitable, Rav Zohar noted, as a teenager finds himself overcome by powerful emotions and drives with which he or she has had no previous experience. Those drives go with physical maturation, and that physical maturation usually precedes the emotional maturation necessary for a teenager to regain control.

That means there is often nothing that a parent can do other than exercise patience, waiting for emotional maturation to catch up, while maintaining the lines of communication and showing one’s continuing love for one’s struggling child. Expressions of love will not be experienced by teenagers as condonation for their actions; they know very well how their parents conduct their lives and their values.

Rather parental love conveys the message that the Torah does not reject him, and that Hashem awaits his return, just as we pray every year on Yom Kippur that He show patience with us in mending our faults and failures. Exercising patience means that what we don’t say or don’t do is often more important than what we do or say.

Everyone requires a measure of kavod, respect, and none more so that struggling teenagers. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 85a) records how Rebbi brought back the wayward son of Rabi Elazar and the grandson of Rabi Tarfon. In the former case, he began by conferring semichah on the young man, and in the latter’s case by offering his daughter in marriage if he did teshuvah.

Rabbi Zohar’s central metaphor for the role of parents in dealing with struggling children is a midrash (Midrash Rabbah Shemos 46:1). The Midrash relates that when Moshe saw the dancing around the Golden Calf, he realized he could either retain the Luchos, and the people would cease to exist, for they were no longer capable of receiving the level of kedushah contained in the Luchos, or he could break them. Even though the Second Luchos possessed far less kedushah, only they are referred to as tov, for only they were suitable to the spiritual level of the people. (See Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 35.)

Similarly, writes Rabbi Zohar, parents must transmit Torah to their children according to their current level. “We need to shatter our own norms, abrogate our ‘nonnegotiable’ principles…. We cannot be fettered by social convention or any other social convention as we focus on how we can effectively give over Torah to our children.”

My second opportunity to interact with Rav Uri came while interviewing him for my biography of Rav Noach Weinberg. Even before Rav Uri and his wife became fully observant, Rav Noach and his wife Denah went to visit them at their seaside villa. Subsequently, Rav Noach took on the support of a kollel, which included a number of highly motivated and talented baalei teshuvah, headed by Rabbi Avraham Mendelsohn, the son-in-law of Rav Yitzchak Shlomo Zilberman. Rav Zilberman was the primary religious influence on Rav Uri’s close friend Ari Yitzchak, and subsequently on Rav Uri himself.

Rabbi Zohar joined that kollel when he moved to Jerusalem, and learned in it for over a decade. His presence was one of the major reasons for Rav Noach’s ongoing support of the kollel in the Old City. During that period, the two became very close, though they also argued frequently. Rav Noach constantly pushed Rav Uri to become actively engaged in kiruv, while the latter considered Rav Noach’s vision of returning the entire Jewish People to Torah to be detached from reality and felt that he could have a greater impact through the power of his learning.

Not until 1992, after 15 years of nonstop learning, did Rabbi Zohar agree to make five public appearances on behalf of the new Lev L’achim organization, each of which drew huge crowds. That reemergence — but now as a full-fledged talmid chacham — was of great satisfaction to Rav Noach, and he raised very large sums for Lev L’achim.

My clearest memory of that interview is Rabbi Zohar’s lament that the Torah community is filled with many who have no doubt of Hashem’s existence, but who view Hashem as “out to get them.” They do not feel that Hashem’s greatest desire is their good. That lament could have been taken straight from Rav Noach, who always made Hashem’s ahavah rabbah the focal point of his teaching.

At some point in the interview, Rav Uri must have noticed my amazement at the tiny size of his apartment. He told me laughingly that he was downsizing in preparation for an even more confined space. His body is now there. But his great soul is free to soar unfettered.

Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine – 6/15/2022

Amazing BTs – Chasidic Freedom Fighter Asher Yoseph Cherkassy.

For over two years the media have been reporting on a bloody war going on between Russia and Ukraine. The scenes are often grisly and violent. But amid the thundering tanks and artillery inflicting death on both sides, a surprising figure emerges: a Jewish man, a Lubavitcher chasid, complete with a long beard and twinkling eyes. He is praying Shacharis, enwrapped in tallis and tefillin, and smiles for the camera.

