Return on Investment


In the Haggadah, we recount the Ten Plagues that G-d inflicted upon the Egyptians. The Toldos Adam quotes the Medrash which says that these plagues, like all of G-d’s rewards and punishments, were done “measure for measure.”

  1. The Egyptians made the Israelites carry water, and did not give them time to bathe themselves, so the water turned to blood.
  2. The Egyptians shouted and yelled at them and did not give them rest, day or night, so they were afflicted with frogs that kept them up day and night.
  3. They made them clean the markets and streets, and animal excrement is a fertile breeding ground for lice, so they were struck with lice.
  4. They made them capture dangerous animals for them, risking their lives, so there was a plague of wild animals.
  5. They made them labor alongside their animals and shepherd their animals, so their animals died.
  6. They struck them until their bodies were covered by bruises, welts, and boils, so they were afflicted with boils.
  7. They hit them with stones, so they were struck with hail — stones of ice (he adds that they are called “stones” in the Book of Joshua).
  8. They made them farm the fields, growing their grain and planting trees, so their crops were afflicted
  9. They made the eyes of Israel dark with exhaustion and sadness, so they were afflicted with darkness.
  10. Finally, they struck Israel, who G-d calls “my child, my firstborn,” so their firstborn were killed.

We also read in the Haggadah that no matter how much we already know, it is a Mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at the Pesach Seder, and the more one goes on and speaks about it, “behold, this is praiseworthy.” This translation, while accurate, is incomplete. Because the word we translate as “praiseworthy,” “meshubach,” comes from the word “shevach,” which refers to the increase and improvement in a field, vineyard or orchard, or even on top of a financial investment. The “shevach” is the profit.

Behold, this is “meshubach:” The Haggadah is telling us that if we spend extra time talking about the Exodus, describing it to our children, bringing to life for ourselves and others what it means to go from slavery to freedom, to become His Nation — this will pay dividends. There will be a profit. We and our families will be inspired not only during Passover, but throughout the year.

Our Sages also tell us that G-d’s rewards are greater than His punishments — everything is “measure for measure,” but there’s a stingy measure and a generous measure, and the latter is used for blessings. So if the plagues meted out on the Egyptians seem harsh, G-d’s blessings are much greater. When we talk “extra” about the Exodus at the Seder, says the Haggadah, we will be richly rewarded!

We Can Choose Our Direction

Having discussed whether animals are pure or impure, whether they are kosher to eat or not, the Torah now turns to discuss the purity and impurity of human beings.

up-or-downYet there is a fundamental difference between the purity or impurity of man vs. animal. An animal is either kosher, or not — its state is determined from birth. And when it dies, a kosher animal becomes impure if it was not slaughtered correctly — meaning that only human intervention prevents it from becoming impure. In both life and death, an animal does not change its own state. A human being, on the other hand, can become pure or impure repeatedly throughout his or her lifetime.

This distinction between the purity of animals versus human beings is parallel to the fundamental difference in our natures. An animal is a creature of instinct; it performs the mission that G-d gave it without conscious thought. Only human beings get to choose how to behave, which is both a blessing and a curse.

A human being combines a physical body and a Divine soul, and repeatedly chooses which nature to follow. We can attach ourselves to the Divine, or (ch”v) pursue our base instincts. In death the body and soul separate — the purity of the soul leaves the impurity of the body. As a result, the corpse reflects the deepest level of impurity. Not only physical contact, but even traveling over a grave or sharing a room with a body is sufficient to make a person impure.

Throughout our lives, we, unlike the animals, can choose to make ourselves more G-dly and pure. May we always make the right choices!

The Sign Has It Wrong

A friend took the attached photo at the enclosure for the collared peccary, a species native to Central and South America (as you can see on the map), in the Jerusalem Zoo. In red letters and in three languages, the sign declares: the peccary is not a pig!!

not_a_pigThere’s only one problem: the sign is wrong.

Biological taxonomy distinguishes between the Sus domesticus (domestic pig) and Pecari tajacu (collared peccary), as it does between Sus domisticus and Sus barbatus (the bearded pig) — but from a Biblical perspective, all three are certainly the “chazir,” the pig mentioned in this week’s Torah reading [Lev. 11:7]. It’s quite understandable why people make the “mistake” of thinking a peccary is a pig, because the domestic pig and peccary appear much more similar to each other than to the bearded pig, and all three look far more similar than assorted varieties of dogs (for example).

The same is true of the camel family. We might think of the camel as an animal with a hump, but all four species of the Camelid family found in the New World (llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas) have none. When you look at their faces, one would have a very hard time telling any of the four apart from dromedaries and bactrian camels.

In these cases, appearances are not deceiving. What we see with our eyes is what the Torah tells us to expect: that regardless of where you travel, you won’t be able to confuse Kosher animals with anything else. All the animals that look like camels actually are — and they all ruminate but do not have a cloven hoof [11:4]. They are, as the Torah tells us, the only domestic livestock that have this pair of characteristics. [The Torah also identifies two wild animals which ruminate but do not have cloven hooves; there is some debate about what they are.] All varieties of pig, including the peccaries, have the opposite pattern: they have cloven hooves but do not ruminate. In this, they are even more unique, as no animals, domestic or wild, share this combination.

The Talmud (Chulin 59a) takes this even a step further, from the Oral Law: you can check the mouth of an animal whose hooves have been cut off: if it has no upper front teeth and you know it isn’t a camel, it’s a Kosher animal. And of course, if you know what a pig looks like, you needn’t check the mouth: anything else that has cloven hooves is Kosher.

This is true all over the world — even on continents unknown to Eurasians until hundreds of years ago. The Torah boldly proclaimed that no other livestock have one characteristic and not the other except these two animals, which no tribe wandering the Middle East at the time could possibly have known. The Torah even knew that the peccary, a family of animals found only in the New World, is indeed a pig!

Challenging the Obvious

Purim_graggerOne of the recurring themes of the Book of Esther is that what we see, what we may believe to be obvious, may be quite the opposite of reality. The very name “Esther” (whose original name was Hadassah) means “hidden” — similar to the verse we find in the Torah, when G-d says “Hasther Astir es panai” — “I will surely hide My face” [Deut 31:18] when the Jews turn away from G-d. The very presence of G-d is hidden throughout the story of Purim, and His name is never mentioned in the Megillah. Instead, when reference is made to “the King” rather than “King Achashverosh,” the commentaries often explain that there is a double meaning: both Achashvesrosh, and the King of Kings.

When we read the Book of Esther, what reason do we see for the King’s decree authorizing the annihilation of the Jewish people? The obvious blame falls upon Mordechai, the scholar. Haman, the King’s closest advisor, walked through the streets and expected everyone to bow before him. Mordechai alone refused to bow, because Haman wore an idol around his neck. How foolish! How extremist! Isn’t it obvious that Haman wanted people to bow to him, not the idol? And because of his obstinate behavior, Mordechai got Haman so angry that Haman planned to kill off not just Mordechai, but all the Jews.

But that, say our Sages, is the opposite of the true cause. It was not Mordechai’s actions that nearly brought about a catastrophe still greater than the Holocaust (for there were no Jews who were not under Achashverosh’s rule), but the behavior of those who did not listen to him!

The Megillah begins with the great party thrown by Achashverosh. This is included not simply because it precipitated the death of Queen Vashti, and thus set the stage for Esther to become Queen. Rather, this party was to celebrate Ashashverosh’s power, and the fact that G-d had abandoned the Jews. Our prophets had foretold a seventy year exile, and Achashverosh miscalculated at what point the seventy years began. By his calculation, the time had elapsed and the Jews had not been redeemed. This is why he showed up wearing the holy vestments of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, and used the vessels taken from the Holy Temple as the serving utensils at the party!

Mordechai said that no one could go to this party, that it would indicate disloyalty to G-d and lack of faith that He would fulfill his promise. But most of the Jews said, how can we express disloyalty to the king? He promised kosher food, and that no one would have to eat or drink anything they didn’t want to consume — so not going would be ungrateful as well. And so they went. And this, the Sages say, is what actually set the stage for their destruction. What saved them was when they admitted their error, even missing the Passover Seder to fast, as Esther commanded Mordechai to tell them to do.

Sometimes things can appear to be very obvious, yet the truth is just the opposite. Without looking deeper and turning to wise counsel, we could make a terrible mistake. “Venehapech Hu,” “it was all reversed,” doesn’t just refer to Haman’s decree — it means reality may be the opposite of what we perceive!

