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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Yisro 5775 "On the Road"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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2/5/15

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS YISRO 5775

ON THE ROAD

Rabbi Binny Freedman[1] related the following personal vignette:

“Of all the unexpected visitors I have ever received, none even came close to the surprise I got in the summer of ’94.

“I was teaching a course on Jewish values, deep in the mountains of Pennsylvania, at a camp called Moshava, near Indian Orchard. We were in the middle of an intense discussion on Jewish ethics, when I noticed three fellows standing at the entrance to the lodge. Their features were far eastern; Chinese, it seemed, and they were standing patiently at the door, taking it all in.

“You must understand, we were really in the middle of nowhere… I couldn’t imagine how these three fellows ended up here, especially as they looked like tourists.

““Where are you from?” I asked. “We come from Tibet, though we are living in Nepal right now.” But what really shocked me was their next question: “Are you Rabbi Freedman?” I was amazed. They were actually looking for me, in the wilderness, having arrived all the way from Tibet!

“It transpired that they were followers of the Dali Lama, who, along with 80,000 followers, had been forced to flee Tibet in the early 1950’s, when the Chinese had taken over their country and destroyed the infrastructure of their Tibetan religion.

“Recently, they had begun to come to terms with a new challenge. Having lived in exile for nearly fifty years, a new generation was now coming of age, who had grown up in India, and never even seen the ‘old country’ of Tibet. So they were trying to figure out how to keep the dream of Tibet alive, in the hearts of the children who had never seen, much less experienced, the homeland they still longed for.

“So the Dali Lama decided to consult the experts. Who better to explain how to stay connected to a land in exile, than a people that had managed to retain a dream over 2000 years, finally realizing their goal and coming home after nearly fifty generations?

“The Dali Lama had then sent over three hundred students all over the world, to every major Jewish Organization… to ask for help in learning how to respond to this dilemma. Somehow, after hearing about Camp Moshava, they had been given my name, and had sought out our discussion group, literally in the middle of nowhere.”

The Gemara[2] quotes the Amora, Rabba Bar bar Channa, who recounted an unusual experience: “One time we were traveling by ship on the open sea when we noticed trees and sand on what seemed to be a beautiful island. In reality the ‘island’ was on the back of a tremendous fish but we could not realize that. We disembarked from the boat onto the ‘island’ where we began to cook ourselves a meal. After some time, the fish began to feel hot from the fire on its back, and it turned over, casting all of us into the sea. Were it not for the fact that our ship was nearby all of us would have drowned.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l explained Rabba Bar bar Channa’s story as a fictional analogy for Klal Yisroel’s repeated experience in exile. Whenever we have been exiled from our homeland we have looked askance and found new lands where we felt we could settle and be content. We ‘unloaded’ our possessions and relegated ourselves to the whims and civilizations of our host countries in our efforts to make ourselves comfortable.

After some time however, we realized that the island was not an island at all, but that we were precariously riding on the back of a tempestuous fish. As soon as the ‘fish’ sensed that we were becoming too comfortable on its back, it began to ‘feel the heat’ and promptly dumped us off, into the abyss of the ocean. “Were it not for the fact that our ship - the ship of Torah, faith, and the knowledge that we have a distant homeland – was nearby, all of us would have drowned.”

Rabba Bar bar Channa was prophetically depicting a tragic scene that we are all too familiar with. After the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash, Klal Yisroel built a vibrant Judaic infrastructure in Babylonia. Replete with celebrated Yeshivos and Torah scholars, the Jewish community in Babylonia flourished for 1500 years.

From there the Jews heavily immigrated to the Iberian Peninsula. They remained in Spain and enjoyed a ‘golden age’ for almost one thousand years. Jews maintained positions of tremendous affluence and political power until their expulsion in 1492[3].

Jews were welcomed to Poland in 1334 by its ruler, Casmir III, to help populate the sparsely settled area. The Jews would wistfully state that “Poland” was a combination of the Hebrew words, “Poh lin- Here we will sleep”, i.e. here we will sleep out the exile in comfort and tranquility[4].

There was no more cultured and enlightened country in all of Europe than Germany in the early 1900s. Jews had fought valiantly for the fatherland in WWI and had achieved great prominence and distinction throughout the country.

Yet, each time, the fish eventually turned over, leaving us in the vast ominous ocean without recourse, except to find our way back to our ship. In a sense, our adversaries have ensured that we never lose sight of our ship and never forget where our true allegiance lies.

“Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe, took Tzipporah, the wife of Moshe after she had been sent away; and her two sons, of whom the one was named Gershom, for he had said, ‘I was a sojourner (ger) in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer, for “the G-d of my father came to my aid (ezri), and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”[5]

With the explanation of Rabbi Soloveitchik in mind, we can explain that Moshe named his children with the future destiny of Klal Yisroel in mind[6]. Moshe called his first son Gershom to symbolize the fact that Klal Yisroel were originally strangers in Egypt. But then they became acquainted with their new ‘homeland’. In fact, Moshe was raised in Pharaoh’s palace. As an infant, Moshe would delight Pharaoh by frolicking on his knee. Yet when Moshe was apprehended for killing an Egyptian, all of his ‘connections’ were worthless and, were it not that, “the G-d of my father came to my aid,” he would have perished.

