Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Va’era – Spiritual Refinement Through Challenges

When I was learning in yeshiva I was looking for a healthy physical and emotional outlet. Some of the boys had joined a local gym with hours for men. I was skinny and not very strong. I thought the way to build muscle mass was to lift extremely heavy weights. The gym trainer clarified how it works. I needed to lift weights within my ability and then push a little more, until it hurt somewhat. Do this every time, he said. The pain was muscle fiber stretching, allowing me to really develop myself. Yes, no pain…no gain! The trainer created a workout program for me, added some protein foods, and within a couple of months, I was amazed at the results. My body was energized, and my mind was at rest.

As we learn about the miracles of the Ten Plagues—the Makkos—and how Hashem majestically took us out of Egypt, there’s a burning question: While it was great that Hashem took klal Yisrael out of Egypt, why did He put us in exile in the first place?

The answer is revealed by the Torah’s reference to Mitzrayim: “Hashem took you (klal Yisrael) out from the kur habarzel (forging pit) from Egypt in order to be a nation to Hashem.” A forging pit is used to heat up iron or metal and rid it of all its impurities. For us, as a nation, our road to purity included a long and bitter enslavement. Mitzrayim was our forging pit. Still, what was unique about Egypt compared to all the other countries?

The Maharal explains that the process of developing and refining one’s inner positive qualities is accomplished by having experiences that are contrary to those qualities. Experiencing an opposite environment will bring out the true positive nature of the person.

The Egyptians were highly immoral and led a very licentious lifestyle. Klal Yisrael was holy, pure and guarded in the area of morality. We were the polar opposites of the Egyptians. The conflict of the two opposing lifestyles was already exhibited when the wife of Potiphar attempted to seduce Yosef. Yosef withstood this temptation and risked suffering tough consequences for his refusing Potiphar’s wife. Taking this moral stand in fact led to his imprisonment in a dungeon for 10 years!

We therefore see that Hashem placed klal Yisrael specifically in Mitzrayim—a place of extremely immoral character—to refine the kedusha (sanctity) in klal Yisrael. Indeed, the purity they maintained in Mitzrayim was of such a high standard that when the Torah mentions the names of each family in each shevet (tribe), it is spelled with the letter “heh” as a prefix and the letter “yud” as a suffix. For example, the family of Chanoch is listed as Hachanochi. The letters yud and heh spell Hashem’s name. Hashem was thereby attesting that each family in each tribe had remained pure and faithful to Hashem, surrounded by Him, throughout their exile in Egypt.

Rav Dessler makes a similar observation. When a person is placed in an environment where people lead a different lifestyle, it can have one of two effects: either the person becomes attracted to and influenced by the new lifestyle, or it serves as a driving force to propel him in the opposite direction. We see this with Avraham who was raised in the home of Terach, one of the biggest idol worshipers, yet Avraham chose to follow Hashem.

Rav Wolbe often quoted his rebbe, Reb Yerucham Levovitz, who said that Hashem does not challenge us in our area of our weaknesses—only in the area of our strengths. Hashem is the ultimate trainer/coach, always presenting us with a challenge to help develop our spiritual muscles.

With the start of Sefer Shemos, we begin the period of shovavim (an acronym for the parshios of Shemos through Mishpatim), a period that is designed to work on areas of family purity.

We live in a generation and society with many decadent behaviors. We might feel we are vulnerable in this area and the challenge is overwhelming. In truth, it’s the opposite, for we are inherently kadosh (holy). We are placed in this environment to help us shine. In our generation, a person has access to see the most immoral behaviors with the click of a button. Yet, so many people choose to guard themselves against this choice, to maintain their purity, even installing filters on their phones and computers to prevent access to immoral websites. This is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is a sign of strength by making an active choice to ensure sanctity.

Let us keep refining our quality of family purity and use our society as an instrument to help us refine our own sanctity. Like our time in the gym, the results may not be seen immediately, but after a few months, we’ll be amazed at our spiritual growth.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayechi – A Proper Source For Blessing

My father-in-law, Rabbi Singer, attended one of the first Torah Umesorah conventions for day school principals. They had a major challenge. Many of the children came from homes that were not Torah observant. Those students knew very little, yet the learning curriculum was at a high standard, including in-depth meforshim (commentary) on the Gemara. The principals felt this was way too much to expect from the students and wanted to simplify the curriculum.

Many great Torah leaders spoke at the dinner, but all awaited the words of the generation’s leader, Hagaon Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein opened by stating that the bracha that parents give their sons at the beginning of Shabbos is based on Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menashe: “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.’” This is why we bless our sons with those same words.

Rav Moshe then raised his voice and asked, “Why not like Reuven, Yehuda, Yissachar or any of the other children of Yaakov? What was so unique about Ephraim and Menashe?” Rav Moshe answered it was because Ephraim and Menashe reached the highest level of Torah learning. Yaakov had taught all the complexity and secrets of Torah to Yosef, who then taught all of this Torah to Ephraim and Menashe. The blessing we give all our children is to reach the highest level of Torah learning. Sometimes the child can’t get there, but success can only be achieved if we strive for the highest level. Therefore, said Rav Moshe, the curriculum must be on a high level no matter what. The principals took in the message and felt comforted in continuing their policy.

An alternate explanation for using Ephraim and Menashe for blessing is offered by the Dinover Rebbe. Menashe was the older son, but Yaakov blessed Ephraim first as he felt he was more deserving of the blessing. Menashe did not gripe, complain or protest, nor did Ephraim gloat or act haughty over Menashe. Both brothers accepted Yaakov’s decision and maintained brotherly love for each other. From the beginning of time, there was sibling rivalry: Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and Yosef and his brothers. But Ephraim and Menashe were exemplary in maintaining their brotherly love without jealousy. For this reason, we bless our children to have this love, care and unity with their siblings

Another reason offered is that Ephraim and Menashe maintained their high level in Torah and mitzvos while living in Egyptian exile. Yaakov was blessing klal Yisrael that they too should succeed in maintaining their life of Torah and mitzvos even when living among foreign nations.

I would like to suggest yet another explanation. Usually, each succeeding generation is a bit lower in Torah knowledge than prior generations. Ephraim and Menashe were different. Even though they were the grandchildren of Yaakov, they reached the same level as their uncles—the shevatim. There was no decline in their generation. Yaakov made clear that Ephraim and Menashe were equivalent in Torah level to their uncles, Yaakov’s children. Thus in blessing our children with reference to Ephraim and Menashe, we are wishing that they remain at the same powerful level of Torah learning as their ancestors and not decline.

People love to receive brachos (blessings) from tzaddikim. But how do brachos work? Can I really give someone a blessing and it will come to fruition? Rav Yerucham Levovitz notes that brachos are not magic; they can only come to fruition if the individual is deserving or suited for that blessing.

There are different approaches to offering brachos. The Chofetz Chaim would tell people who would ask him for brachos, “The Torah is the source of all blessing. If you learn Torah, you will receive bracha.” Other tzaddikim give brachos freely, since a tzaddik has a close connection to Hashem, the Source of bracha, and by giving a bracha he is sharing Hashem’s blessing with others.

When Yaakov told Ephraim and Menashe, “With you, Israel will bless,” Yaakov was giving all parents a special ability to shower their children with blessing.

This past week was the yahrzeit of my paternal grandfather, Mr. Helmut Bodenheim, Naftali ben Avraham, z”l. He was born and raised in Manheim, Germany, and was fortunate to receive a visa to immigrate to America in 1938. As a single young man on his own in New York, he had many challenges to remain steadfast in his commitment to Torah and mitzvos, yet he never wavered. He was a man of truth. He held onto his family’s German minhagim, which we still follow. I vividly remember the brachos I received from him.

May all the Torah and mitzvos of my family be a merit for his neshama, and I daven that I can effectively pass on to my children and grandchildren the bracha that my grandfather gave to me.