SHEMOS (Exodus, 1:1-6:1) — “Watch Your Step!”

The Torah was never meant to be read without commentary.  Simple translation can give one a very distorted picture of what the Torah actually means.

For example, many people are surprised to hear that “an eye for an eye” is a Jewish concept.  It is actually a verse in the Torah!  (Exodus, 21:14) How, you may ask, could it be that the Torah would tolerate the barbaric practice of knocking out the eye of someone who had done that to someone else?  The answer, of course, is that this verse was never meant to be taken literally.  It is actually a reference to monetary compensation for the injured party.

In a similar vein, it is very easy to misconstrue the actions of Biblical personalities.  Joseph’s brothers come across as petty and jealous.  (See “Holy Gangsters”) King David, when viewed through the uneducated eyes of “Bible criticism,” seems far from worthy of praise and admiration.  Yet, the Talmud (Shabbos, 56a) tells us that “anyone who says that David sinned is mistaken.”

Why then, do we find that David is reprimanded for sinful behavior?  Why does the prophet Nathan rebuke his king for behavior that appears to be murderous and adulterous? (2Samuel, Chapters 11 and 12) Why do we see throughout the Talmud and commentaries that Jacob is criticized for this and Abraham is taken to task for that?!  (See, for example, last week’s message about Jacob.) Why do the Torah and Talmud sometimes speak about great people in disparaging terms?

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Moses was curious.  Before his eyes appeared a miraculous sight.  A bush was on fire.  However, despite the flames that emanated from the bush, the wood seemed not to be burnt.  Suddenly, a divine voice addressed him:

Remove the shoes from your feet.  The ground upon which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus, 3:5)

What is wrong with wearing shoes on holy ground?  The Olelos Ephraim explains.

Why do we wear shoes?  Obviously, we are looking to protect our feet from the stones on the ground that could injure us.  If you walk barefooted on a rocky road, you must take each step with great care.  Your feet are very sensitive to the tiniest pebble, while with shoes you can step on almost everything.

G-d was telling Moses that as a Tzaddik — a righteous man, he was required to watch his step.  G-d holds the righteous to a higher standard.  A minor deviation from what is proper is not necessarily a terrible thing when done by a “regular” person.  A righteous person is different.  He must be sensitive to the minutest “pebble” of impropriety.

When an infant spits up his lunch on his mother’s sweater, it is acceptable.  It is expected (and almost cute!)  However, when that “infant” is thirty years old, it’s not so cute!

I once saw an article about a police officer who had been found guilty of committing a particular crime.  At sentencing, the judge commented that he had received an overwhelming amount of mail from the community requesting clemency for the officer due to his exemplary record of public service.  “This is your first offence,” said the judge.  “Until now, you served us well… And that’s exactly why I’m going to throw the book at you.  You, of all people, should know better!”

If a small child says every word of a prayer, even if he doesn’t understand every word, that’s a start.  If I say such a prayer, I need to at least understand the basic translation.  If a holy man recites the same prayer, he needs to do so with a still higher level of devotion and concentration.  If the child and the holy man pray on my level, the child is accomplishing tremendous things, while the holy man is working below potential.

When the Torah describes the “misdeeds” of Biblical greats as sinful, it is often magnifying activities that we “regular folks” would not even recognize as wrong if we saw the activity in progress.  (For an in-depth analysis of King David’s “sins,” written by Rabbi Boruch Clinton, click here.)

When Jacob mentioned in last week’s Torah Portion (cited above) that his years were few and hard, G-d reprimanded him.  Jacob was a Tzaddik!  As a righteous man and a prophet, he was held to a higher standard.  He shouldn’t have complained.  When a righteous man deviates, ever so slightly, from what he is supposed to do, the Torah is harshly critical.

G-d doesn’t expect you to be a Moses.  But he does expect you to “be all you can be.”  Anything less than full potential is a waste of your abilities.  It is a sin!

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Moses was the humblest man who ever lived.  He was not interested in the limelight.  He wanted neither fame nor fortune.  All he wanted was to quietly tend his father-in-law’s sheep and serve his Creator.

But it was not meant to be.  G-d saw Moses’ compassion toward his sheep, and wanted to make Moses the shepherd of His flock — Israel.  He wanted Moses to approach the Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be released from Egypt.

Moses fought the decree.  He felt that he was not worthy of leadership.  He used every excuse he could think of.  Then he made the mistake of taking the argument too far:

Moses responded, “They (the Israelites) won’t believe me…They will say ‘G-d didn’t appear to you!’ “(Exodus, 4:1)

Moses needed a miraculous sign from heaven.  First G-d told him to throw his walking stick to the ground.  The stick became a slithering snake.  As a “back-up,” G-d then turned Moses’ hand white with “leprosy.”

“If they don’t believe you, and don’t listen to the first sign, they will listen to the last sign.” (Verse 8 )

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G-d has many miracles at His disposal.  Why did He choose those two particular signs for Moses to show to the people?  Rashi explains that G-d was communicating to Moses a not-so-subtle reprimand for underestimating his brethren.

