Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Parshas Vaeira

בני ראובן ... ובני שמעון ... ואלה שמות בני לוי לתלדתם גרשון וקהת ומררי (6:14-16)

After listing the sons of Jacob’s two oldest sons, Reuven and Shimon, the Torah records, “And these are the names of the sons of Levi in order of their birth: Gershon, Kehas, and Merari.” Why does the Torah emphasize that it is stating the names of Levi’s sons, a point which isn’t mentioned with regards to the sons of Reuven and Shimon?

The Shelah HaKadosh answers based on Rashi’s comment (5:4) that the tribe of Levi wasn’t included in Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Jews and therefore lived relatively easy and comfortable lives. It would have been easy for them to isolate themselves in Goshen, learning Torah all day and turning a blind eye to the plight of their brethren.

In order to combat such natural feelings, Levi specifically gave his children names which would eternally remind them of the suffering of the rest of the Jews. The name Gershon alludes to the fact that the Jews were considered foreigners and temporary dwellers in Egypt, not fitting in and belonging there no matter how easy life may have been in Goshen. K’has hints to the fact that the backbreaking labor set their teeth on edge, and Merari refers to the bitterness of the Egyptian enslavement.

So many times we hear of pain and suffering – with illness, jobs, finding a spouse, raising children, or in Israel – and our first reaction is to dismiss it as not germane to our comfortable lives, but Levi teaches that the suffering of every single Jew is indeed relevant and we must feel their plight!

The Chofetz Chaim’s wife once panicked when she awoke in the middle of the night to find his bed empty. Upon finding him sleeping on the floor, he explained to his puzzled Rebbitzin that with World War I raging all around them and Jews being chased from their houses all across Europe, how could he possibly allow himself the comfort of sleeping in a comfortable bed?

Similarly, when a great fire once ravaged most of the Jewish section of the town of Brisk, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (the Rav of the town, whose house was spared) insisted on sleeping in the synagogue together with the rest of his homeless congregants in order to share in their suffering. Not at all surprising, considering that the Chofetz Chaim was a Kohen and Rav Chaim a Levi, and they clearly learned well the lessons of their great-great grandfather!


הנה אנכי מכה במטה אשר בידי על המים אשר ביאר ונהפכו לדם (7:17)

לפי שאין גשמים יורדים במצרים ונילוס עולה ומשקה את הארץ ומצרים עובדים לנילוס (רש"י)

After tempting Chava to eat from the from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, the serpent was punished and cursed that it will travel on its stomach and eat dust all the days of its life (Bereishis 3:14). In what way does this represent a curse, as other animals must spend days hunting for prey, while the snake’s diet – dust – is to be found wherever it travels?

The Kotzker Rebbe explains that this point is precisely the curse. Other animals are dependent on Hashem to help them find food to eat, while the snake slithers horizontally across the ground, never going hungry, never looking upward, and therefore totally cut off from a relationship with Hashem, and therein lies the greatest curse imaginable!

Rashi writes that the first plague (blood) was directed against the Nile, which had been deified by the Egyptians because it never rained in Egypt and their only source of water was the rising Nile. Rav Shimshon Pinkus symbolically explains that just like the serpent, the Egyptians were a totally “natural” people. It never rained in their country, so they never had to look skyward to see what the clouds foretold.

In doing so, their hearts also never gazed toward the Heavens, thus effectively cutting them off from perceiving any dependence on or relationship with the Almighty. Everything which occurred in their lives could be explained scientifically, appearing to be totally “natural.” In light of this, the Exodus from Egypt wasn’t merely a physical redemption from agonizing enslavement, but it also represented a deeper philosophical departure. The book of Exodus, then, is the story of exchanging a worldview devoid of spirituality, through which everything is understood and explained according to science and nature, for one in which we confidently declare that Hashem runs every single aspect of the universe and of our daily lives, and we are proud to be His chosen people.


ויאמר ד' אל משה אמר אל אהרן נטה את מטך והך את עפר הארץ והיה לכנם בכל ארץ מצרים (8:12)

לא היה העפר כדאי ללקות על ידי משה לפי שהגין עליו כשהרג את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול (רש"י)

Rashi writes that Moshe was commanded to have Aharon bring about the first two plagues because he had gratitude to the river which had protected him when he was placed there as an infant, and it was therefore inappropriate for him to strike the water. This sense of appreciation is understandable, as the water indeed sheltered him, and it was there that Pharaoh’s daughter discovered and rescued him.

However, regarding the third plague, lice, Rashi’s explanation that it was inappropriate for Moshe to strike the same ground which protected him by hiding the body of the Egyptian he slew is difficult to understand. Although Moshe thought that nobody saw the killing, in reality Dasan and Aviram witnessed the murder and informed on him to Pharaoh, who would have killed Moshe if not for a miracle that saved his life (Rashi 2:14-15). Practically speaking, the ground did absolutely nothing to benefit or assist him in any way, so why did he feel gratitude toward it, and why couldn’t he strike it himself to bring about the plague of lice?

The Maharzu suggests in his commentary on the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 10:7) that the ground did indeed help Moshe by providing him temporary peace-of-mind by allowing him to think for at least the first day that his killing would go unnoticed. However, I would like to suggest that the Torah is coming to teach the fallacy of a common English expression.

If we give of our precious time, energy, and heart in an earnest attempt to help somebody out, only to have our efforts fail, the average American will tell us, “Thanks, but no thanks,” indicating that he owes us no debt of gratitude for our efforts and not-so-subtly suggesting that next time we should just mind our own business. Yet the Torah teaches that because the ground was willing to help, and tried to be of assistance in doing its best to cover up the taskmaster’s corpse, Moshe was obligated to show his appreciation for its good-faith efforts and was unable to strike it to bring about the plague of lice.

