The nation of Israel has received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Bible starts enumerating a long list of additional commandments. Then God gives what amounts to a pep talk to the nation of Israel, how He will send his angel ahead of them and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, to make way for the incoming masses of Israelites.
In the midst of descriptions of enemy destruction and land conquest God states:
“You shall worship God, your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. There shall be no woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land; I shall fill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:25-26)
Instead of paraphrasing or interpreting Rabbi Ovadia Sforno as usual, I’ll just quote him, as his wording is so intriguing (translation courtesy of Artscroll English Sfrono translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz – highly recommended):
“The number of your days I will fulfill: You will live to the (full) measure of oil which is in your lamp of God (the soul of man), i.e., the vitality (or natural force) rooted (in man) from birth. The reverse of this mostly occurs when man dies from (various) illnesses before his basic vitality has ceased. This occurs due to wrong choices (made in life) or due to fate (literally, ‘the order of the planets’) and the elements (literally, ‘foundations’). Now when a man’s numbers of days are fulfilled he will in most cases see children born to his children and he will be able to teach them, as it says: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). (In this fashion) the affairs of (new) generations will be remedied in the lifetime of their elders, as we are told happened with Levi, Kehath and Amram (the ancestors of Moses).”
Sforno then directs us to earlier comments about the great-grandfather, grandfather and father of Moses, who all led exceedingly long lives.
“The longevity of these men enabled them to influence their grandsons as well as their sons. The choice fruit of these spiritual plantings were Moses and Aaron. They are the end result of the many years of education and guidance contributed by Levi, Kehath and Amram, and they are worthy to be chosen as leaders and spokesmen.”
May grandparents have the continuing opportunity to teach and guide their grandchildren, and may parents know how to get out of the way or even facilitate these special opportunities.
To my grandparents who I learned so much from and to our parents who are such a big influence on our kids (Is it harder for children to listen to the immediately preceding generation? Are we hardwired that way? Is that why Sforno attributes such importance to the grandparents guiding the grandchildren?)
After giving the Ten Commandments, God relays a whole host of commandments in bullet-like fashion, in a variety of areas.
I’ll divide them into the following four broad categories:
–Slavery and Marriage
–The Justice System
–Be Nice. Be Fair
–God: A Jealous Lover
Slavery and Marriage
Having recently freed the Jewish people from slavery and provided them with a basic foundation of commandments, God picks as the very first set of detailed commandments the need to be sensitive to slaves.
While the Torah did not ignore the highly prevalent institution of slavery, it was highly innovative in terms of giving them basic human rights and recognizing their deprived situation. “To fulfill the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave”[Commandment #42] is a broad enactment that infuses this otherwise difficult reality with dignity, care and eventual self-sufficiency for the slave involved.
Slavery for women in the Torah has an entirely different connotation. It is classically relevant for young girls, for the express purpose of leading to bona fide marriage. “For the master of a Jewish maidservant to either take her for a wife or give her to his son for a wife” [Commandment #43]defines female “slavery” as exclusively a prelude to marriage. This would typically be an arranged contract between a poor or destitute father of the bride with a wealthier perspective husband or father-in-law. The Torah however provides two specific clauses that protect and release the girl if a marriage will not be consummated.
–“For the master of a Jewish maidservant to redeem her if he or his son will not take her for a wife.” [Commandment #44]
–“The master of a Jewish maidservant cannot sell her to another man.” [Commandment #45]
As can be seen, the Jewish version of slavery, especially regarding women (who were the most exploited) is radically different than anything that existed in the ancient world, or even into modern times.
While on the topic of marriage, the Torah provides a broad command that applies to all brides: “Not to withhold food, clothing or marital relations.” [Commandment #46]
Except for this last commandment, the previous slavery-related ones do not apply in current times.
The Justice System
The following long stretch of commandments (from number 47 until 62) presumes the existence of a strong judicial system able to enforce Torah-mandated law. Many of the punishments, especially corporal and capital punishment were only used in a society where court-induced punishment would have a deterrent effect. Even when the Great Sanhedrin or Beit Din (the ancient Jewish Supreme Court) was active, they discontinued many of the harsher punishments when the feeling was that certain crimes were rampant.