The snake is considered to symbolize gossip.  The original snake back in the Garden of Eden slandered G-d.  He told Eve that G-d was afraid to let them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because then humans would become wise enough to become His “competitors.” (See Genesis 3:4)

By accusing Israel of lacking the faith to accept his prophecy, Moses had adopted the snake’s practice of gossip. Leprosy too, at least the spiritual kind described in the Torah, is a punishment for gossip. (See “A Taste of His Own Medicine”.)

Moses was punished for speaking against G-d’s beloved children.  They were Ma’aminim benei Ma’aminim — “Believers, the children of Believers.”  G-d would not allow Moses to suggest otherwise.

In fact, the Torah testifies to us that after Moses came to Egypt, the People accepted his prophecy:

They heard that G-d remembered the Children of Israel and that He had seen their misery.  They bowed their heads and prostrated themselves (to G-d.) (Verse 31)

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“Because It Says So in the Tow-raw!”

I have spent my entire professional career as an “outreach rabbi.”  I served in Tucson, Arizona and Kingston, New York as the rabbi of orthodox synagogues, most of whose members were not personally orthodox.  As a teacher of non-religious Jews, one must learn to communicate in a fashion that can convince skeptics of the beauty of our Torah.

To this end, I often borrow from the works of various Jewish outreach organizations.  Aish Hatorah, one such organization, conducts “Discovery Seminars” all over the world, which have been very successful in encouraging Torah acceptance and observance among the not-yet committed.  The Discovery Seminar goes into great detail to prove, with ironclad logic, that G-d gave the Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai.  I read through some of their material, and prepared to introduce this concept to a group of residents in a nursing home.

I walked into my Bible class at one of the facilities where I am a chaplain, and presented them with a provocative question.  “How do we know,” I asked, “that G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai?”

I wasn’t quite prepared for the response.  A little lady with a kerchief on her head — I’ll call her “Mrs. Cohen” — who almost always sat quietly through my various classes, called out, in a very German accent, “Because it says so in the Tow-raw!” (For those unfamiliar with the German-Jewish pronunciation: Tow-raw — “Tow,” rhyming with “now”, and “raw,” rhyming with “saw.”)

I was frustrated.  She broke my momentum.  Sure, I thought, SHE believes that, but what about every one else?

“Yes, of course,” I continued, “it says so in the Torah.  But how do we know that the Torah’s description is actually what happened?”

“Because it says so in the Tow-raw!”

I gave up.  Mrs. Cohen stubbornly refused to even entertain the consideration that the Torah could be anything but absolutely true.  She could not comprehend that there could even be a question.

Mrs. Cohen displayed that simple, unquestioning, adamant adherence to Torah-true Judaism that typifies our German-Jewish brethren.  These “Deutscher Yidden” withstood the onslaught of assimilation in their midst by plainly and clearly stating that there is no room whatsoever for compromise in matters of faith and Jewish law.

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Some would consider such a display of “blind” faith to be naïve.  The “enlightened” among us might even consider such an attitude to be intellectually lazy.  But such unquestioning loyalty to G-d is what saved us from the slavery of Egypt.  When our People said at Mount Sinai, “We will do and we will hear,” (Exodus, 24:7) they were making a commitment to fully accept the entire Torah, even before understanding it.  The Talmud says that by making that statement of faith, the Israelites demonstrated a level of conviction comparable to that of angels.

It is that faith that enabled our People to see clearly through the fires of the Inquisition and the smokestacks of Auschwitz, that there would be a better tomorrow.  Such faith, if we have it, will allow us to see through the headlines that there will still be a better tomorrow.  Sometimes, being logical is not so logical!

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“Mrs. Cohen” passed away last week at the age of 92.  She never had children.  I have undertaken to say Kaddish for her.  She taught me the same lesson that G-d taught Moses so many years ago:

“Who is like Your nation Israel, a People unique among the nations!”

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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 From the Archives 

“My Grandson’s Bris – 2” (2010) 

Read More.

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“My Grandson the Priest” (2009) 

… Jethro recognized that Moses was an Israelite; he proposed a match with one of his daughters.

But there was a catch…Jethro would only agree to allow Moses to marry his daughter on the condition that the oldest son would be raised to be a priest of idol worship.

Pretty amazing, no?  Want to hear something even more amazing?  Moses agreed!! …

Read More.

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“Mrs. Moses: Certified Mohelet??!” (2008) 

Several years ago I was driving in the car listening to a discussion on the radio about circumcision.  Being a Mohel myself, I was, of course, very interested in the conversation.  I listened with curiosity and apprehension.

I get very uncomfortable when religious Jews call radio shows.  It is very difficult to explain a profound religious concept in a cogent and articulate manner when the host has his own ideas and can cut you off in mid-sentence.  Yet, the calls were coming in, and the host maintained that circumcision is done for health reasons.

