top of page

Rabbi Wagensberg on Shvii Shel Pesach - Parshas Shemini 2018


21 Nissan, 5778; April 6, 2018

"The Essential Bones of Yoseph"

Historically, Shvii Shel Pesach (the seventh day of Passover) celebrates the Jewish people's crossing of the Red Sea, and every year, it corresponds to the sixth day of the Omer. The Sefirah, or Kabbalistic energy, of this sixth day is called "Yesod She'b'Chesed" - literally, "Foundation of Kindness." (Chesed - kindness - is the energy of the whole first week of the Omer, and each day expresses a different aspect of it.) What is the connection between the Sefirah of the day and the event it commemorates?

The verse dramatically describes the crossing of the Sea as, "The ocean saw and fled" (Tehillim 114:3). The Midrash (Shocher Tov, Tehillim, 114:3) wonders what exactly the ocean saw that caused it to split. The Midrash answers, "[It saw] the bones of Yosef."

Now, Yosef is known throughout Jewish writings as "Yosef HaTzaddik." We are taught (Mishlei 10:25) that "A tzaddik is the foundation (yesod) of the world." Therefore, if Yosef is called a tzaddik, and a tzaddik is the foundation (yesod) of the world, then, Yosef is connected with the quality of foundation (yesod).

We noted above that the Sefirah of the seventh day of Passover is called YESOD she'b'chesed. We can connect all these ideas if we understand that in the merit of YESOD (Yosef), God performed the great CHESED (kindness) of splitting the Sea for us.

But one question still remains. What was it about Yosef that caused the Sea to split in his merit?

We could suggest that Yosef's fundamental strength was his ability to counteract nature. When Yosef was 17 years old, working as a servant in Egypt, his master Potiphar's wife repeatedly tried to seduce him. Through tremendous effort (described in Sotah, chap. 7, "Eilu Ne'emarin", pg. 36b), Yosef managed to withstand this temptation. According to the natural way of the world, it would have been almost impossible for a 17-year-old boy to reject the persistent advances of an attractive woman. Yet Yosef went against the natural order and prevented himself from succumbing. Thus, it was in the merit of Yosef, who counteracted nature, that God counteracted nature when He split the Sea for the Jewish people.

This explanation is supported by the Midrash Shocher Tov itself which teaches that the way we know that it was Yosef's bones which caused the sea to flee is based on a scriptural similarity found in both the Yosef story and in the story about the splitting of the sea. By Yosef the verse says that Yosef "Vayanas" (fled) from before Potifar's wife and ran outside so as not to sin with her (Parshas Vayeishev, 39:12). Similarly, by the Splitting of the Sea, the verse says that the sea saw "Vayanas" (and fled).

The usage of the same word in both instances teaches us that when Yosef went against his natural tendency and fled, the sea also went against its natural tendency and fled.

We might still have another question. The Midrash explained that the Sea fled after seeing Yosef's bones. But the Talmud teaches (Baba Basra, chap. 1, "Hashutfin", pg. 17a) that the bodies of righteous people do not decay after death! The phrase "Yosef's bones" (in Hebrew, "atzmos Yosef") certainly seems to imply that Yosef's body decayed! How can we resolve this difficulty?

The word "etzem" (bone) in Hebrew can also mean "essence." We could therefore suggest that the phrase "atzmos Yosef" (Yosef's bones) in the Midrash is also hinting to "atz'miut Yosef" (Yosef's essence).

This interpretation will deepen our understanding of the verse (Parshas Beshalach, 13:19) where we learn that Moshe took "atzmos Yosef" with him before the Jews left Egypt. Although Moshe literally carried Yosef's remains out of Egypt, he also took along Yosef's essence: the willingness to break nature in order to carry out God's will. Moshe, as the leader of the nation, represented the attitude of the Jewish people as a whole, who were prepared to counteract nature if the situation required it. Thus, we can understand the verse, "The ocean saw and fled," to mean that not only was Yosef's atz'miut (essence) revealed at the Sea, but that Yosef's ability to go against nature was also manifest in Moshe and in the entire Jewish people. Therefore, the Sea fled before the Jews in their own merits as well.

The verse (Tehillim 80:2) tells us, "God leads His flock, Yosef." The "flock" in this verse is referring to the Jewish people. Yet, the verse calls all Jewish people "Yosef." We see from here that God's flock - the Jewish people - are called "Yosef" when we reflect the attitude that Yosef stood for. Then, we are all called Yosefites.

