Our parshah opens: "When you raise the heads of Bnei Yisrael
according to their numbers, every man shall give an atonement for
his soul when counting them . . . a half shekel[.]" Why, asks R'
Moshe Feinstein z"l, was the command to take a census phrased as
"raising the heads of Bnei Yisrael"? He explains:
If you ask a typical person why he does not study more Torah or
do more mitzvot, he will answer, "Who am I? I'm not capable of
being a Torah scholar or a tzaddik." To counter this
inappropriate feeling of humility, to "raise the heads of Bnei
Yisrael," Hashem said that every person should give exactly one
half of a shekel, no more and no less, toward the census. In
this way, each person will realize that he is on par (at least
potentially) with the greatest scholar and the greatest tzaddik.
All that one needs is determination and effort.
There is another lesson in these words. The gemara (Bava Batra
10b) asks, "How will the honor of Israel be uplifted? Through
'Ki tisah'/'When you raise'." Commentaries explain that the
gemara is actually referring to the end of the verse, which
alludes to the mitzvah of tzedakah/charity. Why, then, did the
gemara quote the beginning of the verse? R' Feinstein explains
that it is not enough to give charity. Rather, the honor of the
Jewish people is uplifted when we are able to "raise our heads,"
i.e., to hold our heads high after giving tzedakah. This depends
on how we give tzedakah - for example, whether we give an
honorable amount in relation to our means and whether we give it
with the right attitude instead of begrudgingly. (Darash Moshe)
Understanding the Golden Calf
How could the generation which witnessed the Ten Plagues and
received the Torah make a Golden Calf? In a lecture delivered
this week in 5733/1973, R' Yaakov Yitzchak Halevi Ruderman z"l
(see page 4) answered this question as follows:
The midrash says: "It was good that our ancestors said,
'Na'aseh ve'nishmah.' Was it good that they said [about the Calf
(Shemot 32:4)], 'Aileh/These are your gods, Israel'?" It would
seem, observed R' Ruderman, that making the Calf was more than
just wrong. In some respect, the making of the Calf stood in
particular contrast to Bnei Yisrael's calling out "Na'aseh
A similar contrast is highlighted by the gemara (Berachot 32b)
in interpreting the verse (Yishayah 49:15), "Can a woman forget
her baby, or not feel compassion for the child of her womb? Even
'aileh'/these may forget, but 'Anochi'/I would not forget you."
The gemara says (as if quoting Hashem), "I will forget the sin of
'Aileh/These [are your gods, Israel],' but I will never forget
that you accepted the Torah [beginning with 'Anochi/I am Hashem']
at Sinai." How does the making of the Calf stand in contrast to
Bnei Yisrael's acceptance of the Torah?
Two introductory points are necessary. First: Ramban, Kuzari
and other early commentaries explain that only a small part of
the nation viewed the Golden Calf as an idol. Most of the Jewish
people were seeking only an intermediary who would represent G-
d's presence on earth. This was the role in which the people had
seen Moshe before his "disappearance" on Har Sinai. The prophet
Yechezkel teaches that Hashem's "Throne" is adorned with four
images: the face of a man, the face of an ox, the face of an
eagle and the face of a lion. Thus, when the people thought that
Moshe had been taken from them, they thought it would be
permitted to make one of the other images on G-d's "Throne" as a
reminder of G-d's presence.
Second: what was the significance of the statement, "Na'aseh
ve'nishmah"/ "We will do and we will hear"? It meant that,
unlike the nations that refused to accept the Torah without
knowing its contents, Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah
wholeheartedly and unconditionally. It was equivalent to saying,
"We have no thoughts or concerns except for the Torah. There is
no room in our hearts or in our world for anything but Hashem and
Bnei Yisrael attained a very high level by saying "Na'aseh
ve'nishmah." Measure-for-measure, just as Bnei Yisrael declared
that no part of their hearts, minds and beings would be devoid of
Hashem's Torah, so Hashem was prepared to leave no part of the
world devoid of His presence. But, by saying, "Na'aseh
ve'nishmah," Bnei Yisrael set a high standard that they had to
live up to. Thereafter, it was inappropriate for Bnei Yisrael to
seek an intermediary to "represent" G-d; He was already as close
to them as could be!
R' Ruderman concluded: from the above explanation we can learn
an important lesson about how to study Tanach. We read in Tanach
about the sins of great people (e.g., King David with Batsheva),
and we wonder how they could commit sins that few of us would
commit. Now we know, however, that when a great person slips and
does not live up to the high standard that he has set for
himself, the Torah judges him very harshly. As we have seen,
because Bnei Yisrael failed to realize Hashem's closeness to
them, it is considered as if they committed idolatry. On our
lowly level, Bnei Yisrael's failing would not be considered a sin
at all! Similarly, because King David's sin, as subtle as it
really was, was beneath him, the prophet describes the incident
as if King David committed adultery.
(Sichot Halevi p. 94)
The gemara (Berachot 32a) says: "Moshe spoke forcefully to
Hashem. He said, 'It was the gold and the silver that You gave
Bnei Yisrael that led them to make the Calf'!"
R' Yaakov Moshe Lessin z"l (mashgiach ruchani at Yeshivat
Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan/Yeshiva University after 1939)
explains: One who wants to become a complete person must know
that the Torah's expectations cannot be measured with the same
"ruler" that we use in our every day affairs. Rather, the
Torah's expectations are far loftier than our thoughts can grasp.
Thus, when Moshe said, "It was the gold and the silver that You
gave Bnei Yisrael that led them to make the Calf," he was
expressing a very subtle point. Indeed, the sin of the Golden
Calf was so subtle that the early commentaries struggle to
pinpoint exactly what it was. Similarly, we are taught, the
angels asked Hashem, "Why did you decree that man should die?"
Notwithstanding the simplistic way in which Adam and Chava's sin
is told in the Torah, the sin was in fact so minute and so subtle
that the angels did not know what it was.
Chazal teach that even the Jews' maidservants experienced a
greater revelation at the splitting if the Yam Suf/Red Sea than
the prophet Yechezkel experienced at the height of his career.
Nevertheless, man's nature is such that if he stops focusing even
for a moment on his spiritual and intellectual pursuits, he can
quickly develop a small, but dark, stain on his soul which can
later spread. Thus it was possible that only hours after the
great revelation at the Sea, Bnei Yisrael were so drawn to the
booty that washed out of the Yam Suf that they refused to leave
and travel on to Har Sinai (see Rashi to Shemot 15:22).
This was Moshe's complaint to Hashem: The stain on their souls
that allowed them to make the Golden Calf developed from that
time at the Sea when You gave them gold and silver. Those riches
distracted them from their spiritual pursuits long enough that a
Golden Calf became possible.
(Ha'maor She'ba'Torah Vol. I, p. 173)
Rabbis of the New World
R' Yaakov Yitzchak Halevi Ruderman z"l was born on Shushan
Purim in 5601/1901 in Dolhinov, Russia, where his father, R'
Yehuda Laib, was the rabbi. He studied in Yeshivat Knesset
Yisrael in Slobodka, then headed by R' Nosson Zvi Finkel (the
"Alter") and R' Moshe Mordechai Epstein z"l. (Slobodka produced
more future leaders of American Torah Jewry than any European
yeshiva. Among R' Ruderman's colleagues in Slobodka were R'
Reuven Grozovsky; R' Ruderman's first cousin, R' Yaakov
Kaminetsky; R' Aharon Kotler; R' Yitzchak Hutner; R' Yaakov Moshe
Lessin, and others.) R' Ruderman received semichah/ordination
from R' Epstein in 1926. At approximately the same time, R'
Ruderman published his only written work, Avodat Halevi.
In 1930, R' Ruderman joined his father-in-law, R' Sheftel
Kramer, at the latter's yeshiva in Cleveland. (R' Kramer
previously had taught at the yeshiva of R' Levenburg in New
Haven, Connecticut, the first yeshiva in the United States
outside of New York.) In 1933, R' Ruderman moved to Baltimore
and founded the Ner Israel yeshiva. R' Ruderman led that
yeshiva for 54 years until his passing and built it into one of
the largest yeshivot in America, producing numerous rabbis,
educators and learned laymen.
Outside of his own yeshiva, R' Ruderman was involved in many
aspects of Jewish communal life. His death on 14 Tamuz 5747/July
11, 1987 followed less than one-and-a-half years after the
passing of R' Kaminetzky and R' Moshe Feinstein (both of whom
died just before Purim of 1986). With the passing of these three
giants of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, many considered an era
to have ended in American Jewish history.
Posthumously, R' Ruderman's students have published two volumes
of his teachings: Sichot Levi contains mussar/ethical insights
based on the weekly parashah, while Mas'at Levi contains lectures
on the 19th century work Minchat Chinuch and other Tamudic and