Then an Italian lady called and said that she had her boys circumcised for health reasons, and was glad she did.  He said, “Thank you, dear,” and hung up.  Then he asked, “Hey, I wonder if a lady is allowed to be a Mohel.”

I braced myself for the responses.  A short time later, the host said, “Our next caller, from RocklandCounty, is Moysheh.  Hello, Moysheh.”

“Hello, Mr. Grant.  This is Moishe-the-Moyel from Monsey!”…

Read More.

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“Mrs. Moses Goes Home to Father” (2007)

… Moses was about to get a promotion.  He was about to become the Shepherd of Israel.   G-d assigned Moses the crucial task of leading his People out of Egypt.  There was, however, a problem.  There was the matter of his pre-nuptial agreement…

At one point, Zipporah decided to pack up the boys and go home.  There are various reasons given by the Commentaries.  The Chasam Sofer suggests that all was not well in the ben-Amram family…

Moses’ wife …went home.  … She would not accompany him to Egypt…

So what changed her mind? …

Read More.

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“The Secret Password” (2006)

What are the credentials of a savior of Israel? Imagine the scene:

The Sages of Israel have been summoned to a meeting. They have been enduring unspeakable horrors due to the agonizing slavery that his been placed upon them by their Egyptian taskmasters.  The meeting has been called by a fugitive, a wanted man.  Moses, the twelve-year-old son of Amram the Levite had absconded from Egypt to escape a murder conviction.  Now, as an eighty year-old man, he has returned to Egypt with an announcement…

Do we listen to Moses? Is he for real?  Is he on the level?  We haven’t seen this fellow in sixty-eight years! Suddenly he shows up with a Messianic proclamation, and he expects us to risk our skins by going to the Pharaoh with such an outrageous request!?

They bought it…

Read More.

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 “Pain in the Ukraine” (2004)

… A Mohel went to the Ukraine to usher Jewish men into the Covenant of Abraham.  As a fifteen-year-old Yeshiva student lay on the table, the Mohel read his medical chart.  The boy, as it turned out, was allergic to the anesthesia that the Mohel had brought from the U.S…  The Bris would have to be delayed… No, insisted the boy.  He wanted to have his Bris!  He would not get off the table.  He was adamant.  He was already fifteen years late; he would wait no longer!…The Mohel set out to do his holy work.  There was skin tissue to cut, and wounds to suture and cauterize.  The young man just lay there and endured it all.

He tried to be stoic and motionless.  Throughout the excruciating pain, he was silent.  But finally, he could be silent no more. It was just too painful.  He let out a blood-curdling scream…

Read More.

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“Watch Your Step!” (2004)

… I walked into my Bible class at one of the facilities where I am a chaplain, and presented them with a provocative question.  “How do we know,” I asked, “that G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai?”

I wasn’t quite prepared for the response.  A little lady with a kerchief on her head — I’ll call her “Mrs. Cohen” — who almost always sat quietly through my various classes, called out, in a very German accent, “Because it says so in the Tow-raw!” (For those unfamiliar with the German pronunciation: Tow-raw — “Tow,” rhyming with “now”, and “raw,” rhyming with “saw.”)

I was frustrated.  She broke my momentum.  Sure, I thought, SHE believes that, but what about every one else?

“Yes, of course,” I continued, “it says so in the Torah.  But how do we know that the Torah’s description is actually what happened?”

“Because it says so in the Tow-raw!”

I gave up…

Read More.

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“A Tale of Two Kings” (2002) 

[TORAH TALK IN THE JEWISH PRESS:  This message from 2002, updated for the 2007 political season, appeared as an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press.]

…The Egyptians were concerned about the growth of the Jewish population. The Israelites were increasing by leaps and bounds. … The Egyptian people demanded that their king address their “Jewish Problem.”

The king, who at first had demonstrated a bit of integrity, refused. He couldn’t bring himself to take action against Joseph’s people. Joseph had been so good to Egypt. The masses wouldn’t take no for an answer. They ousted the king.

Spending three months as an ex-king was more than he could bear. Thus, “a new king arose over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph.” The “new” king with a new attitude conveniently “didn’t know,” or, at least ACTED as if he didn’t know Joseph. The persecution began…

Read More.

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“Mother Goose Lied to Us!” (2002)

Moses was pained over the status of his nation.  They were persecuted and afflicted.  The Israelites weren’t just slaves who were forced to work; they were treated like animals.  Moses couldn’t understand why the Children of Israel were suffering so greatly.  He couldn’t understand why G-d had not yet taken His People out of Egypt.  Was He angry with them?…

 Read More.

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“A Helping Hand” (2001)

…Bisya adopted the child and raised him in the palace.  She named him Moshe, “because I drew him (“MISHISIYHU” in Hebrew) from the water.”  (Exodus, 2:10) … the name “Moshe” seems to be grammatically incorrect.    A more accurate name would be “Mashui,” which would mean “one who is drawn.” …

Read More.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 15, 2004 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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