Friday, February 19, 2021

AMALEK – The Ultimate Distraction, and the Ultimate Uniter

Parshat Zachor 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Parshat Zachor is a time for remembrance. Of course it is a time to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors coming out of Egypt, but the word Zachor also reminds us to remember other things, perhaps even in very recent history. 

Last year, Parshat Zachor (3/7/20) was the last Shabbos our shul was open in a time we would call normal. There was a nervousness in the air, people were not shaking hands, we were “being careful,” but a few days later we had a full Purim in the shul as well, albeit minus a few people who were taking precautions. By the end of the week, just a few hours before Shabbos, shul was closed for what turned out to be close to 3 months. That 3 month period included Pesach and Shavuos, and was a time filled with uncertainty, painful losses, and an unclear direction for the immediate future. 

Here we are, one lunar year later, and we are where we are. Of course we are not yet where we would like to be, with a full return to normal. But hopefully we will be getting there soon. Our shul has been open, for the most part, since June, thank God, and things have been going well under the circumstances. Even as we eventually have a full return to normalcy, it is understood that some people will need a little more time to feel completely comfortable. Hopefully that point will come for everyone in due time, without fear. 

Going back another year to Parshat Zachor, I have a personal memory of spending Shabbos in Yerushalayim, the evening after having achieved something that seemed a world away 3 months prior. Having been unable to run a mile without losing my breath, I took on a challenge, thanks to an organization called “Rabbis Can Run” to participate in the Jerusalem Marathon with a goal to run a half marathon – 13.1 miles. I was one of 13 rabbis – some of whom similarly ran a ½ marathon, while others opted for a 10K (6.2 miles). 

Friday morning was the race, and Friday evening I was asked to speak at our Shabbos dinner, and I shared the following dvar Torah (surrounded by five asterisks at the beginning and end). Why I share with you now will be explained afterwards. 

Who was Amalek? I heard in the name of the Baalei Tosafos, and I found it recorded by Rabbi Chaim Paltiel on Parshas Balak (explained/ quasi-translated below). 

ראשית גוים עמלק. עמלק ר"ת עמרם משה לוי קהת ולכך יצא ללחום עמו קודם לכל האומות ששמו הטעהו לומר אילו הצדיקים נכללים בשמי ודאי אנצח אבל לא שאחריתו עדי אובד, כלומר שס"ת של שמם מיתה, לרמוז שזכות מועיל לישראל שיהיה סופו למיתה. 

Why did Amalek take such a chance in attacking the Israelites? ק ל מ ע ה ו ש מ ר ת י ה מ 

Amalek contemplated its own name, עמלק, and discovered that the letters of this name are identical with the initial letters of four great Jews: Amram, Moshe, Levi, and Kehas. Amalek assumed, since its name formed the ראשי תיבות of these four Israelite spiritual giants, that it too would be endowed with supernatural triumph. But the mistake that Amalek made was that it failed to consider the סופי תיבות "concluding letters" of these four names. Rearranged, these letters spell the Hebrew word מיתה, "death!"  (Read the columns to find the names, the letters on top spell Amalek, and the letters on the bottom are the letters of מיתה)
ע מ ל ק
מ ש ו ה
ם ה י ת

 Bilaam said, "ראשית גוים עמלק ואחריתו עדי אבד” "The first of the nations is Amalek, and its end will be utter destruction." What Bilaam meant was that Amalek may boast of "the first," that the first letters of the four Jewish heroes spell its own name, but ultimately its end or conclusion will be destruction — because the last letters of those names spell מיתה death. 

I’d like to look at two questions when contemplating Parshas Zachor.
   1. Why do we need to remember Amalek? They are gone. We’ve never met one. We’ll never meet one. If not for the command to remember them, they’d be forgotten to history. Perhaps as it should be. 
   2. Why is the commandment to remember them written in the singular? זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק? By all rights it should be something like תזכרו מה שעשו לכם עמלק! 

The Slonimer Rebbe explained that the commandment for remembering Amalek is in the singular because it’s every person’s battle: every person has to face the reality of the battle with Amalek. It’s a spiritual battle against evil, that every time we give in to temptation, every time we lose a personal battle and sin, we’re giving a victory to Amalek. 

Bilaam and Balak also represented Amalek – בלעם בלק – Amalek is embedded in their names! They tried to be a distraction to the Jewish people, causing the Bnei Yisrael to fall to temptation and sin. 

In simple terms – AMALEK is the DISTRACTION which prevents you from getting to your goal. 

I was thinking that there is another way to look at the idea of Zachor being in the singular. 

Rashi tells us in Parshas Yisro, when the Torah says the people camped ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר 
that the Torah describes Israel in the singular because at Sinai they were כאיש אחד בלב אחד, like one man with one (united) heart, but everyone forgets the second half of that Rashi, that everywhere else their unity was tainted by מחלוקת ותרעומות. Complaints and arguments. 

The Torah tells us Yisro came to meet Moshe at Har HaElokim – which means at Sinai. As Yisro had recently heard about the battle with Amalek, the simple understanding of the Torah – whether Yisro came before or after Revelation – is that the battle with Amalek is what led them straight to Sinai. In other words, the unity at Sinai followed from what happened with Amalek. 

 Were they united at Sinai because of Sinai? Or were they united at Sinai because of what happened before Sinai? 

The Torah tells us that עמלק came and fought with ישראל. They didn’t look at Israel as a bunch of groups of people, with internal מחלוקת and different factions. זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק. In the singular. לך! It does not say לכם! And maybe עשה does not mean DID, but the other meaning of עשה, which is MADE. 

AMALEK MADE YOU – because they saw you AS ONE PEOPLE – INTO A TARGET. AMALEK MADE YOU INTO A NATION NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH. You were NOTHING. Haggard. Disheveled. A people who needed God to fight your battles for you. 

But AMALEK MADE YOU. They FORCED YOU TO UNITE. They PUSHED you to the battlefield. They turned you, from a bunch of helpless slaves, from a bunch of nebichs, into an army that struck FEAR into enemies. 


When we read Zachor, we recall that the Bnei Yisrael were עיף ויגע ולא ירא אלקים. Tired and exhausted and not fearing of God. 

What could this mean? 

During my training, too often I looked forward to what I’d be plugged into, and did not take advantage of the opportunity to disconnect. When I went on my longest training run, I found the real chizuk and the ability to go on really came when I unplugged, and disconnected. As we know, running is a mind game. The wall we sometimes hit is Amalek, Amalek telling me “You can’t do this. You’re too tired.” Too often I found Amalek telling me, “You’re alone in this. No one is with you.” 

