משה: Human Greatness
הרב מנחם מנדל בלכמן
Tisch given by Rav Blachman Parashat Vaera 5778
Compiled by Moishy Rothman with help from Tuviah Gordon
Parashat Vaera lists the families of ראובן שמעון and לוי. Why does the תורה go into such detail of these families. Don’t we know this information from פרשת ויגש which tells us who came down to מצרים? It seems very clear that the תורה wants to tells about משה’s pedigree. Why is this important?
The משה who we have seen so far in שמות ספר is some kind of “superman”: the one who has unnamed parents, who emanates a “light” upon birth, who is saved from the Nile by an Egyptian princess, lives in the king’s palace, and ultimately is destined to be the savior of the Jewish people. We have no personal encounter with the human side of משה. What the תורה offers us in this list is a personal glimpse of משה. We now know his familial context, being with the families of ראובן שמעון and לוי. We know he has a brother-in-law, a brother married with kids etc. משה is now seen being not as משה the “superman” or “רבנו” but as משה the normal human being who has a normal life with a normal family. We even see one of his nephews, אליעזר marrying the daughter of פוטיאל, who, as רש״י tells us, was יתרו, an עובד ע״ז. Every normal family has a “crazy cousin!” This gives us a glimpse of the making of משה: from a simple start to greatness.
The Gemara in חולין קלט: asks משה מן התורה מנין. What a strange question to ask. משה is one of the more popular names in the תורה. Why does the גמרא need to ask this question? It’s like asking, “Where do you see ה׳ in the תורה?” It’s everywhere! The Gemara answers that משה comes from the פסוק stated in בראשית “בשגם הוא בשר.” Rashi explains that the Gematria of בשגם is 345 which is the same as משה. This is not a Chassidishe vort…it’s a Gemara! What does this mean?
What the Gemara is truly asking is what is משה really? What’s his essence? The Gemara answers הוא בשר. משה is flesh like any other man. Even though he reached tremendous heights, we should always remember that he is flesh. He is human like all of us.
The overall context of that Gemara furthers this theme. The Gemara right before this question asks, מצא קן בראשו של אדם מהו- if a bird’s nest was found on the head of a person what’s the הלכה- can he perform the מצוה of קן ציפור? What are the odds that this will happen, why are we asking this question, and what does it have to do with the next question about משה?
We need to understand this question on a deeper level. In order to perform the מצוה of קן ציפור, the תורה requires that the nest be על האדמה, on earth. The question now being asked is- is man considered on the earth, separate from the ground, and thus the nest is above the earth and exempted from the מצוה, or is man the ground itself making the nest on the earth and חייב? The Gemara answers by quoting the פסוק in שמואל stating “ואדמה על ראשו.” Rashi explains that since the פסוק doesn’t call the dirt “עפר,” which connotes dirt above the ground, but rather ״אדמה״, it indicates man is considered the earth itself and the dirt is on the ground. What comes out from this Gemara is that man is essentially earth. Interestingly, this has halachic ramifications in that now עבד הוקש לקרקע and biting one’s nails on שבת is considered מן הקרקע תלישה.
What does “being earth” suggest? It has two implications. One is that it is barren and desolate. Look at a desert during the dry season and you’ll see nothing. However, that same land during the rainy season, if you cultivate it, you will see amazing foliage which facilitates and supplies life to the highest possible forms of life, from דומם to צומח to חי to even מדבר. Yet even such an amazing production, it’s still dirt. It didn’t change. You took what was and made it into something which can grow forests. This is man. As the נצי״ב explains, the word אדם comes from two different שרשים. He is both אדָמָה, earth, and אדַמֶה, (from the word דומה) called on to beהולך בדרכיו. Man is earth but his goal is to strive to be דומה לה׳, to become great.
This is the same theme in the question משה מן התורה מנין. They both describe the fact that man originates from dirt but can be nurtured into something great as a משה רבנו, but still be בשגם הוא בשר- a normal person.
משה wasn’t born into greatness. Just look at the where he lived. משה’s upbringing, society, and lifestyle as a youth was not perfect at all and yet he overcame those hurdles and became really great.
