Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Room for Improvement
Here's a tricky question: When were we first taught the mitzvah of
Rashi (Shemos 15:25) indicates that we were first told about Shabbos
in a place called Marah, which was the first stopover after traversing
the Red Sea. If so, Shabbos predates the giving of the Torah. The
first place the Torah actually mentions keeping Shabbos is in parshas
Yisro (Shemos 20:7-10), in the context of the Ten Commandments.
This "repetition" does not present any difficulty; it is appropriate that
a mitzvah as crucial as Shabbos receive explicit mention in the
Torah, as opposed to the mere allusion it gets in Marah.
But what about the beginning of this week's parsha, Vayakhel/
"And Moshe gathered the entire Congregation of Israel
and he said to them: These are the things that Hashem
commanded to do them: Six days shall work be done.
And on the seventh day, it shall be holy for you, a day of
complete rest. Anyone who performs melacha (loose
translation: work) on it shall be put to death."
Rashi comments that this gathering took place the day after Yom
Kippur (at the beginning of their second year in the desert). Why
indeed did Moshe gather the Jews right after Yom Kippur in order to
repeat the mitzvah of Shabbos? Was anything new taught at this
Perhaps a short story would be useful in order to understand what's
going on here:
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld zt"l, Rav of Yerushalayim, was
renowned for his clarity and deep understanding of the Torah. From
all over Eretz Yisrael, Jews came to him to seek his advice and have
him adjudicate their disputes. He also had a knack at coming up with
a compromise that satisfied both parties.
On occasion, however, when a equitable compromise was impossible,
he was not scared to rule strictly according to the Torah. There were
of course occasions on which his rulings were not appreciated by the
During one particularly difficult din Torah (court case), he was forced
to rule against a group of people who were wealthy and powerful
members of the community. They did not take his decision lightly,
and vigorously voiced their disapproval. Their words, of course, did
not sway his view.
One evening during the month of Elul (September), R' Yosef Chaim
had just sat down to eat supper with his family. Suddenly, the door
to his house swung open and a number of the infuriated litigants
burst through and began screaming at R' Yosef Chaim in a very
demeaning and disrespectful manner. R' Yosef Chaim, taken aback
by their sudden entry, sat quietly as they spewed forth their venom.
When they finally concluded their diatribe, all eyes turned to R' Yosef
Chaim: How would a great man react to such a blatant act of
disrespect to both himself and the Torah? Slowly, he rose from his
"Let it be known," he said in a powerful voice, "that I have attempted
to rule correctly according to my interpretation of the holy Torah. If
I have erred, G-d forbid, then I ask for Hashem's forgiveness. But if,
as I believe is the case, I am correct," at this point his voice went up
a notch, "then I want you to know, that despite the tremendous pain
and embarrassment you have caused me in front of my family, I am
completely willing to forgive you! I ask only that you submit to the
ruling of the Torah, and accept to conduct yourselves according to
its law." At this last statement his assailers were so stunned that they
turned and left his house as quickly as they had come.
R' Yosef Chaim turned to his family. "Let me explain what just
happened: Those men were extremely disappointed at my having
ruled against them. Nevertheless, their actions were totally
inappropriate. They have sinned gravely, both towards me and
Hashem. The Days of Awe, during which every Jew is aroused to
teshuva and repentance, are just around the corner. I have no doubt
that these men will think over their what they have done, and will
realize how gravely they have sinned. They will, of course, ask
Hashem for forgiveness. But since their sin was directed towards me,
it will be impossible to forgive them unless they approach me for
forgiveness as well. I am concerned, however, that they will avoid
coming to me, out of shame and regret. Therefore, I 'left the door
open' for them by telling them immediately that I was open to
reconciliation, and ask only that they accept the truth. Perhaps the
forgiveness I have granted them - in advance - will allow their hearts
to remain open to repentance. That is, after all, the only thing I truly
There are, says R' Moshe Sternbuch Shlita, two distinct aspects of
Shabbos. On the one hand, there is the Shabbos of rest and
relaxation; of song, hearty meals, and time with friends. On the other
hand, there is the complex side of Shabbos: The laws, the details, the
rigidity which (under rare circumstances) says it's necessary to allow
one's house to burn down rather than to extinguish a fire on
Shabbos. The Shabbos full of halachic minutiae, which the Talmud
aptly describes as "mountains hanging on a hair."
The Jews that left Egypt were a broken nation. They were broken in
spirit by their having descended to the very depths of depravity. And
they were broken physically by the bondage. This was a time to uplift
their spirits by giving them a taste of the beauty and sweetness of
Shabbos, which is what Moshe Rabbeinu taught them in Marah.
It was only after their first Yom Kippur, when they had achieved full
repentance for their sins, and were no longer brokenhearted and
dejected, that Moshe felt confident enough to reveal to them the
harsher more exacting side of Shabbos. As R' Yosef Chaim realized,
shame and dejection, natural outgrowths of sin, can actually stilt
one's growth, and prevent a person from accepting opportunities to
move on. It was only after Yom Kippur that Moshe chose to teach
them "the rest of the story."
How crucial a lesson this is for parents and educators! Occasional
criticism and even punishment are necessities in helping others to
grow. Yet if we criticize and reproach to the point that there's nothing
left to feel good about, instead of helping others grow, we're actually
just digging them deeper into the hole. "If I'm that bad then there's
really no hope, so I might as well just give up now..." The greatest
opportunities for growth come at the point when, just like after Yom
Kippur, one feels positive and hopeful about himself and his potential.
Always remember: If you don't leave the door open, nobody's going
to come through it.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication has been sponsored by
Mrs. Jennifer Hoffmann, in loving memory of her parents,
Mr. and Mrs. Barney and Judy Davidoff, may their souls
rest in peace.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.