But I needed to finish those eleven miles of the long training run. And though my knee hurt and my foot hurt, I turned to the Ribono Shel Olam and said, לא אירא רע כי אתה עמדי. (Don’t worry, I skipped the גם כי אלך part!) I found God on the run. And I realized what overcoming Amalek could do. 

Bnei Yisrael were עיף. They were exhausted. Spent. They had seen God at the sea, but how quickly did they forget! Amalek came, and how did they win the battle? They united as one – of course. But the Mishneh tells us in Rosh Hashana that the battle was won when the people looked at Moshe on the hilltop, with his hands stretched heavenwards, and they too found God. That’s what Amalek did for them. When they could look past the distraction of Amalek, they could be indestructible. Remember, all that Amalek is really good for - as it is the Bnei Yisrael who carry the merit of Amram, Moshe, Levi and Kehas - is reaching an end symbolized by the last letters of their names - מיתה - Amalek's demise. 

The Slonimer Rebbe said Zachor is in the singular because Amalek is a battle each individual faces. When you find God when Amalek is trying to veer you from your path to Sinai, you can defeat Amalek. 

And when you find God when Amalek is telling you “you can’t do this,” you find that indeed you can finish a half-marathon. 

This past year has seen ups and downs for all of us. Plans curtailed, cancelled, ruined. Simchas missed. Bikur Cholim visits and Shiva visits being taken out of our experience. The opportunity to be there for loved ones before, during and after medical procedures and hospital, rehab, or care facility stays also taken away. In many ways our lives have been turned upside down. 

It’s not our fault. In too many cases, sadly, it is out of our hands. We wish it were different, but for the time being, it is our present reality. I spoke to someone this week who was sitting shiva for his brother, and he told me “My brother was in a care facility – and they killed him. They didn’t tend to him, they didn’t care about him. They didn’t feed him. They let him wither away” – there are too many stories like this from this past year, of people who were not allowed to have family visit, to have family advocate, to have family look after them, whose lives were cut down by sub-par care. They didn’t die from COVID, but COVID killed them. 

This is Amalek. Amalek is a distraction aimed at taking us away from our goals. In cases like this, Amalek prevents us from loving properly, caring properly, reaching out properly, doing what we know is our responsibility. Amalek attacked the weak, the elderly, the vulnerable! In a way Amalek is too alive and well, because Amalek is capable of so much harm. That’s one reason I shared the dvar Torah – to remind us that Amalek needs to be overcome. 

But Amalek also inspires us to unite, and to help us overcome our own obstacles. And so I share a personal triumph. Many of us have dealt with or are still dealing with our own bouts of depression and hopelessness. We read, listen to or watch the news and wonder when it will end. We hear news of another death and wonder when the Angel of Death will point his finger at us. 

On the other hand, we know that our goals as Jews are to be always improving and growing in our Torah learning, in our Tefillah, and in our Middos (character improvement). This is a reflection of our connection to God, our relationships with others, and our personal mindfulness in our relationship with ourselves. Some of us have achieved incredible things, overcoming hurdles and obstacles to make davening meaningful daily, to increase our Torah study, with online or telephone Chavrusas, and to read books or participate in the many Internet offerings that are available, to help us refine ourselves. 

Personally, the ups and downs carried their own toll in some relationships with people, with food, with attentiveness to personal growth. And always, lurking in the background, was running. Will I keep it up? There were lulls, sometimes even two months without any exercise. But somewhere in mid November I started again, running for 2.5 miles. And by the end of December I pushed out a 10K (6.2 miles). The following weeks, each Saturday night after Shabbos, I challenged myself to run a little more than the previous week. And last Saturday night, 2/13/21, I ran my second half-marathon, just about two years after my first. 

I had to imagine the streets, which were empty, filled with onlookers yelling “Kol HaKavod.” I had to imagine the crowds of runners giving strength and encouragement by simply being there. 

I don’t listen to music or podcasts when I run anymore. It’s important to carve out time to just being able to be with one’s own thoughts. And during that run, I thought about the dvar Torah I had told over then, shared above, and felt that it applies very much to COVID, and decided that for the week of Remembering/Zachor, it was something that would do well to be shared with our community. 

There is too much Amalek in our lives. There is too much that we allow to hold us back from achieving our goals. Sometimes we need a trigger. And sometimes, as I experienced around the 10 mile mark a feeling that I may have taken on more than I can handle, we need that inner voice that tells us, “Enough. You’re going to finish this, and you’re not going to let anything get in the way of your getting to the finish line.” 

Our Running Rabbis have a Whatsapp group. We share with each other our successes and failures, give each other chizuk in our running challenges, and every now and then share the Torah we think of when we’re running. In general, we view the running as an “Avodah” – a way of maintaining health so we can better serve Hashem – and view the challenge of the run as a metaphor for every challenge life places in front of us. 

In just a few weeks we will once again say חזק חזק ונתחזק. While the custom is widespread today, its source and history is rather interesting (that will hopefully be the topic of this Dvar Torah for Shabbos Chazak). For now let us just draw strength, like the Israelites did when they fought Amalek, from the image of Moshe praying to the Almighty on a hilltop. If Moshe was the source of inspiration and strength in the original battle with Amalek, let his legacy of the Torah, the Mishkan, and leading the people to the Promised Land be what inspires us in our everlasting efforts at finding inspiration from the Torah, from our place of worship/service, and from the journey of life that brings us to our final destination of Olam Haba.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Purim Guidance for 5781

 Between this coming Shabbos and next, we will have obligations brought upon us by the calendar. These topics were addressed in the class on Tuesday, which is available on our Facebook page here:

What follows is a summary. 

Parashat Zachor

The best way to fulfill the mitzvah to remember Amalek is through hearing it read from a Torah in the presence of a minyan. The portion will be read at the end of the Torah reading at the indoor and outdoor minyan (approximately 9:35am outdoor and 10:15am indoor), as well as immediately after the minyan (10:15am outdoor, 11:00am indoor), if there are people who come specifically for an additional reading. If one will not make it to shul, the following options are available (please note the note after the options)

1.       Read Zachor - Devarim 25:17-19 - on Shabbos from a Torah you own

2.       If that’s not possible, you can have in mind to fulfill the Mitzva when hearing the Torah reading Purim morning (before Megillah)

3.       Read the portion from a Chumash on Shabbos.

4.       Hear it on Zoom after Shacharis Sunday morning, approximately 8:40am on the daily minyan Zoom link. (see link below in Megillah Reading section)

Note: Even if one uses #2 through Zoom on Purim day, or #3 or #4 (all of which are not in-person readings), one should aim to come to shul when Parashat Ki-Tetzei is read (Shabbos August 21, 2021), and have in mind at that time that the Maftir reading (Devarim 25:17-19) is a fulfillment of remembering Amalek.

 Thursday, Taanis Esther:

The fast begins at 5:39am and ends at 6:50pm.  Those who are fasting, who plan to hear the Megillah at nightfall (6:55pm) should not break the fast until after hearing the Megillah reading. Those who will be hearing the Megillah at a later reading may have a light snack after 6:50pm, but halakha discourages a full meal until after Megillah reading, lest one fall or asleep or forget to hear the Megillah.

Megillah Readings

The best way to hear the Megillah is in person, from someone reading from a Megillah scroll – ideally with a minyan, but acceptable without a minyan.

Any reading heard through electronic implements, whether a microphone, telephone, or Internet, should follow the following criteria: it should be live (not a recording), the listener should have a text in hand (a Megillah scroll is ideal!), the listener should do whatever possible to say the words along with the reader. If any of these are not possible, one may simply listen. (This allowance and option will only be available while we do not have normal operations – in future years we hope to not have Zoom options for Megillah)

Those who are homebound or who need special arrangements beyond the indoor and outdoor options the shul is providing should please be in touch. There are possibilities for a personal earlier reading on Thursday evening or a personal mid-morning reading on Friday.

Note: When the Megillah is read without a Minyan, only the opening blessings are recited, but not the closing blessing of “Harav Es Reveynu.”

Purim Meal/Seudah

With Purim falling on Friday, the idea of having a late afternoon Seudah comes in conflict with our usual Shabbos preparations. As such, it is recommended to have the meal as a brunch or lunch (some will aim to start before Chatzos – 12:33pm), while aiming to be done, no matter the start time, by the beginning of the tenth Halakhic hour of the day, approximately 3:27pm. (Candlelighting is 6:02pm, Mincha at shul will be 6:05pm, and sunset is at 6:20pm) There will be an earlier Mincha at 1:02pm, for those who want to daven Mincha before having their Purim meal plus the final live Megillah reading of the day.

A “Seudas Mitzvah” typically includes bread, so birkat HaMazon can be recited. There are differences of opinion as to whether the meal must include meat, should include either meat or chicken or fish, or could be whatever you wish. In honor of Purim, it should include at least a little wine and bread as noted. Make it as festive as can be!

 Mishloach Manot and Matanot L’Evyonim

 The mitzvah of Mishloach Manot and the mitzvah of Matanot L’Evyonim are meant to serve as expressions of kindness and friendship towards our fellow Jews – in the latter case, especially towards those who can use a boost to help their Purim celebrations be appropriate for the day.

 Mishloach Manot only requires that you send two food items to one person – ideally in the form of a meal. Those who have created a bubble who plan to eat the Seudah together can fulfill Mishloach Manot through preparing the food others at the meal will eat.

 *Participation in the Sisterhood Mishloach Manot project does not fulfill this Mitzvah*

 Rabbi Hershel Schachter has written this year. “Due to Coronavirus concerns there are those who may be uneasy with receiving food prepared in other people’s homes. Consequently, this year in particular, it is worthwhile to heed the Rambam’s exhortation to spend more on Matanos L’evyonim than on Mishloach Manos.”

Matanot L ’evyonim requires that we give money to at least two people to enhance their Purim. Monies collected will be distributed on your behalf both in advance of Purim Day for use for Purim and on Purim Day here or in Israel. You can consider that part of your contributions will be delivered on your behalf on Purim Day – though in either case your mitzvah is fulfilled through enhancing someone else’s Purim.

Those coming to shul, can place cash or a check (made out to “Anshei Chesed” and earmarked “RDF-Matanos L’Evyonim”) in the marked bowls or give them directly me. For those who would like to take care of this online, donations can be made through the online donation portal -, similarly assigned under “Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund” with “Matanos L’Evyonim” in the notes.

 Final Note

Purim is usually an incredible time of communal gathering and celebration. Due to concerns and precautions being exercised by a significant portion of our congregation, any efforts to reach out to neighbors we haven’t seen in a while, to simply share some Purim cheer, will be one of the best forms of enhancement of the holiday we can provide under our current situation. May it be as joyous a Purim as possible. And may we see next Purim to be a return to fellowship and gathering that is most joyous for us all.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Liturgy of Parshas Shekalim

 Parshat Shekalim (with a nod to Mishpatim)

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Parshas Shekalim is the first of the 4 special Parshas read through the month of Adar (Shekalim is read before Rosh Chodesh, unless, as this year, Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbos). 
The section of the Torah is the first few verses of Parshat Ki Sisa (Shemos 30:11-16) which speaks of the census and collection of ½ Shekel per male-over-20. Initially, in the wilderness, the silver was used for the construction of the Mishkan itself, while subsequently the money collected was primarily utilized to fund the daily offerings and the repair-the-Mikdash fund. 

The ½ Shekel is a custom still practiced today in the month of Adar, and has variant opinions of who should participate. As a custom, it is optional, as even the amount donated is not equivalent to ½ Shekel, but is 3 times the ½-coin of the local main currency. The Rama (OC 694:1) and Biur Halakha (s”v ויש ליתן) give examples of coins utilized for this purpose in different lands. In the USA, the custom is to use 3 half-dollars. 

Aside from reading the Maftir and the special Haftorah for Shekalim, there are two customs that are less practiced today that relate to Parshas Shekalim and liturgy. One is the recitation of a special “Shir Shel Yom” for the day, which is chapter 49 of Tehillim. (There are special Shir Shel Yoms for special days on the calendar, though the most widely practiced are Tehillim 30 on Chanukah, Tehillim 27 from Elul through Shmini Atzeres, and Borchi Nafshi (Tehillim 104) on Rosh Chodesh.) 

Reading through the middle verses of Tehillim chapter 49 (verses 6-19), one can see very clearly why this was selected: 
Why should I fear in days of misfortune? The iniquity of my heels surrounds me. Those who rely on their possessions and boast of their great wealth, a brother cannot redeem a man, he cannot give his ransom to God. The redemption of their soul will be too dear, and unattainable forever. Will he live yet forever and not see the Pit? For he sees that wise men die, together a fool and a boorish man perish, and leave over their possessions to others. In their heart, their houses are forever, their dwellings are for every generation; they call by their names on plots of land. But man does not repose in his glory; he is compared to the silenced animals. This is their way; folly is theirs, and after them they will tell with their mouth forever. Like sheep, they are destined to the grave; death will devour them, and the upright will rule over them in the morning, and their form will outlast the grave as his dwelling place. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall take me forever. Fear not when a man becomes rich, when the honor of his house increases, For he will not take anything in his death; his glory will not descend after him. Because in his lifetime he blesses himself, but [all] will praise you, for you will benefit yourself. (Translation from 

One may ask, in what way is this clear? I understand that “you can’t take it with you.” What does that have to do with this kind of donation? We’re talking about a ½ Shekel! The Machatzis HaShekel, of all kinds of donations, is the greatest equalizer! The verse in the Torah says that the “wealthy may not give more, and the poor may not give less,” indicating that the donation is small enough that even the poor can afford it, and limited in that the rich may not simply write a blank check just because they can. They too are limited in their ½ Shekel donations. 

The answer to the question comes from the other custom that has largely fallen out of practice, so much so that two of the most recent siddurim that have been printed, by Koren and the RCA, don’t even include the liturgical passage related to this weekend, known as Yotzros. For Parsha Shekalim, the Yotzros do appear in the Artscroll Siddur starting on page 870. Even if a shul does not have the custom to say it, it doesn’t hurt to go through the prayer to see what our liturgy has to say about the subject of our Maftir and Haftorah. Similar to Tefillos Geshem and Tal, each Yotzer is recited at the beginning of the Chazzan’s Repetition of Mussaf, embedded within the opening blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei, and presented in a fashion similar to the opening of Chazaras HaShatz of the High Holidays! 

The Yotzer suggests that those who participated in the Golden Calf needed to “raise their level… As a redemption… Israel would be uplifted through giving Shekalim.” Then, in the context of the second blessing – gevurot – which includes references to resurrection of the dead, it says, “You (God) saw that [Haman] would be a snare and thorn; You advised Jews to announce to one another publicly that they should give shekels from Rosh Chodesh… [In this way] our contribution comes before that of our dreaded foe.” In a sense, the half-shekel is meant to serve as a kapparah (atonement) in advance of a decree for our destruction. It is, in a way, an investment in our salvation from an enemy. 

The contribution is “from [age] twenty and up, the age when they are eligible for Hevenly punishment and warning , and to join the ranks of war, by means of the half-shekel contribution, [they] annul their evil and sins… The silver shekels of atonement caused the nations to submit to Israel and were kept by God as a remembrance for each Jew.” 

כסף תת כופר הם מפקדים – They are commanded to gain atonement through contributing silver (shekels) 

The last paragraph of the yotzer is more of a lament and a dirge of what has been lost and what we hope to return to, but the second to last portion that is recited by the congregation includes this passage: “Moshe exclaimed… ‘What can a man give to redeem himself and attain the grace of Him Who gave him his soul?’ The Holy One, wanting to justify this people, showed Moshe a fiery coin in a vision; He taught him that they should give that coin without delay and tell them all what they should give. God, you did not burden us so heavily…” because the ½ shekel is so affordable. 

This is not an appeal as much as it is a reminder that we, the Jewish people, have always made generosity and Tzedakah a priority. If we are blessed to be able to give, we do so. We include the phrase בעבור שאנו נודרים לצדקה (“on account that we are pledging to tzedakah”) in our Mi Sheberachs and Kel Maleis throughout the year and when we recite Yizkor, as we are praying for the healing of our loved ones and friends, or for the atonement of the souls of the departed. 

The Ezras Torah luach, of which we all benefit from directly or indirectly, includes this paragraph in its reminders for Parshas Shekalim: "The foremost Rabbis of past generations instituted a wonderful practice whereby, on Shabbos Shekolim Shuls all over America conducted appeals for Ezras Torah, which was a holy bastion of relief and succor for thousands of families of Torah scholars, including Gedolim, Tzaddikim, widows, and children, whose poverty was relieved, to some degree, by the work of Ezras Torah. This practice must be maintained through the present, because these appeals have become a major source of income for Ezras Torah. Heaven forbid that this practice be changed or replaced."

One angle of Parshat Mishpatim aims resolving disputes over financial matters. We know that “money is the root of all evil.” At the same time, proper use of money, especially when given to support the needy or Torah institutions, and especially when we are blessed to have more than we need, has forever been tied with blessing and atonement. 

May we continue to be blessed to take the message of Parshas Shekalim to heart, and be granted blessing and goodness in our lives as a result.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Politics of Freedom and the Covenant at Sinai

After publishing this, I randomly received this video via whatsapp. Really impeccable timing, considering the specific way I chose to write about the law given to us through Moshe's hands. (Apologies that it is in Hebrew with Hebrew subtitles (!))

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In the aftermath of the recent inauguration of a female Vice President, a discussion came up in one of the rabbinic listserves I read as to the propriety of the language of the prayer for the government of the US which is written, in Hebrew, in the masculine (ie. gender specific) when referencing the President and Vice President. My contribution to the conversation was to read the prayer in English, as we do in our shul, as “President” and “Vice President” are presented by title – no emendation needed. 

Following that discussion, I learned from this article by Michael Feldstein (a friend) that such a conversation raised in shul could be explosive. 

While I don’t agree with everything Michael wrote, I believe he deals with the issues sensibly, noting that some changes might perhaps be better than others. I certainly agree that changing the prayer based on who is in the White House is not a good idea. 

There was a time, particularly after World War II, when many immigrants filled pews, when the ways of the USA were new to them, when English was not their language of birth, when the rabbi’s role in explaining politics to his congregants had its place. Nowadays people are very connected, very astute, and while a rabbi is entitled to his opinion – one he may share in a private conversation with a congregant – the role of the rabbi with respect to politics should be limited to addressing moral issues, and, when calling out bad political behavior, noting that it happens on both sides of the aisle. 

Based on the question of the place of politics in the pulpit, I was rather surprised to find that Rabbi Sacks, Z”L had written about this very topic in an essay on Parshas Yisro! In Covenant and Conversation: Exodus, in an essay entitled “Mount Sinai and the Birth of Freedom,” he wrote the following: 
“… at Mount Sinai the concept of a free society was born. 

“… long before Israel entered the land and acquired their own system of government, they had entered into an overarching covenant with God. That covenant set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call Torah established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting ultra vires (beyond legitimate authority), and could be challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics. 

“Democracy on the Greek model had one fatal weakness. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called it “the tyranny of the majority.” J.L. Talmon called it “totalitarian democracy.” The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. As Lord Acton rightly noted, it was this that led to the downfall of Athens: “There was no law superior to that of the state. The lawgiver was above the law.” In Judaism, by contrast, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah… 

“Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. The first example… was the Hebrew midwives who ‘feared God and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded….’ It was on this tradition that Calvin – inspiration of the seventeenth-century Puritan radicals in England and America – drew, when he said, “prophets and teachers may take courage and boldly set themselves against kings and nations.” It was on the same tradition that Thomas Paine based his pamphlet Common Sense (1776), widely credited at the time as the inspiration that led to the American Revolution. Historically, it was the covenant at Sinai and all that flowed from it, not the Greek political tradition, that inspired the birth of freedom in Britain and America, the first people to take that road in the modern age.” 
Rabbi Sacks goes on to describe two more crucial elements of Sinai: 

Through saying “We will do what Hashem has said” the people gave what was later called “the consent of the governed.” And finally, that the essential constitution of liberty includes everyone – women, men, children (see Shmot 19:3 where “Beit Yaakov” is mentioned first, and is traditionally understood to Moshe being instructed to speak to the women first, then to the men). Hakhel, in Devarim 31, mentions including men, women, and children in the one-in-seven-years gathering aimed at enhancing our communal, national, and personal relationships with God. 

Maybe one day we will all look back at the last 11 months and have a more clear picture of what happened. Maybe we’ll see that some governors and politicians were wrong, some were right, and some were simply hypocritical and/or tyrannical in their abuses of power. Maybe we’ll be given the truth, maybe the data won’t be manipulated, maybe people will take responsibility for their actions, maybe people will see that lockdowns hurt as much as they helped, maybe the idea of personal responsibility will have a resurgence. Maybe healthcare will be removed from politics, and doctors will once again be allowed to care for their patients without having bureaucrats tell them what they could or could not do. And then, maybe not. 

If Rabbi Sacks is right that Revelation set in motion what it means to be free – and that is essentially “to choose the rules I wish to follow” as evidenced by “All that God said I will do” – then it behooves us to 1. Trust and believe in God, 2. Not to worship any idol, or even to turn any human being into an idol we follow blindly, 3. Not to take God’s name in vain, 4. To remember the importance of Shabbos, because GOD created the WORLD and everything in it, resting from creating on the seventh day – it is His world which was given to us, not any person’s world to dictate how we are to live, 5. Honor our parents if they are alive, and carrying their legacy if they are deceased – if they valued Tefillah, Torah, Mitzvos, we must find a way to reconnect to what has been lost in the last year, most notably Hachnasas Orchim, Bikur Cholim, and Nichum Aveilim, 6. Not to deliberately murder – which includes not to character assassinate without evidence, 7. Not to commit adultery – not to betray most sacred relationships, 8. Not to steal – including stealing someone’s reputation for simply having a different point of view, 9. Not to bear false witness – not to misrepresent facts, data, or someone else’s opinion, 10. Not to covet, which Rabbi Yosef Albo explained as our obligation to be concerned for others through our thoughts. 

Rabbi Michael Rosenzweig focuses on the symmetry between the beginning and the end of the Decalogue, as he notes: 
The Torah insists that man's perspective can and must be shaped by the spiritual-halachic values that give life its purpose. This is true not only with respect to belief in Hashem, without which life would cease to have meaning, but is also true with regard to the equally indispensable value of a proper approach to material goods.” 
Quoting Rav Hirsch, he categorized the last of the Dibrot this way: 
“… while the first group of the Asseret ha-Dibrot begins with theological commitment and then shifts to obligations of actions, the second half of the Dibrot commence with a focus on actions but conclude with values that are critical to an ideological commitment. Values and a commitment to principle is the foundation of the Torah, but the Torah's special approach to life demands that these be concretized in activities and norms. At the same time, the focus on actions and norms would be insufficient if it did not, in turn, produce and generate a more intricate halachic value system to govern the spiritual life of the committed Torah Jew. The process that begins with a commitment to faith- "Anochi Hashem Elokechah"- culminates with the profound impact of halachic reality manifested in Lo Tachmod, as the reciprocal interaction of thought and deed shape and define the halachic personality.“ 
Perhaps, then, the last of the Dibrot is a roundabout way of saying “Do unto others what you’d like done to you” (aka “Love Thy Neighbor,” as taught by Rabbi Akiva) and “What is hateful to you do not do to others” (as taught by Hillel) That is a perfect summary of what freedom is – Following God’s commandments because they are Divine and therefore good, and giving the other person the space to use the same instructions and commitment to come to similar conclusions, all while we each find our own personal way to serve the Almighty. 

In our tradition, we have conflicting values which inform our behavior. אנכי עפר ואפר – I am dust and ashes - the ultimate expression of humility. בשבילי נברא העולם – the world was created for my sake – the ultimate expression of personal pride. כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה – all of Israel bear responsibility for one another. אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי – I bear a personal responsibility for the outcomes in my life. 

Each of these expressions, especially כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, can be interpreted in different ways. Does responsibility for one another mean: we all represent God and our people and must behave a certain way? We can’t leave a wounded or dead soldier on the battlefield? We have to trade 1,000 terrorists for one kidnapped soldier? There can’t be poor people? We should protest when there’s injustice against Jews in the world? We have to make sure every Jewish child can have a Jewish education? We must make sacrifices for the “Greater Good”? This latter thought is always a relative (and perhaps dark) discussion, heavily dependent on who decides what that Greater Good is. 

We have our answers – they are in the Decalogue, and in the statements of Rabbi Akiva and Hillel quoted above. We should be blessed to rise above politics and remember how necessary human relationships are, and what should be the guiding principles in how we go about the choices we make, the conversations we have, and the things we do.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Hey Mon! Gratitude and Faith Come From Extreme Tests

Parshat Beshalach 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

In the opening Siman of Shulchan Arukh, the Mishneh Brurah (s”k 13) comments as to why פרשת המן (the section of the Torah addressing Manna, henceforth “Mon”) is included in the back of the morning prayers in many siddurim, and why it is recommended to be said on a daily basis:  

ופרשת המן כדי שיאמין שכל מזונותיו באין בהשגחה פרטית וכדכתיב המרבה לא העדיף והממעיט לא החסיר להורות שאין ריבוי ההשתדלות מועיל מאומה ואיתא בירושלמי ברכות כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו 

“Parshat HaMon is [said daily] so that a person should believe that all his food comes through God’s intent, as it says ‘Whoever took more had no extra, and whoever took less was not lacking,’ to simply demonstrate that extra effort doesn’t assist at all. [In] the Yerushalmi Berachos it says that anyone who says Parshat HaMon is guaranteed that his food will never be minimized.” 

The story of the Mon seems pretty straightforward. A month after having left Egypt (16:1) the food supply had dwindled and the people were left with nothing. They complained to Moshe, recalling the endless food supply they had in Egypt, the meatpots and easily available bread. 

Moshe tells them they should be complaining to God and not to Moshe and Aharon (16:8). Interestingly, Moshe also instructs Aharon to tell the Bnei Yisrael to approach Hashem, Who has heard your complaints, and then the Torah reports to us that as Aharon was speaking to them, Hashem’s glory appeared in a cloud. (16:9-10) 

The mitzvoth of the Mon are given: not to have any leftovers until the morning, to collect doubles on Friday, and not to collect on Shabbos, etc. 

While there are many questions we can ask, two in particular come to mind. 
  1. It seems that the Mon came only because the people complained. Was God really intending to have them starve? (This same question can be asked about every time they complain about water?) 
  2. What lessons are we to learn from the Mon tale today? The Torah could have simply stated that God fed the people in the wilderness (as it does in Devarim 8) without going into all the details of the tale! 
To the first question, we can look in the Haggadah to find the answer! We say in the “Dayenu,” “Had He only supplied our needs in the desert for forty years and not fed us the Mon, it would have been enough.” Of course, the refrain “it would have been enough” means “it would have been enough reason for us to give thanks,” which is the ultimate message of each phase of Dayenu. But that statement indicates that God DID intend to provide our needs in the wilderness. It seems that the Mon, therefore, was a bonus. Note that “Dayenu” doesn’t reference giving us water, which means that of course God intended to provide water. The people always complained before God felt it necessary to intervene. 

What were “our needs” that God was providing in the wilderness? In Devarim 2:7 Moshe tells the people, “You didn’t lack for anything.” In Devarim 8:4 Moshe reminds them that “Your garment did not wear out and your feet did not swell” for all the time in the wilderness. Earlier in our parsha, Moshe told the people at Marah that “if you do what is just in His eyes, give ear to His commandments, and observe all His decrees, then any of the diseases that I placed on Egypt I will not bring upon you, for I am Hashem your healer.” 

A Chassidic teaching (recorded by Nachshoni) is that the “disease” of Egypt is the stubborn denial of Hashem’s existence, with no chance of repentance. No matter what, the people would never stubbornly refuse repentance the way Pharaoh did – they were cured of this now and forever. 

Some of the commentaries on the Haggadah further explain what the “needs” of the Israelites in the wilderness were. Shibolei HaLeket mentions the protection of the Pillars of Cloud and Fire. Rashbe’tz mentions that the journey followed a path where there was edible shrubbery growing. More than enough for survival. A number of commentators noted that they had plenty of animals and plenty of money to purchase food and other supplies from the peoples they’d encounter (Orchos Chaim, Abudirham, Rashbam). So our needs, therefore were taken care of – but the people wanted MORE. They were used to Egypt providing them with their food, because that is what a master must give to his slaves, in exchange for their slave labor. They did not yet know or understand the ways of the world and how to utilize the resources they had available. Perhaps they wanted to preserve their animals for their own wealth purposes. Perhaps they wanted to save them for offerings. But they could have used them for meat! Their needs were provided. 

As for our own lessons from the Mon, there are many. The Mishneh Brurah’s example noted above, is a lesson of faith and trust in the Almighty. A daily recitation is meant to train a person in the ways of Emunah, and to help a person’s ultimate lifegoal, which is to get closer and closer to God in this lifetime. 

Ultimately, God said that the test of the Mon would be to see “if [Israel] will follow the ways of My Torah or not.” (16:4) 

Ibn Ezra notes that the test was for the people to see that they would need God on a daily basis. 

Ramban takes this a step further noting that the test was to see if they would follow God even if they only had one day’s worth of food. Most of us have a kitchen stocked with food for much more than a day, and we also know we can go to a store whenever we want. Perhaps we can imagine a different level of trust in God if the food supply line were to break, or if we had no clear source of sustenance, relying on God to provide for us on a daily basis. (See Yoma 76) 

The test of the Mon can also be viewed as a test of gratitude. Do we acknowledge God’s sustaining us on a regular basis? This can be demonstrated by us through our adherence to the mitzvoth associated with saying Brachot! 

There are further teachings which compare the daily dose of Mon to the daily doses of Torah that we are to bring into our regular existence. The fact that we have Torah reading 3 times a week is meant to remind us that just as a person should not go 3 days without food, a Jew should not go 3 days without Torah. Certainly the image of a daily Mon supply should remind us of God’s care for us, and His everlasting gift to us which has long outlasted the physical Mon – the Torah which speaks to us on a daily basis, if we are only listening and engaged in its study, and in extracting its practical advice for daily living. 

May we be blessed to see that God is always watching over us. Even when we don’t see how He provides our needs, we should be blessed to see how what we have is enough – Dayenu. And we should be blessed to always be moving upward in our relationship with Him, as the many tests associated with the Mon and with wilderness living were to teach us about how to live life outside of Egypt and even in a wilderness, when things are unfamiliar and the direction life is heading is filled with uncertainty. 

That is a tremendously powerful lesson for all time, and especially for our time.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Moshe Rabbenu Shares the Priorities of Bnei Yisrael

Parshat Bo 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

After getting the warning of the pending plague of locusts, and after hearing from his own people, "How long will this be a snare for us? Send the people! Let them serve their God! Don't you know Egypt is lost?", Pharaoh asks Moshe the ultimate question of Jewish values and priorities. If I let you go, "who and who are going?" (10:8) 

Moshe's response speaks volumes. "We will go with our young people, with our old people, with our sons and our daughters, with our sheep and cattle we will go, because it is a celebration of God for us." (10:9) 

Pharaoh's values are Egyptian values. Not exactly in these words, he tells Moshe there is no way you are taking your children. Rather, "Let the men go, [they] will serve Hashem, for that is what you really want." (10:10-11) Obviously Pharaoh felt that religious ritual is only the purview of men, and that Israelite children have no part in it. Perhaps he also felt that children are an anchor that will guarantee his slaves will return, but he never actually says that outright. 

It seems a bizarre question. What are our priorities? 

I heard a story recently about Rabbi Yehuda Amital, z"l, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, who was giving a shiur (lecture) in the yeshiva, in the main Beit Medrash, when the sound of children running around in the upstairs women section (used mainly on Shabbos morning when families of the rebbeim would daven with the yeshiva) interrupted his teaching. 

The people listening to the shiur tried to shush the children, though they couldn't see them, and of course it was to no avail. It is a bit of an ordeal to get upstairs - much easier to shush than to actually take the two minutes to get up, go out, get to the staircase, climb them, catch the kids, and tell them they are disturbing the Rosh Yeshiva. 

Anyway, Rav Amital said, ילדים לא מפריעים לי, רק המבוגרים. “Children don’t disturb me. Only adults [are disturbing me].” 

It seemed the shushing was more disturbing to Rav Amital than the running around. This was a living, breathing theme of Rav Amital's life. He was in several labor camps during the Shoah, and was the lone survivor of his family. He didn't see Jewish children all through the Holocaust and therefore, each time he saw Jewish children after the Holocaust, he felt it was nothing less than a miracle. 

Rosh Yeshiva Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein shared the following teaching in the name of Rav Aharon Soloveichik zt”l, which I heard from Rabbi Yonatan Shai Friedman: 

The Gemara Yevamot 113b-114a relates that the people lost the key to the shul and the way they went about finding it was to have the children play right outside the shul. Part of the problem was that even if the adults found the key, as it was Shabbos, they could do nothing with it as carrying was forbidden in the space where the key had been lost. Here is the passage from the Talmud:

רב יצחק בר ביסנא אירכסו ליה מפתחי דבי מדרשא ברשות הרבים בשבתא, אתא לקמיה דרבי פדת, אמר ליה: זיל דבר טלי וטליא וליטיילו התם, דאי משכחי להו מייתי להו 

“Rav Yitzchak bar Bisna lost the keys to the study hall, and therefore they could not come into the study hall from the public domain on Shabbat. [It was impossible to open the synagogue, as they could not bring the key because it is prohibited to carry in the public domain.] He came before Rabbi Pedat to ask what to do. Rabbi Pedat said to him: Go and lead boys and girls and let them walk there [where the keys were lost], and if they find the keys they will bring them to you of their own accord [, without you needing to tell them to bring you the keys.]” 

The message, or lesson, from this anecdote is that the “key” to having children become shul goers is to first have them play there. 

We could argue that the way Moshe Rabbenu was describing everyone coming was the first example of what would later come to be known as the mitzvah of Hakhel – the once in 7 years gathering of ALL the people of Israel to Yerushalayim. In explaining why the children were brought, as many of them were surely too young to understand or appreciate the gathering and proceedings, Chazal teach us it was “to give reward to those who brought them.” 

There’s a passage in the Yerushalmi in Yavamos in which Rabbi Yehoshua describes the teaching of “the giving reward to those who brought the children” as a precious stone. The teaching is so precious. Why? The Talmud tells us R Yehoshua remembered that his mother would bring his cradle to the synagogue so that his ears would cleave to the words of the Torah. Sure enough, he became a tanna! 

As much as any, many, or all of us have any mitzvah to pray, and as much as any, many, or all of us have an obligation to be with a minyan, we have a fundamental responsibility not only to not neglect our children, but to give them a foundation of seeing shul as their second home and of providing a space in which they are comfortable coming. 

Thank God, and for reasons that are not necessarily understood, children are the least affected by covid. But they are affected the most in being closed out from synagogue participation – even on their own level of playing and seeing shul as a destination on a weekly basis. 

If indeed we aim to emulate Moshe Rabbenu and his declaration that ALL of Bnei Yisrael are coming us, we ought to ask ourselves, why did he mention נערינו (our youths), and then also בבנינו ובבנותינו (with our sons and daughters)? Isn’t that just repetitive? 

Malbim suggest that “with our youths and with our elders” was a general response meaning “We are all going,” but then he turned to Pharaoh and was very specific. To you, Pharaoh, this may seem contradictory, but to us there is no contradiction. We cannot properly celebrate with our God, unless everyone, including our women and children are with us. 

Netziv writes, “Everyone is obligated to serve God like the men (who Pharaoh felt were the only ones who had an obligation). While it may be true that the children are not involved in our service of God, but we will nevertheless be going with them (they are coming too!), for this is what a celebration of our God is: It is SIMCHA (joyous), and we are incapable of rejoicing when we are without our sons and daughters…”

R Shimon Sofer/Shreiber (grandson of Chasam Sofer) wrote, “It is known that the main people involved in the service are the adult males and the older sons – both to bring offerings, and to foster a celebratory feeling with their sons and daughters… [but] when it comes to traveling the little boys and girls go first, followed by the older children, and then the fathers, so the youngsters can be supervised and watched. If the fathers go in front, who is watching those who are following behind them? [Explaining the cantellation marks on בבנינו ובבנותינו…] Moshe was indicating that our youths and our elderly are the most important, and that our sons and daughters walk first." 

Moshe Rabbenu was teaching Pharaoh, and setting for the record for us to remember as well, that we ought not misplace our true priorities. We should be blessed to hear the sounds of children in our shuls. And may we, like Rav Amital, never be bothered by the noises of children. They are, after all, the only hope for our future.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Strengthen the Heart – To Have Free Will

Parshat Va'era 
by Rabbi Avi Billet 

The Torah mentions “ויחזק ה' את לב פרעה” three times in the latter plagues (9:12; 10:20,27), indicating God’s role in strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve to not let his slaves leave. One of the more difficult questions we are faced with as we contemplate this evidence is “Did God remove Pharaoh’s free will?” 

The crux of the question boils down to how we translate ויחזק, and what God in fact did to Pharaoh’s heart. The word can literally be translated to mean “and He strengthened,” which is arguably a better translation than “and He hardened.” 

Giving Pharaoh strength can be understood in at least three very different ways. It could be making him more stubborn, it could be giving him the strength to not give in to his own fears, it could be removing his free will. 

Ramban notes that Pharaoh lost the right to have free will under these circumstances because a. he went above and beyond anything tasked of him in enslaving Avraham’s descendants, and b. he indicated through his personal stubbornness in the first 5 plagues that he didn’t believe in the God of the Hebrews and that he was unwilling to let Israel leave to worship their God in the wilderness. 

This is not a complete absolution of the challenge created in removing Pharaoh’s free will. However, perhaps the idea of “giving him the strength to not give in to his own fears” is a direction we can better relate to in our understanding of this tale. 

When Pharaoh responded to Moshe and told him “Who is Hashem that I should listen to Him? I do not know Hashem. And I will also not send Israel out” (5:2) the focus of the plagues became answering that question. One need not look too hard to see this play itself out throughout the plagues. See the following verses: 7:5,17; 8:6,18; 9:14, 9:29 

Pharaoh or his sorcerers indicate a belief that God wrought the plagues in the following verses: 8:4,15,21,24; (9:7?), 9:27-28, 10:16-17. 

In essence, the need to give Pharaoh strength, then, is less about giving him resolve and stubbornness, as much as it is about giving him the ability to make a clear decision that Hashem is in charge of the world, that Pharaoh understands Who He is, and that giving permission to Israel to leave comes from that recognition and a place of personal peace, more than from a place that says “I am being pressured to let the slaves go.” Religious coercion is never really a good thing. 

How many times does Pharaoh let the Israelites leave? 8:4 (during frogs), 8:21-24 (during arbeh), 9:27-28 (during hail), 10:8-11 (before locusts), 10:24-26 (during darkness), 12:31-33 (during plague of Firstborn). In five of those six times he changes his mind. In only two of those times does God “strengthen his heart.” That is hardly a pattern of God removing free will. 

“[Pharaoh] sent for Moses and Aaron during the night. 'Get moving!' he said. 'Get out from among my people - you and the Israelites! Go! Worship God just as you demanded! Take your sheep and cattle, just as you said! Go! Bless me too!' (12:31-32). Note that Pharaoh does not say “Worship YOUR God.” He simply says “Worship God.” This means that he learned the lesson. 

What we see from Pharaoh’s “journey” is that he comes around to the notion that God runs the world. He may have his own need to process the idea that his slaves don’t really belong to him, and that their need to be free is really the most basic human right that he is simply withholding because he has lost sight of what human dignity is. 

Go through the text in these chapters, and see if you can find when “the nation” is mentioned, and see if you can determine the difference between Israelites and Egyptians. Who, for example are עבדי פרעה and עבדיו?  
(See 7:10, 7:20, 8:20,25, 9:20, 10:1, 10:7, 11:3,8, 14:5-6) These servants/slaves do not seem to be Israelites. Is anyone in Egypt truly free? 

Pharaoh’s emotional upheaval and personal transformation would certainly make for a great psychology study. How much can one man take? How many hits can his ego swallow before he comes to the realization that Hashem is fighting for Israel, that this is an unfair fight, and that his best move would be to accept the reality he is now facing? 

This is where strength from the Almighty comes in. And so Hashem gives him strength. ויחזק ה' את לב פרעה. 

The history of the world has shown that God runs the world. He has His ways, we don’t always understand. Mankind has been through wonderful times and terrible times. While those not religiously inclined, or those cynical of God’s role in the world might blame God for famine, drought, pestilence, disease, floods, storms, etc., the God-fearing look at everything that takes place and says “God is always reminding us that He is running things.” Perhaps the God-fearing even blame Man for causing God to bring these and other calamities upon us. God has an infinite number of ways of proving this, over and over and over, and somehow, too many of our fellow humans aim, like Pharaoh, to come up with natural explanations, or to blame God for being anything but benevolent. 

But the opposite is the case. The simple definition of a free society is that you can do, think, and say what you want, you can engage in mutually acceptable transactions, and you can’t do anything that deliberately hurts another person. (Of course there are many asterisks and explanations that can go with that.) There needs to be a basic respect for human dignity of the other – which should go in both directions – without looking to blame good and decent people for everything that’s wrong with society. 

At the same time, we must recognize that some of the worst travesties that have befallen humankind were manmade – whether wars and weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons, and certain failed efforts at responding to disease. 

When we see plagues in the Torah, whether in Egypt or in the wilderness, we know that no amount of human intervention would have stopped what God had unleashed. What stopped plagues? In Egypt, it was either the plague running its course, Moshe’s prayer, or Pharaoh coming to the realization that God is in charge and human beings need to be free. In the wilderness, the plagues ended either a. when all who were supposed to die died (it ran its course), b. when Aharon stood heroically with a firepan of ketores, c. when people looked at a copper snake, d. when Pinchas killed Zimri and Kozbi. The people who got involved were divinely inspired – not human beings thinking they could outsmart God. 

Rather than viewing Pharaoh’s experience as a loss of free will, I prefer to see Pharaoh’s heart being strengthened as his being gifted the ability to see through his pain and suffering to come to the realization that Hashem is in charge. It is true that God once again strengthened Pharaoh’s heart in Parshat Beshalach (see 14:4,8,17), but to what goal? They (Pharaoh and his army) needed to have the resolve to overcome their own fears of what might happen again, in order to come to the penultimate conclusion that God is truly in charge (see 14:25), even if that realization only comes in the moment before they drown. 

Ironically though, Israel also needed to learn this (see 6:9-13). Israel was not ready to accept that God was indeed on the cusp of redeeming them. Moshe needed several messages of support, and several instructions to go back to Israel to convince them that he was truly sent by God to redeem them. Perhaps, deep in the traumatized minds of slaves, they don’t want to be free. But God had promised their forefathers, and was not about to reneg on His promise simply because His children were enslaved in their minds as well as in their bodies. 

Our task is to remember our creed. There is a teaching from our Sages, “There is none who is as free as one who engages in Torah.” Using a Gemara in Brachos 17a, Rabbi Zev Leff explained this notion very simply. The Torah makes a person free – because all a person wants to do is serve the Ribbono Shel Olam. 

The free person does what he or she wants to do. For the Jew, who wants to follow God’s will, the task is simple. Choose Godliness, follow the Torah, engage with mitzvos, respect your fellow Man. 

If only we were to have our hearts “strengthened” in the way that Pharaoh’s was strengthened, so we could see through our own free will that God is in charge, and that where we go from here is up to Him, and not in the hands of Man, would we truly be free! 

Choose God. Choose the Torah. Everything else is a distraction from our task at hand – to be servants of the Almighty, and to want to do His will, in as free a manner as should be available to us, under the wings and protection of the Divine.