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- Shemos


"So in an obscure speech and a foreign tongue they [the prophets] speak to this nation. But who will say to them, 'This is transquility, bestow it to the weary, this is inner happiness!'--for they do not want to listen." (Isaiah 27:11-12)

Picture for a moment the life of the Jew in seventeenth century Europe. He is shut out from most occupations; he lives in a walled-in ghetto area. He is always in danger of attack from the Gentiles who surround him, and who have been known in the past to attack and plunder his community on one pretext or another. When he travels outside the ghetto walls, he is eyed with mistrust by the non-Jews, who feel no affinity with him.

But within the home! There we find another scenario. There is found peace and harmony. On the Shabbos, the candles bestow their glow over a home transformed and infused with the radiance of the holy Shabbos day. The old, faded bookshelves hold the precious, worn out sefarim over which the man pores late into the night. There in the home the Jew may find respite from all the hardships, all the travails which await him outside. "This is tranquility, bestow it to the weary, this is inner happiness!" The sanctity-filled life which the Jew led made all the difficulties bearable; indeed, through it he was even able to find cheer and inner peace, despite the obstacles which the world heaped before him.

Now let us shift the scene and envision this man's einekle (descendent) two centuries hence. The walls of the ghetto have come tumbling down, the world lies invitingly before him. Intoxicated with the spirit of the new era, our friend has drunk deeply of the world's culture. He is a man of taste. He can rub shoulders with the highest born and the urbane sophisticates. On a shelf at home he possesses a fine bound copy of Mendelsohn's Biur, the commentary of the Pentateuch written in classic, flowing German. The book has gathered quite a bit of dust from years of sitting usused on the shelf. For the Torah, though translated now into the rich cadences of the German tongue, has ceased to speak his language. "In an obscure speech and a foreign tongue they speak to this nation." The Torah's teachings fail to resonate in the ear of our newly Enlightened friend.

If we find that the Torah's words don't strike true in our own hearts, then we must look within ourselves. These same words provided solace to countless of our ancestors in generations past; if they now appear to be foreign ideas, then it can only be we who have distanced ourselves. Hashem's teachings are tailor-made especially for us; they alone contain the key which can enable us to truly understand ourselves. It is our job to relearn the language.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Rabbi Levi Langer


"So speaks the Lord Hashem: Behold, I have come upon you, Pharoah, king of Egypt!--you great crocodile who lies in your rivers and says, 'My river is mine and I have created myself.'" (Ezekiel 29:3)

The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 5:18) records the story of Moses and Aaron's first audience with Pharoah. They came to tell him in the name of Hashem to set His nation free. Pharoah had never before heard of Hashem.

He [Pharoah] said to them: Wait until I check my record books. Immediately he entered his library and began to search the records of all the nations and their gods. He read of the gods of Moab, and Ammon, and Sidon.

He returned and said, "I have searched all my record houses and have found no mention of Him. Is he young or old? How many cities has he conquered?"

They responded, "His might fills the earth. He preceded all of creation and He will outlive all. He created you and gave you your life-spirit."

"You lie! I am master of the world. I created myself and I created the Nile."

At that moment Pharoah gathered the sages of Egypt and asked them, "Have you heard of the G-d of these people?"

They answered, "We have heard that He is wise, and the scion of an ancient family of monarchs."

What can we learn from this story?

Pharoah had no problem accepting the fact of Hashem's existence. He himself went to consult his record books, where he had recorded the names of all of the foreign deities. No doubt Pharoah was careful to accord all of these deities great respect. His problem was in acknowledging that Hashem might have authority over him. This he couldn't bear to think of. "You lie! The Nile is mine and I have created myself." The Nile, which overflowed its banks each year and provided all of Egypt with sustenance and life--that couldn't be given over to the authority of any deity. "The Nile is mine!"

