Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vaera 5776

Vaera 5776

New Stories Vaera 5776

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vaera 5776

Completely Separate from the Nations of the World


In this week’s parasha the Torah records how after Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to allow the Jewish People to leave Egypt, HaShem sent Moshe and Aharon to be the instruments that would afflict Pharaoh and the Egyptians with the ten plagues. It is noteworthy that each of the plagues had a specific lesson to teach the Egyptians and simultaneously, the Jewish People were able to glean insight into their own misdeeds. An example of this is that the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:8) states that at the onset of the Egyptian exile, the Jewish People nullified the mitzvah of Bris Milah, circumcision. Thus, to demonstrate to the Jewish People that they had sinned in this area, HaShem sent the plague of dam, blood, upon the Egyptians, and this served as a reminder to the Jewish People that they were required to circumcise themselves and their children, which requires a spilling of blood. It is noteworthy that the word dam in mispar katan, digit sum, equals 8, alluding to the eighth day of a child’s life when he is circumcised. In a similar vein all the plagues had a certain effect on the Jewish People.

The plague of Arov is akin to the onset of Shabbos during the week

The fourth plague is referred to in the Torah as arov, which means a mixture of wild animals descended upon Egypt. What was the lesson inherent in this plague for the Jewish People? It would appear that the idea of Arov being the fourth plague is parallel to the idea expressed in the Gemara (see Shabbos 19a) that Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are referred to as the three days “prior to Shabbos,” whereas Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are referred to as the three days that “follow Shabbos.” Thus, the plague of Arov symbolized that the Jewish People were now being distinguished from the Egyptians. Indeed, there are some commentators (Ibn Ezra to Shemos 7:24; see Avi Ezer Ibid who refutes this commentary being attributed to Ibn Ezra; see also Rambam’s commentary to Avos 5:4 and Rabbeinu Yonah Ibid) who posit that the first three plagues affected Egyptians and Jews alike. Thus, the plague of Arov was the harbinger for the Jewish People that they would now recognize their distinction from the Egyptians. It is for this reason that the Torah states (Ibid 8:18) vihfleisi vayom hahu es eretz Goshen asher ami omeid aleha livilti heyos sham arov limaan teida ki ani HaShem bikerev haaretz, and on that day I shall set apart the land of Goshen upon which My people stands, that there shall be no swarm there; so that you will know that I am HaShem in the midst of the land. In addition to the lesson contained within this plague for the Egyptians, there was an evident lesson for the Jewish People also, and that was that the Jewish People are different than the nations of the world.

The fifth plague teaches us that as we come closer to Shabbos we become more alive

It is interesting to note that the fifth plague was dever, an epidemic in the livestock of the Egyptians. Here too it is said (Ibid 9:4) vihiflah HaShem bein miknei Yisroel uvein miknei Mitzrayim vilo yamus mikol livnei Yisroel davar, HaShem shall distinguish between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, and not a thing that belongs to the Children of Israel will die. This idea is parallel to the idea that as we come closer to Shabbos, we leave behind the “dead” of the gentiles and we arrive closer to the Source of Life, which are HaShem and His Holy Shabbos. It is noteworthy that the words (Ibid verse 3) hinei yad HaShem hoyah bamiknicho asher basadeh, behold, the hand of HaShem is on your livestock that are in the field, (1157, when adding the words themselves) equal in gematria the words yom chamishi liShabbos, the fifth day towards Shabbos (1156).

 The sixth plague alludes to an aura of spirituality

The sixth plague was shechin, boils, and regarding this plague it is said (Ibid verse 11) vilo yachlu hachartumim laamod lifnei Moshe mipnei hashechin ki hayah hashechin bachartumim uvichol Mitzrayim, the necromancers could not stand before Moshe because of the boils, because the boils were on the necromancers and on all of Egypt. This verse alludes to the idea that with the onset of Shabbos, the gentiles cannot approach the Jewish People, as HaShem envelopes us in a cloud of holiness.

The seventh plague alludes to the synthesis of physicality and spirituality

The seventh plague was barad, hail, which was a combination of water and fire. The fire and hail went from heaven towards earth. Similarly, the Holy Day of Shabbos reflects the idea that we are engaged in physical acts of eating, drinking and sleeping. Yet, all of our actions on Shabbos are infused with an overwhelming spiritual force that dominates the physical aspect of our actions.