Look at Egyptian culture during that period. It was hedonistic and pleasure-seeking. The נביא יחזקאל describes the Egyptians as זרמת סוסים זרמתם. What does this mean exactly? תוספות in כתובות ג: quotes רבנו תם who uses this פסוק to explain that ביאת עכו״ם לאו שמיה ביאה since רחמנא אפקריה לזרעיה. Do you really think that the Egyptians are treated as actual animals? Obviously, there is something much more profound going on.
The רמב״ן in שמות כ:יג asks why the תורה gives such a harsh punishment to the kidnapper and adulterer? He explains:
לא תגנב - אמר, הנה צויתיך להודות שאני בורא את הכל בלב ובמעשה, ולכבד האבות בעבור שהם משתתפים ביצירה, אם כן השמר פן תחבל מעשה ידי ותשפוך דם האדם אשר בראתי לכבודי ולהודות לי בכל אלה, ולא תנאף אשת רעך, כי תחבל ענין כבוד האבות לכפור באמת ולהודות בשקר, כי לא ידעו את אביהם ויתנו כבודם לאחר, כאשר יעשו עובדי ע"ז אומרים לעץ אבי אתה (ירמיה ב כז), ולא ידעו אביהם שבראם מאין. ואחר כן הזהיר לא תגנוב נפש, כי הוא כמו כן גורם כזאת.
Doing such sins detach one from his parents, breaking his connection to the past. The inability to recognize one’s origins, lacking a past orientation results in very negative repercussions. As the Ramban writes, if one isn’t aware of his parents, his past and his origin, he will ultimately forget the Original Parent; thus, הוקש כבודם לכבוד המקום. The רמב״ן (פסוק יב) writes earlier regarding the מצוה of כיבוד אב ואם:
כבד את אביך - הנה השלים כל מה שאנו חייבין בדברי הבורא בעצמו ובכבודו, וחזר לצוות אותנו בעניני הנבראים, והתחיל מן האב שהוא לתולדותיו כענין בורא משתתף ביצירה, כי השם אבינו הראשון, והמוליד אבינו האחרון, ולכך אמר במשנה תורה (דברים ה טז) כאשר צויתיך בכבודי כן אנכי מצוך בכבוד המשתתף עמי ביצירתך. ולא פירש הכתוב הכבוד, שהוא נלמד מן הכבוד הנאמר למעלה באב הראשון יתברך, שיודה בו שהוא אביו, ולא יכפור בו לאמר על אדם אחר שהוא אביו, ולא יעבדנו כבן לירושתו, או לענין אחר שיצפה ממנו, ולא ישא שם אביו וישבע בחיי אביו לשוא ולשקר. ויכנסו בכלל הכבוד דברים אחרים, כי בכל כבודו נצטווינו, ומפורשים הם בדברי רבותינו (קדושין לא ב), וכבר אמרו (שם ל ב) שהוקש כבודו לכבוד המקום:
The importance of maintaining this familial consciousness is in fact the core reason for the איסור of ביאת אשת איש. The רמב״ן explains in ויקרא יח:כ the following:
ואל אשת עמיתך לא תתן שכבתך לזרע -…ואפשר שאמר "לזרע", להזכיר טעם האיסור, כי לא יודע הזרע למי הוא ויבאו מזה תועבות גדולות ורעות לשניהם. ולא הזכיר זה בעונש (להלן כ יח), כי אפילו הערה בה ולא הוציא זרע יתחייב, ולכך אמר (במדבר ה יג) ושכב איש אותה שכבת זרע, כי בעבור הזרע תהיה קנאתו, וכן בשפחה חרופה (להלן יט כ) הזכיר שכבת זרע, כי האסור בעבור שיוליד זרע מן השפחה:
The Ramban suggests that by emphasizing the term שכבת זרע, the תורה indicates to us that the ביאת ערוה of an אשת איש is a תועבה since it creates בלבול הזרע. The child, the product of this illicit relationship, will not have familial awareness since he won’t know who are his parents.