“I received a Communist education, not a religious one. For many years I didn’t know what Judaism was or how to observe the mitzvot or holidays,” he tells me. Cherkassky, who is tall and sturdy, worked as a laborer doing renovations. In the 1990s he served in the Russian Army. “I was in the army for several years. I learned how to fight and how to operate weapons. That was also the time when the Russian Army was fighting in Chechnya. I learned a lot.” Today, he uses the knowledge he learned from the Russians…against the Russians. Familiar with the Russian Army’s strengths and weaknesses, he takes advantage of that knowledge.

It was during those years that Cherkassky discovered Judaism and belief in God. “My father, with whom I was very close, was seriously ill. He was admitted to the hospital, but the treatments didn’t help him. The disease progressed and the doctors gave up. It was then that I realized that no one could help us except for the One Above; everything depends on Him. I went to the synagogue and learned how to pray. I asked God to heal my father. After discovering the power of prayer I made a commitment to increase my observance and to uphold the Torah and Jewish law. I began studying Judaism in depth and started to keep Shabbos and kosher and accepted all of the mitzvot. Eventually, after being sick for a very long time, my father passed away, and he was given a Jewish burial. He has now gone to the Next World, but in his merit I have continued to grow stronger.”

After living elsewhere for a time Cherkassky returned to Feodosia, got married and had two children. He became a leader of the small local Jewish community. Then, around two years ago, riots broke out in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and pro-Western rebels took control of the government. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had supported Russian President Vladimir Putin, was removed from power. Yanukovych fled to Donetsk, a pro-Russian stronghold in the far eastern region of Ukraine, and everyone thought the crisis was over; Ukraine would move politically closer to the West. But Putin had other plans. “Now we have to start working on the return of Crimea to Russia,” he declared at the time.

Read the whole story about Asher Yoseph Cherkassy, the Chasidic Freedom Fighter

Keys to BT Success from a Shabbos in Monsey

I had the pleasure of spending some time this Shabbos with two Beyond BT contributors. Rabbi Label Lam was my host and he davens on Shabbos morning at a Shtiebel where he and Yaakov Astor alternate giving the weekly Shabbos drasha. Yaakov’s drasha this week included recounting some fascinating Torah lessons he taught on his recent trip as a tour guide through Poland.

The area of Monsey that they live in observes a high level of halachic stringency, which can presents challenges for a BT. Yet, both Yaakov and Rabbi Lam have thrived there. I think there are three factors which contribute to their success.

The first factor is that they have accepted the norms of the community. It’s easy to find fault in any community, and our ego makes it easy to fall into that trap. However, publicly following the norms shows respect for the residents, which makes a lot of sense if you want to live and grow there. Most communities allow for some room for deviations from the norm in the privacy of your home.

The second is that they connect with their neighbors. Connecting to others is a major determinant of happiness and success. The demographics in Monsey have become increasingly Chassidish due to a large migration of Yeshivish families to Lakewood. Although neither Yaakov nor Rabbi Lam are Chassidish, they do connect with the commonalities they have with their neighbors. They pray together in the same Shuls, they learn Torah, and they are focused on connecting to Hashem. These are major commonalities and a strong basis for friendship and connection.

Thirdly, they are continually growing in Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chassadim. This is perhaps the most important factor. In my many years as an observer of BTs, continued growth in these three area is the number one determinant for success – by far.

These keys to BT Success are in fact universal and are highly recommended, wherever you may reside.

A Powerful Middos Enhancer – Skip Step Two

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Mishpacha readers could be forgiven for concluding that most of my time on trips to America is spent sponging rides from anyone who expresses so much as a word of appreciation for any column I have ever written. Yet what I inevitably gain from those rides is much more valuable than the cab fare I save.

Recently, I was met at the Denver airport by Mrs. Aliza Bulow, a writer, speaker, and educator, whose work I had admired from afar. She had expressed an interest in speaking to me while I was in Denver, and it turned out that she would be dropping off her daughter at the airport just as I would be exiting the baggage claim area.

As it happened, I preceded Mrs. Bulow. She did not arrive at the airport until half an hour before her daughter’s flight. By that time, there was no hope of her daughter returning to Detroit with the suitcase she had brought. “I’ll pick it up at Pesach,” she told her mother matter-of-factly. Meanwhile, there was still the matter of getting through security control with two children in strollers with just half an hour before flight time.

Clearly, she would have to rely on the kindness of many strangers to do so. (She did make the flight.)
I remarked to Mrs. Bulow that both she and her daughter had seemed preternaturally calm about a situation that would have tested my nerves to the breaking point.

In response, she told me that she has a rule in her family called “Skip step two.”