There were four different execution methods for different crimes, two of which are included in this section:
–“For the Beit Din to execute by strangulation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #47]
–“Not to strike one’s father or mother.” [Commandment #48]This still applies today, though formerly was punishable by execution.
–“For the Beit Din to penalize with fines one who injures his fellow-man.” [Commandment #49]
–“For the Beit Din to execute by decapitation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #50]
–“For the Beit Din to judge the case of a damaging ox, whether it injured a man or damaged property.” [Commandment #51]
–“Not to eat the meat of an ox sentenced to death, even if it was properly slaughtered.” [Commandment #52]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages or injuries caused by someone who dug a pit, ditch or cave in a hazardous area.” [Commandment #53]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a thief who stole from people without their knowing.” [Commandment #54]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by someone’s domestic animal grazing or trampling.” [Commandment #55]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by fire.” [Commandment #56]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of an unpaid guardian.” [Commandment #57]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases between a plaintiff and a defendant.” [Commandment #58]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a paid guardian.” [Commandment #59]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of the borrower of an item.” [Commandment #60]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a seducer.” [Commandment #61]
–“Not to allow the practitioner of sorcery or witchcraft to live.” [Commandment #62]
This ends the judicial commandments for now. The progression is interesting, in that it starts with capital crimes, then deals with damages and injuries, theft, negligence, commercial relationships, borrowers, seducers and finally witches, which brings us back to capital punishment.
Be Nice. Be Fair
Having started the en masse redaction of commandments with sensitivity towards slaves and then development of the justice system, the Torah now addresses (commandments 63 until 85) sensitivity towards other oppressed groups – converts, widows, orphans, poor, sinners and even guilty defendants, and those that defend all of them, namely the courts and ultimately God. Most of the following commandments are considered applicable in our day and age:
–“Not to oppress a righteous convert with words.” [Commandment #63]
–“Not to wrong a righteous convert in matters of monetary value.” [Commandment #64]
–“Not to inflict suffering on any widow or orphan.” [Commandment #65]
–“To lend money to the poor of Jewry.” [Commandment #66]
–“Not to demand a borrower pay his debt when he cannot.” [Commandment #67]
–“To have no part in lending at interest.” [Commandment #68]
–“Not to curse a judge.” [Commandment #69]
–“Not to curse God.” [Commandment #70]
–“Not to curse a ruler of Israel.” [Commandment #71]
–“Not to alter the order of precedence of separating and giving tithes.” [Commandment #72]
–“To eat no animal with a mortal affliction.” [Commandment #73] – This would be directed to the poor person himself, who out of desperation would be tempted to eat from substandard meat.
–“For a judge not to hear one plaintiff when the other is not present.” [Commandment #74]
–“For the court not to accept testimony of a man of sin.” [Commandment #75]– Referring to public sinners of certain categories whose personality is considered less than trustworthy.
–“Not to impose the death penalty unless there is a majority of at least two judges who declare a guilty verdict.” [Commandment #76]
–“A judge should not merely follow the opinions of others, but should have his own clear understanding in giving a verdict.” [Commandment #77]
–“To follow the majority in laws of the Torah.” [Commandment #78]
–“Not to pity a poor man in a trial.” [Commandment #79]
–“To assist in unloading a domestic animal.” [Commandment #80]
–“For a judge not to pervert justice for a sinner because of his wickedness.” [Commandment #81]
–“For a Beit Din not to decide a guilty verdict on a capital case based on circumstantial evidence alone.” [Commandment #82]
–“For a judge to accept no bribe.” [Commandment #83]
–“To leave ownerless everything the land produces in the seventh year.” [Commandment #84]
–“To rest from work on the Sabbath”. [Commandment #85] – This is the flip side of Commandment #32: “Not to work on the Sabbath” (one prohibits working, the other commands rest). It also relates to the immediately preceding commandment of resting of the land on the seventh year, and is of greatest value to the poor.