The Shabbos connection

We have seen how in a deeper sense the plagues certainly had an effect on the Jewish People, and it was through the plagues that the Jewish People were allowed to taste salvation and victory over the Egyptians, who were the forces of evil at that time. Similarly, throughout the week we are faced with trials and tribulations, and we also witness the suffering that the nations of the world undergo. We must be cognizant of the fact that HaShem seeks to awaken us to the idea that everything that occurs in the world is ultimately for our benefit. It is with the onset of Shabbos, when all harsh judgments depart, that we recognize the greatness of HaShem and the beauty of the gift of Shabbos that He bestows upon His beloved nation every week. Hashem should allow us to merit an end to the suffering of the Jewish People and to witness the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkienu, speedily, in our days.

Shabbos in the Zemiros

Tzama Lecho Nafshi

This zemer was composed by the great medieval commentator and poet Avraham Ibn Ezra whose name is found in the acrostic of the verses

הִבְדִּיל נִינֵי תָם. חֻקִּים לְהוֹרוֹתָם. אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אוֹתָם. הָאָדָם וָחָי, He separated wholesome Yaakov’s offspring, to teach them decrees, which man should perform that he may live. While Avraham and Yitzchak certainly studied and observed the Torah, Yaakov was unique in that he was tested often in matters of ethics and faith. Rivka compelled Yaakov to disguise himself as Esav so he should receive the blessings from his father Yitzchak. Furthermore, according to some commentators, Yaakov engaged in subterfuge when he was dealing with Lavan and the sheep. Thus, Yaakov is truly the Patriarch of whom it can be said that he “studied the Torah which man should perform that he should live by.”

Shabbos Stories

The Smell of Gan Eden

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky writes: Rabbi Chaim of Sanz was once walking in a small shtetl with his shammas (sexton). Suddenly he stopped in front of the home of a simple Jew. “There is a certain spirituality that I sense here. I’d like to stop by this man’s home.”

His shammas knocked on the door, and as it opened the holy Rebbe exclaimed, “There is a smell in this home that must be from the Garden of Eden. It is sweet and pure. Pray tell me, where does it come from?”

The simple Jew did not know what to answer, but allowed the Rebbe to roam freely through his humble abode and open any door he chose. Suddenly the Rebbe pointed to a closet. “What is in that closet? The holiness comes from within.” The man was reluctant to open the door, but the Rebbe urged him. The man opened the door and in the closet hung the vestments of a priest! The Rebbe turned to the man once again and asked. “Please tell me. What is a holy Jew doing with those clothing?”

The poor Jew told his tale: “Years ago, I was asked to help raise money for a family thrown into jail by a poritz (landowner) to whom they owed rent. My Rebbe asked me to raise the funds, and I immediately agreed. After all, I thought, with the Rebbe’s wishes it would be an easy task. Everyone would give to save a Jewish family! I was wrong. Everyone in town had an excuse not to give. There was a deadline approaching, and I had no choice but to approach the wealthiest Jew in town who was known for his malevolence toward Chassidim. “The man told me he would give me the entire sum that day on one condition. I must parade through the town, dressed as a priest singing psalms in Hebrew and asking for tzedakah (charity) in Yiddish. At the end of the day, he would pay the ransom.

“I did what I had to do, while a group of his friends followed me around, laughing and mocking me wherever I walked. I got the money and I never returned the vestments he gave me.”

The Rebbe turned and said, “Yes. These clothing are truly holy. They are the source of the spirituality I sense.” Legend has it that the Rebbe told the man to be buried in those clothes. (

Shabbos in Halacha

מוליד – Creating a  new Entity

  1. The Prohibition

There is a difference between bringing about the new state of an object manually (directly by one’s own hand), and doing so indirectly (by merely causing the change to come about without applying the energy for the transformation with one’s own hand.)

  1. מוליד (Molid) – Creating a New Entity

One is prohibited to crush ice (or any frozen liquid) on Shabbos, as when one crushes the frozen liquid one is creating a new entity: liquid. This same prohibition applies to other methods of dissolving an item, such as pouring hot water over it, shaking, rubbing or stirring.

Similarly, one is prohibited to pour hot water over congealed gravy, because when one dissolves the gravy, one creates a new liquid.

By the same token, some Poskim prohibit discharging whipped cream from a pressurized can as that is tantamount to manually transforming the liquid cream into a solid whip.

If this prohibition is violated it is further prohibited to derive any benefit from the newly created entity until after Shabbos.

Shabbos Ta’am HaChaim: Shemos 5776

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New Stories Vaera 5776

Jews, Non-Jews and My Anti-Semitic Girlfriend

We were hurtling toward marriage despite my closeted interest in Judaism. One drunken night changed everything.

by Elliot Newman      

I had been dating Jennifer for a year and a half. Things were getting serious. My friends were all starting to get engaged or settling down into single life for the long haul. I felt the pressure building to commit to my relationship in a real way, namely having her move in.

Every time we had a few drinks Jen would ask me what I thought about living together. I would fumble with my words, trying to buy myself a few more months. I would lamely explain how I really liked my roommates and how tough real estate was in NYC. When the boozy haze cleared, there was no sign the next day that these conversations ever took place.

Soon, my excuses began to dwindle. By the end of June, both of my roommates got engaged and began making arrangements to move out by the end of July. I was left with a big empty apartment and nobody to share the rent. It seemed like now was the time for the “trial run” with Jen. We had agreed that she would move in at the beginning of August.

My mind raced ahead. “Trial run” sounded innocuous enough, but I had enough friends go through these scenarios that I knew how this would inevitably play out. We would spend a year living together, then pressure would mount to buy a ring and propose, then we would be engaged for another year, and then we would be married. Forever.

So this was it. It was the decision to last forever, yet it seemed like just a bunch of ‘I-guess-so’s piled up in a heap. I had something else on my mind as well, a secret looming larger by the day.

I had started becoming interested in my Judaism. And Jennifer wasn’t Jewish.

I had explored all sorts of spiritual pathways and Judaism was last on my list.

I had begun to a search for deeper meaning in life. I was always interested in philosophy and spirituality, but it the most general terms. That past winter I had started reading about Jewish philosophy. I had explored all sorts of spiritual pathways and Judaism was last on my list. It hadn’t registered as an option until one of my best friends sent me a lecture to listen to by Rabbi Akiva Tatz.

I began devouring them. Soon I had listened to almost every one of the lectures except the most relevant and onerous of them all: “Jew, Non-Jew and Intermarriage.” It leered at me each day as my mouse cursor brushed over it.

Meanwhile, my relationship with Jennifer was great, at least on paper. We had the same interests, liked the same foods, never fought. Yet, there was something missing. As my passion for spirituality grew, I noticed something in our conversations. I would begin talking about a deeper topic and she would follow along up until a certain point. Then, like hitting a cement wall, her face would go blank and she would change the topic. “Want to see a movie tonight?” or “What do you want for dinner?”

After a few months of listening to Rabbi Tatz, I started dabbling in keeping Kosher. I subtly cut pork and shellfish from my diet.

“Want to go for oysters?”

“No, I don’t think I’m in the mood.”

My inner world was beginning to diverge from the image I was portraying. I was living a lie.

I finally worked up the courage to share my journey with Jen. I took her out to a fancy dinner and told her that I needed to ask her something.

“If we were to have kids together, eventually, someday…I really want to raise them Jewish. Could you live with that?”

She fell silent and looked down at her plate, idly turning vegetables with her fork. She told me that she would have to get back to me.

There were so many Catholics in the world and so few Jews, why not root for the underdog?

The next week she told me that she could do that. She asked her mom what she thought, and her mom had agreed that it made sense. There were so many Catholics in the world and so few Jews, why not root for the underdog? And besides, neither of us was really religious. We could do Christmas and Hanukkah. No problem.

This made me feel much better. But I soon realized that I had just applied a band-aid when I needed to do brain surgery. What did it mean “raise the kids Jewish” if we were going to have Christmas in the house also? I became even more confused than I was before.

Those Jews

Fast forward to the 4th of July. Jen and I had decided to spend the long weekend at her parents’ house in a New York City suburb where she grew up. Her father, Jack, had finally warmed up to me, inviting me to the yearly golf outing that I had heard so much about but had not yet qualified for.

Jack took us out to see the fireworks. We watched them on the water where he knew a bar owner and his friend was playing guitar that night. After a beautiful fireworks display and many rounds of celebratory beers, we decided to head back to their house.

We were driving down the highway back towards Jack’s house and the conversation opened up, with a good deal of liquor lubricating it. After some banter about which band and beer we liked best, Jack brought up a new topic.

“Hey, Elliot. Do you remember my friend Steve? His son, Rob, nice Catholic kid. He ended up marrying this Jewish girl last year. Crazy wedding, I have to tell you. The girl’s father stood up in the middle of the ceremony and tried to stop the wedding. He started quoting scripture, said she was a lamb that strayed from the flock. It was awful. The families don’t speak anymore. Now she’s pregnant and her father refuses to see her. Can you believe that?”

I stammered that I indeed could not believe it, not quite knowing what to say. Jack went on to describe how Rob’s Jewish wife was now completely disconnected from her family. By his tone, Jack didn’t mean anything directly hostile towards me, but they seemed frighteningly applicable to Jen and me.

There was a new topic in the car: Jews and their separateness. Jen was raised in a New York City suburb next to a very large Jewish community. Jack and Jen began talking about the traits of their Jewish neighbors while I sat as still as a statue in the passenger seat, my secret Jewish identity writhing in pain inside of me.

“These Jews cover the streets in trash. They are just so disgusting, with their long black coats and fur hats, clogging the intersections on Saturday mornings. We have to drive by with you tomorrow, Elliot, just to see the filth of it all.”

What hurt me more than Jack’s anti-Semitic diatribe was Jen agreeing with him.

What hurt me more than Jack’s anti-Semitic diatribe was Jen agreeing with him. She quickly became the ringleader of the conversation. She was going to be my wife? He was going to be the grandfather of my children? In their eyes, I wasn’t one of those Jews. Waves of nausea pounded my throat as they talked over the silent Jew in the passenger seat.

They continued describing their repulsive Jewish neighbors who were ruining the town. It felt as if I was all alone in the car, watching Jack and Jen laugh and mock from a telescope a million miles away. I had to make a choice: Would I cling to the image I portrayed outside that felt so artificial, or would I decide to redefine myself as the person who I felt I was on the inside?

We finally arrived at the house, Jen and Jack laughing and hugging over a fun night while my mind reeled. We went inside to go to sleep. I tossed and turned all night, mulling over my future and contemplating the difficult choices laid out in front of me.

The next morning I woke up with a cold resolve as to what I must do. I quietly ate breakfast with the family and we headed back to the city. I went back to my apartment and made a plan of what I would say. How I would explain who I was and why I couldn’t reconcile that with the thoughts that had been made clear to me on that car ride.

I showed up at her apartment and asked to speak with her in her room, away from her roommate. I broke the news that she couldn’t move in. That repressed inner personality burst forth like a river through a crack in a dam. I told her about my secret Jewish studies, the fierce connection that I felt to the stories that I had heard from rabbis and the generations of Jews who had suffered so much to carry Judaism forward throughout the years.

It was not easy. Our breakup lasted a month. She told me that she was interested in taking conversion classes. I went to see a therapist who specialized in interfaith couples to see what to do.

After about ten minutes with the therapist, I decided to embrace the real me that wanted to explore my Judaism, to fully realize the person who was being built from within over the past half year. Staying with Jen as she went through a forced conversion borne of anti-Semitism and a broken relationship sounded like a half measure that would leave me in limbo. I had to commit.

I didn’t reconcile with her. Now I was free to take classes, to check out what Shabbat actually meant. I had time to explore and embark on the journey whose final destination I did not know.

Looking back, even that “me” who broke through and made that difficult, life-changing decision is different than the person I am now. If you would have asked the “me” that walked out of that apartment, fists jammed into pockets, tears crowding his eyes, where he would be in a year, there would be no way he would have said, “Studying Torah in Jerusalem.” But here I am.

For the first time in my life, I have looked inside and asked myself that most difficult question: “Who am I?” I still don’t fully know the answer but I’m trying very hard to find out. At least my interior matches my exterior. (








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