When רבנו תם explains that ביאת עכו״ם doesn’t constitute ביאה, this doesn’t mean they’re animals at all. Rather it means since ביאת אשת איש is problematic since it creates בלבול הזרע, if the זרע is not מתייחס to the father, it’s not considered a בלבול and not אסור. Since regarding גויים, רחמנא אפקריה לזרעיה, we don’t consider this as a ביאה של איסור. ביאה that the תורה wants the Jewish people to maintain and keep pristine is that which creates a lineage, זרע מיוחס, a father-son relationship and not that of a progenitor-offspring one. Halacha doesn’t view ביאת עכו״ם as creating that parental-child relationship and thus not ביאת איסור.
The Torah’s outlook on family is further seen in the concept of בכורה. The מהר״ל in גבורות ה׳ פרק לט asks when looking at the two פרשיות found in תפילין, קדש and והיה כי יבאך, there are discrepancies in the description of תפילין. In one פרשה it says תפילין is a ״זיכרון בין עיניך״ and in the other it says ״לטוטפות בין עיניך״. Why the difference? The מהר״ל answers in an enigma: ״אצל קדושת בכורה שייך מדת זכירה והבן זה מאד״. Since the תורה in פרשת קדש just described the מצוה of בכורה, it was appropriate to mention the concept זכירה throughout the rest of the פרשה. What’s the connection between these two concepts זכירה and בכורה?
What is זכירה? The משנה in פרקי אבות ב:ח quotes רבי יוחנן בן זכאי pinpointing the character traits of his students. Regarding רבי אלעזר בן הורקנוס, his Rebbe calls him a בור סיד שאינו מאבד טיפה, a man with a tremendous memory. This is a strange praise. Is calling someone an incredible בעל כשרון appropriate for a mature and grown up individual? “You have a lot of potential.” That’s good for someone who is 16 at most! After that you have to do something with it. Furthermore, the משנה is discussing, as the רמב״ם writes, מדות שכליות, character traits. Memory is not a character trait. What’s it doing here? The דרך ארץ זוטא סוף פרק ג lists 15 מדות that are embodied in a תלמוד חכם and included in that list are being a כונס וזכרן. He is one who takes external information from his environment and remembers it. It seems that memory is a character trait. How?
Memory is the ability to link the past, use its lessons in the present, and ultimately allow for a better future. Memory is a tool which gives one the awareness of a broad span of time with its consequences and origins clearly perceived. Man is to embrace the past and his future and not just look at the present. This goes against the famous wine poem of אבן עזרא saying, ״העבר אין, העתיד עדיין, והווה כהרף עין, דאגה מנין״. Time’s past present and future are not disconnected, and they don’t allow one to enjoy the now without being aware of its before and after.
What’s the significance of בכורה? We know the בכור receives a double portion of the father’s estate and he has a פדיון. Yet there is more to it. רבי עקיבא says in עדיות ב:ט that the father is מזכה to his son ״מספר דורות לפניו״. The father’s goal is to take the weight of history and tradition and pass it onto the shoulders of next generation. The father-son relationship facilitates placing the next ring in the chain of a long מסורה. All that history, its values and hopes are now being passed to the next generation. What a בכור expresses is the first time the father actualizes this goal. The father changes from playing as the actor to becoming the producer and director. Hopefully, if G-d wills it, he may even be the one writing the script. That is the importance of בכורה: he is the one who begins to bring the past, implement it in the present, creating a better future. This the connection between זכירה and בכורה which the מהר״ל was referring to.
Based off this understanding, we have a better understanding of the Egypt’s cultural outlook. זרמת סוסים זרמתם means something much more profound and deep than before. Egyptian outlook on children was not that of creating a יחוס, rather it was a tangential accident resulting from a temporal fulfillment of one’s desires. A society which acknowledges bestiality (as the נביאים further associate with מצרים) and sexuality as a means of attaining pleasure naturally expects to view children in an inhumane way. Only such a society can throw children into the Nile and even more so fetuses. They become the price tag of pleasure which the people don’t want to live with. It is for this reason during מכות בכורות there was more than one death in each household. Being that Egyptians didn’t value family nor יחוס, there were multiple firstborns from many people. Father’s Day in Egypt must have been a very confusing day!
