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During the Second Temple, the Greek empire reigned (over Israel),1 and they (the Greeks) passed decrees against the Jews and (tried) to erase their religion, and did not allow them to carry out Torah (study) or the commandments. They put their hands on their property and their daughters. They entered the Temple, destroyed and made the pure unclean. The Jews were in great distress because of them and were much oppressed, until the G-d of their fathers had mercy on them, delivering them from their hands and saving them. Then overcame, the sons of the Hasmonean High Priest, (the Greeks) and killed them and saved the Jews from their hands. They appointed a king from the Priests, and the kingdom of Israel was restored for more than 200 years until the destruction of (the) second (Temple). When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, it was the 25th of Kislev2 when they entered the Sanctuary (inner room) and did not find pure (olive) oil in the Temple, except one jar sealed with seal of the High Priest, and it did not contain enough to light except for one day only. But they lit from it the lamps of the Menorah3 for eight days, until they could crush olives and produce a (new quantity) of pure oil. For these reasons, decreed the Sages of that generation that these eight days that begin on the 25th Kislev, will be days of joy and praise. One lights on them lamps at evening at the entrance to the houses, every evening of the eight nights to show off and demonstrate the miracle. These days are called ''Hanukah'' that is to say ''they rested'' (chanu) on the ''25'' ('th of the month) because on the 25th they rested from their enemies. and also because of those days they (re)-dedicated the house (Temple) which their foes had defiled. Also some say that it is a commandment to increase slightly the festive meals on Hanukah. Another reason is because the work of (building) the Sanctuary (in the desert) was completed in these days. One should tell one's children the story of the miracles that were done for our fore-fathers in those days, (see Josephus) However, these meals are not considered as part of the commandment unless one says at the meal songs of praise. One should increase charity in these Hanukah days, for this can help mend any defects in our souls. This charity, should be given particularly to poor Torah scholars. (KSA 139:1)
1) 352 BCE until 70 CE
2) 139 BCE
3) The Menorah was made of gold and had seven branches.
Have no fear of descending to Egypt...I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up; and Yosef shall place his hands on your eyes. Bereishit 46:4
Despite G-d clearly telling him that he needn’t fear Egypt, Yaakov feared and feared greatly. Despite knowing that he would be reunited with Yosef, the son he had missed so terribly for so long, his ben z’kunim, he trembled.
Why? Why was he afraid?
The Zohar tells us that when he was asked why he was fearful of going to Egypt, Yaakov said, “I am afraid that my family will succumb there; that the Shechinah will no longer dwell among us; that I will not be buried with my ancestors, and that I will not see the redemption of my children.”
Abarbanel adds that while Yaakov was naturally eager to go to Egypt to reunite with Yosef, he was anxious about leaving the holy land and go to Mitzrayim, a land filled with abominations. Weighing most heavily on him was his certainty that an extended galus in Mitzrayim would damage zera Abraham, the seed of Abraham. In his fear he was certainly recalling that Yitzchak was warned not to go to Mitzrayim.
How could he help but fear the galus? He knew well its dangers, its seduction and influence. In small, insidious ways it eats away at our people, taking us one soul at a time. It diminishes us. It saps us of what makes us special. It lures us into assimilation until we are awash in the great ocean of people around us, indistinguishable from them, swallowed up in a culture, an environment, a language that is not ours.
Until we are drowned and lost.
And then, when we are fully lured into the illusion that we belong in this strange land, we are defenseless when the land turns against us, making clear we never truly belonged; that we are “the other”.
One need not review the entirety of Jewish history to recognize this sad reality; one need only look at the last fifty years of American Jewish history to appreciate the dangers of galus!
It is plain that Yaakov’s fears were not out of place. It was for this reason, Abarbanel says that God reassured Yaakov that going to Egypt was part of His plan.
Many years earlier, God told Avraham that his offspring would , “… be aliens in a land not their own… and they will serve them and they [the Egyptians] will oppress them… and afterwards, they will leave with great wealth.” (15:13) Now, in our parasha, Yaakov finds himself travelling with his family to Egypt. By virtue of his descent, he is fulfilling the first part of those prophetic words; that is, by going to Egypt he is taking the first steps of our becoming “aliens in a land not our own”. In other words, our galus is initiated by Yaakov’s journey to Egypt.
It is plain that in going to Egypt, he is fulfilling God’s plan. Yes, there will be galus but there will also be geula. So, we ask again, what then is Yaakov afraid of? Why must God comfort him, Al tira m’reda Mitzrayma, have no fear of descending to Egypt? The Beis Halevi focuses on the source of Yaakov’s fear to elucidate a deep truth. “If Avraham was clearly told that his children would be in a foreign land only temporarily and that subsequently they would be redeemed, why is Yaakov afraid?” That is, if the first part of the prophecy is certain, why wouldn’t the second part be as well?
The Beis Halevi explains that God’s reassurance to Yaakov has two levels of meaning. On the first level, it is a direct response to Yaakov’s fear regarding the exile that he is about to enter. On the second level, it is a sweeping statement of promise to the Jewish people, which would accompany us throughout our long history.
As to the actual Egyptian galus, Beis Halevi notes that while Yaakov knew that his progeny would live in a foreign land (b’eretz lo la’hem), he did not anticipate that it would be in such a morally depraved land as Egypt. Yaakov feared that surviving four hundred years in such a bereft environment, one defined by everything antithetical to what his children were to become, would not be possible. He feared that after four hundred long years of galus the people would lose their connection to the path paved by the Avos. He feared that it would then not be possible for God to redeem them.
Such a galus, he feared, would certainly doom them forever.
The Beis Halevi is suggesting to us that Yaakov’s fear is a very legitimate one; that there is a limit, a point from which it is impossible to return from galus. Yaakov understood that the depravity, the cruelty, the utter hopelessness of our galus in Egypt would take a profound toll. He knew that it would be all consuming and that, pushed so deeply down a black hole it could prove impossible for the people to believe that there is a way out. And, without the belief, there is no way out.
There are those who claim that “oh, that was then, this is now.” They claim that what the people had to fear in the Egyptian galus is far removed from the galus of our own day. Oh really? Is there any society or culture that “out-depraves” our own? Pornography seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day! The very definition of marriage is challenged. Even amongst so called Orthodox Jews there is a celebration of same-sex marriage. We see transgender, pan-gender, non-gender individuals! Parades that proclaim pride in public displays of sexuality – with police officers leading the way! Was the behavior in Sodom any more astounding?
This is galus!
How can we expect our children to find their way back when they are swimming against the tides of such a world? This is now! This is here! Who can possibly believe that it was that much worse in Egypt?
I think that the argument can be made that America in the 21st century, with its sexual immorality and its relentless destruction of the decency and respect between people, might very well make Egyptian culture seem polite and civilized in comparison! How, as Jews, can we find our way out of this cultural, sexual and political morass? How can we save ourselves from the swirling current that threatens to drown us? That was Yaakov’s fear – would his children be able to find their way out of such a galus?
The fear is real, and it is powerfully human. That is why, G-d acknowledges it as He does and then goes on to reassure him that his fear will not be realized. They – we – will not simply disappear. God will be watchful. God will be there. Should four hundred years of galus Mitzrayim cause us to irredeemably lose our way, then God would reduce the time of our galus! Indeed, our people were in fact redeemed two hundred years “early” – God having calculated the four hundred years from the birth of Yitzchak.
Yaakov was right to be afraid. A seemingly endless galus cannot be endured. There is a point when galus blinds us to the way back. God acknowledged Yaakov’s fears. God chose us as His nation to endure, forever. He chose us to be His, and He will reach out to do whatever is necessary to assure our eternal existence. And therein is the second level Beis Halevi refers to. When God says to Yaakov, “I shall descend with you to Egypt”, God is proclaiming that His Name and His honor would accompany the Jewish people throughout their wanderings, wherever and whenever they end up. God is there with them, always and forever. God promises that the Jewish people – as a people – will never be lost; the Jewish people will never permanently succumb to any galus.
Yes, it is true that there are individuals and groups, who do fall by the wayside, individuals and groups who so lose their way, who are swallowed up in the currents of galus, swept up in the constant wearing away of that which keeps us true and alive. They drown in the deep waters of assimilation.
Too often this is true in America as much as Egypt, or any foreign land where we find ourselves. There are those who came to this country in search of safety and freedom only to find, at the end of their lives, that what they called freedom had cost them their Yiddishkeit.
G-d’s eternity is intrinsically bound up with the eternity of His nation, with us. Every Shabbat afternoon, which represents the realization of the final redemption – when all galus finally ends – we proclaim, “Atah echad! You are one and Your name is One; and who is like Your people Israel...!”
It is then that we have a glimpse of the geula to come; it is then that Yaakov’s fears will be finally and fully put to rest.