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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Yisro 5772 "Pushing the Blanket"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The well-known entertainer Jimmy Durante, was once asked to participate in a show for World War II veterans. He agreed to do it but, because his schedule was very busy, he mentioned that he could only spare a few minutes to perform a brief comical monologue.

When he got on stage however, the performance dragged on much longer than had been planned. His monologue continued for fifteen minutes, then twenty minutes, and then a half hour. The crowd was enthralled as was reflected by their rousing applause. Finally, he took his final bow and exited the stage.

When he walked backstage, one of the producers asked him what happened, “Mr. Durante, I thought you only had a few minutes to spare?” Durante replied, “The truth is I did not really have the time, but when I got out there I felt I had to stay longer. Come with me and I’ll show you why.” Jimmy took the producer to the edge of the stage and told him to peer into the front row of the audience. Two veterans were sitting there, each of whom had lost an arm in combat; one had lost his right arm and one had lost his left arm. Every time the crowd applauded the two soldiers did so as well…together! “When I saw that”, concluded Jimmy, “I felt compelled to entertain these great men a little bit longer.”

(19:1-2) “In the third month after the Children of Israel left Egypt, on this day they arrived at the desert of Sinai. And they traveled from Rephidim and they came to the desert of Sinai and they camped in the desert, and Israel camped there opposite the mountain.”

Prima Facie, the verses seem redundant. Why does the Torah have to mention that they came to Sinai and then repeat that they came from Rephidim to Sinai? Also, there seems to be a few discrepancies between the way the Torah introduces the new encampment and how it refers to it again in the same verse. The verse begins by saying and they camped (vayachanu), but continues by saying, and he (Yisroel) camped (vayichan)? Also, the verse begins by stating that they arrived at the ‘desert of Sinai’ but then says that ‘they camped in ‘the’ desert’? Also, the Torah initially refers to the mountain as ‘Sinai’ but then refers to it anonymously, simply stating that “they camped opposite ‘the’ mountain”?

Kli Yakar explains that the Torah is alluding to the fact that Klal Yisroel was not worthy to receive the Torah until they were unified. Were they to accept the Torah in a state of discord and disunity, everyone would have a different interpretation of what was taught and they would never be able to reconcile their views.

The verse begins by mentioning that they arrived at Sinai in the third month, because the zodiac symbol of the third month (Sivan) is twins. To accept the Torah there had to be a feeling of unity, despite their differences.

The Torah relates that they departed from Rephidim because the name Rephidim is similar to the word ‘Pirud’ separateness. To receive the Torah they had to travel away from Rephidim by overcoming that separateness.

Kli Yakar continues that at the root of all feuds are fragile egos and the drive for self-aggrandizement. When Klal Yisroel saw that Sinai was a ‘low mountain’ it symbolized to them that - despite their individual greatness - they had to be humble. They had to put aside their own selfish motives and pursuits to become a cohesive people. That humility enabled them to love and respect each other.

The verse begins by referring to ‘their’ camping at the foot of the mountain because when they first arrived at the mountain they were still divided. This is also why the verse reiterates that they camped in the desert. A desert is a barren wasteland which cannot sustain life. At that point, Klal Yisroel was as of yet not ready to receive the Torah and therefore they were analogous to a spiritual wasteland. The verse concludes, ‘Yisroel camped there opposite the mountain’ to show that after they peered at the mountain they internalized its symbolic message of humility. Only then were then ready to receive the Torah.

The Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam zt’l[1] comments that the exodus from Egypt only transpired because the Jews were able to reach an elevated level of unity. At the beginning of Chumash Shemos, Rashi[2] explains that when the Jew that Moshe saved from the Egyptian taskmaster reported what he did to the Egyptian authorities, Moshe declared that he then understood why the Jews were being subjected to such unbearable servitude. It was because they quarreled amongst themselves. In fact, the reason the Jews originally descended to Egypt was a direct result of the strife and enmity between Yosef and the tribes.

