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Parshas B'Shalach - Dead or Alive?                    11 Shvat 5779

01/17/19 15:15:43


Parshas B'Shalach - Dead or Alive

Last Shabbos, as the Aron HaKodesh opened, a feeling of sadness fell upon me. For those of you who know the Aron at our Shul, it houses three Sifrei Torah, but to my dismay, only two out of those three were present. At first glance I was shocked, and then alarm and panic gripped hold of me. Immediately, I thought it might have been borrowed without permission. Then… emerged the dreaded thought, “Was it stolen?!” As my mind raced during those few seconds while singing the words of “VaYehi Binsoa HaAron” - ‘carrying the Ark’ I began to focus and remembered what had happened only a few weeks prior. Here is a description of the background as to what led to my apprehension.

Throughout life many people in their respective professions learn and prepare for unique situations, possible emergencies that they hope will never materialize or come to fruition. It is almost like buying insurance: we need it and must have it but hope never to use it. This is even more true in the Rabbinate. Many laws and Halachos are learned and studied, mostly for the theoretical possibility - as remote as it may be - to know what and how to proceed in a situation when a split-second decision is needed. Sure, there are times when a question arises and there is ample time to go back and review the law, but often one needs to act immediately, relying on memory, expertise and a lot of Siyata Dishmaya, Heavenly Assistance. During our smicha training, Rabbi Wein reviewed many scenarios including the most recent.

It was an ordinary Shabbos morning, and we were rolling along, zipping through Torah reading. During the sixth Aliyah my eyes were trying to focus in on a word, working to decipher the word’s letters. The word was distorted; as I peered in closely, my heart sank, realizing that some of the ink had begun to fade on some of the letters. One letter, a yud, had almost completely disintegrated. Emotionally, or perhaps psychologically, I was trying to figure out how this Torah was still kosher at the very least and most lenient opinion. This thinking clearly gave way to my intellectual and educational background, fully knowing that this sefer Torah was passul/invalid and therefore not kosher for use. At that point as I hovered over the Torah, other men on the bimah started to peer over, searching for the error. After I declared it passul and motioned to bring another Torah out, a group of men moved into action, helping with the Torah. It reminded me (and others) how if God forbid, a human being needed medical attention a crowd would quickly gather round to help. A few of the guys helped dress the passul Torah while others quickly brought out another Torah to continue the laining. During this commotion I and all those around me felt a keen sense of this now-passul Torah feeling as though it was a living human being. The Torah, which is the Eitz Chaim - the Tree of Life - was now injured, perhaps critically; it needed to be carried away while all of us hoped for the best. There was a sudden, strong feeling of loss that gripped everyone who had witnessed the Torah ‘going down’; a sense of defeat and despair permeated through the Shul. The good news is that a sefer Torah can always be repaired. Unlike Tefilin and a Mezuza which, when a letter is cracked or missing will most of the time be declared permanently invalid, a Torah most often can be repaired and can be brought back to life.

It is interesting to note that the word Meis- dead- is used to describe something that is permanent and final. When the Torah records the death of the great leaders, the word ‘dead’ is not used. Instead the phrase ‘he was gathered’ or ‘departed’ is used, signifying that dying is not complete; the body has died, but not the soul.

In this week’s Parshas B’Shalach, when telling the story of the Egyptians drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the Torah is reluctant to state that all the Egyptians ‘died’. Instead, in Shmos 14:20, the Torah states: “Vayashuvu Hamayim Vayechasu Es HaRechev V’Es Haparashim, L’Chol Cheil Paroh HaBaim Achareihem Bayam, Lo Nishar Bahem Od Echad”; “And the waters returned and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; there remained not so much as one of them”. The language, that there remained not so much one of them is also used when describing the end of the fifth plague in Shmos 9:6: “Vaya’as Hashem Es Hadavar Hazeh Mimacharas, VaYamas Kol Miknei Mitzrayim, U’MiMiknei Bnei Yisrael Lo Meis Echad”. “And HaShem did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died; but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one”. Dovid HaMelech, in Tehilim 106:11 uses the same expression, “Echad Meihem Lo Nosar” - “that not one of them remained”. We actually recite this in the paragraph leading up to the morning Amida. One of the Baalei Tosafotwrites, ‘Lo Nishar Bahen Od Echad’, but one did remain! He uses a certain rule of ‘up until’ or ‘including’ the last part of a statement. Who was the one person that actually survived the drowning from the Red Sea? It is explained that the Pharoah survived and it was none of them refers to his people who survived. The Midrash explains that the Malach Gavriel came and purged Pharoah in the water for fifty days as a direct punishment for Pharoah exclaiming ‘Who is God?’ The word Mi in Hebrew also spells out the word water, which has the numerical value of fifty.

The Mechilta records a dispute as to what happened to Pharoah. Rebbi Yehuda says even Pharoah drowned, but Rebbi Nechemia says everyone died except for Pharoah. A third opinion is that Pharoah went in last and drowned. The Midrash Seichel Tov tells us that Pharoah did go down into the water and Hashem turned him on his face and the water covered him, but his soul did not leave him. At that point an angel of Hashem plucked Pharoah out of the water and brought him to the city of Ninveh. Hashem spared Pharoah so that he could relate the amazing feats that the God of the Jews performed for them against him. Hashem wanted Pharoah to reveal His name throughout the land of Ninveh and throughout the world. The Rabbis say he ruled over Ninveh for five hundred years and brought them back to repent. How awesome it was for the man who denied and rebelled against Hashem to promote and bring greatness to His name, whereby Pharoah himself declared, “Who is as great as the God of the Jews!”

For this reason Hashem saved him so he could be the messenger to bring about a revolution of Teshuva among the non-Jews of the world. Therefore, the verses do not use the word ‘dead’ as if there were no return. To the contrary, when there is a little bit of life left, it has the capability to accomplish many things. Although our Sefer Torah ‘looked dead’ it was not! It is temporarily out of commission. If we allow it to go without attending to its aging, it might eventually deteriorate beyond repair. I remind myself when I see the empty space in the Aron/Ark that this Torah is being taken care of. It is being repaired and will be brought back to life. Not only will it be brought back to life for its own sake, but it is being restored back to life to be the Living Torah whose purpose is to spread the word of Hashem to us and all of humanity!

Sat, December 14 2019 16 Kislev 5780