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A Fish Tale

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Vayakhel- Pekudei

Exodus 35:2 "Six days your work may be done, but the seventh day should be holy for you, a day of complete rest for G-d....."

Why does the Torah write this verse in the more passive form that "your work may be done," and not simply write, "Six days, you may do your work...?"  It almost implies that the work will get done by itself.  Furthermore, why does the Torah even mention that we can do work for six days? It could just mention the restriction of work on the seventh day?

Rabbi Shlomo Gantzfried has a very interesting approach to answer these questions:

 How do we view the reason for our material success?  Is it strictly due to our hard work and resourcefulness or is it due to G-d's decree that He makes every year on Rosh HaShana?   Rabbi Gantzfried says that our success stems from G'd's blessing and decree for us.  There is a requirement, however, that we have to work to earn a living.  We have to expend the normal effort needed to sustain ourselves.  The fruits of our labor however, for better or for worse, are not the result of the actual labor that we did, but rather reflect the heavenly decree that has been set for us.

If a person, however, views his success as directly coming from his long hours on the job, it will be very difficult for him to keep Shabbos.  Imagine his worry and anxiety the whole Shabbos as he contemplates how much money he is losing from not working.   A person with such a mindset cannot truly have a restful and peaceful Shabbos.  To such a person the Torah says, "Don't think that you are responsible for your financial success, your work (meaning your success) will be done without you".

From here we can understand why the passive construct of "six days your work may be done"  is used. It is only when a person believes that his material success comes from the Almighty that he can then completely fulfill the next part of the verse," And on the seventh day, it should be holy to you, a total rest for G-d."  This is why, in fact, this verse is stated before Moshe tells the Jewish people to donate gold and silver for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  Once people realize that their wealth is all from G-d, it will be much easier to donate.

 There is a universal custom for Jews to eat fish on Shabbos.  Some rabbis believe that the reason for this stems from our above insights in the following way:  Larger fish pursue smaller fish and try to swallow them.  If this is so, we would find, upon cutting the larger fish open, that the swallowed fish would be in the same position as the swallower, with his tail toward the other's tail, and his head parallel to the other's head.

This is not usually the case, however.  We find that the head of the swallowed fish faces the tail of the larger fish.  The larger fish swims after the smaller fish and thinks that it is his efforts that will guarantee his success at having a good meal, when in fact,  it is the fish that swim toward him that "just happen" to enter his open mouth that become his food.  The fish makes the effort to catch the smaller fleeing fish, but it is the Almighty who guides the "destined" fish into his mouth!

 Jews therefore eat fish on Shabbos to remind us that we need not worry about our livelihood on Shabbos.  Since all of our success comes from G-d, and it is G-d who is telling us to keep Shabbos, surely He will provide for our needs during the other six days of the week.  Just like the fish don't gain more from chasing more aggressively, so too, our success has nothing to do with our chasing after more money. 

Although we have an obligation to work and earn a livelihood as mentioned before, we needn't go overboard and act as if it all depends on us.  In fact, not only will a Jew not lose money by refraining from work on Shabbos, he will gain more blessing and success from the Almighty.  As we enjoy our gefilte fish this Shabbos, perhaps we will bring to mind the lesson we can learn from the fish, the profound message that the Almighty is our true Provider!


Our Engagement Ring

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Ki Sisa

Exodus (31: 12-17) And G-d spoke to Moshe saying, "And you should speak to the Jewish people to say, "HOWEVER, you should guard my Shabbos because it is a sign between me and you for ALL of your generations to know that I am G-d who makes you holy."

 In the previous two Parshiyos of Terumah and Tetzaveh, G-d has instructed Moshe to charge the Jewish people with building the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle, as well as to make the garments that the Kohanim and Kohen Gadol should wear.

The Torah spares no detail in describing the exact size and composition of each vessel and garment.  In this Parsha as well, G-d concludes His description of the Mishkan with the requirements for the washing basin, the anointing oil, and the incense, and then appoints Betzalel to be the master builder with Ahaliav assisting him.  In conclusion, the Torah summarizes everything with a review of all of the vessels to be made.

 With such attention given to the Mishkan, with such a buildup, it is quite striking and contrasting to find that the next six verses, 12-17,  present a major caveat.  They tell us that notwithstanding the vast holiness of the Mishkan and its deep kabbalistic significance, none of it can be made on the Shabbos.

The Torah stresses this by using the Hebrew word "Ach..." in verse 12, which means, "however."   Rashi says that G-d was telling the people, "although you will be excited and eager to build this holy edifice, you must abstain from its construction on Shabbos".  This is the Biblical source for the prohibition of doing any of the 39 major categories of labor on Shabbos, as there were 39 types of labor that were done to make the Mishkan.  Although we know of these categories from our Oral Law, these verses provide their Biblical encoding.

But couldn't the Mishkan be an exception? After all, what could be more holy and sacred than building this awesome and spiritually-endowed tabernacle?  And couldn't they have done some light work like weaving, tying or writing or many of the other minor activities needed to make the Mishkan?   What better way to spend a Shabbos?

 The answer lies in verses 16 and 17.  "And the Jewish people should keep the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations.  Between Me and the Jewish people, it is a sign forever that in six days, G-d made Heaven and Earth, and on the seventh day, He had complete rest."

When a Jew observes the Shabbos, he testifies to himself and to the world that G-d made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day.  When he sanctifies Shabbos by doing the many positive Shabbos commandments like eating three special meals, making Kiddush, and creating the right ambiance in the home, and also refrains from the 39 prohibited categories of labor - stopping all his own creative activity, he acknowledges G-d as the Creator.  When he limits his creative mastery over his environment, even in the most minor of ways, he bears witness to the Master Creator, and is able to internalize his utter dependence on the Almighty.   Doing His will then becomes appropriate and natural. The Torah tells us that this testimony and internal acknowledgement supersedes the building of the Mishkan.

 The Chofetz Chaim says that Shabbos is the heart of Judaism and is the sign of our eternal relationship with Him.  He quotes the Gemara that G-d told Moshe that he had a beautiful present in his treasure house called Shabbos, and that he wished to give it to the Jewish people. "Go and let them know about it," He told Moshe - as in verse 13.  

The Chofetz Chaim compares this to a newly engaged bride and groom.  After their engagement, they give beautiful, endearing gifts to each other.  If their friends notice that as time passes, the couple is rarely seen together, they might speculate that perhaps the engagement has been called off or they might attribute it to other external factors.   But once it has been reported that the bride has returned her gifts to the groom, once she has taken her ring off and given it back to him, we know that their engagement is over.

So is this true with us, the bride, and the Almighty, the groom.   He has given us the Shabbos as a sign of His great affection for us and of our intimate, eternal relationship with Him.  When the Jewish people observe the Shabbos, our relationship with Him is secure.  Although there might be lapses in other areas of our Jewish observance, although we might be distant from each other at certain times in our lives, as long as we wear that "ring" - the Shabbos, we are still engaged.  We are still his loyal and devoted partner.  Once we stop observing the Shabbos however, it is as though we have returned the ring and our engagement is over. 

As the magic of Purim still lingers and we feel close to the Almighty, let us "wear" our "ring" - the gift of the Shabbos, with pride and exaltedness.   Observing  Shabbos is one of the most powerful ways that we express our deep connection to Him as His people, charged with testifying to His guiding Presence in our world.  We are intimately bound to our creator and together we can uplift our world and illuminate it with truth and higher levels of meaning and connection.


The Majesty of Music

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Tetzaveh

Exodus: 28:2

And you should make holy clothes  for Aharon, your brother, for honor and for glory."

The Ramban explains that the clothes of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, were to be magnificent and distinguished, similar, even, to clothes worn by kings at the time.  The Mishkan, the tabernacle itself, was also an incredibly majestic and beautiful structure.  What was the purpose of all this splendor?   

We could say that all this beauty was to honor the Almighty.  The Jewish people donated their most beautiful possessions and most valuable materials to build a dwelling place for G-d and their service of Him. 

Another reason is that, seeing the beauty and grandeur of the Mishkan and the Kohanim,  the Jewish people would be brought to an internal experience of the Almighty's grandeur and glory, and be elevated to experience a deep connection to His presence around them.

There was another element of sensory experience in the Mishkan, and that was music.  Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon, the Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Gevohah, writes about the essence of music.  He points out that when a baby is crying, talking won't usually calm him down, whereas singing a lullaby will.   This is because music is from the soul.  In fact, the Vilna Gaon writes that music is the language of the angels. 

