The Torah Podcast Transcript
084 – The Torah Podcast – How to Uplift Yourself – The Desire to Understand
Torah Portion of the Week – Shemos
So, chapter three in Shemos starts out like this. “Moses was grazing the sheep of Yisro, his father-in-law, the Minister of Midyan. He guided the sheep far into the wilderness, and he arrived at the mountain of Elokim, God, towards Horev, Horeva. An angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush. He saw and behold, the bush was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed. Moses thought, ‘Let me turn aside now, and see this great sight. Why would the bush not be burned?’ Hashem saw that he turned aside to see and God called out to him from amidst the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he replied, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not come any closer to here. Take off your shoes from your feet. The place upon which you stand is holy ground.’ And He said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, the God of Jacob.’ Moses hid his face for he was afraid to gaze towards God.”
So, this is the famous story of the burning bush. And the Chofetz Chaim brings the Pirkei Avos to explain the verse, ‘The place upon which you are standing is holy ground.’ The Pirkei Avos said, “Do not say, when I get free time I will learn Torah, because a person says to himself, when Hashem improves my situation and I have some more free time, so then I’ll learn. Then I’ll grow. But in the meantime, he’s too burdened. So, the verse tells us, “The place in which you are standing is holy ground.” That is the present situation, the present time, right now is considered holy ground. Hashem wants us to serve Him in a situation the way things are now. Like it says, “If Torah is difficult to learn, then his reward is 1,000. If things are going smoothly, his reward is only 200.” It’s a Midrash Rabba.
We also know lefum tzara agra, according to the suffering is the reward. And the Chofetz Chaim says further on this verse. It says, “Take off your shoes from your feet.” At any time and any place, a person could be close to his Maker and serve Him, and fulfill all the commandments. He just has to make sure that nothing is standing between him and Hakadosh Baruch Hu for it says, “Your sins create a separation between you and God.” And that’s what it means, “Take off your shoes. Remove any obstruction between you and the holy ground on which you stand. In every place where I shall of course mention my name, there should be holiness.” No one should say, “The old days were better.” Rather, everyone will say, “When will my deeds compare to those of our forefathers?
The only difference between us and them is the thickness of the mechitza, the separation. But if we were to remove the separation, a great spiritual light will shine forth in all of its brilliance. The place on which you are standing is already holy ground. And all places, all times and all situations, there’s holiness. All we need to do is to remove the shoes from our feet. We have to remove our sins. We’ve got to feel the spirituality.”
And Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says on this verse, “’Do not step here, but remove your shoes from your feet, for the place in which you are standing is holy ground.’ Instead of attempting to understand the phenomena which is beyond your comprehension, contemplate the lawful destiny of the ground in which you are already standing, and devote yourself to it with all your heart. Removal of one’s shoes expresses total commitment to the significance of a given place. The act implies that one intends to base one’s personality on it and derive one’s standing from that place alone which means we have to grow from the place that we are. And we shouldn’t think there’s a different time, or a different place, or a different situation. The situation that we are right now, that’s where we can do our greatest growth.”
And he continues, “We are obligated to serve barefoot. Nothing should intervene between our feet and the ground, between our hands and the vessel like the Cohanim and their bodies in the priestly garments.” In other words, there should be no set relation between us and our avodas Hashem. And wherever we are, we can grow. And Hashem will help us. And that’s exactly what the Seforno said. The verse said, “And Hashem saw that he turned aside to see.” And then it says, “And God called out to him.” The Seforno said, “This is to inform us, just as our Sages tells us, he who comes to be purified will be assisted from On High.” Like the Gemara in Shabbos says, “Moses went up to God, and Hashem called him from the mountain.” So, if we want, we can grow and Hashem will help us. But we have to want to grow. We have to focus our minds.
