It must have seemed like something impossible, and indeed in most cases it probably was. They were down 21-0 at the half and then 28-3 at the end of the third quarter. Most probably felt it was over and turned off their televisions at that point. However, there was one group that believed differently and with two minutes left in the third quarter, and continuing into the fourth, they began a drive that would defy belief. By the end of regulation time they had scored 25 points to tie the game and throw it into overtime. Within minutes, another score and history was made, the New England Patriots won their 5th Super Bowl. This New England boy was mighty proud that night!
As Parshat Beshallach opens, the Israelites have left Egypt and once Pharaoh discovered what has happened he quickly changed his mind and suddenly with many men and nine hundred iron chariots they begin pursuit of their former slaves. The Israelites discover the Egyptians are behind them. Suddenly the Israelites find themselves at the edge of the Reed Sea, with only water in front of them and the Egyptians behind them. The Torah says that Moshe held his staff over the water and the midrash teaches that Nachshon ben Aminadav went forth into the water and when he was up to his neck, the sea split, and the Israelites had their escape route.
The parsha ends with another seemingly impossible situation for the Israelites. After the episode at the sea, after realizing there is no drinking water and then no food, the Israelites find themselves under an unprovoked attack by Amalek in the most heinous fashion. Moshe directs Yehoshua to lead men into battle against Amalek. The Torah records that as the Israelites fought Moshe stood on a hill with his arms held high. When his arms were up, the Israelites prevailed, when he lowered his arms, Amalek did. Finally, stones were placed under Moshe’s arms to help him keep his arms raised so the Israelites would be the stronger. Ultimately, the Israelites did indeed defeat Amalek.
The Mishnah asks a question. Was it really Moshe’s raised arms that helped the Israelites defeat the Amaleks? The Mishnah answers its own question. When the Israelites looked up and remembered they had Divine help they became the stronger. The Israelites were inspired. The sight of Moshe raising his arms towards the heaven gave inspiration to the Israelites so they would fight harder. Something inspired Nachshon, perhaps the sight of Moshe holding his staff over the sea, to enter the water.
There are times when we all feel as if we are down 28-3, when we find ourselves between pursuers and the raging sea with nowhere to go. The Israelites, and the Patriots, can teach us many lessons, so here are two. First, that giving up does not need to an option, that to persevere, no matter how difficult, is the way to go. Will we always score the needed 31 points to win? Maybe not, but the effort will give us other victories. Second, look for that person, to inspire you, find that individual to whom you can look towards and think “I want to be like him/her.”
Or better yet, be the person who inspires others, be that person that gives others strength, that encourages others to be their very best, to reach for the stars. We all need a Moshe to inspire us, through that inspiration may we be a Moshe.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
As I sit here this morning I am experiencing tremendous writer’s block. There is so much to say and yet I cannot put anything to paper (or computer screen). The parsha, Bo, is replete with all kinds of lessons from which we can learn. Pharaoh hardens his heart and yet again he will not let the Israelites go. By the end of the parsha after the final three plagues, locusts, darkness and the first born, have occurred that hardening has completely soften and Pharaoh tells Moshe to go. Surely one could make the case about the consequences of being stubborn.
The parsha also introduces us to the mitzvah of Kiddush HaKodesh, the sanctification of the new moon. The Jewish people’s attention to the waxing and waning of the moon is the basis for the Jewish calendar, without which there would be no holiday observance. The Syrian-Greek king Antiochus realized this, for one of the prohibitions he placed upon the Jewish people was that of announcing Rosh Hodesh, for if the Jewish people did not know when the holidays occurred, they could be observed. This was one of the ways he hoped to eradicate Judaism. The lesson here is that of renewal. There are times we make mistakes, but just as the moon renews itself, we always have the opportunity to renew ourselves, to fix mistakes, to improve and do better.
We also find in the parsha the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice, the offering of a lamb right before Pesach. The blood of this animal was placed on the lintel of the Israelites’ homes as a way to distinguish their homes from those of the Egyptians, in many ways like the mezuzot on our homes today. At the very end there is a mention of tefilin and the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides (1194-1270, Spain) goes into a lengthy explanation as to how the Exodus from Egypt is so fundamental to our identity as Jews, so much so that we are commanded to mention the Exodus everyday and we do so in our twice daily recitation of the Shema.
