Monthly Archives: March 2015

Shabbat HaGadol 5775: Withdraw Your Hands and Take Hold of Pesah

Shabbat HaGadol represents the internal emancipation that was the necessary precondition for the Exodus. Technically, the Israelites were still slaves on the tenth of the month, but when Moses called the elders of Israel and told them to pick out animals for the sacrifice, this was the moment when the people shifted their obedience from Pharaoh to Moses, and to God: “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door until morning.” Israel must initiate the redemption by these private actions in their homes, and then God will begin the redemption for all the world to see.

Our ancient sages puzzled over the two verbs that introduce this commandment: מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ, which literally mean something like “withdraw and take” (your lambs). In the early Midrash Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, several explanations are offered. One is that the Israelites feared that sacrificing lambs would be an abomination to Egypt for which they themselves could be killed. Moses responded that only when they took this action and experienced the miracle of survival would they know how to serve God. And so it was, the great miracle of survival transpired. Since some sages claim that the tenth of the month that year was on Shabbat, this was the date that Israel became “great”—no longer cowed into submission like little kids, they asserted their independence from Egypt. Hence this Shabbat became “HaGadol”, the date of national maturation. (See Tosfot Shabbat 87b, s.v. V’oto Yom).

Later on in the Mekhilta, the verbs “draw and take” are understood differently. Rabbi Yosi says that first one must “withdraw” his/her hands from idolatry, and only then “take” upon him/herself the commandments. Rabbi Yishmael says that up until the moment when the lamb is slaughtered, a person may enroll or withdraw from inclusion in this Pascal fellowship. Rabbi Yitzhak takes a more legalistic route, saying that these verses teach that legal title for livestock is acquired through leading the animal by the bridle.

As you can imagine, it is Rabbi Yosi’s explanation that has won the affection of later rabbis. In Hasidic literature, this verse became a favorite example of the stages of devotion. The Maggid (R’ Dov Baer), building on many statements in the Zohar to this effect, says that Israel was stuck in Egypt because of the defiling force of idolatry. By withdrawing their hands from idolatry, they were able to tap into the great power of Abraham—which was love. This then is Shabbat HaGadol because of the awakening of love of our first patriarch—the great Abraham.

R’ Kalonymos Kalman haLevi Epstein in Ma’or Va’Shemesh draws on Rabbi Yosi’s statement and also on the idea found elsewhere that Israel in Egypt was “naked of mitzvot”—fulfilling the mitzvah of the Pesah provided them with the merit to be redeemed. Their withdrawal from idolatry was an act of repentance, or teshuvah, and the taking of the Pesah was a mitzvah. Thus, these verbs explicate the process of auto-emancipation.

Judah Aryeh Leib writes in Sefat Emet that these two verbs represent two repairs—a negative and a positive mitzvah that respectively purify the body and the soul. When Israel withdraws from idolatry, understood as a physical contamination, it allows its spiritual potential to glow, and then when it takes upon itself the mitzvah of Pesah, it sets the stage for redemption. So this Shabbat becomes Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat because on it our people began to extricate themselves from the limitations that kept them spiritually small, and to become great through the vehicle of mitzvot and of spiritual proximity to God.

We have much work to do in preparing for Pesah. There is cleaning, shopping, cooking and seder preparation. But Shabbat HaGadol itself is meant to focus us on the internal preparation—the awakening of love, the withdrawal from sin, and the embrace of mitzvot to become God’s partner. We have no shortage of enslavements in our world today. On this Shabbat HaGadol, let us identify them and build up our resolve to take action to change our story and experience redemption now, ushering in the great and awesome day of the Lord.

שמות פרק יב, כא-כב

(כא) וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְכָל־זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם וְשַׁחֲטוּ הַפָּסַח: (כב) וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר־בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן־הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח־בֵּיתוֹ עַד־בֹּקֶר:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה ה

והיה לכם למשמרת למה נאמר לפי שנאמר משכו וקחו לכם צאן וגו’ אמרו לו ישראל למשה רבינו הן נזבח את תועבת מצרים וגו’ (שם /שמות/ ח כב) אמר להן מן הנס שהוא עושה לכם במשיכתו אתם יודעים מה בשחיטתו:

תוספות מסכת שבת דף פז עמוד ב

ואותו יום חמישי בשבת היה כו’ – ואם כן ברביעי שחטו פסחיהם ונמצא בשבת שעברה לקחו פסחיהן שאז היה בעשור לחדש ועל כן קורין אותו שבת הגדול לפי שנעשה בו נס גדול

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יא

משכו וקחו לכם צאן משכו מי שיש לו וקחו מי שאין לו רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר משכו ידיכם מע”ז והדבקו במצוה רבי ישמעאל אומר בא הכתוב ללמדך שלעולם נמנין על הפסח ומושכין את ידיהם ממנו עד שישחט ובלבד שיניח את הפסח כל שהוא ר’ יצחק אומר בא הכתוב ללמדך על בהמה דקה שהיא נקנית במשיכה.

