Date: January 4th 2018


This is an edited version of the JHI Dvar that was previously emailed on January 3rd 2013. It was taken from the work Emes L’Yaakov by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky. *

Parshat Shemot describes the events surrounding the birth of Moshe (Moses). Pharaoh had decreed that all Jewish male babies born were to be killed. In an effort to save his life, Moshe’s mother placed him in a small box and set it float on the Nile River (Shemot, 2:3).

The daughter of Pharaoh gathered the box from the river and rescued Moshe. Sometime later she remarked, “This is a child of the Jews” (ibid. 6). How did she know this? Quoting the Talmud in Tractate Sotah, the Commentary of Rashi explains that Moshe refused to nurse from an Egyptian wet nurse. Rashi continues that this was based on a stringency in the prohibition against “chalav akum,” milk that was milked by a Gentile. Nursing from a Gentile woman was inappropriate for the mouth that would later communicate with the Divine Presence.

When discussing the laws of chalav akum, the Shulchan Aruch (book of Torah Law, Yoreh Deah 81:7) rules that whenever possible, Jewish babies should only nurse from Jewish women. The Biur Hagra (ibid. 31) by the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) writes that this ruling has its origins in Moshe’s conduct as a baby. Just as Moshe refused to nurse from an Egyptian woman, so too, ideally, all Jewish babies should not be nursed by Gentile women.

Rabbi Kaminetsky asked: Moshe had always been clearly destined to serve as G-d’s prophet. The Torah relates that the moment of Moshe's birth was accompanied by a rush of light that flooded the home (Rashi, ibid. 2:2). It is therefore understandable that not nursing from an Egyptian was appropriate for Moshe, who would later become Hashem’s (G-d’s) designate. But does this same reason apply to every single Jewish baby? Why does Halacha (Torah Law) rule that ALL Jewish babies should not nurse from a Gentile woman for this same reason?

Rabbi Kaminetsky answered that this Torah Law conveys an enormously important lesson about child rearing It is not enough to raise one's children to be “observant Jews,” or also, “good and honest and charitable Jews,” or even “Torah-educated righteous Jews.”

Rather, and in a very practical and real way, every Jewish child should be reared from the moment of birth with the attitude that he or she is being prepared to attain the very highest levels of holiness - prophecy itself. Obviously, not all children will realize this exalted spiritual level. However, this G-dly potential is inbred within virtually every Jewish child. Accordingly, the Torah calls upon Jewish parents to nurture this exalted capacity to the greatest extent possible.

Author’s note: The above is an attempt at rendering the Torah idea of Rabbi Kaminetsky, z”l. I would like to add two points of clarification.

A young girl from Long Island (whose family this writer knew) was an outstanding swimmer; she won every local competition. Some suggested that she should perhaps train for the Olympics. Parents and child were eager. But before going down that road, the family had the good sense to first have her evaluated by a prominent Olympic-level swimming coach. The coach very unequivocally said that despite being a local phenom, no matter how long and hard she’d train, she simply was not endowed with the physical gifts necessary to be an Olympic competitor.
Is the same true, lehavdil, when it comes to one’s potential for holiness – some simply are not endowed with the innate piety and towering genius needed to get there? And if that is the case, why, as Rabbi Kaminetsky wrote, should every Jewish child be raised as if being prepared for attaining holiness?

A possible answer is that reaching rarified spirituality can only be done with special assistance from Hashem. However, almost any person, even one of average capacity, can reach the pinnacles of Torah scholarship and holiness if enough effort is invested to realize that end. In fact, some of Judaism’s most saintly and greatest Torah scholars began as very ordinary people, both morally and intellectually. But through incredible sincerity and hard work they scaled the spiritual heights. Every Jewish child should, therefore, be raised as if he or she will reach the sanctity of Moshe, relative to all other Jews of their era. It is theoretically attainable by almost all of them.

To attain the highest level of spiritual purity, Moshe required a Jewish wet nurse. But the Torah does not take the position that Gentiles cannot attain significant holiness if they set their mind to it. The Talmud teaches that righteous members of other faiths will earn an honored place in the World to Come. The Torah further indicates that Gentiles are capable of the highest echelons of prophecy. Parshat Balak tells the story of the Gentile prophet, Bilam. According to the Talmud, Bilam’s capacity for prophecy rivaled that of Moshe.

* Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky (February 28, 1891-March 10, 1986), was one of the most prominent rabbinic leaders of the post-World War II Torah-observing American Jewish community. He was born in Lithuania, where he studied for years in the Slabodka yeshiva under Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He also studied for a period in the yeshiva in Kelm.
In 1926, he assumed the rabbinate of the Lithuanian town of Tzvitiyan. His son Rabbi Binyomin Kaminetsky related that, while still in Tzvitiyan, his father remarked, “Europe will be inundated in a bloodbath.” As a result, in 1937, he moved with his family to North America, where he initially served as a synagogue rabbi, first in Seattle and then in Toronto. From 1948 to 1968 he headed the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, New York. Rabbi Kaminetsky, together with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, led many of the world’s Orthodox Jews in issues of halachic and spiritual guidance until 1986, when both Torah leaders died.
Rabbi Kamenetsky was known as an “illuy” (genius). Aside from being counted among the world’s preeminent Talmudic scholars, he was also an expert on all of the Tanach (Bible) and Hebrew grammar. He once confided to someone that he understood the Torah’s principles of grammer well enough to apply “trop” (the cantillations of the Bible that determine how the Torah is read in the synagogue) to all of the Talmud.
His ever-present warm smile and friendliness to all people was legendary. He was also renowned as the "Chakima D'Yehudai" - the wise man of the Jews – a person whose council was solicited on a many different topics totally unrelated to Torah.
He merited having a large family, and due to his long life, he saw many of his own descendants. Dozens of them now serve in rabbinic positions throughout North America and Israel.
He was buried in Mt. Judah Cemetery in Queens NY.

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