A Little Less Chutzpah

opinionIn this week’s reading, we’re told that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was to wear a Tzitz, a band of gold across his forehead. And the band said “Kadosh LaShem,” Sanctified to G-d.

The Talmud tells us that the Tzitz atoned for azus panim, literally “boldness of face” — presumptuousness, brazenness, chutzpah. Think about a “bald-faced lie” — sinning in an obvious, blunt, brazen way. The Zohar says that when the Kohen Gadol wore the Tzitz on his forehead, it subdued those who were brazen, comparing what was “written” on their foreheads.

In the Chapters of the Fathers, 5:23, there is a perplexing Mishnah. “He [Yehudah ben Teima] used to say: ‘The brazen go to Gehennom [purgatory], but the shamefaced go to the Garden of Eden.’ May it be Your will, HaShem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in your Torah.”

The author tells us what Yehudah ben Teima used to say, and then he starts davening (praying)! Looking forward to the rebuilding of the Temple, and praying for our share in Torah, is a recurring theme throughout the traditional Jewish prayer book — but what is it doing in the middle of a Mishnah?

I found the following answer (original source unknown): the author of the Mishnah wrote the saying of Yehudah ben Teima, and immediately thought of the brazen people in his own generation, who undoubtedly caused grief for the community — especially for “straight,” upright individuals. Those people, he wrote, were going to face cleansing in Gehennom for their behavior. And he remembered that when the Temple existed, the Tzitz on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol atoned for their sins, and indeed subdued them and prevented them from being so brazen in the first place. And so this short prayer burst from his heart, asking for this to happen soon.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, teacher of our class Be’eros, an advanced class on the Torah Portion, commented recently that he prefers to only write about current events if he has “something semi-insightful to add to what is already out there.” And, in turn, he quoted former New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich, who said that “the relentless production of a newspaper column… can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion.”

Today we live in a society where chutzpah is so “normal” that there isn’t even a word to describe it in common usage. Who talks about “brazenness?” Everyone’s got an opinion about everything and everyone, regardless of whether they’ve even looked into the issue. After all, we need to know what to tell the poll-taker when he or she calls to find out our opinion. As a result, we all think we know better than the experts. The pitfall is that when we respect on expert or authority but ourselves, anarchy is the result. What a difference a Kohen Gadol would make!

Building the Tabernacle

This class is dedicated in memory of my father in law, Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld z”l, who, besides so many other accomplishments, was instrumental in helping the work of Project Genesis through his classes and answers to students. Please remember HaRav Azriel Yitzchak ben HaRav Avraham Zvi z”l in your learning

Our Torah portion, Terumah, talks about building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert — the precursor of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At first glance, you might wonder what the connection is between this portion and the last one.

As we discussed, last week’s reading discussed Mishpatim, judgments, laws necessary to create a moral and just society. Those are “baseline requirements,” things that apply to everyone, and the Torah certainly isn’t done speaking about those types of laws. Building the Tabernacle was totally different. No one was required to participate, not even a “suggested donation.” “You will take my donations from anyone whose heart moves him to do so” [Ex. 25:2].

My work at Project Genesis follows a similar model: everyone is able to come and benefit from all of the writings at We simply put out the word now and again that continuing our work, our efforts to reach out and build a Jewish future through Jewish learning, cannot happen without donations. In our case, we even offer great prizes — like the chance to win a $1000 gold necklace if you give prior to Feb. 15, and a grand prize of $100,000 cash — to encourage hearts to move. And everyone able to give, does so! Am I right?

Back to topic.

scales-money-globeWhy does the Torah intertwine these laws? Last week we mentioned that the Torah speaks briefly of building the Mizbeyach, the Altar, immediately between the Ten Commandments and the Mishpatim, the judgments, to show us that the place of judgment, the location of the High Court, should be next to that Altar. The lesson we learned is they are intimately connected, that following judgments is as important to G-d as our prayers.

Placing the donations for the Tabernacle after the judgments takes matters a step further. Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains that building a Jewish society with justice and humaneness is a prerequisite, before we can build something as holy as the Tabernacle. It is the foundation, without which the gifts to the Tabernacle are no Mitzvah at all.

This is true in the most literal sense. If a person steals a Lulav, the palm frond taken on Sukkos, then it’s no Mitzvah to use it. It is pasul, unfit — just as a frond whose tip is cut off or whose top leaf is split open.

And as we see, the Torah takes exactly the same precise and demanding approach to both types of laws. For example, even though one cannot take and use a stolen Shofar, the ram’s horn blown at the New Year, in that case one who does so has, in the end, performed the Commandment. Why is this different? Because in the case of the Shofar, the Mitzvah is to hear its sound. Since theft does not apply to listening to a sound, one cannot say that the person didn’t do the Mitzvah. But with a Lulav, the Mitzvah is taking and waving it, which one cannot do with stolen property!

Needless to say, taking stolen funds and giving them to charity is, similarly, no Mitzvah at all. What Rabbi Hirsch is telling us is that this is true in a much larger sense, as well — if we want to build a Holy Tabernacle, even within ourselves, even within our own homes, the first obligation is to strive for honesty, upright conduct and justice, in every area of life.

Rav Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l

I want to add a special note, as we approach 30 days since the passing of Rav Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l of Jerusalem, who left this world on the Sabbath, Parshas Va’eira. It’s a name that, if you’ve read through my Divrei Torah at, the Lifeline, and here, you’ve seen well over a dozen times.

I never attended any school in which Rav Rubenstein taught. But shortly after my arrival in Jerusalem to study at “Lakewood East,” someone pointed out that there was a Rav who spoke each Thursday night at 11 PM, and his apartment was just one floor up from the one rented for several of us by the yeshiva (rabbinical school). So I went, and I was captivated.

Rav Rubenstein was a straight “American boy” who went over to Israel to study — and never stopped. His Thursday night talks were always about the Torah portion, and often inspired by (and peppered with anecdotes about) his own teacher, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l. Both were masters of Jewish ethics. Rav Rubenstein could entertain you, make you laugh, and a moment later make you realize your own shortcomings, and inspire you to do better.

I once asked him how he prepared for these one-hour lectures, how he found material. His response was both simple and profound: just look in Rashi, the work of Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki, the provider of the basic, succinct commentary known to even beginning students of Torah and Talmud. I think it’s obvious, if you’ve been reading my material for even a few weeks, the extent to which his brief answer guided me in this area.

He was an American, and understood American students and our concerns. His advice was straightforward, practical, and incisive, and always came with a warm helping of genuine concern. You knew he cared about you and was looking out for your best interests, making it very easy to trust his wise counsel. He even knew what he could say to us in Jerusalem, that would be perceived as too harsh a criticism if said back in America!

If you would like to read and hear more about this incredible person, please visit the site of Rabbi Yosef Tropper, who has written his own recollections and collected those of others, both written and recorded. Over ten years of Rav Rubenstein’s classes are available for purchase or membership download from our library; the funds will now, of course, be paid to his family.

Judgement Place

Immediately following the Ten Commandments in last week’s reading, G-d instructs Moshe to tell the people to build a Mizbeyach, an Altar. And then, He goes on to say, at the beginning of this week’s portion: “And these are the judgments which you shall place before them” [Ex. 21:1].

judgment1The word Mishpatim, judgements, represents a particular category of the Commandments. These are the ones governing the conduct of civil society, which, had they not been given in the Torah, would have to be enacted in order for civilization to function. Governments around the world prohibit murder, assault, and kidnapping — major crimes. But they also have rules about minor crimes, and even regulations about construction and obstacles, things which might harm another person. And in the situation that one party causes damages to another, whether physical or financial, whether deliberately or inadvertently, there are laws and court precedent explaining how the matter can be settled.

Rashi focuses our attention on the opening word v’Eyleh, “and these.” He explains that this word is consistently used to add on to what came before. In this case, v’Eyleh teaches us that just as the Ten Commandments were said at Sinai, these rules were also said at Sinai. And furthermore, Rashi says, the intervening verses about the construction of the Altar teach us a lesson as well: that the Sanhedrin, the High Court, should sit in judgment near that Altar.

What is the Torah telling us? Why is it important that these rules were also given at Sinai? And why should the High Court hear cases right next door to the Holy Altar?

A person might think that in order to get into G-d’s “good book,” as it were, the important things are what goes on between us and G-d. And although the Ten Commandments include interpersonal ones as well, they are all very serious. So a person could still think that little bit of dishonesty might be forgiven. How we act in the synagogue is the key, not how we do business.