This is exactly what the Ramban explains. The Ramban points out that there is a problem in the verse. First it said, “Angel of Hashem appeared to him in a blaze of fire.” And then it says, “Hashem saw that he turned aside, and God called out to him.” So, what’s going on there with this burning bush, is it an angel or is it Hashem?” The Ibn Ezra wants to answer that both times it’s talking about an angel. Obviously when it says an angel of Hashem appeared to him in a blaze of fire, it was an angel. And even when it says, “I am the God of your father,” so the angel’s speaking in the name of God. But the Ramban doesn’t like this because he says, “Why did Moshe turn away? Moshe was a tremendous prophet. Why would he be scared of an angel?” So, he wants to explain that it’s true. At first, Moses saw the angel but Hashem was there also but he didn’t see Hashem. It was only after that he saw Hashem. The Ranbam says like this. “At first, the angel Michoel appeared to him and the glory of the shechina was there as well. But Moses did not see the glory of the shechina, for he had not prepared his mind to receive prophesy. But when he did focus his mind and he turned aside to see the burning bush, then the shechina came into view. And that’s what it means, ‘Hashem called out to him from amidst the bush.’So, we learn from this that it’s only when a person focuses his mind is he going to go up in the level of spirituality. If he doesn’t focus his mind, he’ll see what he sees. But when he starts to focus and think and contemplate, then he’s going to go up a level.
The Rabbeinu Bachye holds like the Ramban. He says, only once that he saw the fire, and from there he saw that there was an angel inside of the fire. At that point, when he became focused, he was ready to receive the schechina, God’s presence. He says, “God wanted to educate him little by little. He wanted to raise his perception powers stage by stage, so that his intellectual faculties would keep up with the pace of his emotional faculties. The matter could be best illustrated by comparing it to someone who has sat for a long time in a dark room. If we open the door immediately, the sunshine comes in, and he becomes blinded by that experience. Therefore, you have to open it little by little. Just as the sunlight cannot be absorbed in its full impact all at once, so too spiritual insights can only be absorbed gradually in increasing quantities. The intellect, though in some respects is unlike the other senses, is similar to the senses in the sense that it cannot successfully absorb too much, too suddenly.” This is unbelievable. If a person wants to grow, of course we can grow from wherever we are but we’re going to have to focus, we’re going to have to think, and we’re going to have to go level by level. Because if we jump levels, it’s going to be too much for us. It’s like being blinded by the light. Hashem wants us to grow in a healthy way, in the correct way.
Rav Moshe David Valli who was talmid, student of the Ramchal, says on this verse, “And Moses said he will not turn to see this great vision while the bush wasn’t being consumed.” Moses was saying, “Now I will turn away from the lowly, mundane existence I have been living, and draw myself close to spiritual loftiness, to my spiritual root. For this is man’s entire purpose in this lowly world. One who distances himself from lowly physicality merits seeing spiritual loftiness.” That’s what it says, ‘I will turn away and I will see.’ One who wishes to open his eyes and see intellectual and spiritual sights must close his physical eyes, which are drawn towards the physical sights.” That’s what it means, “He turned to see.” Like the verse says, “Who is blind other than my servants? Only one who makes himself blind to physicality can see clearly on the intellectual level, and become a servant of Hashem.”
And the Malbim says the same thing, he says like this. “Because the prophesy came in the form a physical image, therefore Moses needed to turn aside in order to really grasp it.” And this is what the Midrash says. Rav Yochanan said, “Moses took three steps at that time.” That’s what it meant, “Let me turn aside.” His true inner intellectual essence desired to disengage itself from the body, and shed off physical garments. He thus said, “I shall turn aside from the prison of the body, and therefore achieve a purely intellectual grasp of this vision.” What were those three steps? He separated himself from the nefesh, the ruach and neshama, the different levels of the soul – the animal soul, the spirit and the Godly soul – from any bodily connection. He totally disconnected himself physically in order that he can grow spiritually. This is what it means to remove his shoes. Why did he have to remove his shoes? Remove your shoe, which is any physicality. The concept is that the body is called the physical shoe worn by the spiritual soul. Without the body, the soul would be unable to trudge through this physical world’s thorny, mucky existence. These are the thorns of the physical world. So, in order to grow spiritually, it means you’re going to have to use your intelligence. You’re going to have to focus and think really, what is life about? What am I doing here? Why am I here? And you have to have a desire to grow.
And this is what the Chassam Sofer said. The Chassam Sofer says that when God called out to Moses, Moses answered, “Hineni,” here I am. The next verse says, “Do not come any closer.” So, the Midrash explains that Hashem rebuked Moses for using the same word that Avraham Avinu used when Hashem called him, which was hineni. So he asks, “Where did Moses fall short of Avraham? Surely it couldn’t be his humility. It said Moses was the most humble man. So, he answers that it’s the opposite. It was his assertiveness, because we know that when Avraham Avinu said hineni, he was willing to do anything for Hashem. He would sacrifice his own son. But Moses was reluctant to take the Jewish people out from Egypt. And that’s why Hashem rebuked him.
And Rav Moshe Feinstein said a similar thing. He says on the verse, “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to gaze at God.” So, we know the Gemara in Brachos says that he was rewarded for this, and Hashem made that his face should shine. But there’s another Gemara that says he was punished for it, that he only got to the see the back of Hashem, he didn’t get to see Hashem face to face. So, he wants to explain, the reward that he got was for his humility. He was embarrassed to look towards Hashem. But you’ve got to hear this. The punishment that he got was because he didn’t have enough desire to see Hashem. His desire to see Hashem should have been greater than his humility to not look at Hashem. In other words, his desire for spiritual growth should have been so great that it even overcame his humility. So, Chazal is telling us we have to be aggressive. We have to be aggressive in our spiritual growth. Sometimes you have to ask a question to a big Rav. Sometimes you hear a shiur, you hear a class somewhere and you don’t understand. You can’t be embarrassed. A person who’s embarrassed can’t learn. We have to have a drive for spirituality, a real desire. And we have to be inquisitive. We have to be a mevakesh, we have to desire and want to know and to understand.
So, the Seforno explains, “What was Moshe looking for when he saw the burning bush? The verse says, he wanted to understand why the bush doesn’t burn.” So, the Seforno says his question was, why aren’t the Egyptians destroyed by the plagues? Why doesn’t good overcome evil? That was his question. He was searching for truth. Why doesn’t good overcome evil? Isn’t that the way the world should be designed, that good should overcome evil? The thorn bush represents evil, and the fire represented good. Why doesn’t good consume evil?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and other meforshim explain, just the opposite. Moshe was wondering, how can the Jewish people survive? How can the lowly Jewish people which are represented by the bush, how come they’re not consumed by the fire of golus, of exile? One of the greatest miracles of all of history is the fact that the Jewish people are still here and healthy and alive. It’s one of the greatest miracles. How could we survive all these years being pushed around from place to place? So, the question is, it’s a question of good and evil. All of our life is about good and evil. How come good doesn’t overcome evil? How come evil doesn’t overcome good? And internally also, why sometimes we overcome our evil inclination, and sometime our evil inclination is able to overcome us?
But we can learn from the Chassam Sofer, this is the way that Hashem runs the world. It’s a mixture of good and evil. He says, “There are two lessons to be learned from the burning bush. Firstly, it is often through suffering that Bnai Yisrael, we turn to Hashem. The fierce flame, that’s the inner soul of a Jew. Eventually, he turns to Hashem. He is propelled by the thorn, the thorn bush of the misery of the Egyptian slavery.” Since the evil that’s pushing us to do good, sometimes bad – actually most times, the reason why a person does teshuva, comes back to Hashem, is because he is having a hard time. Things are hard, things are difficult. Or he sees evil inside of himself. As you grow and become more sensitive, then you realize you have bad qualities, bad character traits. And the growth usually comes through a crisis, where the character gets so bad, you do something so ridiculous that you realize, hey something’s wrong here. I’ve got to change. I have to do something. I have to grow. So, it’s the bad is the evil that’s bringing us to good. And secondly, the opposite. When Hashem desires, the wicked become unusually and frighteningly resistant. And Moses wondered upon seeing this flame, why does the evil power survive despite the fiery heritage of Bnai Yisroel, the descendants of the avos, of our forefathers. How can evil stand in front of good, and also in ourselves?
Sometimes when we’re working ourselves we can’t change. We can’t overcome our evil inclination. The next day it comes back. The next week it comes back. So, Rav Noam Elimelech answers. He says, “Man’s essential function is to uproot his negative character traits. Through overcoming the bad character traits, which are like thorns, man can achieve greatness. He burns with the fire of enthusiasm, but it says that fire couldn’t consume the bush. Even with all his enthusiasm, he can’t completely get rid of all his bad traits.” And that’s what Moses wanted to do. He says, “I’ll turn aside, I won’t look at this great sight.” Moses was saying, “I want to leave behind my bad character traits completely, absolutely, and I will achieve spiritual heights.” So, then he didn’t know, why isn’t the bush consumed? Why aren’t the bad character traits consumed? So, Hashem said to him, “It’s not possible for you to reach this lofty level.” And he wants to say that the word to remove, to remove your shoes, is like the same word as to “borrow”. You can only borrow this level. It’s true, at Sinai we at a higher level, and true at Har Sinai all the Jews had the level where the zehuma, the impurity which was caused by the sin of Adam haRishon, was completely removed from all the Jews. They had no yetzer hara, no evil inclination. But that’s not what’s going to be for the rest of their history. That’s only going to be at the end of history, when the Mashiach comes, also we will reach that level. But in the meantime, we have to accept who we are. That’s what it means, to be on the ground where we are. And from there, we have to grow. We have to desire to grow. We have to want spirituality. And therefore, we have to remove our sins. That’s what it means, to take off your shoes. It can’t be you’re going to get spirituality if you continue to sin.