My ears picked up in anticipation of learning the magic formula for never losing your cool. She explained that in most situations that try us, first comes the triggering event — e.g., a dentist appointment that goes way overtime when you have to make it to the airport. Then you lose yourself in either panic or anger. Finally, you realize that you have to deal with the new situation one way or the other. Since you are going to have to deal with the situation eventually, why not just skip step two?

Mrs. Bulow gave me another example of “skipping step two” from the same daughter’s year in seminary in Israel. She and her roommates had been instructed that their closets were old and not overly stable and should not be moved. Nevertheless the roommates decided to rearrange all the beds in the room, which entailed moving the closets as well. Sure enough, the closet of Mrs. Bulow’s daughter collapsed and all her clothes were strewn around the room.

When her roommates came to tell her what had happened, she just went upstairs and put her stuff back. “Aren’t you even angry?” they asked.

“How would that help me?” she replied, without breaking stride.

Don’t we all waste a lot of time and energy losing our cool over things we are going to have to deal with anyway? Why not just skip step two?

Originally published in Mishpacha.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – Perhaps the Most Amazing BT of Our Time

As part of NCSY’s 60 year anniversary celebration, Rabbi Ari Kahn has penned, An Appreciation Of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan + Video.

The video is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan & Dr. Russell Barber discuss Jewish Mysticism on The First Estate broadcast on WNBC-TV channel 4 in 1979.

The audio of the discussion above can be found at

Here is an exceprt from Rabbi Kahn’s article:

“In a sense, Rabbi Kaplan may be seen as the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzato) of the 20th century. Like the great Italian scholar, Rabbi Kaplan’s writings are straightforward and clear, yet profound, with Kabbalistic doctrine always just beneath the surface. However, whereas the Ramchal was born into an aristocratic Jewish family and received the best education available, Aryeh Kaplan did not. His Jewish education did not begin until after his thirteenth birthday, when he was already recognized as a prodigy in the sciences.

As a young adult, he pondered, questioned and studied. Those who knew him in his teens recall a brilliant scholar—and a “hevreman” who had a twinkle in his eye. Despite his late start in Jewish learning, he quickly closed the gap with his better-educated peers and soon outpaced most of them. Eventually, he travelled to Israel, where he studied with and was ordained by the leading rabbis. He was, all agreed, destined for greatness as a rabbi and scholar.

But in a sense, he was always an outsider—and this became a defining element of his greatest achievements. Because he was raised in a non-observant home, he knew how to speak to young people who were searching; he, too, had searched. Although he eventually attended the most prestigious yeshivot, his early experiences equipped him to communicate and identify with teens and adults who came from backgrounds like his own.”

Here is Rabbi Kaplan’s wikipedia entry.

Lot’s of articles from his books on Aish.

Books of his on Amazon.

If You Can’t Stand the Light, Get Out of the Vision

Bo5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “

-Shemos 11:4,5

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.  

-Shemos 12:13

G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.

-Shemos 12:23

There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues.   During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood.  The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings.  The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities.  No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.

These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation.  Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man.  Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.

In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:

1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4.  How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)

Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.

Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire.  After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst.  Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch.  This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light.  An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).

The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos– levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:

Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).

This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light.  In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.

But before Matan Torah– the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered.  Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense.  On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.

As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped.  For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”.  As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.

Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked.  All the other nations lacked this capacity.  When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.

The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh.  On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos.  Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light.  As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.

Adapted from Resisei Laylah 58 pp 172174
See also Mei Hashiloach II Bo D”H Vayomer (the first such D”H)


Ms. Reva Esther Robin a”h and the Power of a Mitzvah

On August 25th, 2010, the memorial service for Reva Esther Robin who was killed in a fatal car accident in New Hampshire on 14 Elul 5770 was held. Today is her Yahrzeit

Reva Esther was known for her chesed and in the last few years of her life, she dedicated herself to help people who passed away and did not have frum relatives to properly take care of their burials and perform zechuyos (merits) such as saying kaddish. She often used her own money for this purpose as well as for the mitzvah of obtaining a burial plot for those who otherwise would not have one. In one case she saved a father and son who died on the same day from cremation by convincing the family to arrange a Jewish burial.

At the service, Rabbi Herschel Welcher told of all the amazing things that happened after she died that allowed her to be buried on the day after she passed away in the absence of her closest relatives being available to make the arrangements. Rabbi Matis Blum also discussed that because she was often consulting Rabbis with her questions regarding these mitzvos her phone book was found and the Rabbis were contacted immediately after her passing.