This was the society which משה had to live with. A place full of תאוה. Even אברהם had it easier! All he had to worry about was philosophical and theological beliefs and that’s not so hard to push off. But משה had the odds against him. But he became so great. Yet he was a simple man. He was the first “NSCYer” but without NCSY. I remember going to one of their events in its early years. Those kids were so earthly, but their souls were so pure. It could be that because משה was in such a society, with such incredible challenges, ה׳ had to instill an ״אור״ into משה. This doesn’t mean an actual light. This is obvious. Rather it means people near him felt an intuition that this child will enlighten others in the future. It’s the metaphorical type of light. That potential was necessary for משה’s survival in his situation.
There is another point which I want to focus on when reading this פרשה and is related to this idea. We describe אליעזר marrying the daughter of פוטיאל. Who is this character? Rashi brings down two understandings. One interpretation is that he is יוסף who was מפטפט over his יצר הרע and overcame his desires. That’s sounds like a good יחוס. However, there is a second, and opposite meaning to this word. This person is יתרו who was מפטם animals to offer them to ע״ז. This was the person which משה was marrying into. A true pagan. That’s not exactly a יחוס!
There is, however, a deeper understanding of this name of יתרו. One would think that if one where to describe יתרו in the תורה, it should’ve mentioned יתר-he had an extra פרשה written for him or that he was חובב and beloved. Why does the תורה give him such a negative introduction? Also, why do we need to mention that he was מפטם, fattening, animals for the עבודה זרה? Just simply say he served idols. The answer is that fattening animals signifies doing the ע״ז בהידור. What the תורה is telling us is that when יתרו performed ע״ז he did it to the best of his abilities. What’s interesting though is that יתרו served more than one ע״ז. The מדרש says that יתרו was לא הניח ע״ז שלא עבדה- he served all known (in his society) ע״ז. This means that יתרו was looking for truth. He was soul-seeking. He was constantly thinking to find the אמת. And yet, even though he was moving from idol to idol, when he saw it was אמת he fully committed to the ideology, doing it with the utmost הידור. But as soon as he saw that it was false, he totally dropped it and moved on. In other words, he was searching but intellectually honest with himself.
For this reason, the מדרש explains that when משה wanted to marry צפורה, he swore to יתרו that his first child will be raised by his future father-in-law. Think about this for a second. יתרו at the time was a pagan. How could משה let this happen? משה saw that יתרו was intellectual honesty and being that יתרו was seeking objective truth, משה was confident that in the end יתרו will find Judaism and stick with it. In the end, we see that יתרו joins the Jewish people and stays, even converting his family to join him. It may be that he was still thinking and understanding, but he never left because he found objective truth.
We find a similar theme by the story of אליהו. At that time, the nation was straddling on the fence. In the morning, they would go to the shtieble and daven שחרית, but in the afternoon, they would serve the בעל. אליהו calls out the בנ״י and tells them something which you wouldn’t hear from an orthodox rabbi’s sermon. “אם לה׳ האלוקים לכו אחריו ואם לבעל לכו אחריו” (מלכים א יח:כא). If you believe in Judaism, then go all the way, and if you believe in the Ba’al, go all the way. This is equivalent to saying, “Either you come to shul or join the Catholic church.” This was not some form of joke, אליהו was very serious. How could אליהו make such an ultimatum?
As the leader of the Jewish people, אליהו understood where the nation stood. He saw that they were not trying to seek truth. They were inconsistent. בנ״י were not looking for objective truth and believed that everything is in fact only a relative truth, and therefore there was a good chance that the Jews would actually go to the בעל and serve both ה along with the בעל. We find this phenomenon in polytheistic societies, who didn’t believe in an Absolute Power, in which when conquered, would merely add the god of the conqueror to their pantheon. אליהו saw this and told בנ״י that you have to start looking for objective truths. This means that they would have to choose whole-heartedly one or the other: ה׳ or the בעל. It is for this reason, אליהו gave them two options- in other words “pick one”- knowing well that in the end בנ״י will make the right choice. This was the same trait which משה saw in יתרו, he was looking for the truth, and when he found it he committed to that objective truth.
Rav Hutner told me before I started teaching that I’ll attract many types of people with questions about faith and emunah. He told me that if someone asks a question, first figure out if it’s truly a question or if it’s a cover-up for his true intentions. It may be that the question is actually the answer which he uses to justify his emotional state and comfort zone. You have to figure out what he really wants.
What’s a fact? It’s a common accepted myth which you perceive as fact. You don’t question when walking into an elevator if it will work (if it doesn’t, you’ll go from גברא to חפצא really quickly). You feel comfortable to accept that as fact. If someone would have to reassess everything from the beginning, you would be in a cave! You can’t recreate the wheel! That’s what faith is perceived as. Willing to accept subjective truths in order to feel comfortable. יתרו was looking for objective truth even if such truths took him out of his comfort zone. If it’s 99.5% true but not 100% true, then it’s false. And when he found it to be right, he stuck with it.
We need to not have faith just because it fits into our comfort zone. We need to also factor in if it’s objective truth. It’s not just enough to believe ה׳ is the Creator משגיח etc… we need to know and internalize that reality as objective truth. This doesn’t mean proving G-d created the world. It means understanding those truths and living them.
For example, what does it mean that ה׳ אחד? It says in אבות ה:א:
בעשרה מאמרות נברא העולם ומה תלמוד לומר והלא במאמר אחד יכול להבראות אלא להפרע מן הרשעים שמאבדין את העולם שנברא בעשרה מאמרות וליתן שכר טוב לצדיקים שמקיימין את העולם שנברא בעשרה מאמרות:
Why does 10 words have more of an impact that 1 word? Because there are more words the צדיקים should receive more reward and the רשעים more punishment? Obviously, this means something much deeper than the superficial read.
What’s the different between the number 10 and 1? 1 is composed of an infinite number of fragments which are seen as a whole singular entity. On the other hand, 10 is different fragments that are seen separate from one another. It is more difficult to see those distinct parts under a single umbrella. למשל, if one sees under the hood of a car a spark-plug. You don’t see that sparker as a means to light a cigar. You see it in context of the entire car and realize that its function in the car is to ignite the engine. When we see things under a common umbrella and in context, the purpose of each part becomes clear. Here’s another example, if you look at a billboard very close up, you’ll see lots of dots each one a distinct color. Up close these dots look disjointed but if you take a step back and see the whole picture, every dot becomes meaningful, composing a complete picture.
If G-d chose to create a universe of 1 word we would have a very clear awareness of reality in context of the full picture: its historical background, physics, metaphysics, and ultimate purpose in this existence. Everything would fit smoothly into 1 all-encompassing context of ריבוי כבוד שמים. Everyone would see how the dots connect and there would be no room for free will. The Mishna is teaching us that ה׳ chose to create a world with 10 statements. We perceive reality fragmented like components of a car out of the context of a fully made car. It becomes much more difficult to see the big picture and how those parts fit into one common denominator: כבוד שמים. Now, in this reality, there is plenty of room for free will. Figuring out the puzzle of life, seeing how existence, with all its distinct parts, is under the umbrella of ריבוי כבוד שמים becomes more challenging and therefore the one who overcomes this feat will receive more reward for his accomplishments and he who fails will be punished more.
משה used what he experienced, his background, upbringing, and all of his life, even those parts which were not positive, and became great. It’s interesting. The תורה doesn’t skip the bad experiences of משה’s past; rather, it includes those events as part of who משה was. משה didn’t forgot his youth. He took that past, applied it to the present and created a much better future. He came from being simple משה to great משה רבנו through those experiences, never forgetting his youth no matter how negative it was.
In your personal life, you need to take a step back and look at your entire life. Don’t walk away from your past even if you now know it was wrong. Embrace it. Take those experiences and cultivate them to become the best that you can be. Those downfalls might actually help you in the future in ways which couldn’t have been possible if you haven’t faced those pitfalls.
 This doesn’t mean that the laws must fit into this reason. One can still be עובר an איסור for merely performing העראה which can’t impregnate.
 See ברכות כה:.
 See the next משנה in connection to this trait being connected to עין טוב.
 This was not mentioned, but it’s interesting that אליהו was the same person as פנחס (see תוספות ב״מ קיד), the progeny of פוטיאל.
השיעור ניתן בכ"ו טבת תשע"ח
קוד השיעור: 7934
Tisch given by Rav Blachman Parashat Vaera 5778
(זמן חורף תשעח)