This year, on the seventh day of Passover, may we continue to strengthen ourselves in what it means to represent Yosef the Tzaddik. May we cultivate even more of a willingness to change ourselves even when it is not the natural, comfortable, or easy thing to do, and in that merit, may all the seas of challenge in the world split before us, speedily in our days.

Good Yom Tov, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg


22 Nissan, 5778; April 7, 2018

"Seven Fatal Mistakes"

This week's Torah portion contains the dramatic story of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's sons, who bring a strange offering to God. This is so unacceptable that a fire consumes them on the spot and they die. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Parshas Shemini, Remez 524) suggests seven reasons why Aaron's sons deserved death:

  1. Nadav and Avihu were impatient for Moshe and Aaron to die so that they could take over leadership of the Jewish people.

  2. They made Jewish legal decisions in front of Moshe, their rabbi, a sign of disrespect.

  3. They entered the holy area while intoxicated.

  4. They entered the holy area without first washing their hands and feet.

  5. They entered the holy area without wearing the priestly garments.

  6. They did not get married.

  7. They did not try to have children.

Although these reasons seem entirely unrelated, we could suggest that all seven of them stem from one fundamental fault. Nadav and Avihu were such great people that they were considered to be more beloved by God than Moshe and Aharon (Rashi, Parshas Shemini, 10:3, citing Vayikra Rabba, 12:2, Rav Shmuel bar Nachman). Nadav and Avihu were aware of their high spiritual level. As a result of this, they felt they had already reached the pinnacle of their achievement, and therefore had no need to strive for further growth and self-improvement. This misjudgment was the root of all seven possible reasons for their death:

  1. Nadav and Avihu felt they had reached completion and perfection, so it seemed fitting for them to take over leadership of the Jewish people.

  2. They felt they had achieved the epitome of Torah knowledge, so they made Jewish legal decisions in front of their rabbi.

  3. Since they assumed they had reached their maximum potential, they felt they could relax, so they entered the holy area while intoxicated.

  4. Since they felt they had reached the height of purity, they no longer needed water to become purified, so they entered the holy area without first washing their hands and feet.

  5. Since they felt they had achieved perfection, they no longer needed the atonement provided by the priestly garments (Eirachin, chap. 3, "Yesh B'eirachin", pg 16a, Rav Anani bar Sasson), so they entered the holy area without wearing them.

  6. They assumed that, since they had perfected themselves, God could speak with them at any time - as He did with Moshe, who separated from his wife, Tzipporah, due to this consideration (See Parshas B'ha'alosecha, 12:1-4, Rashi there, based on Midrash Tanchuma) - so they did not get married.

  7. Since they did not get married, they were halachically forbidden from having children outside of marriage.

* * *

The Measure of a Man

Now that we see the common source of the seven reasons, let us examine another detail of the story. The Torah tells us (Parshas Shemini, 10:2) that a fire consumed Nadav and Avihu after they brought their strange offering. According to the Yalkut Shimoni (524), this fire came from the Holy of Holies. Why is it relevant to know the source of the fire?

The Holy of Holies contained only one vessel: the Holy Ark. The Holy Ark contained the Torah on the inside. Unlike the other Temple vessels, the dimensions of the Ark were all fractions - 2.5 by 1.5 by 1.5 cubits (Parshas Terumah, 25:10). According to the Kli Yakar (Parshas Terumah, 25:10), the fractional measurements of the Ark teach us that we should always feel lacking in regards to the Torah wisdom we have acquired. In other words, when it comes to Torah knowledge, we should always feel like we only obtained a "fraction" of what there is to know.

Each of the Ark's dimensions teaches us a different aspect of this lesson. The fractional measurement of the Ark's height shows us that we lack depth of knowledge. The fractional measurement of the Ark's length shows us that we lack breadth of knowledge. Finally, the fractional measurement of the Ark's width shows us that we lack the ability to grasp concepts.

In Hebrew, the same word midos means both "measurements" and "character traits." This is why the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu came from the Holy of Holies: the resting place of the Ark. The Ark, with its fractional measurements (midos) teaches us that we, too, are fractional - lacking in Torah knowledge and imperfect in our refinement of character (midos). Nadav and Avihu thought that they had reached completion. The origin of the fire that consumed them showed that they still had work to do.

If this lesson was relevant to such great people as Nadav and Avihu, it is all the more relevant to us. Although we should take pleasure and pride in our positive achievements, we should never become complacent. We should not feel so satisfied with our accomplishments that we lose our yearning to stretch and grow further.

May we continually desire to push beyond our current level, and in the merit of this attitude, may we soon deserve to see the return of our centerpiece, the Holy Ark, with the building of the Third Temple.

Good Shabbos, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg

24 views0 comments
bottom of page