Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Yitro – Modeling the Character Of Hashem’s People

My busy schedule doesn’t allow much leisure reading, but each week I take a few minutes to peruse Rabbi Yoel Gold’s column in Ami Magazine. He relates inspiring stories of divine providence. A few years ago, he told the story of a Jewish man (we’ll call him “Isaac”) who was staying in a hotel in the West Coast for business. When placing his valuables in the hotel room safe, he was surprised to find a pouch full of expensive jewelry. Logically, the owners probably gave up hope on getting it back, so according to Jewish law, he might be able to keep the jewelry. What a find!

But then, Isaac remembered reading about Rabbi Noah Muroff from Connecticut who found $98,000 hidden in a $150 desk he purchased on Craigslist. Here too, Rabbi Muroff could have kept the money, but he called the lady who sold him the desk and returned the cash. Rabbi Muroff was featured in countless news articles nationwide. In one interview, he explained, “To me, the need to return money was clear. I am Jewish and I want to spread the message of honesty and integrity.” Isaac went down to the front desk and said in a loud voice, “I found this pouch of jewelry in my room. I am Jewish and I want to return it to its rightful owner. The hotel staff was stunned by this display of honesty.

Isaac was scheduled to be in the West Coast for Shabbos but didn’t know anyone. A contact helped set him up with a local family. Now it was Isaac’s turn to be stunned: his host was none other than Rabbi Noah Muroff, who had moved there earlier. Isaac realized Hashem was sending him a clear message that he did the right thing and was proud of him.

Parshas Mishpatim is replete with hundreds of laws: personal injury, property damage, returning lost articles, marriage, divorce, and interpersonal and monetary obligations. Each of these laws is discussed at length in various gemaras and the Shulchan Aruch. However, even cases where a course of action that might benefit oneself are technically permitted under the letter of the law, are subject to a higher code of ethics. This is referred to as lifnim m’shuras hadin—beyond the letter of the law. When finding a lost object that one might be able to keep, one should nevertheless try to locate the rightful owner. According to many opinions, this extra step is actually mandated.

The Beer Hagolah writes that it is praiseworthy to return even money that may be kept if there is an element of Kiddush Hashem in returning it. I have seen many people become wealthy from other people’s errors, he said, but then lose their wealth and have nothing left. Those who sanctified Hashem’s name by returning gains made by the errors of others became wealthy and left their wealth for their heirs.

Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l was very careful about his honesty in money matters. He was once audited by the IRS. Rav Schwab handed in all the requested papers with every cent accounted for. When he finished, the IRS agent told Rav Schwab “I have never met anyone so honest in my life.”

Rav Schwab would lament that too often we see Jewish people on the cover of the newspaper for illegal actions. We need instead to try to make a public display of how honest a Jew behaves.

And even though acting honestly and ethically doesn’t always gain the limelight, it is still incumbent upon us, as a reflection of our Creator, to do so.

The civil laws in Parshas Mishpatim are placed right after the Ten Commandments to teach us that all areas of mitzvos are important and need to be followed. In the same way we are diligent in keeping Shabbos and buying a beautiful esrog, so too we must be diligent in monetary matters and interpersonal relationships.

This Shabbos is also called Parshas Shekalim. Each person was obligated to give a half shekel of shekel hakodesh (holy shekel) to the Mishkan. What does “holy shekel” mean? Rav Schwab explains that it means every cent of that shekel needs to be acquired honestly, without any duplicity or cheating. The funds from the collection of the shekalim were used to create the sockets, the foundation of the Mishkan. They were also collected yearly to purchase the animals that were sacrificed daily on behalf of the Jewish nation. Using “honest money” was a must!

Let us be a shining example of a Torah Jew each day at work, at the store, with our neighbors—everywhere! This will bring blessing both in our business matters and in our homes, which are a mini Mishkan—a place where Hashem dwells. And with that, may we merit to rebuild the third Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Yitro – Fulfilling Our True Desire

A well-known yeshiva high school discovered one of their students might not be Jewish. The parents had raised the child as a Torah-observant Jew, but the lineage of the mother was in question. The yeshiva looked into the matter and confirmed that the mother’s mother was not legitimately Jewish. As such, their Torah-observant student was not Jewish either!

The rosh yeshiva called the 16-year-old young man into his office. After a few minutes, the rosh yeshiva said, “I’m about to tell you something that will change your whole life. You need to think long and hard about what I’m going to tell you. Ultimately, it will be your decision what to do. As shocking as it sounds, we have discovered, with certainty, that your mother…is not really Jewish. That means that you, also, are not Jewish! You can take off your yarmulke and tzitzis with a clear conscience. You don’t have to come to davening tonight or tomorrow. You certainly can’t put on tefillin in the morning. Although you were raised “Jewish,” you’re not. You can leave yeshiva, go to public school, buy a sandwich at McDonalds, and marry a non-Jewish girl.”

The rosh yeshiva continued: “Or, you can decide you want to be Jewish and go through a conversion process, which will be easier for you as you know many of the halachos. But you need to think about this. Let me know in a reasonable amount of time what you want to do.”

Imagine you were that young man; what would your decision be?

I experienced a similar story but in reverse, with a person who came to our yeshiva saying he was Jewish, but something seemed questionable. After investigating, we determined he was not Jewish. He was feeding off the kindness of others, with free lodging in the neighborhood and lots of invitations for meals. When I confronted him, he took off his yarmulke and threw it to the floor, then yanked off his tzitzis and slammed them on the table and stormed out of the building. He never came back.

This story is central to understanding the receiving of the Torah in this week’s parsha of Yisro. As the Jewish people stood at the base of Har Sinai, the Gemara Shabbos (88a) comments on the pasuk “….vayisyatzvu b’tachtis hahar,” the Jews stood underneath the mountain. Rav Dimi bar Chasa says Hashem literally placed the Jews under the mountain, picking up Har Sinai, holding it over their heads and saying they could accept the Torah and be His people, or refuse and have the mountain dropped on their heads.

All the commentators have a field day with this. The Bnei Yisrael had already expressed their acceptance of the Torah by saying “na’aseh v’nishmah (we will observe and we will listen).” Why this show of force? The question is compounded by the Chazal that says Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations before He offered it to the Jews. They all refused. The last nation Hashem approached was klal Yisrael, who accepted without question. Everyone had their chance. The Jewish nation said yes. So why hold the mountain over their head?

Rav Gedalia Schor gives a fundamental explanation based on the Maharal. The Maharal says it was to teach us a crucial lesson. We must accept the Torah because if not, the world will cease to exist! As Rashi in Parshas Bereishis says, the world stood in limbo until Har Sinai. If klal Yisrael would not accept the Torah, the world would implode. So, although you may choose to accept, you really don’t have a choice; acceptance is imperative.

When Hashem held the mountain over our heads, it seemed like force. In truth, it was a reality statement. The Jewish people wanted the Torah. How so? The Rambam explains that a person can be forced to do a mitzvah, yet it’s not considered coercion because deep down a Jew always wants to do the will of Hashem.

Although I know many people who made the choice to be Jewish, those who were born Jewish don’t have a choice. Sometimes we can think or feel that we are restricted and not free to do as we please. However, the lesson Hashem was teaching us by holding the mountain over our heads was that although you are forced, you are only being forced to do what you really want to do. How do we know? You said na’aseh v’nishma.

Let us wake up each day and be in touch with our true selves, dedicating ourselves to do the will of Hashem as we did at Har Sinai, with complete faith.