God: A Jealous Lover
Having protected the interests of the downtrodden as well as defined in detail the relationship to and responsibilities of judges, God now defines in more detail (Commandments 86 to 94) additional specific aspects of the Jew’s relationship to God Himself. Almost like a jealous lover, God demands an exclusive worshipful relationship, gifts, visitation, and unique or even puzzling demonstrations of loyalty:
–“Not to swear in the name of an idol.” [Commandment #86]
–“To entice no one in Jewry to worship an idol.” [Commandment #87]
–“To go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple for the three festivals.” [Commandment #88]
–“Not to bring the Passover sacrifice while there is still leavened bread (chametz) in our possession.” [Commandment #89] – As perhaps the most important if not popular of the three festivals, the Torah adds some critical rules as to the Passover sacrifice.
–“The kohanim (priests) cannot leave the fats of the Passover sacrifice overnight without being burnt on the altar.” [Commandment #90]
–“To bring the first fruit that ripens on a tree (bikurim) to the Holy Temple and give it to the Kohen (priest).” [Commandment #91] – This typically coincides with the second of the three yearly pilgrimages, the summer Pentecost holiday (Shavuot).
–“To cook no meat with milk.” [Commandment #92] – There is no apparent direct link of this commandment to the others, though the meat versus milk command is declared in three different iterations in equally unexpected locations. It seems to be some general ubiquitous type of commandment that applies to our daily necessity to eat and probably defines more than almost anything else our daily and almost constant respect of God and His laws in a most practical and concrete fashion.
–“Not to make a treaty with idol worshippers.” [Commandment #93]
–“Not to settle idol worshippers in our land.” [Commandment #94]
Now that’s a set of laws
God has covered sensitivity to the weak and oppressed, established a judicial system, the interaction of the two and details as to the type of relationship He expects from the Jewish people. This is certainly a robust basis for the healthy functioning of a society. However God wants much more, and foremost is to be closer to the Jewish people.
The next set of commandments will deal with the setting up, operation and procedures whereby the Jewish people can have the closest physical connection to God – in the service of the Holy Temple.
After the miraculous escape of the Children of Israel from Egypt, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, sends word that he is coming to meet them at their encampment in the desert, accompanied by Tzipora, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders why Yitro needs to send word ahead. Yitro could have spared the expense and effort of sending a messenger through the desert to inform Moses of what was going to happen in any case. Yitro could have even surprised Moses with the welcome sight of the wife and children that he hadn’t seen in some time.
Sforno explains that it is simply good manners. Sending a simple messenger ahead would give Moses sufficient time to prepare for their arrival. Moses can then organize their accommodations so there wouldn’t be an embarrassing wait were they to suddenly appear.
Sforno brings as support for such etiquette the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim 112a):
“Do not enter your house suddenly, even more so to your friend’s house.”
One might think that it would be permissible or even praiseworthy to check in suddenly on the goings-on in ones house. A surprise inspection can confirm that everything is truly in order and keep people on their toes. However Sforno reminds us, that in truth, sudden appearances are rude, startling, and an invasion of privacy. If it’s for inspection purposes they demonstrate a lack of trust or sensitivity.
Sforno and the Talmud don’t mean to dissuade people from making casual and unplanned visits to their friends and family. They just suggest that you call first or at the very least knock.
May we always have the capacity and enjoyment of welcoming friends and family to our homes.
To all of our friends and family who drop by our centrally located home. We love it. Keep visiting, with or without warning. Just knock.
The Jewish people have been released from the servitude of Egypt. They have begun, with God’s direction to gain independence and form an identity. Now God prepares to meet them in a pyrotechnic sound and light extravaganza, the likes of which have never been experienced before or after. At Mt. Sinai, God presents the famous Ten Commandments, which besides their global notoriety, can be considered a founding or basic set of commandments.
Beyond impressing upon the Jews His awesomeness, God commands it. “I am God, your God that took you out of Egypt”, demands believing there is a God [Commandment #25]. The flip side of belief in God is non-belief in any other divinity, hence a continuation of commandments that demonstrate ones non-belief:
–To entertain no thought that there is any other god [Commandment #26].
–To make no idol to worship [Commandment #27].
–Not to bow down and prostrate oneself to an idol [Commandment #28].
–Not to worship an idol in the accepted manner [Commandment #29].
Once we have the belief system in place, both on the positive side of believing in God and on the negative side of not believing or even remotely demonstrating acceptance or respect of false gods, we move on to the realm of action.
Perhaps the most primary aspect of action is actually speech. Here we continue demonstrating both our respect and allegiance to God, by not taking his name in vain [Commandment #30].
