The 10th Plague and the Sanctification of the First Born –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 19, 2011

In the past few Torah portions we have been reading of the Jewish People’s Exodus from Egypt.  The 10th plague, the smiting of the firstborn, seems to be the final catalyst which precipitates Pharos’ freeing of the slaves.  Curiously, just after the firstborn in Egypt are killed the Jewish people are told, “…therefore you shall sanctify the firstborn of the Jewish people.”  But why should the killing of Egypt’s first born result in the sanctification of the Jewish people’s first born animals and humans?

Several answers are given to this question by the classical commentaries.   The most basic is that the sanctification of the Jewish firstborn is an act of thanks for sparing them.  This seems strange though, for to give thanks to God, one should bring a thanksgiving offering, not offer up precisely that which was saved.

I would like to suggest the following answer along more physiological lines.   When individuals are together in a life-threatening circumstance in which some people survives and others do not, the survivors often ask themselves why they survived.  They were often not more worthy than their neighbor, not smarter, or more careful.  What can result from this is not just guilt on the part of the survivors but, especially given the seemingly often random nature of who survives and who does not, a sense of hitchayvut or obligation.  A sense that they were saved ‘for a reason’ and thus a feeling of need to make their lives more meaningful, deeper, and perhaps more spiritual than they would have been otherwise.

I think this may be why the Jewish people are not commanded to sanctify their firstborn.  Had this act been one of thanksgiving the Jewish people would be required to sanctify the firstborn as a kind of sacrifice.  But instead the firstborn are not offered by people but naturally and of necessity rendered in a state of sanctity which, as the Torah states, results directly from the act of the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt.

The Israelite who is saved while their Egyptian neighbor is killed, is, as a result of the seemingly random, non-merit based nature of the universe, propelled to make greater sense of their survival and their life, to sanctify their life and to come closer to the Source of all the grand complexity.

Many years ago I was in an accident which I survived and my friend did not.  Later I expressed my sense of survivor guilt to a rabbi I knew.  “Why me?” I asked.  “I was no more righteous than my friend who died.”

I have never forgotten the rabbi’s response: “We, all the living, feel guilty, for we all are the survivors.”  Indeed he was right.  The very fact that we are alive should, in this existential sense, propel us to see ourselves as survivors and to make greater meaning of our lives, to become closer to the Divine and to feel in this way, sanctified –obligated in special work, bearing an extra-ordinary sense of obligation.   We, the living, are all the survivors and must own up to our sense of sanctity and obligation.

Parshat Yitro – Video Shiur with Rabbi Barry Gelman

January 18, 2011

Follow the link below to watch this week’s video shiur on Parshat Yitro. If you would like to join the shoiur live, please send me your email address and I will add you to the distribution list and you will get a weekly email with log in information.

Weekly Video Shiur with Rabbi Gelman

January 18, 2011
I have started giving a weekly live video Parshgat Hashavua class. Join Us!
Below is the log on, call in information and link to Torah text for today’s shiur which will start at 12PM Central time.
I am looking forward to learning with you.

Live Video link:

Call in information if you prefer to listen by telephone:

Call in # – 1 – 213 – 416 – 6650

Access code: – 684242

Link to Torah Text:

here is a link to an article that I will reference in the shiur. –

If you would like to be added to the weekly distribution list to get a weekly reminder, please email me at

If you would like to see an example of how the shiur looks and sounds, follow this link to view last week’s shiur.  –

Rabbi Barry Gelman

Rabbi Marc Angel, Firebrand of Modern Orthodox, Comes To Your Shabbat Table, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

January 3, 2011

Angel for Shabbat, by Rabbi Marc B. Angel

($18 online at Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, )

Reviewed by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Marc Angel has just come out with a unique book entitled “Angel for Shabbat.”   It is a semi-autobiographical, Modern Orthodox manifesto and Bill of Rights, using the back-drop of the parshiot and chagim to illustrate the key points of Rabbi Angel’s thought.  This book is Old World and New Age: it quotes classic Hassidic and Sefardic masters – from Levi Yitzchak of Bardichov to the Kotzker Rebbe to Rav Chaim David Halevi, Chacham Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Benzion Uziel – and classic secular thinkers such as Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, Eric Fromm, Paul Johnson, and a half-dozen former presidents of the United States.  You just don’t see books written today which cite Rabbi J. H. Hertz who quotes Marcus Jastrow or which spell mitzvos, “mitzvoth”.  The book will bring you back to a different era in Jewish thought, where it was OK to entertain the idea of the world being several billion years old or the idea that superstitions are actually bad and not integral to Judaism.

On the other hand, Rabbi Marc Angel does not hold back on expressing his views on every contemporary flashpoint in Orthodoxy, from the Gedolim, to discrimination against Sefaradim in Emanuel, to Postville and the Rubashkins to parking lots and protests in Jerusalem.  Whether you agree with Rabbi Angel or not, it is fascinating to see how a pulpit rabbi of a 17th century colonial New York congregation can use the language of the Rambam to leap from the text of the parsha to blast charlatans who would espouse an irrational Judaism or teachers who would demand a literal interpretation of Midrashim.  Was Rivka really three when she decided to marry Yitzchak? Can we view Mordechai and Esther as assimilated Jews?  This book will get you off your comfy chair to shout out either “How can Rabbi Angel say this!” or “Lead the way Rabbi Angel!  We are right behind you!”

This is parsha book like no other – in a sense it is a gorgeous and tender polemic, where Rabbi Angel’s father, wife and congregants come into the picture as being part of the story of a former president of the RCA and leading Orthodox rabbi (he is now Emeritus at the Historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) who has only gotten more passionate and self-confident to try to make a difference in the world.  Parsha after parsha, in pithy two-page essays, I found  myself saying, “Don’t hold back Rabbi Angel!  Tell us what you really think!”  Tell us how you think it might be morally dubious to reject Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday!  This book is a must read because it recreates  a time in Orthodoxy where doing Thanksgiving and reading the Hertz chumash and quoting Harry Truman were all very much part of the “frum” Jewish experience.  But at the same time the ideas in this book, and Rabbi Angel’s uncompromising style, bridges the generation gap and addresses issues that the Modern, Centrist and Chareidi world are struggling with today.  Nostalgia is just the start; this book wants to take you to a world of independent thinking, bold questioning  and strong “inner calm” that will wake you up.  It’s not a book to read just every week – it’s a book to go through in one setting, and then to ponder it again as our Jewish year, and our Torah, unravels before us.  Good luck putting it down!