To rectify this glaring deficiency, just prior to the exodus, when Moshe relayed G-d’s commandment that the Jews sacrifice the Paschal lamb and to eat it with matzah and marror, they were commanded to do so with their neighbors. The Paschal lamb could not be eaten in isolation, rather families had to join together in harmonious joy and gratitude for the past miracles and for the imminent redemption.

The Medrash relates that at first when the Jews arrived at the banks of the raging Sea of the Reeds with the entire Egyptian infantry right behind them, the sea refused to split. On the verse in Tehillim, “The sea saw and it fled”, the Medrash comments, “What did the sea see? It saw the coffin of Yosef.”

The Klausenberger Rebbe explained that when the sea saw that all of the tribes were carrying the bones of Yosef together, it symbolized that they had transcended the discord which had caused the exile. Therefore the sea split for them.

After emerging safely from the Sea and witnessing G-d’s candid revelation, they sang together. Still-in-all, it was not until they arrived at Sinai and internalized the message of the mountain itself that they achieved complete oneness. In the timeless words of Rashi, they became “like one man with one heart.” That was when they were worthy to receive the Torah.

This process repeated itself more than a millennia later after the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash when the Jews were settled in Babylonia and Persia. The Medrash[3] explains that the heinous decrees of Haman were only able to be passed because of the discord that was present among the Jews at that time. If Haman thought that the Jews were unified, he never would have even attempted to destroy them. Subsequently, their salvation was only possible because they unified and heeded the call of their leaders, Mordechai and Esther.

Thus, included in the great holidays of Purim and Pesach is the celebration of great brotherhood which was present and, in fact, enabled the miracles and the salvation to transpire.

This is in contrast to the tragic day of Tisha B’av which commemorates the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. The oft-quoted Gemara[4] relates that the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of abounding baseless hatred among the Jews at that time. The Chofetz Chaim writes that the Bais Hamikdash has not been rebuilt and the final redemption has not arrived because we have yet to rectify this tragic sin. It is in our hands to bring the redemption closer.

Howard Schultz is the chairman and chief global strategist of Starbucks. A number of years ago, Mr. Schultz received the Columbia Business School's Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics. The following article is excerpted from his acceptance speech. It was originally published inHermes magazine, the magazine of Columbia Business School, Spring 2001.The article is entitled, “A blanket of trust”:

“Think about all our experiences every day. How often does anybody honor us as a consumer? Rarely. But when it does happen, the power of the human spirit really does come through. At the end of the day, when business is really good, it's not about building a brand or making money. That's a means to an end. It's about honoring the human spirit, honoring the people who work in the business and honoring the customer.

“When I was in Israel, I went to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area within Jerusalem. Along with a group of businessmen I was with, I had the opportunity to have an audience with Rabbi Finkel, the head of a yeshiva there. I had never heard of him and didn't know anything about him. We went into his study and waited ten to 15 minutes for him. Finally, the doors opened.

“What we did not know was that Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson's disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and, naturally, our inclination was to look away. We didn't want to embarrass him.

“We were all looking away, and we heard this big bang on the table: "Gentlemen, look at me, and look at me right now." Now his speech affliction was worse than his physical shaking. It was really hard to listen to him and watch him. He said, "I have only a few minutes for you because I know you're all busy American businessmen." You know, just a little dig there.

“Then he asked, "Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?" He called on one guy, who didn't know what to do-it was like being called on in the fifth grade without the answer. And the guy says something benign like, "We will never, ever forget?" And the rabbi completely dismisses him. I felt terrible for the guy until I realized the rabbi was getting ready to call on someone else. All of us were sort of under the table, looking away-you know, please, not me. He did not call me. I was sweating. He called on another guy, who had such a fantastic answer: "We will never, ever again be a victim or bystander."

“The rabbi said, "You guys just don't get it. Okay, gentlemen, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit.

"As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar. They thought they were going to a work camp. We all know they were going to a death camp.

"After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.

"As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, 'Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?'"

“And Rabbi Finkel says, "It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others."

“And with that, he stood up and said, "Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people."”

“On this day they arrived at Sinai”

“Like one man with one heart!”

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[1] Shefa Chaim

[2] Shemos 2:14

[3] Tanchuma, Netzovim 1

[4] Yoma 9b

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