A large part of this week's parashah is devoted to the incident
of the golden calf. The Torah relates that when Moshe came down
from Har Sinai and saw what the Jews had done, he threw down the
luchot / tablets and broke them.
What was Moshe thinking? asks R' Shimon Shkop z"l (died 1940).
Did he contemplate that the Jews would henceforth be without a
The gemara (Eruvin 54) states that had the first luchot not
been broken, one who studies Torah would never forget what he had
learned. This was not a good thing, Moshe felt after he saw the
golden calf, but a recipe for disaster. If one could read the
Torah once and never forget it, one could easily amass vast Torah
knowledge and use it for improper purposes. And, the resulting
chillul Hashem / the desecration of G-d's Name would be much
greater because the sinner would be a Torah scholar.
Moshe preferred a world where one had to struggle to learn in
the first place, and then had to review and practice in order to
retain what he had learned. In this way, when a person deviated
from a Torah lifestyle, he would begin to forget what he had
The gemara (Nedarim 38) teaches that Moshe became rich from the
scraps that were left after the luchot were engraved. R' Shkop
explains that this was intended to answer the people's fear: If
Moshe changed the world so that one now has to struggle over
Torah learning, when will people earn their living? From Moshe's
experience we see that G-d can find ways to support us, and even
to make us rich, while we devote our time to Torah and mitzvot.
(Sha'arei Yosher, Introduction)
"This they shall give - everyone who passes through the
census - a half shekel of the sacred shekel." (30:13)
Rashi records that Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire and said
to him, "Like this they shall give." What does this mean?
R' David Halberstam of Krashnov z"l (1818-1893; second son of
R' Chaim Halberstam of Sanz) explains: Moshe Rabbenu was
exceedingly humble, and he said of himself (Shmot 16:7 and
elsewhere), "What are we?" He could not understand why Hashem
would count men, considering how insignificant men are.
This is why Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire. Fire cannot
exist unless it is joined with a medium. Similarly, every Jew is
a spark of fire; alone, he is nothing, but when he is part of a
group or a society, his power is enormous.
Alternatively, fire symbolizes the power of tzedakah. The
midrash records that when Hashem said to Moshe (Shmot 30:11),
"Every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul," Moshe
asked, "How can one redeem his soul? Is it not written (Tehilim
49:9), 'Too costly is their soul's redemption'?"
Hashem answered, "It is not as you think; 'This they shall
give'." Such is the power of tzedakah.
(Darchei David p. 59)
"Moshe pleaded before Hashem . . ." (32:11)
The gemara (Berachot 32a) teaches that following the sin of the
golden calf, Moshe prayed for the Jewish people "until his bones
were burning." R' Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk z"l (died 1926)
Chazal say that Moshe's grandson, Yonatan, was a priest to an
idol. Thus, as Moshe prayed that the Jewish people be forgiven
for their idolatry, his bones, his body from which his grandson
would come, were burning with shame.
On the other hand, this very fact gave Moshe's prayers added
credibility, for Hashem had said (in verse 10), "Let Me destroy
them and make you a great nation." As Hashem offered to make
Moshe into a great nation despite the failings in Moshe's own
family, He can similarly overlook Bnei Yisrael's faults.
Thirty Days Before Pesach
"The wise son - what does he say? 'What are the
testimonies, statutes and laws that Hashem, our G-d, has
You shall instruct him in the laws of Pesach, that one may
not eat anything after eating the Pesach sacrifice." (The
Numerous commentaries observe that the wise son's question
appears in the Torah (Devarim 6:20). There, however, the
question is given a different answer, i.e., "We were slaves to
Pharaoh in Egypt . . ." Why does the Haggadah not offer the same
answer given by the Torah?
Also, the Haggadah condemns the wicked son for saying, "What
does this service mean to you?" Why then is the wise son not
criticized for asking: "What are the testimonies . . . that
Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?"
R' Yechiel Michel Schlesinger z"l (1898-1949; founder of
Yeshivat Kol Torah) answers: The response which the Torah gives
the wise son ("We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .") was
used by the Haggadah previously in response to the Four
Questions. The reason for this is that we assume that a son who
asks such discerning questions is a wise son. However, there is
more to the Torah's answer to the wise son than simply, "We were
slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." Indeed, the verses continue with an
injunction to teach our sons G-d's laws: "Hashem commanded us to
perform all these decrees . . ." Thus, the Haggadah really is
giving the wise son the answer which the Torah itself gives.
What are the Torah and the Haggadah teaching us with this two-
part answer to the wise son? That before we begin educating our
children about the commandments and instructing them concerning
halachah, we must provide them with a historical background: "We
were slaves," and Hashem took us out of Egypt, from servitude to
freedom. It is due to this salvation that we are obligated in
the mitzvot - to accept them, study them and fulfill them.
When is the time to begin teaching children the laws which they
must observe? The Haggadah tells us: Immediately after you have
finished teaching that Hashem took us out of Egypt, seize the
moment and teach the laws.
R' Schlesinger adds: It is also clear from the context of the
verses in Devarim, Chapter 6, where the above verses appear, that
the Torah is speaking to the generation that was led by Yehoshua
into Eretz Yisrael. This is the generation whose members
received the Torah in their own youth; some even stood at Har
Sinai. The "wise son" being spoken of is the child of that
generation. Thus, when he says, "What are the testimonies . . .
that Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?" he is not being
disrespectful; he means it literally, for Hashem did command his
(Haggadah Shel Pesach She'al Avicha Ve'yaggedcha)
Introductions . . .
This week, we conclude the introduction to Sefer Hachinuch,
a 13th century encyclopedia of the 613 mitzvot.
Now, know this! We have a tradition from our Sages that the
number of mitzvot that apply for all time, which were included in
the Torah that was given to us by Hashem, may He be elevated, is
613. Whether those which we are commanded to do or those which
we are warned not to do -- they are all called mitzvot. Those
which we are commanded to do total 248, and those which we must
not do total 365. Some of them are obligations of all Jews, male
and female, in every location and every era. Some are the
obligations only of yisraelim, in every location and every era,
but not of kohanim or levi'im. Some are the obligations only of
levi'im. Some are the obligations only of kohanim, in every
location and every era. Some are the obligations only of the
king of Israel. Some are the obligations only of the entire
tzibbur / community. Some of them are obligations only in a
certain place and a certain era, for example, in Eretz Yisrael,
but only when most Jews live there. Even in a given place, there
are differences among certain mitzvot between men and women and
between yisraelim, kohanim and lev'im. From among these, some
are affirmative obligations to be fulfilled constantly, for
example, loving Hashem and fearing Him. Some are affirmative
obligations that must be done at specific times, and not before
then, for example, sukkah, lulav, shofar, refraining from work on
the holidays, and reciting shema, all of which have set times
either during the course of the day or of the year. Some of
them, one is never obligated to do unless he finds himself in
circumstances which require that mitzvah to be done. For
example, even if you will say that paying a worker in a timely
manner is a distinct mitzvah, certainly one is not obligated to
hire workers merely in order to fulfill this mitzvah. There are
a few others like this, as we will explain with G-d's help in
connection with each mitzvah.
One of the mitzvot, the principle and foundation upon which all
others rest, is the mitzvah of studying Torah, for by studying,
one will know the mitzvot and will observe them. This is why the
Sages established to read one portion of the Torah in the place
where people gather, i.e., the bet knesset. This is in order to
awaken the heart of man regarding the Torah and the commandments
every week, until the Torah is completed. We have heard that
most of Israel does this on an annual basis. . .
It is my intention to write down some indication of the roots
[i.e., the reasons] for each mitzvah. Those which are set out
clearly in the verses themselves, I will copy as is. For those
that are concealed, I will write what I have heard from wise men
and what I understand. I do not think or decree that I will
ascertain the truth in every case, for who am I? A worm and not
a man! [based on Tehilim 22:7] . . . I am not lacking the
knowledge that ants cannot carry the same load as camels, and a
child who does not know how to say a berachah [a common Talmudic
expression] cannot expound regarding the Heavenly chariot.
Nevertheless, my great desire to dip my staff into the honeycomb
of the mitzvot [based on Shmuel I 14:27] forced me to enter this
forest which has no limits . . .
Bobbi and Jules Meisler
in memory of father Irving Meisler a"h
Professor and Mrs. Gilbert J. Ginsburg
on the bar mitzvah of grandson Elazar Ginsburg