We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.
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Parshas Yisro # 1
From the Mountain
“Moshe descended from the mountain, to the nation” (Shmos 19:14).
A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the Jewish people arrived at the Sinai desert. They set up camp facing Mount Sinai in anticipation of the greatest event in history, the Giving of the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu ascended the mountain, where he received instructions concerning the preparations necessary before the Jews would receive the Torah. Then, the Torah tells us, “Moshe descended from the mountain, to the nation.” Rashi writes, “This teaches that Moshe did not turn to his [personal] affairs. Instead, he went [immediately] from the mountain to the nation.”
Moshe did not stop to check up on personal business – he went directly from his prophetic encounter with the Al-mighty on Mount Sinai to take care of the needs of the nation and ready them for the Giving of the Torah. In contemporary terms, it would be comparable to Moshe ignoring a growing pile of his own emails and phone messages to plunge straight into work at a busy chesed office.
Staying on Top
Rav Elya Meir Bloch (1894-1955), the Telzer rosh yeshivah, explains that Moshe’s ability to go “from the mountain to the nation” was an indication of his unique spiritual stature in another sense as well.
It is a great achievement to reach exalted spiritual heights in a pure, rarefied setting –in Moshe’s case, on “the mountain” with Hashem. It is an even greater achievement to maintain that same lofty spirituality after descending from the mountain to live among people, and deal with their mundane issues. Remaining somewhat aloof from others may be viewed as a good, safe way to hold on to high standards, but Moshe was able to do even more.
“Moshe descended from the mountain, to the nation,” and even then, he remained the same Moshe Rabbeinu. He did not rush off to handle personal matters, and was not pulled down to the level of the people he dealt with. He was an utterly devoted leader to the Jewish nation, while retaining the same spirituality he had while alone with Hashem on the mountain (Peninei Daas, p. 195).
Many of us face a similar challenge. We spend years in yeshivah or seminary, and grow in learning, davening and shemiras mitzvos. Then the time comes for us to leave our “mountain,” whether for university or the workplace. Interaction with the outside world almost inevitably leads to a spiritual decline. We can learn from Moshe’s example to strive for high levels of spirituality, even in a materialistic secular environment.
Question for Discussion:
Moshe’s greatness was his ability to preserve the spirituality he achieved on Mount Sinai even after his descent. How can we maintain a high level of spirituality in settings where we are exposed to negative influences?
Yonah, a recent law school graduate from New York, now employed by the Supreme Court of Israel: Caught up in a demanding job in a secular environment, it can be easy to go off track. I find it very helpful to daven minchah with a minyan, a valuable spiritual recharge in the middle of a hectic workday. Our three o’clock minyan is composed entirely of Supreme Court employees, including the three (out of twelve) religious Justices. Some days we need to wait as long as ten minutes for the minyan to assemble, but it is always well worth the wait.
Aleksey, originally from Moscow, now a yeshivah student in Jerusalem: Being able to discuss challenges when faced with a crisis is very beneficial. Having someone there, whether a friend, rabbi, or advisor, goes a long way in staying strong.
Parshas Yisro #2
When the Jews received the Torah, all of Creation was still, listening in utter silence as the Voice of the Al-mighty Himself spoke the Ten Commandments (Shmos Rabbah 29:9). The impact was so powerful that it smashed mighty cedar trees and bared the forests (Tehillim 29:5,9, Rashi; Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro 275). The second of these Commandments was, “You shall not have other gods before Me. Do not make for yourself a statue or picture…do not bow to them and do not worship them” (Shmos 20:3-5). This was the first of many commandments throughout the Torah prohibiting any form of avodah zarah (idol worship).
The lure of idolatry would plague the Jewish people for many centuries, as recorded again and again in Tanach. It came to an end only at the time of the second Beis HaMikdash, when the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly) pleaded with Hashem to eliminate it. Their prayer gives us some indication of the terrible power of this particular yetzer hara: “This is what destroyed the House (the first Beis HaMikdash) and consumed the Sanctuary, and killed the tzaddikim, and exiled [the people of] Israel from their land – and it is still dancing about among us!” (Sanhedrin 64a).
Today, we cannot comprehend the enormous attraction of idol worship in earlier times. To us it seems ridiculous for any intelligent person to imagine that a statute holds godly power, let alone sacrifice his own children to appease its wrath. We do have many other tests – Shabbos, lashon hara (forbidden gossip), honesty in financial matters, immorality, and more. We grapple with them constantly, in many different variations. But idolatry? It would seem that the temptation and the related prohibitions are no longer relevant.
The Inner Idol
Rav Gershon Henoch Leiner (1839-1891), the Radziner Rebbe, writes that the test of idolatry is still very much alive, and the prohibitions are applicable even now. Chazal teach, “One who tears his clothes in his anger, and breaks his utensils in his anger, and scatters his money in his anger, should be [considered] in your eyes as if he worships idols” (Shabbos 105b). They derive the parallel between losing one’s temper – as evidenced by these outbursts – and idolatry, based on the passuk, “There should not be a foreign god in you, and do not bow to a strange god” (Tehillim 81:10).
Why do we get angry? To a very great degree, it is because things are not going our way. As we see it, people and events should comply with our wishes. When they do not, the “foreign god” inside us, our ego and inflated self-image, rises to the fore in a blaze of anger. We are forgetting that there is only one Being Who always has His Own way, so to speak – the Master of the Universe. If we understand and internalize this basic fact, we can free ourselves of a great deal of painful anger.
The Radziner Rebbe writes that when we struggle with anger, we should remember that we are being tested with a subtle form of idol worship, still rampant long after the demise of the yetzer hara for statues and images. Will we worship the “foreign god” within, or will we overcome it? (see Sod Yesharim, Leil Pesach 46)
An incident in the life of Rav Yisrael Hager of Vizhnitz (1860-1936) highlights this principle. The Rebbe was baking matzos on erev Pesach. Matzah baking for Pesach always calls for great care and precision, as even a minor slipup can turn matzah into chametz. On erev Pesach, the requirements are even more stringent. One erev Pesach, a participant in the baking fumbled, and another participant got very angry.
The Rebbe asked him, “Why are you so angry?”
He replied, “Chametz on Pesach is b’mashehu (even the most minute quantity of chametz is forbidden).”
The Rebbe told him, “A mashehu of anger is worse than a mashehu of chametz.”
Children misbehave, colleagues do not cooperate, recognition of our efforts passes us by… on any given day, we may feel that we are justified in getting angry. “You shall not have other gods before Me” includes the “god” of anger. We would never allow other forms of idolatry to enter our homes, G-d forbid. Why not make the effort to eliminate this avodah zarah as well? (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, Parshas Yisro, “Let Us Keep Idolatry Away From Our Homes”)
Question for Discussion:
We may not realize the severity of anger, equated by Chazal with avodah zarah.What can we do to control our anger?
Rabbi Moshe Sherer, President of Agudath Israel in America, was never heard to raise his voice, except in the early days of overseas calls to Israel, when telephone connections were poor and he had to shout to be heard. At home, “if he was angry with one of the children, he would bite his lip and count to ten before offering his reproof in a modulated tone” (“Rabbi Sherer,” by Yonason Rosenblum, p. 577)