Next and still in the realm of speech, is consecrating what is probably the most fundamental and demonstrative exhibition of Judaism: the Sabbath and declaring it holy with words [Commandment #31].
Now that God has broached the subject of the Sabbath, the actual prohibition to work on the Sabbath follows [Commandment #32].
Once the primacy and exclusivity of God has been transmitted and the primacy of the Sabbath is in place, another fundamental commandment is pronounced – honoring ones father and mother [Commandment #33]. This completes the first “half” of the Ten Commandments (which aren’t really ten commandments but rather ten statements that incorporate more than one commandment each in some cases).
The first half of the Ten Commandments are traditionally considered those between Man and God (even honoring ones parents, as they are considered in a sense partners with God in creating their child). The second half deals with very basic concrete issues between Man and his fellow Man.
In terms of relationships between men, things don’t get more direct or basic than “Don’t kill” [Commandment #34].
Right after the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of life, is the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of family life: “Do not commit adultery” [Commandment #35]. This is perhaps the first commandment that introduces an obvious higher ethic in interpersonal relationships.
Another primal crime that leads to the breakdown of society is the heinous “Do not kidnap” [Commandment #36]. Society is broken down, not only by violent actions, but also by a violation of speech. “To give no false testimony” [Commandment #37] reflects such an issue.
The last of the Ten Commandments gets to perhaps the root of many societal ills. “Do not covet anything belonging to one’s fellow man” [Commandment #38].
Once the pivotal Ten Commandments have been imparted, God continues with commandments that are still somewhat related, but are now perhaps more nuanced and sophisticated.
Drawing on the commandment against idol worship, God commands “To make no image of a human being, even for ornamentation” [Commandment #39].
The main religious conduit of the day was the use of the altar for sacrificial offerings. As metal was used for sculpting stone, there is an aversion to using metal on altar stones to add any images. Simple unadulterated stones needed to be used. The command is fairly strict and prohibits building an altar out of stones that have even been touched by a metal instrument [Commandment #40].
While discussing the topic of the altar, the command of not ascending the Altar by steps is introduced [Commandment #41]. A ramp had to be built. Once God has revealed Himself to the Children of Israel in all His glory a resulting humility is a consequence. Ascending via smaller footsteps on a ramp rather than by striding on stairs, which might show more of ones legs (they wore flowing robes back then), would be a more appropriate sign of modesty and humility when approaching and encountering God.
God has now laid the foundation with this set of commandments. In the following section He gets in gear with a broad, long and detailed list of a range of commandments.
While God performs awesome miracles, He apparently also balances them with as many “natural” causes as possible. This is fairly evident in the Splitting of the Sea and the subsequent drowning of the entire Egyptian Armed Forces in one of the most dramatic events in our history.
God could have simply disintegrated the entire Egyptian Army with their Cavalry and Chariots and at the same time teleported the fleeing Israelites to their destination.
Apparently God wanted everyone to sweat a bit, have time to absorb the fantastic events, and appreciate the incredible process that was occurring. God guides the ensuing military maneuvers in a fashion that would have earned the admiration of Sun-Tzu.
“And when Pharaoh sent the nation, and God did not lead them by the Philistine route, for it was close; for God said, lest the nation regret when they see war and return to Egypt. And God turned the nation on the desert route, the Suf Sea, and the Children of Israel ascended armed from the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17-18)
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno says something that may sound surprising upon first inspection. Sforno explains that God wanted to take the Jews to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and then subsequently to the land of Israel. Sforno claims that the Suf Sea didn’t lead to either of these places.
The sole reason the Jews were led to the sea, was for the express purpose of baiting the Egyptians and drowning them in the miraculous trap God was setting for them.
Furthermore, it seems that the fastest route to the Suf Sea was actually via the Philistine route that God diverted the Jews away from.
Sforno explains that tactically, God wanted his Jewish pawns to be unaware of the pursuing Egyptians until it was too late. Apparently, the Philistine route was a well traveled road that was inhabited along its path. Once Pharaoh would have started his chase, the Jews would have gotten wind of it very quickly and in fear would have returned to Egypt and beg for a merciful return to their enslavement. God wanted his bait to be unaware of the impending attack in the radio-silence of the uninhabited desert. That way, when the Egyptian attack on the escaping Jews was imminent, the Jews would have no option of returning to their Egyptian masters.