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת בא פרשה טז

אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה כל זמן שישראל עובדין לאלהי מצרים לא יגאלו, לך ואמור להן שיניחו מעשיהן הרעים ולכפור בעבודת כוכבים, הה”ד (שמות יב) משכו וקחו לכם, כלומר משכו ידיכם מעבודת כוכבים וקחו לכם צאן ושחטו אלהיהם של מצרים ועשו הפסח, שבכך הקדוש ברוך הוא פוסח עליכם, הוי (ישעיה ל) בשובה ונחת תושעון.

תורת המגיד תורה פרשת בא

משכו וקחו לכם צאן [יב, כא]. כי במצרים לא היתה התעוררות מלמטה שהיה בהם גילולי ע”ז, ולכך הוצרך התעוררות מלמעלה, ולכך כתיב (לקמן יב, יב) אני ה’, אני ולא אחר, וזהו שנאמר (לקמן יד, לא) וירא ישראל את היד הגדולה אשר עשה ה’ במצרים, משום שהבטיח לאברהם (בראשית טו, יד) ואחר כן יצאו ברכוש גדול. ואברהם נקרא יד הגדולה, דהיינו אהבה, והאהבה היתה הגורם להתעוררות זו, כדאיתא בזוהר (זח”ג קטו, ב) כלתי בשוק של בורסי דומה עלי כשוק של בושם

מאור ושמש שמות פרשת בא

וזה ידוע, בעת שהגיע הקץ לצאת ממצרים ולא היה ביד ישראל שום מצוה, כדאיתא בגמרא ובמדרש (שמו”ר א לה), על כן אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא להם המצוה של פסח, כידוע. וממילא, גם כן היו צריכים לעשות מקודם תשובה על עבירות שבידם, כי (תהלים נ טז) וְלָרָשָׁע אָמַר אֱלֹהִים מַה לְּךָ לְסַפֵּר חֻקָּי. גם במדרש איתא, שבזכות התשובה שעשו כל אחד מהם יצאו ממצרים. כדאיתא גם כן בגמרא (ראה מכילתא כאן) מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן (שמות יב כא) משכו ידיכם – מעבודה זרה, וקחו לכם צאן – של מצוה. נמצא, שבעשור לחדש היה מתחיל להאיר להם העולם – התשובה בשעה שלקחו להם הקרבן, כנ”ל מהזוהר הקדוש, ‘דאנהיר יובלא’ – דהיינו עולם התשובה.

שפת אמת שמות פרשת בא

ובמצוה ראשונה זו נכללו כל המצות. וכ’ משכו וקחו משכו ידיכם מע”ז וקחו צאן של מצוה. והם בחי’ שמור וזכור. כלל מל”ת ומ”ע. וב’ כוחות אלו נמסרו לבנ”י. שיכולין למשוך מן הטבע והגשמיות. ושיכולין לעורר הקדושה ולהתדבק בהקב”ה. וב’ תיקונים אלו הם לגוף ולנפש. ולכן בש”ק שהוא זכר ליצ”מ נתעורר ב’ אלו הכוחות. וכמו שבדברות נאמר זכור ובמשנה תורה הוסיף מרע”ה שמור. ושניהם בדיבור אחד נאמרו. כמו כן כאן אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא ויקחו להם. ומשה רבינו הוסיף להם משכו וקחו. שצריכין מקודם לתקן הגוף להפרישו מן הגשמיות. אח”כ מתעורר כח הנפש והנשמה.

 Bios from Bar Ilan

TORAT HAMAGGID. R. Dov Baer b. R. Avraham was born circa 1704. In his youth he studied in Lemberg, in the yeshiva of R. Ya’akov Yehoshua, author of the Pnei Yehoshua. He then became a preacher in a number of communities, eventually becoming close to R. Israel, the Ba’al Shem Tov, becoming his great disciple.

MA’OR VASHEMESH. R. Kalonymos Kalman haLevi Epstein was born in Cracow in 1751 / 5511 to his father R. Aharon. R. Kalonymos was a disciple of R. Elimelech of Lizensk, the Seer of Lublin, and other great Chassidic leaders. He died in 1823 / 5583.