So many times a spouse, a child, a friend, a shadchan, or a co-worker will volunteer to try to help us out of a jam or just to lend a helping hand around the house. Unfortunately, to say the least, these efforts don’t always lead to the results we were hoping for. The next time it happens, instead of taking it out on them and rubbing the failure in to somebody who already feels badly enough, let us remember the lesson of Moshe and the ground, and express our sincere appreciation for their time and good intentions.


ותהי הכנם באדם ובבהמה כל עפר הארץ היה כנים בכל ארץ מצרים (8:13)

A number of our greatest Rabbis (Rambam, Rabbeinu Yonah, Meiri, Vilna Gaon) write in their commentaries on Pirkei Avos (5:4) that during the plague of lice, the lice also infested the land of Goshen where the Jews lived, just that they didn’t cause them the suffering that they did to the Egyptians.

The Mishmeres Ariel brings a strikingly simple proof to this astonishing fact. One of Yaakov’s reasons for requesting that Yosef not bury him in Egypt was to avoid the lice which would be crawling throughout the ground (Rashi Bereishis 47:29). If, however, the lice were nowhere to be found in the land of Goshen, then Yaakov could have simply made Yosef swear to bury him there and not burden him to carry his body all the way to the land of Israel. From the fact that he made him do so, it must be that he knew this wouldn’t suffice as the lice would also be present in Goshen!

Rav Chaim Kanievsky suggests the reason for this peculiarity was that in the first two plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate the actual plague. As such, the only proof that Moshe’s plagues were caused by Hashem and not by sorcery was the fact that they miraculously stopped at the borders of the Jewish land of Goshen. In the plague of lice, on the other hand, Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to copy the plague and freely admitted that it had been performed by Hashem, in which case there was no need for the additional miracle of preventing the lice from entering the land of Goshen, just that Hashem prevented them from causing actual pain or inconvenience to the Jews living there.


ויעש ד' את הדבר הזה ממחרת וימת כל מקנה מצרים וממקנה בני ישראל לא מת אחד וישלח פרעה

והנה לא מת ממקנה ישראל עד אחד ויכבד לב פרעה ולא שלח את העם (9:6-7)

The Vilna Gaon is bothered by several apparent inconsistencies in the Torah’s description of the damage done by the plague of pestilence. Initially, the Torah states with regard to the animals of the Jews that not a single one died, but in the second verse the wording indicates that while not more than one Jew lost animals, one did indeed suffer at the hands of the plague. Additionally, the first verse discusses “the animals of the children of Israel,” while the latter refers simply to “the animals of Israel.”

Finally, as difficult as Pharaoh’s actions throughout this entire period are difficult to understand, there is generally some minimal logic to his stubbornness. Here, however, the Torah seems to indicate that hearing that the plague didn’t affect the animals of the Jews somehow caused him to further harden his heart, which seems quite counter-intuitive.

The Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains that the resolution to all of these difficulties is based on a single piece of information. Rashi writes (2:11) that one of the Egyptian taskmasters set his eyes on a Jewish woman by the name of Shulamis bas Divri. One night he ordered her husband out of the house and entered pretending to be him, and from that union was born a child. However, the Ramban (Vayikra 24:10) quotes an opinion that before the Torah was given, a person’s identity was determined by his father, which means that the son of the taskmaster and Shulamis was considered a non-Jew.

Although the first verse states that among the children of Israel – proper Jews – no animals died, the animals of Shulamis’s son were indeed stricken together with those of the Egyptians, and it is to them that the second verse refers in hinting that one Jew – somebody viewed as a Jew even though in reality he wasn’t – was afflicted. Upon hearing that the Jews weren’t completely spared, Pharaoh attributed the entire episode to a big coincidence, and not surprisingly hardened his heart and refused to free the Jews!


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) In last week’s parsha, Moshe expressed his reluctance to serve as Hashem’s agent to free the Jewish people due to his severe speech impediment, to which Hashem replied that his brother Aharon would assist him as his spokesman (4:15-16). Why did Moshe repeat the exact same worry (6:30), and as the reply that he received was identical (7:1-2), in what way did it reassure him any more than what he had already been told previously? (Meged Yosef)

2) Hashem told Moshe (7:3) that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would refuse to free the Jewish people. Does this mean that Pharaoh completely lost his free choice to repent his ways even if he changed his mind and wished to do so? (Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah 6:3, Radak Shmuel 1 2:25, Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Berlin quoted in Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha)

3) As private citizens, why weren’t the Egyptians and their animals exempt from the punishment of the plagues which should have been meted out exclusively to Pharaoh for his cruel role in enslaving the Jewish people? (Taima D’Kra Parshas Vayigash, M’rafsin Igri)

4) After Moshe caused all of the water in Egypt to turn to blood, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated the feat and therefore he wasn’t impressed (7:22). If all of the water had turned to blood, from where did they obtain water to turn into blood? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Paneiach Raza, Tosefos Rid)

5) The word in the Torah containing the most letters is in this week’s parsha. What is it?

6) Which of the plagues was the harshest and most unbearable for the Egyptians and why? (Seichel Tov and Be’er Yitzchok quoted in Shaarei Aharon, Taam V’Daas)

7) Rashi writes (9:14) that just prior to the 7th plague, Moshe warned Pharaoh about the plague of the slaying of the first-born, which was so severe as to be considered equivalent to all of the other plagues combined. Why did Moshe choose to warn Pharaoh at this time about a plague which wasn’t yet imminent? (Moshav Z’keinim, Tosefos Rid, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Abarbanel, Minchah Belulah, Gur Aryeh, Chavatzeles HaSharon, Torah L’Daas Vol. 9)


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