The strategy, of course, works. The Jews with their backs to the sea, witness the charging Egyptian army. The Egyptians believe they have the frightened Jews trapped. The frightened Jews believe they are trapped and lament their having left Egypt.
The two protagonist nations are in place. God places some cloud cover to protect the Jews from immediate attack and blows a strong wind (more “natural” causes) to split the sea. The Jews take this surprising escape route and the Egyptians, once the cloud cover has been removed, follow in rapid pursuit.
The trap is sprung and the Egyptian army is annihilated.
I don’t know if Sun-Tzu was inspired by or even knew of the Biblical story, but following is a quote from his famous “Art of War”:
“The Power of Surprise”
“Generally, in a conflict,
The Straightforward will lead to engagement and
The Surprising will lead to triumph.”
“Those who are skilled in producing surprises
Are as infinitely varied as heaven and earth,
And as inexhaustible as the great rivers.”
When Moses and the Children of Israel subsequently sing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), it’s not by chance that they praise “God, Man of War; God is His Name.” (Exodus 15:3).
May God always guide us in the tactics and strategies we need for success – even if at times we are clueless!
The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that was written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare, it has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time.
The Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world. It has had a huge influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. Sun Tzu recognized the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.
Something About Sforno — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Bo 5769
The Inescapability of Destiny
Free will versus pre-destination is a classic Jewish paradox.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno adds a new twist to the philosophical issue in this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 11:1):
“God said to Moses: One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here. When he sends you forth, it shall be complete – he shall drive you out of here.”
Sforno comments on this verse:
“But previously he expelled just the two of you (Moses and Aharon) from just his presence. Now he will expel all of you from the entire area.”
Now Sforno’s follows with his theological gem:
“For this is the measure of righteousness of the Almighty. For when a man stubbornly refuses to do the right thing, to do the will of his Creator, he will end up doing what he ran away from, with trouble and grief, against his desire.”
After stating this startling thesis, that we will end up doing what we were meant to do, and suffer doing so if we don’t pursue it willingly, Sforno brings three very different and ominous sources to back up his thesis:
“Because you did not serve God, your God, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. So you will serve your enemies whom God will send against you, in hunger and in thirst in nakedness and without anything…” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
Here Sforno implies the issue of servitude and not just servitude, but a happy one at that. If we will not serve God with joy, then we will serve others in unpleasant circumstances.
The second source:
“Say to them: As I live – the word of God — if I shall not do to you as you have spoken in My ears. In this wilderness shall your carcasses drop…” (Number 14:28).
God castigates the complaining Israelites in the desert after their despair from the negative report of the Spies who reconnoitered the Land of Canaan. One of the cries that came from the despairing Israelites was that God intended for them to die in the desert. God was apparently so incensed with the Israelite loss of faith, that he doomed them with the very fate they declared for themselves. Lesson: we have to watch very carefully what we say – because God might very well decide to deliver on it.
“Whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.” (Tractate Avot, 4:11).
In this last and somewhat known dictum from Pirkei Avot (the Chapters of our Fathers), Sforno quotes only the negative part of the instruction. He focuses on the fact that if one is determined to be negligent in his Torah-related responsibilities he will indeed succeed in maintaining his negligence, though perhaps not in the style or comfort he wanted to continue.
Each of Sforno’s sources teaches a different lesson. However, the common thread, with which he wanted to highlight Pharoah’s fate is that a negative attitude towards ones responsibilities and relationship with God, will come back to haunt us in a most exacting and parallel way to the area of our failing.
While we may certainly exercise free will, and our destiny may be known to God, according to Sforno, the path to that destiny will depend on how wisely we use that free will.
May we figure out our personal paths and may they be as happy as possible.
To my mother, Nira Spitz, whose free will has always been harnessed to a glorious destiny. Amongst many accomplishments, 40 years ago she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, who still tries to amuse her. Thanks for everything.
Several years ago, I put together what I thought was a really cool and interesting chart about the commandments. Everyone I showed it to was very impressed with it. I showed it to a couple of publishers. They also liked it very much, but didn’t know what to do with it: “It’s not a book” they explained.