And yet with all this I find myself blocked from finding one simple, coherent message for this week. What does occur to me is what an amazing tradition we have. We have wonderful rituals in Jewish life to be sure; rituals that bind us together as a family; as a people. Judaism is more than ritualistic. Jewish life is one that calls upon us to be responsible, to be compassionate for other people, to set up and act, to think beyond ourselves. Jewish tradition provides as template for living a full, moral ethical life, taking into consideration how we interact with other people. The Torah provides us with wisdom and insight. To live as a Jew means to live with a sense of nobility, with kavod (honor). We will experience that nobility and kavod, even a touch of majesty, tonight as we welcome the Shabbat Queen.
By then I hope to overcome this writer’s block.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I picked up the phone to make a call. The first name of the person with whom I want to speak started with the letter H. Someone answered and I began “May I talk to Hhhhhh . . . ” I could not get the person’s name out. Click. The person hung up. I tried a second time, “May I talk to Hhhhh . . .” Click, again, the person hung up. When I made a third attempt, and the same thing happened, the person on the other end of the line said in a very stern fashion, “Stop making prank phone calls or I will call the police.” Click (this time with a slam). At that point my frustration tolerance bottomed out and on the fourth and ultimately final try as soon as the person answered, the words came out rapid-fire, “don’t hang up, I stutter!!!”
Such is the feeling Moshe must have felt the first time he stood in front of Pharaoh to request that he allow the Israelites to leave. In last week’s parsha, Shemot, Moshe does accept the mission (did he really have a choice??) but the first attempt was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh refuse Moshe, but Pharaoh took away the straw with which the Israelites used to make bricks. Now the Israelites would need to gather their own straw and make produce the same quota. In the end, the people reject Moshe for their labor became that much more intense.
As this week’s parsha, VaEra opens, HaShem is trying to strengthen Moshe, telling him that He has established a covenant with the Israelite people, and the land of Canaan (Israel) is part of that Covenant. While Moshe again uses the excuse of speech to get out this task, HaShem, doesn’t let Moshe out of the responsibility. He assigns Aaron to the role of mouthpiece, as Rashi explains. Moshe will speak the words to Aaron who will convey them to Pharaoh. Rashi also makes another interesting point. The Torah says, “HaShem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Israelites . . . “ Rashi says on that phrase that Moshe and Aaron must have patience with the Israelites.
HaShem is letting Moshe and Aaron, particularly Moshe that he needs to have patience, not only with the Israelites, but perhaps with himself as well. Yes, that first encounter did not go well. Pharaoh refused the request and he increased the workload upon the Israelites, who also reject Moshe. However, that is only a temporary setback. It is not the end of the story. As time goes on, Moshe will persevere, he will succeed, and despite other setbacks and momentary failures, he will accomplish his goal. Ultimately, we know what eventually comes of Moshe.
Life is full of setbacks. We make mistakes, encounter obstacles, but we should see those moments as catalysts for growth and not let them keep us from our goals. As we mentioned last week, challenges make us better. We learn from the mistakes, but we find the way to succeed. Thirty five years later that phone call to H has a comical aspect to it, but I have (I hope) learned better ways of getting my message across.
By the way, H wasn’t home anyway.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
The idea of going to Egypt and confronting Pharaoh to let the Israelites go must have sounded even more than an impossible task. So it is understandable why Moshe gave excuses not to go. Pharaoh was the most powerful person in the world at that time and despite the attempts to explain why he was not the one to go, the Divine call remained.
This week we begin the Book of Shemot and we are witness to the birth of the Jewish people’s greatest leader, Moshe. We experience his trip down the Nile in a papyrus box to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. While he is raised in the palace, as one of privilege, nevertheless he knows who his people are, “It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens . . . “ Moshe, we learn is a person who stands up for the right thing. He kills the Egyptian attacking a Hebrew slave; he confronts two Hebrew slaves fighting. Later, after having fled Egypt and ending up in Midian he intervenes when the daughters of Yitro are harassed at a well while trying to give their fathers’ flock water.