A lot of people they say, “Oh, I’m spiritual.” They don’t keep Shabbos. No, we have to do what Hashem wants us to do. And then we will grow, like the Seforno says, “We’ll have siata deshemaya, Hashem will call out to us.” But that doesn’t mean we’re going to reach the end of our growth, because we need evil to reach higher and higher levels of spirituality. Like the Chasam Sofer said, “It’s only through hard times that we grow to new levels.” And that’s our task, until the Mashiach comes.
A Powerful Parable
The verse in this week’s Parsha said, “A man of the house of Levi went and married the daughter of Levi.” So, Rashi explains, “Who was the daughter of Levi? It was Yocheved. How old was she? She was 130 years old, but she became youthful again and she gave birth to Moses and Aaron.” The Ibn Ezra asks, “Why didn’t we mention like we did by Sarah Imenu what a great miracle it was? Sarah was 90 and she gave birth to Yitzhak, and the Torah made a big deal of it. And here, Yocheved is 130 and the Torah doesn’t say anything.” So, the Maggid Mi Dubno wants to explain with a moshul, parable.
One time, there was a group of poor people and they were all sitting around discussing how bad things are, how people have stopped giving charity. “People are giving much less,” they said. So, one of them says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Recently, I went to people’s houses and every single person gave me a full ruble.” So, they started to ask, “Well, when did that happen?” He said, “It was on Purim.” They said, “That’s not proof. On Purim everybody gives to the poor. If it was a regular day, so it would be amazing. But on Purim it’s normal.” So too by Sarah. At the time of Sarah, the fact that she gave birth at 90 years old, that was a big deal, that was a miracle. But in Egypt, women were giving birth to six kids at a time, every day. So, it was no big deal that Yocheved gave birth at 130.
Great Stories – Rav Chatzkel
The verse said, “Moses was shepherding his sheep.” So, the Midrash explains it was a lamb that ran away, and Moses ran after it. And the lamb came unto to some water, and stopped to drink. So then Moses said to the lamb, “I didn’t realize you were running away because you were so thirsty. You must be tired.” So, he carried the lamb on his shoulders. Hashem said, “You have the mercy to treat the sheep as a human being in this manner. By your life, you will be the shepherd for my sheep, Yisroel.” And that was the meaning that Moses was shepherding.
So, one of the Rabbanim explains, “What was this outstanding quality of Moses? What was the test, that the lamb ran away?” So, he wanted to say that since a herd is composed of individual lambs, one must look out for each lamb who has the tendency to run away from the herd. That’s what it means to be a leader.
So, there’s a known story about Rav Chatzkel when he was the mashgiach, supervisor in Klutzk. He made a point of learning in the beis medrash, even late at night. It’s true that he had a private room and it would have been more comfortable for him to learn in his house, but he said, one time he knew that there one young man in yeshiva who if he’s there, the mashgiach was there, that bochur continues to learn. However, if the mashgiach goes home, the boy also stops learning. He said, “If even one young man will study better because of me remaining, I am obligated to remain in the beis medrash.”
Peace in Your Home
Rav Moshe Aaron Stern says like this. “Marriage is like a Mishkan,” like the Beis HaMigdash. “It was only built that Hashem should dwell among the Jews. The whole purpose of a Mishkan is a place for Hashem’s presence to dwell. Many homes, however, are Mishkans with nothing in them. The whole purpose of marriage is to do Hashem’s will. Chazal compares our world to a wedding hall. Imagine if we had a wedding hall filled with guests and a band, delicious food, photographer, everything there. But if there’s no couple at the chupa getting married, so what’s the whole point of the wedding?
So too, a couple. They get an apartment, they buy the furniture, they get everything, but if there’s no spiritual content they have nothing at all. The entire edifice in their life is empty, and how difficult things are. It would be easier to stay by yourself. You have no financial burdens, it’s cheaper. You don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to take care of your kid. Less cooking, less cleaning. So, what simcha, happiness can we put into our married lives that are difficult?”
The answer is, that if we know we have purpose in our marriage to fulfill Hashem’s will and to bring neshamos, holy souls into the world to serve God, then everything makes sense. With this attitude, everything becomes easier and you have simcha in your house because you know you’re doing something that has meaning. So he says, Sometimes small things could bring a lot of spirituality into the house. For example, if a parent bentches, says grace after meals out of a bentcher and the kids see it, it will have an effect. They say that Rav Chaim Ozer one time he lost the book of tzedakah, charity that he used to keep track of all the money of the tzedakas that people used to give him to give out to the poor. So he said, ‘No problem. I’ll re-write it.’ Pages and pages. He rewrote the entire thing, then they found the book and they compared the two books. It was exact. He had a perfect memory, a photographic memory. And he still used to bentch out of a bentcher. And he never davened without a siddur, prayer book. It has an effect.
Also, don’t daven in your house. Go to the minyan, go to shul.” He says, “A father who davens at home without a minyan will lower his self-esteem in front of his entire family.” Like it says, “And Moses went,” and the Chassam Sofer says on that, “Just by Moses going did the Jews learn a great lesson. Just watching him walk.” And another thing he says, “You have to be consistent. You can’t be one day you’re very makpid, you’re very strict, and the next day you’re loose. Rivka, when she thought she had one child in her stomach and she used to walk by the beis medrash and he would jump. And then she would walk by the avoda zara he would jump again, thought he was a mixed up kid. She couldn’t take it. How could she give birth to such a personality? Chazal says, “If she is a wall we will build on her a tower of silver. But if she’s a door, we will enclose it with boards of cedar. In order to build klal Yisroel you have to be like a wall, solid.
One of the great qualities they say about the Brisker Rav was, he was always the Brisker Rav. It didn’t matter where he was, in exile or in Eretz Yisroel. Like the verse says in Melachim, “Ani Hashem, lo shaniti.” I am Hashem, I do not change. But he explains, “In material matters you can change. You can give in. But in spiritual matters, you have to be solid. Compromising could be destructive. Like it says, ‘For the Menorah we have to use shemen zayit zach, pure oil. But for the mincha which is more physical, you don’t need this level of purity.” He says, “The avreich who won’t eat before he davens, but one day he davens neitz, at five in the morning, and the next day he davens at ten o’clock. This is a big mistake. Your wife and your kids have to see consistency in your house. Like the verse said, ‘Also the man of Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh, in the eyes of the nation.’
He asks, “How can it be that they admired Moshe, after all the plagues he brought on them? The Rambam answers, ‘Because Moses was a man of truth. Everybody admires the truth.’” But he says, “It doesn’t mean you have to be a fanatic. There’s always room for tact. You should speak wisely and softly, so that your words are listened to. The Torah says, ‘When Avraham was commanded to go to Eretz Canaan, he took his wife, Sarah which the Zohar explains, he draw her close with gentle words.’” It doesn’t mean you have to be rough, just because you’re makpid, because you’re strict. You could be strict, and be kind and nice.
He says, “Even le shem shemayim must be le shem shemayim.” Even doing something for Hashem, it has to be done in a way that is done for Hashem. Consistency is not an excuse to be rough and inconsiderate. Chazal tells us, there were two people who were le shem shemayim, Tamar and the wife of Potiphar. Tamar lived with Yehuda to have children which the Mashiach came from, is le shem shemayim. And the wife of Potiphar wanted to live with Yosef. But the difference is, Tamar was willing to be burned to death to avoid embarrassing Yehuda, and Potiphar’s wife threw Yosef into prison. She was rough. “However,” he says, “Sometimes you do need to be strict, because if you’re too kind hearted, nobody’s going to listen to you at all.” And he brings a beautiful proof for that. It says, the Torah writes, “At this time Avimelech came to make a covenant with Avraham.” What specific time was that? It was just after Avraham sent Yishmael away. Before that, Avimelech was not afraid of Avraham. He thought he was so kind hearted, he could walk all over him. But once he saw that Avraham was capable of being harsh and sending away Yishmael, then he decided it was time to make a covenant with him.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s Torah podcast. I hope you enjoyed it, and please share it with your friends.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff