Parashas haChodesh

This Shabbos in shul we will read Parshas HaChodesh, the excerpt from Parshas Bo where Hashem tells Moshe that Rosh Chodesh Nissan will be the first month of the year for the Jews. We read Parshas HaChodesh to remind people that Pesach is almost upon us and to prepare for the upcoming YomTov. For those of you who may have missed the significance, it means that the Chazal wanted to remind us THAT IT’S ALMOST PESACH! PESACH! Time to clean and shop and clean and kasher and clean and clean and, well you get the idea. So let us take a moment to reflect on the significance of Rosh Chodesh Nissan so you can forget your Pesach preparations for at least a few moments. (The above is of course only a joke. Most people look forward to Pesach preparations, especially if they aren’t going to be home).

One of the best things about Parshas HaChodesh is that since people are so overcome with fear of Pesach preparations, they don’t even mind if you speak to them about the Mishkan. This is saying a lot, because the average frum Jew suffers from a psychological condition known as Mishkanaphobia (the fear of learning anything even vaguely related to the Mishkan like Sefer VaYikra). Try speaking about the copper bases, the hooks and staves and spikes and watch their eyes glaze over. But as we know, the Mishkan is one of the most central ideas to us, which is why the Torah spends so much time telling us about it. So allow me to focus on one important aspect of the story, or you could strat cleaning out the vent in the freezer with a toothpick.

Let us set the scene. Moshe assembles Klal Yisroel and tells them that it is time to build the Mishkan. He lists what materials are necessary and describes what will be built. The people now go home to search for all the materials for the Mishkan, the means through which B’nei Yisroel will be able to once again experience Hashem dwelling among them. An opportunity to undo the damage done by the building of the Golden Calf.

In פרק ל"ה פסוק כ"ב the Torah tells us ויבאו האנשים על הנשים that the men came literally “on the women” to bring various types of jewelry to offer to the Mishkan. Rashi explains this means they came “with the women, and leaning(or relying) on them”, to bring the jewelry. The Ramban, on the other hand explains it means “after the women”. Since the items being donated were women’s jewelry, women obviously had them more readily available. All they had to do was take them off and bring them. So the women got there first with the men coming back with whatever gold ornaments they had stashed away back home. Therefore the men came after the women and the expression “on the women” should be understood as “joining the crowd”.

Rashi appears to be pretty straightforward by explaining the word “on”, but what is the dependency the men have on the women? What does he mean that they are relying on their wives? The הפלא"ה explains that Rashi is troubled by a practical halachic problem. When a man gives his wife jewelry, that jewelry essentially belongs to the husband. It is considered, however to be halachically in the wives possession. Therefore the husband is not allowed to sell her jewelry without his wife’s permission. Likewise, she can’t sell it without her husband’s permission. Therefore both the husband and wife would have to be present in order to dispose of her jewelry. 

As we know, the treasurers of the Mishkan were scrupulous to avoid accepting anything that had even the slightest hint of impropriety. They certainly wouldn’t have accepted the jewlerly unless the husband and wife were both there to agree to give it. Consequently Rashi explains that “the men came on the women “ meaning they were dependant on them in order to give the donation. (The הפלא"ה points out, by the way, that this explanation could fit into the Ramban as well. The women would have come first, but they would have been unable to donate their jewelry unto their husbands arrived to give their consent. “On the women” would be understood as joining them in order to complete the transaction.

Until this point, things are pretty standard. Nice halachic insight, clever interpretations of a difficult phrase ויבאו האנשים על הנשים, that obviously can’t be taken literally. The problem we have however, is the Daas Zekanim. They offer up a most unusual explanation – it’s literal! “The men came on the women”, to take their jewelry by force! It sounds like they grabbed the jewelry and ran! But we know from the הפלא"ה that that’s impossible! The treasurer would never accept the jewelry from the husbands without the wife’s consent. Why in the world, then, would the men rip it off their wives?

The Daas Zekanim continues

 אעפ"כ הנשים שמחות וזהירות במלאכת שמים  , “none the less the women were happy and careful with the work of Heaven”. This is a strange thing to say. I could imagine that after having had their jewelry forcibly removed they might have been happy anyway (at least it’s going to a good cause) but careful? What were they careful about? If they were careful, they would have hidden their jewlerly when they saw their husbands coming!

The next line is equally puzzling. “And as a reward they merited not to do melacha on Rosh Chodesh. Because by the building of the Golden Calf the men took their jewelry against their will, but here the women were happy to give it”. Once again, what choice did they have except to be happy? It was ripped off of them! I understand if they had donated the jewelry they deserved special mention, but here they just went along with a fait accompli.

And what in the world does this have to do with women not working on Rosh Chodesh? Is that supposed to pay them back over time for their lost jewelry? What is the midah knegged midah involved?

I believe the key to understanding what the Daas Zekanim is trying to tell us is the word זהירות. What does it mean? We’ve translated it as “careful”, and we have probably all seen it translated as “watchfulness”. However the Mesillas Yesharim in ג'&פרקים ב' translates the concept represented by the word זהירות as “thinking”. Weighing carefully every action we do to see if it is good or bad. If we decide the action is good, we should afterwards reexamine our actions to make sure they were done in the best possible way. Perhaps there was a bad midda that slipped into my otherwise good action? Am I sure that the good deed was really the best I’m capable of, or could I do better?

The Mishkan was on one level, an atonement for the Golden Calf. As such, those who donated to the Golden Calf had to donate likewise to the Mishkan in order to receive their atonement. Others who wanted to donate could do so as well, but the people who were responsible for the Aigel had to, and with the same enthusiasm. When Moshe gave the call to donate to the Mishkan, the women were thrilled to be able to donate their jewelry to such a noble cause. But they were zehiros, people who think and carefully examine every situation (for those of those who are inspired by this to actually look at the Daas Zekanim inside, you’ll understand that his reference to the women spinning the goats hair proves this point). 

They said to themselves “of course we could stand up with pride and donate to the Mishkan. And our husbands will happily go along. But is that the best thing we can do? What about our husbands? They sinned by enthusiastically ripping off our jewelry for the Aigel. To fully atone for that, our husbands need to donate to the building of the Mishkan the same way”.

So together, husband and wife went to the treasurer. The wife expressed her desire that her jewelry should be given and then the men, mimicking the excitement that they had displayed for an impure purpose, ripped off their wives jewelry to give to the construction of the Mishkan. The women were zehiros – and happy. Because although they would have much preferred to stand up and give their jewelry themselves, they were happy that they were able to give up their own honor for a higher and nobler cause – their husbands’ opportunity for a full atonement.

And in reward they receive a deeper appreciation of Rosh Chodesh. What is Rosh Chodesh? Rashi explains in Parshas Bereshis, that the moon complained that two kings could not rule with one crown. Hashem agreed and made him smaller. The moon complained – because I pointed out a problem, I get punished! It doesn’t pay to be helpful! That’s the last time I try to solve a problem. Hashem consoled him by giving him the stars to come out with him. When we see the sky ablaze with billions of stars, we should remember that the purpose of them is to make the moon feel better. Hashem also made it that we Jews will run our calendar by the moon. The nations of the world have a year that’s 3651/4 days long. The months are arbitrarily assigned a number of days. We however calculate our months and consequently our holidays by the months.

When we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, we recognize that the moon suffered in order to right a situation. Rashi in Parshas Pinchas ays that Hashem Himself feels He needs to bring a Korben Chatas because He wronged the moon. What was done was right, but someone had to give up their own glory in order to rectify the situation. What more appropriate gift could there be for women who were willing to forego their own honor in the building of the Mishkan for a greater and higher purpose? When women refrain from doing melacha on Rosh Chodesh, they are acknowledging the meaning of the day in a greater way, because they had the foresight and wisdom to sacrifice their own glory to do that which was right.

Until this point, the Daas Zekanim has been quoting the B’chor Shor, but he adds an observation of his own. “It seems to me, that the women were given Rosh Chodesh Nissan as a Yom Tov because that is when the Mishkan was dedicated. They were then given all the other Roshei Chadoshim along with it”. Now if I’m right that there was something special about Rosh Chodesh in general, then why does the Daas Zekanim say it was only Rosh Chodesh Nissan that they were given? And if they were only supposed to get Rosh Chodesh Nissan, as the Daas Zekanim says, then why were they given every other Rosh Chodesh? Would they, for example suggest, that if the Mishkan was put up on a Tuesday, the women would have been given off every Tuesday? There must be something special about Rosh Chodesh Nissan that logically extrapolates to Rosh Chodesh in general.

Hashem tells Moshe that החודש הזה לכם ראש חודשים that Nisan will be the first month for you. The Ramban explains that in factTishrey is the first month of the year,  hence Rosh Hashana is in Tishrey, but for you, the Jewish people,  Nisan will be the first month. Not only do we tell time from the moon instead of the sun, we start our year from a different month.

What is Nisan? In Tishrey, Hashem creates the world. In Nisan, the Jewish people build the Mishkan, the model of the world. It’s when we create from what Hashem has given us and make the world all that it should be. B’Nisan Nigaalu, in Nisan we were redeemed and in Nisan we will be redeemed. The repair of the world, making it right again, that is what we do in Nisan. 

Of course the women were given Rosh Chodesh Nisan. It’s the month when we take and create with what Hashem gave us to make the world a better palce. We say Tefillas Tal on Pesach because then the power of resurrection comes to the world. It is a month of rebirth, recreation and renewal. The Mishkan, which would bring forgiveness to the world, was finally set up on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. The woman, who made it possible, celebrate that day, and all the other Roshei Chadoshim, as a special Yom Tov.

So although Parshas Ha Chodesh tells us that Pesach is coming, it also tells us to take a day off before we begin our avodah of cleaning out the chometz, that which represents all the evil in the world, and enjoy Rosh Chodesh, the fruit of the battles already fought. Then gather strength for the battles yet to come.  

Have a Good Shabbos and Good Chodesh

Parashas Shemos

The Chazal tell us that though we learn from our rebbeim and our chaverim, we learn the most from our talmidim. This point has been driven home to me on many occasions. Sometimes. when I’m at the beginning of one of my brilliant shiurim, having just posed over half a dozen unanswerable questions and as I stand poised to introduce several apparently unrelated sources in order to weave them into a tapestry of pure brilliance, some student will have the audacity to raise their hand and answer all my questions. Often with a simple straightforward explanation that fits the words of the text perfectly. And they read it in the Artscroll. At that point I remember what I have learnt most during my years of teaching – hold all questions till the end. Just kidding, of course. But I have seen fit to jettison material that I had spent a lot of time thinking about, because my students challenge me to think in new and different ways. 

On the other hand, my students have on occasion taught me how far the human mind will go in order to avoid facing untidy details. Like obvious Rashi’s. Few things drive some students absolutely crazy as my asking the simple question – why is Rashi telling me this? Surely one of the most brilliant minds in history doesn’t have to state the obvious? “Maybe he wanted to” one suggested. “Maybe he was being paid by the word” I have heard more than once by students who have obviously never read Dickens to see what someone who got paid by the word really sounds like.

I had this experience two years ago on Parshas Shemos. The Torah speaks of the two midwives who defied Pharaohs evil decree to kill all the male children. Their names, the Torah tells us, are Shifra and Puah. Now it’s not surprising that these two brave women would merit special mention by the Torah. What is surprising is that after this courageous act they vanish from history. Especially since the Torah tells us that Hashem rewarded them with batim, houses. It’s hard to believe that after they behaved in a way that was so historically significant, all they got was a house! Now granted, those of us in Eretz Yisroel with children to marry off, may attach a disproportionate amount of importance to the gift of a house. For the benefit of those of you from Chutz Laaretz, allow me to explain. You see, although you have to make a wedding, in Eretz Yisroel, it’s considered appropriate to provide the young couple with an apartment. Or as someone once explained at a Sheva Berachos, Calev had promised that whoever captured Kiryat Sefer could marry his daughter. Now we say anyone who marries my daughter can have an apartment in Kiryat Sefer!

Rashi explains of course that Shifra and Puah are in fact Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe’s mother and sister. The houses they receive are the houses of Malchus and Kehuna and Levia. This explains the apparent disappearance of Shifra and Puah and the meaning of the houses that Hashem gives as their reward, houses of far greater historical significance. The simple question I asked that upset my students was, why doesn’t the Torah say Yocheved and Miriam! It’s clear from the questions we asked that they must be someone else, so why not just say it. Why force us to have to discover their identities? 

Rashi, of course explains the meaning of the names Shifra and Puah – Shifra because she would lishapir, clean up and beautify the baby and Puah because she would Pooh Pooh the baby, sing and coo to calm the baby down. Now the truth is, that that sounds like an explanation after the fact. If I tell you the Torah calls Yocheved “Shifra” then that’s as good an explanation as any. But I don’t believe if we were writing the Torah we would change Miriam's name to “Cooer” because she used to coo to the baby. When I ask my children what their gannenet’s name is they never call her “Singing Lady” or “Story Teller Lady” (obviously Rabbi Chanoch Teller is the exception to this rule since he is michanech through his telling).

To understand this Rashi, and for that matter Parshas Shemos we need to understand, as a relatively obscure English poet once asked, “What’s in a name?”

We say three times a day אתה קדוש, ושמך קדוש “You are holy and Your name is holy”. What is the “name” of Hashem and why does He have so many of them? A name describes something. In English the designation is random – an egg is not inherently an egg, there’s nothing chairish about a chair and “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. In Lashon HaKodesh, however, the name of something tells us it’s essence. It’s like a strip of DNA – read it and you know everything you need to know about the thing itself. 

That was the tremendous accomplishment of Adom HaRishon. Hashem called upon him to name all the animals. He obviously wasn’t expected to simply call the dog Spot or the monkey Curious George. He gave each one it’s name – the name that told you everything you needed to know about the animal, either through the meaning of the word, the gematria, the shape of the letters, etc. The name was as effective a tool for understanding the animal as a strip of it’s DNA – more even, because it told you about its role and purpose in creation.

So of course Hashem can’t have a real name. If you assigned Him a name that would imply that I now understand everything about Him, and that of course is impossible. Hashem is Infinite. The world we live in is finite, limited. Science tells us that in order to have time and space, we need matter. Without matter there is no space! What does something look like that has no space? Can our minds even grasp such a concept? (No, is the correct answer). In order to have a name for Hashem you would need an infinite name, which again is a problem for us finite beings. What I can do, however, is try to understand how Hashem manifests Himself in this world. Every “Name” of Hashem describes an aspect of how we understand how Hashem reveals Himself in this world. “You are Holy”, we say, in Your Absolute Infinite essence. However, since that’s something I can’t possibly relate to, I say what I can grasp - “Your name is holy”. Let me at least praise what I can give a name to, our understanding of Hashem’s hanhaga in this world.

In Tanach, people have names that tell us about their essence. Unlike animals, however, some people are multifaceted. Yisro had seven names, Moshe ten. Avram and Sarai become Avraham and Sorah and through their name change become different people with a different destiny. The meforshim explain what is happening in Yaakov’s life at each point that causes the Torah to refer to him by the name Yaakov or Yisroel. 

So of course for all intents and purposes, Yocheved and Miriam were their names and described who they were in their essence. Except when it came to their jobs as midwives. The Chofetz Chaim asks how it’s possible that two women could be the midwives of thousands and thousands of women? The answer is that they didn’t allow anyone else to take the job because they were afraid that someone might actually carry out Pharaoh’s evil decree. It is difficult to imagine the amount of mesiras nefesh necessary to do a job like that – running from woman to woman, from baby to baby. Therefore in regard to this role they were Shifra and Puah. It wasn’t a job they did, it was what they became. It was their entire essence.

And what is our name? Who are we? The only time the average person gets to have a glimmer of Divine inspiration is when they name their children. What our name is can tell someone a lot about who we are. About twenty-five years ago my brother attended an ulpan with a friend. The ulpan teacher asked my brother “מה שמך”? Although my brother’s Hebrew wasn’t great, he figured out what the teacher wanted and told him his name. Pointing to my brother’s friend he asked “מה שמו”? Indignantly my brother’s friend loked at the teacher and said “who are you calling a shmo?” I guess some people’s name is shmo. Other people have fancier names, like famous businessman, important lawyer, a medical specialist who’s the head of the department. He’s the butcher, the baker, the psychologist. I was once introduced to someone known as the shmatta king. Who are we? What’s our real name? The Brisker Rav met a fellow and asked him who he was? The fellow told him all about his lucrative business ventures until the Brisker Rav interrupted him by saying, “I didn’t ask how you earn your money, I asked who are you?”

When I was in America a few years back I bumped into an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in many years. When I told him I lived in Eretz Yisroel he asked me “Where do you learn?” Before I could respond he said “The truth is, I don’t know what you’re doing, but whenever I meet someone from Eretz Yisroel and ask what they do, they say they’re in learning. One guy was working in computers full time, another one had a business, but they all said they were in learning”. That was their name – a person in learning. Some people have names like Ben Torah, Bas Yisroel Baal Midos. Those are their real names because it describes who they really are in their essence.

 ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה  “And these are the names of the B’nei Yisroel who came to Mitzrayim”. When they came down to Mitzrayim, all the Jewish people had names. Important names, names that implied both their history and their destiny. Slowly, ever so slowly, their names began to change. Not their real names, of course, those they kept, but the names by which they were known by the outside world. They became known as Egyptians, they wanted names like “honored citizen” or “theatergoer” or “sports enthusiast”. So Hashem had to finally have the Egyptians remind us what our names really are. We’re Jews, and we’re not like everyone else. 

Remembering our real names is the key to the geula. Who is going to be saved? Who are you? There’s a beautiful minhag that at the end of Shemona Esrei we say a special possuk that has the letters of our name. The Shelah HaKadosh tells us that when we get to the Olam HaEmess we want to remember our names. Maybe it’s important to remember what our names really are – what we want to call ourselves when we are in The Real World. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could remember our name as a possuk in the Torah?

So my students were satisfied after all. They found that Rashi was trying to tell us why the Torah changed Yocheved and Miriams names, that names are their essence. I have tried to give that message to my students over the years. To impress upon them that people aren’t supposed to be just notations, or for those of you old enough to remember, Delaney cards, to be slipped into the appropriate slots. People are names, each with a special purpose and essence. As parents and educators we have to help those in our care find and appreciate their real names.

One year I was trying to advise a student of mine who was terribly distraught. She was very agitated and fighting me. Finally she said “who are you to tell me what’s best for me? You don’t even know me! I mean, what’s my name? Go ahead and tell me, what’s my name?” As a teacher, I hate getting tests. I tend to freeze up. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it. With her eyes boring into me, I managed to remember. That was the reason I was able to help this special person. Because she knew that I knew that she had a name.  

Good Shabbos