Rabbi Tzvi Hebel from Lakewood, the author of a sefer called “The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah,” also spoke as this was the sefer that inspired Reva Esther a”h to start a Gemach for the purpose of doing mitzvos in memory of deceased individuals who did not have frum family.

Reva Esther was one of those amazing Baalei Teshuva who accomplished so much in her lifetime. She knew what it was like to have a small support network and she focused her chessed on helping Neshamos who had no one to support them after their passing.

The Aliyah Neshama Gemach has been set up in her name for people who do not have any family to honor their memory. The gemach will take on zechusim (merits) to elevate the neshama.

If you know of someone who needs their efforts please email with the deceased’s Hebrew name, father’s name and yahrtzeit date. If you would like to volunteer, seen an email to You can make a tax deductible contribution to Congregation Ahavas Yisroel, and write in the memo, Fund for Reva Esther A”H. Checks can be mailed to Congregation Ahavas Yisroel, PO Box 670503, Station C, Kew Gardens Hills, NY 11367.

The memorial service for this amazing woman can be downloaded here.

Matisyahu and His Fame Filled BT Path

Matisyahu has an interesting interview on Aish. They have a strange disclaimer at the beginning of the article where they state that they don’t endorse everything Matisyahu says and does. I never thought that they endorsed everything any writer or interview subject says or does.

In answer to the question “Can we set the record straight: Are you still a religiously observant Jew?”, Matisyahu responds:

I don’t really know what the word “religious” means. I believe deeply in God, and if we mean that Torah and Mitzvahs are our guide for the journey, then yes some will call me “religiously observant,” but others will see the external changes I’ve made and say that I am not. Perhaps labels based on these types of externalities are too simplistic, or just convenient. I certainly understand that my position in popular culture lent value to those external elements. My recent changes are part of my own journey, and are not a rejection of the inspiration that gave people.

I am still committed to Judaism, to seeking truth through halacha and observance. I find a tremendous amount of inspiration and truth within Torah and Judaism, but I had taken on certain minhagim, customs, and stringencies that became habit – either because at one point I had connected to them, or simply because I had been convinced that “religious” Judaism had to look a certain way. Over time some of these external aspects, like the beard, had become deadening and oppressive for me. I had to take a step back.

So it seems that Matisyahu is still observant but unfortunately he made a typical BT mistake of going too fast. Shaving off your beard would certainly be considered normative in the Beyond BT universe and in the Aishosphere. And there are occasions, especially in regards to earning a living where the halacha would allow the removal of a yarmulka. In fact Ron Coleman wrote a post about not wearing a Yarmulka at work a few months ago.

Let’s give Matisyahu a collective Brocha that he should continue in his growth in Torah and mitzvos, and successfully meet the challenges that continued fame will bring. Enjoy the Aish article and enjoy the music.

In the News: Matisyahu’s tzitzits

Reposted from Loose Ends – Ben Garson’s Tallis and Tzitzit blog

Outside of the tallit and tzitzit business, it seems the term “tallit katan” is most commonly found on the Web to describe frum stage performers, especially Matisyahu. Here’s a typical example, taken from the The Taos News:

Not only does the [Taos Mountain Music Festival] include everything from folk to mariachi, it also features artists who stretch the boundaries within their chosen musical styles.

Reggae artist Matisyahu has made waves around the world for melding Jewish themes with reggae and beat-box rhythms. His song “King Without a Crown” was a Top 40 hit on music charts in the United States, selling over 700,000 copies to date.

Playing with his Brooklyn-based band, Dub Trio, Matisyahu’s unique sound has been elevated to even greater heights. An Orthodox Jew who has garnered international attention for his uplifting, youthful and heartfelt approach to music, Matisyahu’s performances break down barriers, and open doors. He is certainly one of few, if not the only, American rock star to dive off a stage with a tallit katan — a fringed garment traditionally worn by religious Jewish men.

A similar article recently in Local iQ also noted Matisyahu’s tzitzit, though it sounds like the writer is not very familiar with the terminology (unlike the above article, which was written by a reporter with the last name of Kramer, which might explain why she got it right).

“Judaism isn’t just a religion,” asserted Matisyahu, “It’s a lifestyle.” Onstage and off, he wears the tallit [sic, tallit katan] and payot (Jewish prayer shawl [sic] and side curls) of Hasidic orthodoxy. With his wife, Tahlia, and their three children, he is a longtime resident of the Orthodox Jewish district of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

Written All Over Him

Oh, to be a squeaky-clean Ivy League “BT.”

Oh, you have your “wild” times — beer pong! woo-hoo! — find religion, clean up your act a little, snag a nice job in an investment bank or law firm after a couple of years in Israel learning Rashi script, and you can be very pleased with yourself and your perfect little route to repentance and, well, perfection, right? Special attention in yeshiva — quick acceptance, a better dorm room, special tutoring. You’re a poster boy for the “movement.” Eventually you end up in the video for your yeshiva’s college kiruv program, and they shoot your segment from your office overlooking Central Park, and you are proof to all the world of how a “normal,” “accomplished” person can become a religious Jew . . .

Meanwhile you still even send in cleverly-phrased updates to the alumni magazine. Still all those valuable contacts, after all — it’s a parnassah [earning a living] thing, believe me, you don’t hold of it at all . . .

You think I think there’s something wrong with that? It’s not a bad life. On the contrary, it’s a very fortunate life. E-Z teshuvah for the all-’round high achiever.

There are grittier stories, though. Harder climbs. Less celebrated ones. And while we all say we must never stop climbing, there are some whose uphill journey never reaches a suitable-for-framing plateau. You know, where you can just drop off your pack, take in the view, maybe even turn your BlackBerry around and take your own picture from up there to send to your friends when you get back to where the signal kicks in.

Many of the baalei teshuva who take these ascents aren’t the write-this-up-for-a-blog types. But being a poster boy means sometimes looking beyond your own marvelous reflection, right?

Doing so can be quite beneficial. Purifying, even. (Humbling? Well, now, let’s not push it. Still . . .)

So, there’s a powerfully touching story about the Satmar Rav. I have seen it written that it took place upon his taking leave of Eretz Yisroel, where he lived briefly after the War, or after one of his extended visits there, but the story essentially is this:

One of his devoted chasidim asked him, “Once you who leave, who can we take a kvitel to?” [A kvitel is a letter or note requesting that a tzaddik seek Divine intervention on behalf of a petitioner.] The Rav replied, “Anywhere you see a man with a number tattooed on his arm putting on tefillin — that is someone you can bring a kvitel to!”

This always compelled me, in many ways, but the beauty of this story is often lost in retellings of it.

What the Satmar Rav was saying was not that a person who survived the Holocaust takes on saintly status. Rather, it is that such a person who still puts on tefillin — which are nothing but an os, a symbolic affirmation, of faith — is a saint. For whose emunah [belief] has been proved more than that of such a person?

The Satmar Rav knew well that it’s easy to be a what in Yiddish they call “ah tzaddik in peltz.” The trick is to be devoted to Hashem and his Torah in a less luxurious skin than you’re comfortable in.

Whereas if you’re never really tested — E-Z teshuvah — what are your “religious” accomplishments, even if they are unconventional compared to the rest of your classmates?

Mere trophies.

And there are all sorts of tests.

Now, I have never been all that comfortable with the phrase “spiritual Holocaust” to describe the spiral of self-imposed national destruction Jews have imposed on themselves known as assimilation. But in light of the foregoing story, and an observation I made in the mikvah [ritual bath] a few years ago, I began to think that perhaps the term was more apt than I had thought.

The juxtaposition occurred to me after I went to the mikvah once on an erev Shabbos, as is customary among many men. And there I saw a young man who — you couldn’t avoid noticing it — was covered, chest to ankle, with tattoos.

Covered, big time. Purple. Green. Black. Monsters, whatever. Quite a sight.

He was the same young man I had seen in hasidic levush [garb] in shul. Quiet, unassuming, as earnest as you could ever like. Maybe to a fault.

I knew he was a baal teshuvah. I knew a little of his story, in fact.

But I didn’t know about . . . this.

I couldn’t get the picture that that tattooed torso out of my mind. And it occurred to me, eventually, that, well, you can wash off a lot in the mikvah, spiritually speaking. And I am certain there are people with tattoos who have less need for spiritual cleansing than many of the lilliest-toned among us.

But to go to the mikvah knowing that you look like that, and having a pretty good idea of what people will think, or being a meek person yet aware that they will notice, and . . .

How many of us poster boys would be up for that?

No, I have no rebbe. So except for what I send every couple of years to the Alumni Weekly, I don’t do kvitels.

But if I did — to that fellow, I would give my kvitel.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.