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The Challenge of Oral Law by Rabbi Benny Berlin

The Challenge of Oral Law by Rabbi Benny Berlin

The mishna in Bava Metzia (2:8) states that if one finds a Torah scroll, until he finds the rightful owner, he should take it out and read it once every thirty days, in order that it not become moldy and moth-eaten. If he cannot read, he must roll them from beginning to end in order to air them out.
However, if one has not yet read or learned a particular passage, he should not spend time reading and learning this passage in the Torah scroll he found. The reason is because one has to spend considerable time when he learns the passage for the first time, and this could cause wear and tear on the scroll, damaging it. Nor may another person read with them, since each unconsciously pulls the scroll towards themselves, and the scroll may become damaged. The principle is that the finder is allowed to do any activity that preserves the Torah scroll, but not one that may damage the Torah scroll.

I learned from Rabbi Citron who quoted from the Ramban a fascinating distinction. He notes that when it comes to the Written Law, opening the scroll and skimming it is usually sufficient, because the passages are already familiar.
However, if one has not seen a passage, it will require additional time and effort to learn it well, and this may cause damage to the scroll.

However, this distinction only holds true in regard to the Written Law. When it comes to the Oral Law, “even one who has learned a passage a hundred times still requires intensive focus and effort to understand it, just as it did the first time he learned it; the opposite in fact is true—the more one is expert in a particular subject, the more he will spend time attempting to understand it on a deeper level.”

The Ramban distinguishes between the Written Law, which can be learned and remembered with relative ease, in contrast to the Oral Law, which requires intensive, continual efforts to master.

The Gemara in Shabbat 88a famously notes that Hashem “kafa aleihem har k’gigit”- He “held a barrel over their heads” and coerced the Jewish people to accept the Torah. The commentaries (Tosafot, Maharal and others) ask:
ואע”פ שכבר הקדימו נעשה לנשמע!
How can this be true?! Didn’t the Jewish people already say: “Na’aseh v’Nishma”—”We will do and we will listen”?

This free-willed, voluntary acceptance of the Torah illustrated that B’nei Yisrael had learned the secret of the angels, who first accept and do the mitzvot, and only later attempt to understand their deeper meaning. Why then was there a need to force B’nei Yisrael to accept the Torah?!

The Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach, Siman 3 provides an answer. The Jews willingly accepted the Written Law at Mt. Sinai. The Written Law is a fixed, limited amount of material, which can be covered in a relatively short period of time. However, concerning the Oral Law, the Jewish nation had to be “coerced” into accepting it. As the Midrash states; The Oral Law is difficult to learn, and requires great exertion of effort, and can be compared to “darkness.”

One who dedicates himself to learning the Oral Law must be prepared for long hours of study and sleepless nights. Frustration and setbacks are common. Therefore, the Midrash concludes that the study of the Oral Law is therefore reserved only for those who love Hashem:
Similarly, the Gemara (Shabbat 88a) notes that only during the times of Purim did the Jewish nation finally voluntarily accept what they had been forced to accept at Mt. Sinai; they finally accepted the Oral Law.
אבל בימי אחשורוש קבלו מדעתם מאהבת הנס
They were motivated to do so “out of love for the miracle” (Tosfos).
As we read about the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai this Shabbat in Parashat Yitro, let us commit to redoubling our efforts in the study of Torah Shebe’al Peh. True, it is not easy. However, the reward is based on the effort that we put forth, and this activity illustrates our profound love for Hashem.

Accessing the Wellspring by Rabbi Benny Berlin

Accessing the Wellspring by Rabbi Benny Berlin
At the end of this week’s parasha, Parashat B’Shalach (Shemot 17:5-6), Moshe hits the rock that brings forth water to the people. This was considered a positive action; he was supposed to hit the rock. Fast forward to the story of Mei Meriva and that very same act causes Moshe Rabbeinu to be barred from entering Eretz Yisrael.

A question has confounded the mefarshim for generations. What exactly was Moshe’s sin the second time around?

Rav Siev explained as follows: the first time water was to be brought forth from the rock in Parashat B’Shalach, it could only be brought forth through the drastic action of hitting the rock. Once that happened, however, and the rock had become the vehicle of Hashem’s sustenance to the Jewish people and of Kiddush Hashem in the world, the
rock was endowed with kedusha. Once it was so endowed, things were different. The kedusha remained, hidden in the rock, even after it stopped giving forth water. All that
would be needed in order to induce it to give water again would be to speak to the rock.

Hitting it was no longer necessary.

The implications of this idea for us are clear. On the one hand, we must work hard to imbue ourselves with kedusha. We have the opportunity to build a foundation of
kedusha that cannot be removed. Clearly, the stronger and deeper that foundation is, the greater the impact it will have. Thus, by establishing a Torah lifestyle for ourselves,
strengthening our commitment to shemirat ha-mitzvot, and by learning Torah, we provide ourselves with a foundation that will benefit us forever.

At the same time, even if we have stopped regularly giving forth water, so to speak, we can always access the foundation we have set for ourselves. Once a person is imbued
with kedusha, that kedusha can always be accessed and brought to the fore – if only we will talk to it.