After sitting in my drawer for a couple of years I decided to dust it off and start converting it into a book format, and slowly add a few comments to each section of the chart. Any and all input is appreciated.
Following is my initial effort which deals with the commandments of this weeks Torah reading:
Commandments Express – Independence and Identity
The very first commandment given to the fledgling Jewish nation, still in the clutches of Egyptian servitude is that of consecrating the New Moon and establishing their own independent calendar system [Commandment #4].
This is symbolic on many levels. The simplest explanation for this commandment’s prominence may be as a declaration of independence. The most direct implication of slavery, besides the obvious lack of freedom, is that time is not yours. Every second, every moment, must be accounted to one’s supervisors. God then instructs the children of Israel to make time their own. By determining and declaring the start of the new month, the Jewish people take possession of Time itself.
Having grounded the soon-to-be-freed nation in time, and with the Jews having made a metaphysical declaration of independence, the next step is a demonstration of freedom in an outright, very physical act of destructive and bloody rebellion.
The Jews are commanded to take the very animals that the Egyptians worship as Gods and slaughter them in an extremely public display of contempt, fearlessness and even superiority to their Egyptian masters [Commandment #5] – which became the Passover sacrifice.
The next series of commandments continue to deal with two different aspects of the Passover sacrifice. How to eat it [Commandments #6, 7, 8, 15, 16] and who may eat it [Commandments #13, 14, 17].
Now that the Jews have very symbolically declared freedom (God will soon do the practical emancipation), God is making two critical points.
One is that there is still the rule of law. In this case, divine law. Freedom from tyranny does not mean one can do whatever they want. Jews were freed for a purpose beyond their own ease and comfort. They were freed to serve God and become a beacon of light (whatever that entails) to the world. Serving God means following the commandments no matter how esoteric or detailed they may be.
The second point is one of definition. Who is a Jew? Who is a member of this newly identified tribe? Who can participate in this prototypical commandment? The answer is dependent on two different components. It is dependent on ones personal theological allegiance (a Jewish apostate is out), and on being circumcised (if you’re a man).
The next grouping of commandments order the consumption of Matzah on the first night of Passover [Commandment #10], but more extensively prohibits the eating, seeing or possession of any Hametz (leavened bread) throughout the entire Passover holiday [Commandments #9, 11, 12, 19, 20].
These commandments also contain a high level of symbolism. The Matzah is both to commemorate the night of Exodus, but it is also the antithesis of the fat, bloated leavened bread that we consume throughout the year.
During the celebration of our nations birth and independence, the elements of gastronomic comfort and even gluttony are spiritually poisonous to us. God is of the opinion that even seeing Hametz is harmful to a Jew during Passover.
Continuing nationhood is empty without a national memory. As such the highlight of the Passover Seder is the recounting of the Exodus [Commandment #21].
Directly connected to the Exodus, the final plague of the Death of the Egyptian firstborns, and to further highlight God’s unique relationship to Jewish people are the commandments of the firstborn [Commandments #18, 22, 23].
By all rights, apparently all firstborns should have been killed during the plague, including Jewish ones. By God actively protecting them during the plague, he in a sense “acquired” Jewish firstborns for His exclusive service. Jewish animals are also included. Typical sacrificial animals are brought as sacrifices, however for some reason the non-sacrificial donkey is included in the firstborn commandments. However, being non-sacrificial it needs to either be “swapped” for a lamb or killed if a swap is not affected.
All sacrificial commandments (and there are a lot) only apply when there is an active Temple in Jerusalem.
There is another commandment that is given after the night of Exodus but before the next series of commandments that start with the famous Ten Commandments.
The commandment is to restrict the distance one walks beyond a residential area on the Sabbath [Commandment #24].
One reason might be for practical considerations. The freed Jewish tribes were now on the march and camping in an orderly almost military-like organization. On the day of rest, God wanted to reinforce the need to stay together and the sense of community. It’s not the time for traveling or exploring beyond the boundaries. The Jewish people would need to stay close to each other in order to grow as a cohesive unit and be able to receive the next series of commandments as a unified nation.