True, it is important to recognize the existence of a Supreme Being. But more difficult is acknowledging that this Suprreme Being has authority over us, and it is incumbent upon us to do his bidding. We have no problem with the abstract idea that there is someone out there in the heavens, just so long as He doesn't intrude on our own territory. The sentiment which Pharoah expressed thousands of years ago sounds as though it could just as well be expressed by many religious people today, except that today we've grown more subtle about it. Thus we hear about liberalism in religion, about our right to change our religion until it's just right for us. It's when religion begins to make specific demands and intrude on our own lives that we get nervous. No one can make demands on me: "I have created myself."

If there's one lesson that we ourselves ought to take out of the story of our exile in Egypt, it is this: that before our nation became servants of Hashem, we had nothing at all. We had no society, no communal life. We thought of ourselves as slaves to our master, Pharoah. Outside of that, we had no sense of self-identity. Hashem Himself gave us our identity when He made us a G-dly nation. And even today, it is only in that sense that we can continue to exist as an independent people.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer


"The Scream Heard Round the World"

"Her [Egypt's] voice will go forth like that of the snake, for with an army they have come and with axes they will come against you as if they were woodcutters." (Jeremiah 46:22)

An unusual comparison: Egypt, the mighty empire, will scream like the snake. Which snake?

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 20:8) explains: like the primeval snake in the Garden of Eden.

When the snake caused Adam and Chava to partake of the forbidden fruit, says the Midrash, Hashem sent angels with axes to chop off its legs. From then on, for all of eternity, the snake would have no legs and would have to slither on its belly. At that moment--so we are taught--the snake screamed a scream that was heard round the world.

Similarly, when the mighty empire of Egypt was finally vanquished by Nebuchadnezzar, Emperor of Babylon, the cry of the Egyptian kingdom was heard round the world: "And your cry filled the earth." (Jeremiah 46:12) This is the comparison which is made in our verse.

Perhaps there is a lesson we can take from this Midrash.

Out of all the animals and creatures in Hashem's world, the snake was the one with the highest potential. It was created with an intelligence, and we are taught that it had a special role: it was to serve Adam and Chava and to assist them in their service of Hashem. But the snake misused his abilities, and they were taken from him. In that instant, when he recognized that he had missed the moment and the opportunity had been lost to him forever, the snake cried out, and his cry was heard across all of existence.

Egypt, too, had taken for themselves a special role: they had entered into a treaty with the kingdom of Israel, and henceforth they were pledged to be the protectors of Israel. But they soon showed how unreliable they really were. "And all the inhabitants of Egypt will know that I am Hashem--for they have been a prop of reeds for the House of Israel. When they [Israel] grasped you in the hand you would splinter and pierce through the entire shoulder, and when they leaned upon you, you would break." (Ezekiel 29:6-7)

Egypt had their chance and they neglected to make use of it. "And they shall be a lowly kingdom--no longer exalted among the nations. And I will make them small, that they may no longer rule over other nations." (Ibid, v. 14-15) No longer would Egypt be a world power. The opportunity, once gone, was lost forever. And at the moment that its destiny was lost, Egypt is said to have cried out. "And your cry filled the earth."

Each of us has the potential to accomplish something unique, something that is our very own to achieve. And when the opportunity comes knocking, let's not tarry too long before opening the door. It won't wait for us forever.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer


"Like the sun in its might"

In our haftorah we read the Song of Devorah, which Devorah the Prophetess sang to Hashem on the occasion of the downfall of Sisera, general of the mighty armies of Canaan. Devorah sings of the hardships that the Jews experienced during those difficult times, of their feeling defenseless and dispirited. Then she extols the heroism of those who bravely took up arms to fight against Sisera. Finally, she describes the heroic deed of Yael the wife of Heber the Keni, who took up a hammer and spike and drove the spike right through Sisera's head while he slept. Devorah closes with the words, "So may all of your enemies fall, Hashem! But those who love Him shall be as the sun rising in its might."

The Sages of the Talmud offer the following comment in connection with that last phrase: "Those who are insulted but do not return the insult, who suffer embarrassment and do not respond ... concerning them it is written, 'But those who love Him shall be as the sun rising in its might.'"