That Pain Hurts More by Rabbi Benny Berlin

That Pain Hurts More by Rabbi Benny Berlin

In this week’s Parasha we are introduced to the last three of the Ten Plagues that are visited on Egypt, and Moshe introduces the first Mitzvah to be given to Bnei Yisroel, to establish a calendar based on the monthly rebirth on the moon. It is incredible to come to this stage of the narrative. However, I would like to focus on something in Parashat Shemot. In the beginning of the story of Exodus, when the daughter of Pharaoh discovered baby Moshe in the wicker basket, the Torah relates that “she opened the basket and saw the child and behold it was a weeping boy (chap. 2 v.6).” The switched noun from child to boy is grammatically inconsistent! It should have stated “she saw the child and the child was crying” or better yet “she saw the child crying.”

The Ba’al Haturim explains that the nouns are referring to two different people. The child she saw in the basket was Moshe; the boy crying was his older brother Aharon, who was standing nearby. It was not just Miriam who was stationed by the Nile to discover Moshe’s fate. Aharon, too, followed his younger brother as he drifted down the river. When Moshe was found by the daughter of Pharaoh, his brother Aharon began to cry. Upon seeing one brother crying for another, Pharaoh’s daughter realized “this is one of the Hebrew’s children” (ibid.). Remarkable! The telltale sign of a Jew is compassion for his brother. So it was from the beginning of our nationhood, so it was throughout the generations, and so it should be today.

I heard a story from Rav Jake Vlidomlansky that exemplifies this point. The Tzaddik Rav Mordechai from Hornsteipel was sick. The doctors decided that in order to cure him they would need to sear his back with a hot rod. Obviously, medicine in Ukraine was different back in the 1800’s than it is today. There were three degrees of heat that the doctor would apply. If the patient failed to react to the first degree of heat the doctor would employ the second degree and if that, too, failed to solicit any reaction from the patient, the doctor would apply the third and hottest degree of heat. Rarely would the doctor move beyond the first rod.

The tzaddik Rav Mordechai was given the first degree of heat, but rather than cry out he remained silent. The doctor assumed Rav Mordechai did not feel the heat and put on the second rod. The tzaddik felt the heat scorch his body but again remained silent. The doctor then applied the third rod, and to his amazement, there was not a sound from the tzaddik. The Doctor had never seen anything like this in all his years practicing medicine and exclaimed, “He must be some sort of demon or angel.” The tzaddik answered the doctor, “Sometimes Jews come to me with a kvittel (a note with a name on it, asking the tzaddik to petition to God on that person’s behalf) and I am powerless to help…that pain hurts a lot more.”

Failing to see who you are by Rabbi Benny Berlin

Failing to see who you are by Rabbi Benny Berlin
We read in this week’s Parasha, Moshe initially refuses to accept the mission assigned to him by God to confront Pharaoh and demand that he free Benei Yisrael. At one point in his conversation with G-d, Moshe expresses his fear that Benei Yisrael would not believe his claim that he was sent by the Almighty to free them (4:1).

“Moses answered and said, “Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’ “

In response, God endows Moshe with supernatural acts that he would perform to prove his authenticity.

These included Moshe’s hand becoming leprous, and then being instantly healed (4:6-7). “And the Lord said further to him, “Now put your hand into your bosom,” and he put his hand into his bosom, and he took it out, and behold, his hand was leprous like snow.

And He said, “Put your hand back into your bosom,” and he put his hand back into his bosom, and [when] he took it out of his bosom, it had become again like [the rest of] his flesh.”

Rashi (4:6), based on the Midrash Tanchuma, famously viewed Moshe’s leprosy as a form of punishment. Moshe doubted Benei Yisrael’s faith, assuming that they would disregard his prophesy and deny his claim to have received a prophetic message. These allegations constituted a form
of lashon hara (negative speech) which is punishable with tzara’at, and Moshe’s hand contracted leprosy.

” It is for this reason that He struck him with tzara’at, just as Miriam was struck for speaking slanderously.” Rabbi David Silverberg presented a powerfully different way to view Moshe’s “punishment.”

We find two instances in Tanach where tzara’at served as a punishment for placing oneself on too high a pedestal, assuming a position of stature that he or she did not deserve. Miriam contracted tzara’at for challenging Moshe’s unique status and insisting that he was on no higher a level than she was: “Did the G-d speak only with Moshe? Did He not also speak with us?” (Bamidbar 12:2). Centuries later, king Uziyahu was stricken with tzara’at after assuming for himself the right to serve as kohen gadol and offer incense in the Beit Hamikdash (Devarim Hayamim II 26:16-21).

The common denominator between these two instances of tzara’at was that the victims failed to accept their real positions and assumed for themselves a higher stature than they rightfully deserved. They were therefore stricken with tzara’at and forced to live in isolation, symbolic of the lowest possible level of prominence.

Rav Silverberg noted that Moshe here failed in the precise opposite direction. He assumed he was incompetent for the job assigned to him, that he could not possibly serve as God’s prophet and convince the people of the divine message. Whereas Miriam and Uziyahu saw themselves on a higher plane than where they really were, Moshe viewed himself on too low a plane.

All three were stricken with tzara’at because they all failed to see themselves as they truly were. Moshe, of course, received a far lighter punishment. Only his hand was afflicted, and only for a brief period of time. Selling oneself short and failing to recognize one’s capabilities is not as grave an offense as the arrogant presumption of greatness.

Nevertheless, we may learn from Moshe’s tzara’at that just as we must not see ourselves as something more than we are, we must also not see ourselves as something less than we are. We should try, as much as possible, to evaluate ourselves and our abilities with sheer honesty and objectivity, so we neither try to do that which is beyond our level. However, we also should not avoid striving to achieve that which
is well within our reach.

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