SEFAT EMET. R. Judah Aryeh Leib ben R. Avraham Mordechai Alter was born in 1847 in Gur (Gora Kalwaria) in Poland. The grandson of R. Isaac Meir Alter (author of Chiddushei Ha-Rim), he was orphaned at an early age and was raised by his grandfather. On his grandfather’s death, he refused to be appointed Rebbe of the Gur Chasidim, and only after four years did he relent.

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Shabbat VaYikra/HaHodesh 5775: For the Sins of the Leader

If the first two books of Torah can be understood according to their Hebrew names—Bereshit, the book of origins, and Sh’mot, the book of names (or identities), then this week we begin Vayikra, the book of calling. We discover within it a divine calling—to approach the Tent of Meeting, just as Moses did, and to articulate a practice of holiness that structures our individual and communal lives. Leviticus is also known as Torat Kohanim, the instruction for priests, but it addresses all of Israel with its core sections focused on holiness. Even in its opening chapters, which focus on the sacrifices, there is pertinent Torah for all of Israel, wherever and whenever we live.

The primary categories of sacrifice, Olah (burnt), Sh’lamim (whole), and Hattat (purification) each stands for a specific modality of religious life. I think of Olah as the mode of pure devotion in which a person stands in awe at the majesty of creation and offers pure praise to God. As religious people we are called to praise our Creator, holding nothing back, and asking for nothing in return. Sh’lamim is the mode of gratitude for specific benefits of our lives—our health, sustenance and families. There is an implicit request here—we are thanking God, animated by the anxious concern that these blessings may not continue. We offer gratitude as a form of insurance, pleading that wholeness and peace may be our inheritance. 

The Olah is similar in a way to the first section of the Amidah prayer, known as Shevah, or praise, while the Sh’lamim lines up nicely with the closing blessings of the Amidah, known as Hoda’ah, or thanksgiving. This leaves the purification offering, Hattat, which has also been known as the sin offering, to line up with the middle section of the Amidah, known as Bakashah, or request. These offerings do not come from a sensation of wholeness, but rather from yearning for restoration. Something has been broken and lost in our lives, and we yearn to be purified, to once again be whole with God. Although the Temple as a physical reality has been missing for two millennia, these modes of religiosity remain real in our lives. We too feel the need to praise, to offer thanksgiving, and to seek purification of that which is broken in our individual and communal lives.  Continue reading

Shabbat Parah 5775: Redemption Begins Within

Red_Heifer_JPurim and Pesah are both festivals of redemption, serving as bookends in the final and first months of the Hebrew year. But Purim is by far the lesser holiday. True, the Jews of Persia escaped from Haman’s genocidal threat, but they then remained in a vulnerable position, and in the final chapters of the Megillah they reacted to their trauma with physical violence rather than spiritual growth (a few alms for the poor notwithstanding). There are no songs of praise (Hallel) on Purim, and nothing comparable to the song of the sea or the march to Sinai, just a drunken feast meant to make the victims resemble their tipsy tormentors. 

The sages taught us to juxtapose redemption to redemption (b. Megillah 6b), and I sense that their idea is not only proximity but also ascent. We proceed from Purim’s raucous celebration of a narrow escape to Pesah, a festival of restraint that teaches us to savor the sweetness of freedom, and to create a just society bound by law. Redemption, we learn, is not primarily about mastering external circumstances but about internal growth. Shabbat Parah is a point of transition when the Jewish people, bloodied and even defiled by the conflict of Purim, dedicates itself to purification in preparation for Passover. Continue reading

Purim 5775–A royal dress?

Gold and white?

Purim is our festival of contradictions and hidden meanings. This year I suddenly noticed one detail that has been hiding in plain sight—the color of Esther’s royal dress. Was it blue, or gold? The Megillah itself is maddeningly ambiguous. We read in Chapter 5, “On the third day, Esther was garbed in royalty.” The ancient rabbis noticed something strange about the verse. It should have said that she was dressed in “royal garments” (בגדי מלכות מיבעי ליה), but instead says that she wore “royalty” (וַתִּלְבַּשׁ   אֶסְתֵּר  מַלְכוּת). What does that mean? What does that look like? In
Esther Rabba 9:1 we are told that she was accompanied by two maidens, resting her arm on one of them, while the other walked behind and held up her golden train. This would imply that her dress was gold.  

dress-croppedBut read ahead in the Megillah to chapter 8, verse 15. There we are told that Mordecai wore “royal garments of blue” (בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת), with white trim and a great golden crown. This implies that to wear royal garments in the Megillah is to wear blue. So what color was Esther’s dress—blue, or gold?   Continue reading