The gemara[7] relates that Rabbi Yosi once entered one of the ruins of a synagogue in order to pray. While he was praying Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) arrived and waited for him in the doorway. When Rabbi Yosi completed his prayers, Eliyahu asked him why he had entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem when it was forbidden to do so? Rabbi Yosi replied that he was traveling and needed a place to pray. Eliyahu countered that he should have prayed along the road. Rabbi Yosi defended himself, “I was afraid that if I prayed along the road I would be interrupted by passersby.” Eliyahu replied that he should have prayed an abridged version. Reflecting upon that incident, Rabbi Yose stated that he learned three things from that encounter: One shouldn’t enter a ruin; one is permitted to pray along the road; and one who prays along the road should pray an abridged version.

Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt’l explained that their conversation was not simply halachic pondering. It was actually a philosophical debate that involved the outlook of a Jew and his purpose in exile. Rabbi Yose lived two generations after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash. The fact that Rabbi Yose decided to pray in a ruin represented his view of exile as a purposeless endeavor. By choosing to pray in a ruin he was beseeching G-d to bring His People back home so that they would not atrophy in exile. Essentially, he was seeking to hold onto the past.

Eliyahu taught Rabbi Yose that exile is not G-d’s way of wrathfully casting His People away, Heaven forbid. G-d exiles His Nation so that they can build and develop themselves through the challenges and travails of exile, in order that they will be worthy of redemption and salvation. The proper prayer of a Jew in exile is that G-d should grant him the wisdom and insight to grow through the exile, and not be impeded by it.

The fact that Rabbi Yose didn’t want to pray along the road, symbolized his fear that Klal Yisroel would not be able to withstand the long bitter exile. He feared that they would be unable to maintain their connection with G-d if they no longer had a centralized Temple and its endemic service. How could a nation without a land endure?

Eliyahu countered that one must pray along the road, even though doing so entails praying an abridged prayer. In exile G-d allows us to connect with Him ‘with less’.

When the Bais Hamikdash stood our responsibility was to serve G-d by performing its Service. But when we are in exile our responsibility is to serve G-d utilizing whatever modalities He has provided. We must learn to pray along the road, even if it is only an abridged prayer.

Moshe gave his children names that reflected his perseverance and durability in exile. A few generations earlier, when Yosef Hatzaddik was alone in Egypt, he named his children utilizing this same approach. He named his sons, Menashe, because G-d helped him forget (nashani) his travails and pains, and Ephraim, because he was fruitful (hifrani) despite his exile. Both Yosef and Moshe were progenitors and ‘Founding Fathers’ of Klal Yisroel. They demonstrated that a Jew views exile as an arduous challenge, but one which one can - and must - grow from.

It is intriguing that the Torah portion which contains the most seminal event that ever occurred - the giving of the Torah – is titled parshas Yisro. Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe, was a world leader, one of the three top ministers of Pharaoh[8]. He subsequently gave it all up because he recognized G-d as the true Creator. Amidst ridicule and condemnation, Yisro publicly proclaimed the veracity of Torah and that Klal Yisroel was the Chosen People. This was all despite the fact that doing so caused him to be shunned from his previous posts of prominence.

Yisro’s legacy includes the ability to thrive and grow even in exile and after willingly forfeiting greatness. This is a lesson Klal Yisroel has internalized and personified throughout the ages.

We have retained our identity despite millennia in exile because we have never wandered too far from our ship. We know that exile is an integral part of the journey, a part of the circuitous road that will eventually lead us home.

“I was a sojourner in a strange land.”

“The G-d of my father saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

Sign up to receive Stam Torah via email each week at:

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[1] in his weekly Torah thoughts “A Weekly Byte from Isralight” for Parshas Vayechi

[2] Bava Basra 73b

[3] This includes the great sages Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid and Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel. Rabbi Abarbanel held one of the highest positions in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Abarbanel decided to leave all his wealth and prominence behind to leave with his brethren in 1492.

[4] The beginning of the decline of Polish Jewry was in 1648-1649 (Tach V’tat) with the egregious Cossack pogroms led and incited by the infamous Bogdan Chmielnicki. Until then the Jews in Poland enjoyed relative comfort and protection. Although the decimation of Polish Jewry didn’t occur until World War II, the pogroms set that tragic trajectory in motion.

[5] Shemos 18:2-3

[6] I heard this thought from Rabbi Alfred Cohn, Rabbi of Congregation Ohaiv Yisroel, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Yisro 5766

[7] Berachos 4a

[8] see Sotah 11a



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