Daas Zekeinim (Bereishis 1:16) explains the comparison. The midrash teaches that when Hashem created the world, He originally made the sun and the moon equal in size and brightness. But then the moon complained, "How can two kings reign with one crown?" The sun, hearing this, remained silent. Because of those words of the moon, Hashem diminished the moon's own stature and left the sun as the sole ruler of the heavens. [Note: The commentators understand this to be an allegory laden with mystical meaning. A full discussion of this would go beyond the scope of this essay.]

Explains Daas Zekainim: Since the sun remained silent in the face of this verbal assault, he received sole dominion over the skies. This is what the Talmud means when it says that those who are insulted but do not return the insult--about them it is written, "Those who love Him shall be as the sun rising in its might."

How does one find the strength of heart to be able to listen to insults without responding in kind? The answer may lie in the opening words of the verse: "Those who love Him." We must not judge ourselves on the basis of what others say, or we will spend our whole lives trying to be accepted by everyone. We can be impervious to insults if they really don't matter--because there's Someone out there whose opinion is the only one that counts for us.

As Rema writes in his opening glosses to the Shulchan Aruch: "When one takes to heart that the great King, Hashem Almighty ... stands over him and sees his actions ... he will not be embarrassed before others who mock him."

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer



Our haftorah tells a story which occurred during the reign of Achaz, king of Judah. Although the kings of Judah generally followed the path of the Torah, Achaz was different. Of him it is told that he went in the idolatrous ways of the ten tribes of Israel, and he even passed his own son through fire in observance of the Moloch ceremony.

In our haftorah we find Achaz in a time of travail. He has learned that Pekach, king of Israel, has joined forces with the king of Aram, and is coming to do battle against Jerusalem. Achaz heard this and "his heart and the heart of his people shook like the shaking of the forest trees before the wind."

Hashem then sent Isaiah with a message. "Do not fear or be faint of heart before these two stumps of smoking firebrands." Hashem assured Achaz that no harm would befall Judah. The commentators explain: When a fire is nearly extinguished, the sticks which remain give off a great deal of smoke, but little actual fire. So too the armies of Israel and Aram appear fearsome, but there is no substance behind them.

How did Achaz react upon hearing this message? The answer is given later in the passage in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah saw that Achaz did not believe him, and he cried to Achaz, "You do not trust--for there is no trust within you!" Abarbanel writes that these words contain a double meaning. On the simple level it means that Achaz did not possess faith in Hashem, so he did not believe the word of the prophet. But there is an additional meaning here too. Achaz "had no trust within him"--that is, there was no trust or faithfulness in the way he lived his own life. Everything he achieved was done through deception and knavery. In Achaz the man there was no trust, and therefore he could find in himself no trust to place in the word of Hashem.

Herein lies the lesson of this story. Aram and Israel are all smoke and no substance; they are described as "these two stumps of smoking firebrands." Yet Achaz is simply unable to see them for what they really are, even after he is sent an explicit message from Hashem. Why? Because his entire personal life was all smoke and no substance. He devoted his energies to deceiving everyone. And in the process, he succeeded in clouding his own vision, so that he himself was unable to see things as they really were, as the prophet depicted them for him. He had simply lost the ability.

Only one who commits himself to honesty and uprightness in his personal life, to being open and straightforward in his dealings with others--only he will attain that clarity of vision which can enable him to see the world as Hashem wants him to see it.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer

Haftorah Shabbos Rosh Chodesh

"So has Hashem spoken: The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool; what houses could you build for Me? and what could be My resting place? All this have My hands wrought and they came into being, said Hashem--yet upon him I shall gaze: upon the poor and the lowly of spirit, who trembles before My word." (Isaiah 66:1-2)

The Chofetz Chaim, of blessed memory, explained this passage by means of a parable.

A wealthy magnate once acquired a luxury cruise liner. He invited all of his friends and acquaintances to participate in a grand celebration in honor of the inaugural cruise. The ship sped through the water, and on deck all was merriment and gaiety. In this midst of the festivities, the patron bethought of himself a question. Turning to the ship's officers, he asked, "What powers this vessel?"

In answer, the officers took him below deck. Down and down they went, past the splendor and the munificence, until at last, in the nethermost reaches of the ship, they showed him the boiler. The entire area was full of grime and dirt; the workers wore dingy and soot-blackened clothing. The wealthy man saw this, and his face darkened."

I won't have this on my vessel!" he thundered. "Clean and whitewash this area right away. That thing"--he pointed at the boiler--"I want that sealed off, away from sight. And all these workers will be sent away the next time we dock. No ship of mine is going to look like this!"

The officials meekly heeded his commands. Not long afterward the boiler began malfunctioning and there was no one to fix it, and then there was an ominous rumbling and it grew louder and louder and the people raced frantically over and they watched helplessly in horror as the whole thing blew up into the sky.

Said the Chofetz Chaim: Those of us who partake of the fruits of this earth, who stand tall atop the world and enjoy its bounty to the fullest, must never look askance at the scholars and teachers of Torah who have not ascended those rareified heights. Their clothes may appear a bit shabby and their lifestyle may not measure up to the current "balebatishe" standards--but these are the "boiler-room" people, to whom the whole world owes its existence.

"All these have my hands wrought and they all came into being, said Hashem, yet upon him I shall gaze: upon the poor and the lowly of spirit, who trembles before My word."

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer



Our haftorah details the construction of the Temple under the direction of King Solomon. It begins, "And Hashem granted wisdom to Solomon as He had promised him." This phrase introduces the passage because, as the ensuing sentences make clear, it was a tribute to Solomon's wisdom that he had earlier established friendly diplomatic relations with Hiram, King of Tyre, whose assistance he would sorely need. It was Hiram who provided much of the raw materials for the Temple, and he also sent artisans skilled in the working of precious metals.

And yet, if we study carefully the wording of that first sentence, we are struck by a discordant note. "VaHashem"--"And Hashem" granted wisdom to Solomon. Chida notes that according to the Midrash, wherever this wording "VaHashem" is used in Scriptures, it means "Hashem, along with His celestial tribunal." This is implied by that extra prefix, "and," at the beginning of the word. In other words, the use of this word implies that Hashem's attribute of judgement is being brought into play. How does this concept apply here, right in the midst of all the joyous preparations for the Temple?

Chida answers that Hashem's gift of wisdom to Solomon was actually a double-edged sword. And paradoxically, it was Solomon's wisdom--the very same wisdom which had enabled him to lay down the groundwork for constructing the Temple--which sowed the seeds of its eventual destruction. For we find that although the Torah admonishes the king of Israel, "He shall not marry many wives, for they will turn his heart," the Talmud records that Solomon said, "I will take many, and my heart will not be swayed." He placed his trust in his great wisdom and felt that the Torah's admonition could surely not apply to him.

What was the result? Witness the prophet Jeremiah's harsh condemnation (Jer. 32:31): "For My anger and My wrath have been upon this city [Jerusalem] from the day it was built." Rashi explains: "On the day that the Temple was inaugurated, Solomon married the daughter of the King of Egypt." Solomon wished to combine his personal joy with the joy of the entire nation in its Temple. Yet in this he made a grevious error. For in Hashem's eyes, he had weakened the very foundation of the Temple: on this very day, a foreign influence and a foreign culture had made themselves felt in the royal household itself. And it was at that very moment that the first spiritual flaws in the Temple became manifest.

Solomon's wisdom was a wonderful gift--indeed, it was because of it that he was able to build the Temple. Yet in the story of Solomon's life we see the truth of the dictum of our Sages (Eruvin 13b) that one must not only examine his actions constantly, but he must also "feel them out." Messilas Yesharim (Chap. 3) explains: even in the good that one does, he must always make sure that it is not tainted by some foreign element which is incompatible with the spirit of the Torah. In our story, we see the joy and the grandeur of the construction of the Temple--but hand in hand with that, we see also the cracks in the edifice, which would eventually bring about its destruction.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer



The haftorah of Parshas Tetzaveh describes the Temple which will be erected to Hashem in time to come, as depicted in the Book of Ezekiel. The passage begins:

"You, son of Man, describe the House to the people; they will be ashamed of their sins, and they will take its [the Temple's] measurements."

And here is the next, extraordinarily lengthy verse: "And if they are ashamed of all they have done, then the image of the House, and its measurements, and its exits and its entrances, and its forms and all of its laws, and its form and all of its statutes you shall teach to them and write them down before them; and they shall preserve all of the forms and the statutes and they shall fashion them."

In other words, if the people repent, then they will merit the privilege of building the Temple. But why go into such detail and enumerate all the particulars?

Vilna Gaon explains that the Jews are destined to erect three Temples. The first was built by King Solomon. The third and final Temple will be erected in time to come. What of the second Temple? This was build by the Jews upon their short-lived return from the Babylonian Exile (350 BCE).

Where in Scriptures are instructions given concerning the design and construction of the Second Temple?


In fact, this Second Temple ought not to have been build at all. It is the Temple of Ezekiel's vision which should have been built by the Jews upon their return from the Babylonian Exile. But the people did not rise to the occasion, and they fell short in their observance of Judaism. They were not permitted to build Ezekiel's Temple.

Here is where our verse comes in, according to the Gaon of Vilna. Ezekiel was told: if the Jews will at least feel ashamed of their misdeeds, if they will yearn for the spiritual heights which they ought to have reached--if they but achieve that, then they too will be able to erect a Temple. True, it will not be the perfect Temple of Ezekiel's vision. But they can study the details of the first Temple of Solomon and the details of the Temple envisioned by Ezekiel. And then the Divine spirit will rest upon them and they will understand how to build a "temporary" Temple containing elements of both.

This is the meaning of our verse. If the Jews will be ashamed of their transgressions, then although they still may not be able to build Ezekiel's Temple--still, for them too there will be a Temple to build. They must study carefully all the details of both Temple plans, that of Solomon and that described in Ezekiel, and then they will understand how to build a Temple suited to their needs, which contains elements of both.

We must never give up in our drive to become better Jews, never feel that we've become stuck in a rut. Even if we're still far from our goal, we maybe sure that somewhere in the words of the Torah there's a path especially mapped out for us.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer

Ki Sisa


This week we read the stirring tale of the prophet Elijah's faceoff against the false prophets of the idol Baal. King Ahab, along with his cruel wife Jezebel, had persecuted the prophets of Hashem with a fanatic zeal, and had put most of them to death. The remaining prophets had gone into hiding. In Divine retribution, the land of Israel was deprived of rainfall for three years. Finally, at the end of this period, Elijah appeared before Ahav and told him to gather all of Israel at Mount Carmel and there he, Elijah, would stand alone and confront the prophets of the Baal. Each side would offer an animal sacrifice, and would then call upon his respective deity to kindle the fire.

Ahab assembled all of the people. Then Elijah took his stand before them and said:

"'How long will you stumble along both thought-paths? If Hashem is the Lord then follow Him, and if the Baal--then follow him!' And the people did not respond." (I Kings 18:21)

We are then told of how the prophets of the Baal attempted through all manner of prayer and through occult means to start the fire, but all to no avail. Then Elijah prayed to Hashem and a great fire descended from heaven to consume his offering. The people saw this and they fell upon their faces and cried, "Hashem, He is the Lord! Hashem, He is the Lord!"

Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Hurwitz, the famed "Alter" of Nevaradok (1848-1919), finds this account a bit puzzling. What, he queries, was the point of suggesting to the people that if they think the Baal is the Lord then they should follow him? Wasn't that a bit self-defeating?

The answer, writes the Alter, is that as long as the people felt that they could have it both ways, that they could be the people of Hashem and yet also worship their backyard image of the Baal, then it would be impossible for Elijah's message to get through. First, Elijah had to make things crystal clear. There was a choice to be made: either they would worship idols or they would worship Hashem. There's no middle ground, no "have your cake and eat it too" way of life.

"'If Hashem is the Lord then follow Him, and if the Baal--then follow him!' And the people did not respond."

Only after the people's silent acquiescence to this idea did Elijah perform his demonstration.

Sometimes being a Jew means that one must choose. We need to realize that we can't just live as we please and not have this take away from our lives as Jews. Once this point is clear, the choice itself becomes relatively easy.

You can't always have it both ways.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer

Haftorah Shekalim

Every year on Parshas Shekalim we commemorate the annual collection of the half-shekel coin, which every Jew would donate to the Temple coffers during the month of Adar. The revenues which accumulated from the half-shekels of all the people were used to purchase the Temple sacrifices throughout the coming year. In this way, each and every Jew was able to participate in bringing the Divine Presence to dwell within Israel.

The haftorah reading of the day discusses a similar theme. We read of King Yehoash's attempts to strengthen the Temple structure, which had fallen into disrepair during the reign of the wicked Queen Athalia. The account is given briefly in our reading (from II Kings) and more extensively in the book of Chronicles (II Chronicles, Chapter 24). Yehoash first appointed the kohanim-priests to be tax collectors; to go out amongst the people and collect the levy for the Temple. This method did not work, for the kohanim were reluctant to enforce the collection, and the monies trickled in slowly.

Yehoash then gave up on this system, and instead he installed a great chest in the Temple courtyard into which everyone could give whatever donation he chose. Immediately the chest began to fill until it had to be emptied, and it continued to fill again and again.

Dr. Mendel Hirsch elaborates on the distinction between the first method, which failed, and the second one, which achieved success. At first the people were forced to pay a predetermined levy. Only afterward, when Yehoash rescinded the tax, did he succeed in tapping into the natural enthusiasm of the people, and then their generosity knew no bounds.

The people wanted to give; Yehoash had merely to proved the wherewithal.

For it is one of the curiosities of life that in the act of giving one actually receives more than he gives. For example, people derive a deep satisfaction from raising children. Why? The baalei mussar (teachers of ethical doctrine) explain: because it provides them with the opportunity to give of themselves unto others.

Parshas Shekalim is about the joy and the satisfaction of being a giver.

And the half-shekel itself holds an important lesson too. Each of us has something to give. It may be that in itself it is only a "half-shekel"--but of the collected half-shekels from all of Israel is the Temple edifice built.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer


Finally Solomon's Temple is complete. Amidst the joyous multitudes of Israel, King Solomon transports the Ark of the Covenent from the city of David where it has been until now, to its rightful location in the Holy of Holies.

The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 8:1) provides an additional detail to the story. The procession, says the Midrash, reached the Temple gates. And then--

Solomon cried out, "Lift up your hands, O gates! Raise yourselves high, gateways of the world, and let the King of Honor enter!" (Psalms 24)The gates wanted to smash Solomon's head. They said to him, "Who is this King of Honor?"He responded, "Hashem, Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Honor, Selah!" (Psalms, ibid.)

In other words, the Temple gates misunderstood Solomon's cry, and they thought he was calling himself the King of Honor. (The commentators suggest that this Midrash really refers to the angels in charge of the gates, or else the story is a poetic metaphor and it simply means that the multitudes of the people misunderstood Solomon.)

Solomon reassured them, "Hashem, Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Honor."

The Midrash then adds one point. Why is Hashem called the King of Honor? Because He confers honor upon those who fear Him.

Yefe Toar offers the following explanation:

There are those, he writes, who are always looking for ways to belittle others. They are inveterate fault-finders, and cannot rest until they find some fault in everyone. And curiously enough, these people often have the lowest self-esteem. They themselves are insecure, and therefore they must find some small measure of security in "putting down" everyone else.

Hashem is called the King of Honor, the One to whom all honor truly belongs. And precisely for this reason we find that Hashem "grants honor to those who fear Him." Nobody can possibly take away from Hashem's own honor. It is perfect in itself, and it isn't built upon belittling anyone else.

The Mishnah (Avos 4:1) states: "Who is honored? He who honors others." One who freely gives honor to others demonstrates that his own self-image doesn't depend on making everyone else smaller than him. He who is truly an honorable person can feel free to give everyone else his due.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Rabbi Levi Langer

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