The Torah is telling anyone thinking like that: these laws also come from Sinai. And if you get in an argument with your neighbor, do you know where the ultimate authorities sit in judgment? Right next to the Altar!

We all need to know that the interpersonal laws were also given as Commandments. It’s not enough to go to shul, it’s not enough to study. Our interpersonal lives have to be governed by a sense of religious obligation, as well.

Mission Statement

The Medrash says that when all the Jews were told to assemble at Mount Sinai, the souls of all their descendants, and those of all future converts, were brought to join them. Everyone had to be there, personally, at the moment when G-d Himself spoke to the Jewish People. This was when He was going to give them their “marching orders,” to be a Nation of Priests, spreading knowledge of G-d.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe Medrash also records that when G-d spoke to the People directly, their souls left their bodies. They all died! The people couldn’t handle it. They had to have Moshe transmit the message. That is why the 10 Commandments begin with “I am HaShem your G-d,” but by third speaks of G-d in the third person: “you shall not take the Name of HaShem your G-d in vain” [Ex. 20:2, 7].

If that was the case, why was it so important that everyone hear Him directly? After all, when Moshe asked to see G-d, He responded that it was impossible for Moshe to see him and live [Ex. 33:20]. So tell the People the same thing, even if they wanted to hear Him directly!

But everyone understands the idea that what you hear directly from the source is very different from what you hear from a third party. You can always doubt that the third party understood and repeated precisely what he heard. With everyone gathered there, everyone heard HaShem’s Voice directly. At that point they asked Moshe to listen and repeat the message, knowing that he was repeating precisely what he heard, and that they weren’t hearing it directly only for their own well-being.

Much is made of the idea that the Jews are a “Chosen People.” But it’s like soldiers selected for a mission — it’s only a true honor if they are successful! We are supposed to develop ourselves as G-dly, ethical people, aiming for a very high standard of conduct in order to elevate the world around us. And it is obvious to everyone that our success is limited. But as Rebbe Tarfon says in Chapters of the Fathers 2:21, “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate from it.” It is too big a task for any one person or any one lifetime, but it is still the responsibility of every Jew to do his or her part — to learn Torah, to do the Commandments, and to develop our spiritual selves.

We have to get out there, and aim to complete the mission!

Let’s Get to Work!

When the Egyptians pursued the Israelites that they had just freed, the Jews were very afraid. They turned to Moshe and said, “was it due to a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us out to die in the desert?” [Ex. 14:11] From which we learn that sarcasm is an ancient Jewish tradition.

constructionMoshe reassured them, and said that G-d would fight for them, they just have to be quiet. And then in the next verse, G-d says to Moshe, “why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should go forward.” [14:15]

Rashi says that this tells us that Moshe was praying — that after reassuring the Children of Israel, he turned to G-d and prayed for help. And G-d told him, this isn’t the time for long prayers, Israel is in distress! Moshe needed to be reassuring the Children of Israel, and implementing practical solutions to get them out of trouble. While it was certainly true that only Divine Mercy saved them, the needs of others required that Moshe spend his time making efforts on their behalf, rather than praying for G-d’s help.

When I was a yeshiva student, there was a fellow who lived in the neighborhood who was a consistent supporter of the yeshiva (Ohr Somayach Monsey) whose daughter got married. So the yeshiva hosted a celebratory meal (called a “Sheva Berachos,” after the “Seven Blessings” said after each such meal held during the week following the wedding). And as we were eating, one of the rabbis got up to speak. “I have to tell you something about Joel here. Joel isn’t too frum. He’s not too religious.”

Now how could he say such a thing about a fellow out celebrating his daughter’s wedding, in the middle of a religious institution? He explained. “When a poor person comes to his door, Joel doesn’t say ‘G-d should help you’ or ‘G-d will provide.’ He opens his wallet!” Joel knew when it was time to pray, and when it was time to work to help someone in distress.

It has become well known that, sadly, Jewish communities did not do everything they could during the Holocaust, even once they learned the true extent of the atrocities committed during that time. Every generation has its fights and trials, and ours is fighting a wave of assimilation that threatens to decimate the Jewish people all over again. The way forward is to share Jewish knowledge. Are we doing everything we can?

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