Something About Sforno — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Va’era 5769
Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail
US Air Force test pilot, Chuck Yeager, is credited as being the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, in the Bell X-1. Many pilots before him died trying. It took test pilots and engineers many years to understand and overcome the many issues surrounding traveling faster than the speed of sound. Some scientists thought it was impossible and aircraft would break apart from the extreme pressure and vibrations as they approached the sound barrier.
In the early days of the cold war, the one critical element lacking in the development of nuclear missiles was known as “atmospheric reentry technology”. Scientists discovered that anything they sent into space or even the upper atmosphere would burn up on reentry. As such they needed to develop proper shielding technology to protect the “payload”.
Sonic booms and atmospheric reentry burnout were technological issues that were not even dreamed off until a few decades ago.
As such, it is outright incredible that Rabbi Ovadia Sforno describes both of these phenomena in his commentary about half a millennium ago.
In Exodus 9:23-24 the Bible recounts:
“And Moses outstretched his staff to the heavens, and God gave sounds and hail, and fire descended earthward, and God rained down hail upon the land of Egypt.And there was hail and fire together in the hail, very heavy, the like of which was not in Egypt since it’s becoming a nation.”
Sforno comments on the “fire descended”:
“The flaming air descended to the earth with the force of the movement of the hail that pressed on it (the air) during its descent.”
Sforno basically and accurately described atmospheric reentry during the same period of time when Leonardo Da Vinci was playing with his water engine.
“In the force of the movement of the hail during its descent, the air was flamed and produced sound.”
He’s talking about sonic booms!
Imagine an ongoing downpour of burning hailstones accompanied by continuous sonic booms. It’s no wonder Pharaoh is frightened out of his wits and begs for the noise to stop before mentioning the hail.
The fact that Sforno was able to describe scientific concepts that we think of as exclusively from our modern era simply leaves me awestruck.
May plagues continue to hail down on our enemies, and may we be spared, and like our ancestors may we witness redemption.
To the memory of Dr. Irwin Rochwarger, a beloved mentor and teacher. As an engineer who designed and built satellites for NASA, amongst many other amazing technological feats, he would have appreciated very much Sforno’s insight.
The term sonic boom is commonly used to refer to the shocks caused by the supersonic flight of an aircraft. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding much like an explosion. Thunder is a type of natural sonic boom, created by the rapid heating and expansion of air in a lightning discharge.
When an object passes through the air, it creates a series of pressure waves in front of it and behind it, similar to the bow and stern waves created by a boat. These waves travel at the speed of sound, and as the speed of the object increases, the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot “get out of the way” of each other, eventually merging into a single shock wave at the speed of sound. This critical speed is known as Mach 1 and is approximately 1,225 kilometers per hour (761 mph) at sea level.
The cracking sound a bullwhip makes when properly wielded is, in fact, a small sonic boom. The end of the whip, known as the “cracker”, moves faster than the speed of sound, thus resulting in the sonic boom. The whip was the first human invention to break the sound barrier.
A bullwhip tapers down from the handle section to the cracker. The cracker has much less mass than the handle section. When the whip is sharply swung, the energy is transferred down the length of the tapering whip. In accordance with the formula for kinetic energy, the velocity of the whip increases with the decrease in mass, which is how the whip reaches the speed of sound and causes a sonic boom.
Something About Sforno — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Shmot 5769
The Diamond in the Cesspool
The Egypt of our ancestors was apparently one of great moral depravity. Egyptian culture was submerged in a superficial, materialistic, hedonistic, idol worshipping, incestuous reality. A by-product of such a society was many unwanted births and a cheapening of life.
In the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel have evolved from honored guests and royal protégés, to feared enemies and eventually downtrodden slaves. The low point of this progression is perhaps the draconian edict to kill all newborn Jewish boys.
Into this environment Moses is born. Fearing for his life, the mother of Moses takes the desperate measure of placing the three-month old into a basket to float on the river. Moses’ sister, not without hope, keeps an eye on the basket (Exodus 2).
Pharaoh’s daughter spots Moses’ basket while bathing in the Nile. She investigates and is surprised to find baby Moses within.
At this point Rabbi Ovadia Sforno asks as to why Pharaoh’s daughter would claim Moses. Sforno explains that it was apparently common practice for Egyptians to discard unwanted children into the river, and there would be a plethora of abandoned children to be claimed.
Sforno answers that the “goodness” of Moses was “shinning” and was clearly visible for anyone to see. Pharaoh’s daughter said to herself: “This is not some bastard or unwanted child. This is a beautiful Israelite child. He is so stunningly gorgeous that I must claim him for myself.”
Sforno continues to explain that Moses was visibly outstanding because of the “ingredients” put into him. Following is a translation of Sforno’s comment regarding the reaction to the birth of Moses by his mother, that “he was good”:
“She noted that he was more beautiful than normal, and thought that this was for an intended purpose from his Creator, for the beauty of the form indicates the quality of the ingredients and the complete power of the Designer.”
As we all know, Moses was indeed intended for supreme greatness, even amidst the decadence and immorality of Egyptian culture.
May we all transcend the negative environments around us, and like Moses, take the great ingredients that are a part of us – and shine.
To the recovery of 2nd Lieutenant Aharon Karov of the IDF Paratrooper Brigade. Aharon is from the community of Karnei Shomron. He left to Gaza the morning after his wedding to lead his soldiers. He was critically injured from a blast within a booby trapped home in Northern Gaza. Please pray for him – Aharon Yehoshua ben Chaya Shoshana. May our soldiers be safe, may the wounded recover and may the mourners be comforted.
The northern section of the river flows almost entirely through desert, from Sudan into Egypt, a country whose civilization has depended on the river since ancient times. Most of the population of Egypt and all of its cities, with the exception of those near the coast, lie along those parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan; and nearly all the cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt are found along the banks of the river. The Nile ends in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
The Nile (iteru in Ancient Egyptian) was the lifeline of the ancient Egyptian civilization, with most of the population and all of the cities of Egypt resting along those parts of the Nile valley lying north of Aswan. The Nile has been the lifeline for Egyptian culture since the Stone Age. Climate change, or perhaps overgrazing, desiccated the pastoral lands of Egypt to form the Sahara desert, possibly as long ago as 8000 BC, and the inhabitants then presumably migrated to the river, where they developed a settled agriculturaleconomy and a more centralized society.
Sustenance played a crucial role in the founding of Egyptian civilization. The Nile is an unending source of sustenance. The Nile made the land surrounding it extremely fertile when it flooded or was inundated annually. The Egyptians were able to cultivate wheat and crops around the Nile, providing food for the general population. Also, the Nile’s water attracted game such as water buffalo; and after the Persians introduced them in the 7th century BC, camels. These animals could be killed for meat, or could be captured, tamed and used for ploughing — or in the camels’ case, travelling. Water was vital to both people and livestock. The Nile was also a convenient and efficient way of transportation for people and goods.
The structure of Egypt’s society made it one of the most stable in history. In fact, it might easily have surpassed many modern societies. This stability was an immediate result of the Nile’s fertility. The Nile also provided flax for trade. Wheat was also traded, a crucial crop in the Middle East where famine was very common. This trading system secured the diplomatic relationship Egypt had with other countries, and often contributed to Egypt’s economic stability. Also, the Nile provided the resources such as food or money, to quickly and efficiently raise an army for offensive or defensive roles.
The Nile played a major role in politics and social life. The pharaoh would supposedly flood the Nile, and in return for the life-giving water and crops, the peasants would cultivate the fertile soil and send a portion of the resources they had reaped to the Pharaoh. He or she would in turn use it for the well-being of Egyptian society.
The Nile was a source of spiritual dimension. The Nile was so significant to the lifestyle of the Egyptians, that they created a god dedicated to the welfare of the Nile’s annual inundation. The god’s name was Hapy, and both he and the pharaoh were thought to control the flooding of the Nile River. Also, the Nile was considered as a causeway from life to death and afterlife. The east was thought of as a place of birth and growth, and the west was considered the place of death, as the god Ra, the sun, underwent birth, death, and resurrection each time he crossed the sky. Thus, all tombs were located west of the Nile, because the Egyptians believed that in order to enter the afterlife, they must be buried on the side that symbolized death.
The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that ‘Egypt was the gift of the Nile’, and in a sense that is correct. Without the waters of the Nile River for irrigation, Egyptian civilization would probably have been short-lived. The Nile provided the elements that make a vigorous civilization, and contributed much to its lasting three thousand years.