 The baby cannot understand the language of words yet, but his soul understands and responds to music - the deep language of his source.   It is for this reason that the Levites stood on their platforms in the Mishkan, and sang and played musical instruments during the service.  The music would transport the people into the dimension of the soul, spiritualizing their thoughts and actions, connecting them more deeply to G-d.

Along similar lines, the composer of the famous Shabbos song, Lecha Dodi, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, has a commentary on Megillas Esther, the Megillah that we read on Purim.  In his Manos HaLevi, he asks an interesting question.  He notes that the Megillah begins by describing the 180 day feast that king Achashverosh made for his nobles and officials in which he actually had the audacity to wear the clothes of the Kohen Gadol.  Then he invited the people of Shushan, including the Jews, to a seven day feast. 

The Megillah describes the magnificence of the feast: the ornate and beautiful hangings held up with fine linen cords upon silver rods and marble pillars; the couches of gold and silver, on a flooring of green and white onyx marble;  the wonderful fragrances in the air;  the lavish food  and drinks, even  kosher, to make the feast seem accommodating to the needs of the Jews.  But there is no mention of music.  Where, asks Rav Alkabetz, were the violins and harps to grace this party?  Didn't every lavish affair in those days have orchestral accompaniment?

  He answers that Achashverosh's purpose in inviting the Jews to his feast was actually to corrupt them, and to put them in disfavor with G-d.  After all, he made this feast  to celebrate what he, in a miscalculation, thought was the failure of the well-known prophesy of Yermiyahu, that after 70 years in Babylonia, the Jews would return to Israel and rebuild their Temple.  How could the Jews celebrate this, especially since they had been warned by Mordechai, the leading rabbi of their generation, not to attend? 

 Achashverosh, intending to disconnect them from the Almighty,  understood the spiritual power of music. He knew that if music was present, it could reach the souls of the Jewish people, strengthening their deep closeness to their G-d, and arousing their longing to return to Israel.   They might then realize their mistake in attending the feast, and leave before Achashverosh could bring them down to their baser natures.  Music, even Persian music, was the one thing that Achashverosh feared could elevate the Jews and arouse their spiritual yearning for their past greatness as G-d's people.

Our world is one of incredible natural beauty with so many facets to give us pleasure.  If we take time to focus on the source of this beauty and grandeur, it can deepen our relationship with God and inspire us to become greater people.

Let us hope and pray that this Purim, as we enjoy our delicious meals,  as we feel the joy of fulfilling the mitzvos of giving gifts to the poor and to our friends, and as we sing and dance to uplifting music, that we arouse and lift ourselves up to experience a reconnection with our Creator, and embrace our glorious heritage.  In that merit, may we enjoy a peaceful resolution to the dangers at hand, and as God saved us then from the evil Haman, may he again bring us salvation from our enemies of today.


Owners or Managers?

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Terumah

 Exodus  (25:1-2)  And G-d spoke to Moshe saying, " Speak to the Jewish people and have them take for me a gift; from everyone whose heart motivates him, take my gift."

 This Parsha describes G-d's directives to the Jewish people to build a Mishkan, a portable sanctuary.  It would house the Aron HaKodesh, the holy Ark, in which the Ten Commandments would rest; it would house the golden Menorah, the golden Table, and various other objects that would bring blessing to the Jewish people.  The Parsha begins with G-d commanding Moshe to direct the people to make donations of the materials needed to make the Mishkan. 

It seems odd that the verse above uses the word, "Vayikchu", and they should take..."  Wouldn't it be more accurate to write, "Vayitnu," and they should give...?"  A person gives charity; he doesn't take charity!  

Rav Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, posed this question and answered it in the following way:

G-d wanted the Mishkan to be built by those who truly wanted to give their materials, but He also wanted the donors to realize that their money and materials were not really theirs but belonged to G-d.  They had to feel in their hearts that they weren't giving, for you normally only give what is yours.  Instead they had to feel as if their wealth was G-d's and they were simply watching over it like guardians.  When they would give materials for the Mishkan, they shouldn't feel as if they were relinquishing their personal possessions, but that these possessions were simply in their domain, sort of put aside for the collectors to take, hence the verse, "and they should take".

Rav Moshe concludes by saying that all of us should have this perspective when we give charity.  When we give charity, we aren't giving from ourselves, but from what the good Lord has blessed us with.  We should consider ourselves like money managers or trustees over the money;  our job is simply to manage the money that actually belongs to the Almighty.

Jewish Law actually commands us to set aside 10% of our earnings for Tzedaka.  Many have the practice of taking 10% off their paycheck or dividends each month and putting it into a separate charity checking account.  This reinforces the idea that 10% of our earnings are not ours at all,  It actually can make giving charity more enjoyable when the money is in a special charity account and is only there for us to manage and distribute it.  We can then give charity more whole-heartedly, and with more consistency.  



Jewish Slavery

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Mishpatim

This Parsha devotes the first eleven verses to the buying and selling of Jewish servants.  How can we understand this?   How can the same Torah which promotes the dignity of man condone human slavery?

Indeed, without our Oral Law, we would misunderstand this section of the Torah.  A massive amount of legal principles and detailed laws were given by G-d orally to Moshe who taught them to the Jewish people.  They were only written down later as the Talmud as a result of the Roman occupation and exile.  As the Jewish people dispersed, the access to these oral teachings was going to be limited and so the sages wrote these teachings down.

 The relationship of the Five Books of Moshe to the Oral Law is beautifully explained by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in his brilliant commentary to the Torah. 

"This Book (the Five Books of Moshe) was not intended as a primary source of the Law.  It was meant for those who were already well-versed in the Law, to use as a means of retaining and reviving, ever anew, the knowledge that they had already committed to memory.  It was intended as a teaching aid for teachers of the Law, as a reference to confirm the Oral Law, so that the students should find it easy, with the aid of the Written text before them, to reproduce in their minds, ever anew, the knowledge they had received by word of mouth.

The relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law is like that between brief written notes taken on a scientific lecture and the lecture itself.  Students who attended the oral lecture require only their brief notes to recall at any time the entire lecture.  They often find that a word, a question mark, an exclamation mark, a period, or the underscoring of a word is sufficient to bring to mind a whole series of ideas, observations, qualifications, and so forth.  But for those who did not attend the instructor's lecture, these notes are not of much use.  If they try to reconstruct the lecture solely from these notes, they will of necessity make many errors."

 A simple example of this is "an eye for an eye" in Exodus 21:24.  Without the Oral Law, we might think that we punish someone who cuts out someone else's eye by cutting out his eye but the Oral Law teaches us that the punishment is only a financial one; we assess the monetary value of the eye and require the perpetrator to pay that to the victim.

 Likewise, concerning buying servants, the Oral Law explains who these servants are.  They are not "slaves."  They are simply "workers" (Avadim) who have stolen something and do not have the money or items to return.  The court sells him to raise the funds needed to pay back the victim. He will work as a hired worker for a family for no more than six years.  If during this time, he or his family or friends can find the money equal to the theft, they can pay the owner and free this worker.

This servant has to be treated with great respect; he cannot be forced to do harsh labor or demoralizing labor like taking off the owner's shoes, or even carrying his clothes to the bathhouse.  He can't be forced to work without good reason.  If the servant gets sick and cannot work for the majority of the six year period ( up to four years) those four years are included in the six year period and the worker is not required to make up the time later.

The owner must supply all of his material needs and comforts as well as those of the servant's wife and family.  He eats the same food as the owner.  If the owner eats fresh bread, he must give the worker the same.  If the owner drinks aged wine, he must give the worker the same.  The owner must give him the same type of bedding as he has. And more so, if the owner has only one pillow, he must give it to the servant instead of himself.  The Gemara sums up this arrangement by saying, " Whoever buys a Jewish servant, it is like he has bought a master over himself."

 And let us remember that we are speaking about a thief who either cannot pay or who doesn't want to pay back what he stole, not the most exemplary character around.

Instead of throwing this criminal in jail to be with other criminals, the Torah has a system in which he is rehabilitated.  By living with a family, he will be influenced by their positive moral character.  He will experience the honor and dignity given to him, and will hopefully change his corrupt ways.

 This is just a glimpse of the necessity of our Oral Law and its teachings.  Without them we would grossly misunderstand this and many other passages in the Torah.  

Have A Good Shabbos!