Things appear to be different when Moshe is given the task to stand up to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites to freedom. He doesn’t want to go. He uses the excuse “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words . . . I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” Rashi says that Moshe actually spent seven days trying to convince HaShem he was not the right person for this. The midrash is familiar, that as small child the Egyptian wiseman foretold that Moshe would be a leader among the Jewish people. As a test, Pharaoh offered Moshe a hot coal or his crown. If Moshe reached for the crown it would indicate that the wisemen were correct. Moshe reached for the shiny, gold crown, but a Divine angel pushed Moshe’s hand onto the hot coal. Moshe burnt his hand, and then his tongue after putting his hand into his mouth. This caused Moshe to develop some kind of speech impediment.
It is this speech impediment that stops Moshe from accepting, at least initially, his role. Interstingly, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbaum (1085-1158, France), a commentator on both the Torah and the Talmud writes that Moshe simply forgot how to speak Egyptian, having been away from Egypt for many years. The notion of having to stand in front of the most powerful person in the world and speak, in a convincing way, was terrifying to Moshe. While in the end, the person who is afraid to speak, does indeed speak, and speaks, and speaks. In fact, except for the last 8 verses Moshe is the only speaker in all of Sefer Devarim.
Moshe has always been a personal model for me. I know that fright he experienced when given the task of leading the people. Moshe’s first encounter with Pharoah was a disaster. The slaves ended up having to get their own straw to make the bricks. As one who is “heavy of mouth and heavy of speech I, too, have experienced that humiliation of trying to express something, and the words remain stuck. It is HaShem’s response to Moshe that gives me some measure of comfort, “ . . . I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.” Moshe is not alone, HaShem is with him.
We all have challenges to face. We all have something that we can use as an excuse not to grow, not to do what we want. Had I listened to two rabbis who told me not to become a rabbi because of my stuttering, or the principal who advised me not to become a teacher because I stutter and students would not respond well, I would be somewhere else, doing something different - and not what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be.
Challenges shouldn't stop us or define us. Challenges should lift us up, strengthen us, make us better.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
It was March of 2005, Parshat VaYikra and my daughter Baila was 3 days old. It was her first Shabbat. That Friday night I held Baila in my arms and for the first time pronounced those words of blessing that Jewish parents have been bestowing on their children for centuries. It was a powerful, emotional moment for me as this tiny little girl, my child, lay in my arms. Fast forward many years and Baila is weeks away from turning 12 and celebrating her Bat Mitzvah. Tonight, she, and her brother Ashie, will stand beside me as I again give both my children a blessing as Shabbat begins.
A theme in this week’s parsha, VaYechi, is indeed blessings. Yaakov is at the end of his life. He blesses his two grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, Yosef’s children. He then blesses his own sons. While he does take Shimon and Levi to task for their role in the murder of the men of Sh’chem, after the incident with Dina, Yaakov imparts to his sons that each has a unique mission to fulfill, and implores them to remain on a proper path. He says to them, “Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Yaakov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” The 16th century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno writes that Yaakov is asking his sons to accept the path he has spent his life teaching them, for there will be ultimate good if they do.
Yaakov, like any parent, is concerned about what kind of people his children will be. What values will they have? King Solomon, the wisest of all people wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Teach a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” What will make our kids good people? What will make them wise? What will make them understand that hard work, responsibility, tolerance, respect are prized values and prejudice, hatred and apathy are not?
Perhaps our greatest tool towards fulfilling Solomon’s dictum is the wisdom and beauty of Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition opens a world to our children. Jewish tradition begets respect, Jewish tradition begets literacy, Jewish tradition begets identity, pride and commitment. Jewish tradition exposes our children, and us, to the wonders and the mysteries of the Divine. Jewish tradition shines a light on the path for their future.
The Talmud relates that after Yaakov blessed his sons, giving over to them his final hopes for their future they responded “Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokaynu, HaShem Echad,” (Listen Israel, HaShem is our G-d, HaShem is One). Yaakov, feeling a combination of relief and satisfaction that his children heard him said, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for eternity.”
Like Yaakov, may we bless our children with the light of Jewish tradition. And at times it will be hard. May we do what is hard, so our children will achieve what is great.
As we end the Book of Bereshit we say, Chazak, Chazak, vNitchazek”
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger