Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Parshas Beshalach

וחמשים עלו בני ישראל מארץ מצרים (13:18)

The Torah relates that the Jewish people left Egypt “chamushim.” A number of explanations are given for the meaning of this word. Rashi explains that four-fifths of the Jews died during the plague of darkness, leaving only the remaining one-fifth who went out from Egypt. The Targum Yerushalmi translates that they went out armed with good deeds, and the Targum Yonason perplexingly writes that each family went out with five children. It is difficult to reconcile these seemingly different explanations, as well as to understand what good deeds are being referred to, and why each family had exactly five children, especially in light of the fact that the Jewish women in Egypt gave birth to six children at a time.

The Be’er Yosef beautifully suggests that all three explanations are really one. As Rashi mentions, the wicked Jews died during the plague of darkness. However, Hashem’s Heavenly Tribunal doesn’t punish a person until the age of 20 (Rashi Bereishis 23:1). While four-fifths of the adults died, none of the children did, resulting in a tremendous number of orphans.

The remaining adults were so overjoyed at being saved that they decided to “adopt” the orphans from the four-fifths of the families who were now without parents. Thus, in addition to their own biological children, each family went out with the children of another four families. The Targum Yonason doesn’t mean that each family had five children, but rather five families of children, and these mass adoptions are the good deeds referred to by the Targum Yerushalmi!

In Parshas Shemos, we quoted the calculation of the Oznayim L’Torah that the average family had 54 children. In light of this, it is all the more astounding to realize that as they were about to head out into the desert with no source of food, clothing, or sustenance, their trust in Hashem was so strong that they had no qualms about adopting another 216 children, bringing the grand total of the typical family to 270 children! We now have a new appreciation for the well-known verse in Yirmiyah (2:2), זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך אהבת כלולתיך לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועהI remember for your sake the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, your following after Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown!


וידעו מצרים כי אני ד' (14:18)

The Darkei Mussar notes the striking contrast in Pharaoh’s actions over the span of just a few short years. In Parshas Mikeitz, the idolatrous Pharaoh had no problem accepting Yosef’s interpretations and recommendations, even though Yosef made it clear that his explanations emanated from Hashem.

Yet a short while later, the Pharaoh of the Exodus repeatedly denied Hashem’s existence and all of the benefits that his country had received through Yosef and refusing to heed Moshe’s command that he free the Jewish slaves. Even after agreeing to the release of the Jewish people, he still attempted to pursue and recapture them. Only at the Red Sea did Hashem declare that Pharaoh and his people would finally recognize His existence. What could account for this drastic change in attitude?

There was once a wealthy businessman whose associates received word that his entire inventory had been lost at sea. Unsure about how to inform him, they went for guidance to the local Rav, who volunteered to break the news himself. The Rav called in the businessman and engaged him in a lengthy discussion about trust in Hashem, as well as the insignificance of temporal, earthly possessions relative to the infinite, eternal reward of the World to Come.

At this point, the Rav asked the man what would happen if he were to receive word that his entire fleet had sunk in the ocean. The merchant, inspired by the insightful words of the Rav, answered that he could accept such a turn of events. Assuming that his plan had worked, the Rav informed him that this had actually occurred. Much to the Rav’s surprise, the man promptly fainted. After awakening the businessman, the Rav pressed him for an explanation. The man replied, “It’s much easier to have faith and trust in a G-d Who could wipe out my possessions than in One Who actually did.”

Pharaoh was an idolater to the core who never truly believed in Hashem. Nevertheless, it was much easier to “believe” in a Hashem Who sent His agent (Yosef) to bring him satiety and riches than in a Hashem Who sent His agent (Moshe) to order him to free millions of slaves.

The Medrash says that Hashem figuratively rides over the righteous, as the Torah states (Bereishis 28:13) regarding Yaakov והנה ד' ניצב עליו – Hashem was standing over him. The wicked, on the other hand, view themselves as superior to their gods. The Torah relates (Bereishis 41:1) ופרעה חולם והנה עומד על היאור – Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing over the Nile River (which was one of the Egyptian idols). When we recite Shema twice daily and accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven, we should focus on genuinely placing Hashem above us and truly accepting His will, whatever it may be.


זה קלי ואנוהו אלקי אבי וארממנהו (15:2)

זה קלי - בכבודו נגלה עליהם והיו מראין אותו באצבע ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו נביאים (רש"י)

Rashi writes that the clarity of the revelation at the Red Sea was so great that even the lowest maidservants reached levels in seeing Hashem that the prophets never reached. Why does Rashi specifically mention the maidservants, and where is it hinted that they reached such levels?

The Mishnah in Bikkurim (1:4) rules that when a convert brings bikkurim (first-fruits) to the Temple, he does not read the verses that other Jews do when bringing them. These verses refer to the enslavement of אבותינו – our ancestors – something which isn’t true of the convert’s forbearers.

The Vilna Gaon points out that our verse may be split in two, with the first half referring to “my G-d” and the second half discussing “the G-d of my father.” Why does the Torah split the praises in two, and what is the significance of the switch from “my G-d” to “the G-d of my father?”

The Gaon explains that the Jewish people said the latter praise and were therefore able to refer to the G-d of their ancestors, as per the opinion of the Mishnah in Bikkurim. The first phrase, which emphasizes the personal G-d of the speaker, must therefore have been said by the maidservants who were unable to refer to their forefathers. The praise said by the maidservants uses the expression “זה קלי(this is my G-d). The word זה connotes a physical presence that one is able to point to. Rashi therefore concluded that the maidservants saw Hashem so clearly that they were able to point to Him, a level which even many of the prophets didn’t reach!


ותקח מרים הנביאה אחות אהרן את התף בידה ותצאן כל הנשים אחריה בתפים ובמחלת (15:20)

Some call it unquenchable optimism. Others call it a deep-seated trust in the goodness of Hashem. We all know somebody like this, a person who radiates joy and an eternal confidence that no matter how bleak things may seem, life has a curious way of working out for the best. It’s not that these people have the good fortune of enjoying easy lives, for they have faced many of the same curveballs that we grapple with. They actively choose to lead happy lives, turning the proverbial lemons into lemonade.

I recently returned from a trip to my hometown of Kansas City to celebrate the 90th birthday of such a person, my Grandma Dorothy (yes, Dorothy is still alive and well in Kansas!). Anybody who has ever come into contact with her can’t help but feel fortunate to bask in the warmth of her contagious enthusiasm. When her husband passed away nine years ago just after their 60th wedding anniversary, she refused to be destroyed by the loss, declaring with her infectious smile that “life is for the living!”

Similarly, after Hashem miraculously saved the Jewish people by splitting the Red Sea and drowning their Egyptian pursuers in it, the Jewish men sang a beautiful song to Hashem. The Jewish women, however, outdid them by accompanying their song with music and dancing. From where did the women obtain musical instruments in the middle of the desert?

Rashi explains that the Jewish women were convinced that they would merit further miracles and brought along instruments to play while singing praises to Hashem. In spite of centuries of suffering, they remained so optimistic that although they left in a hurry without time for their bread to rise, they still managed to pack instruments to celebrate the salvation they were sure was just around the corner.

More recently, there was a tremendous drought in Israel which threatened that year’s entire harvest. This would mean financial ruin for the farmers as well as possible starvation for those left with nothing to eat. Communal fast days and prayers passed unsuccessfully.

With little choice, the Rabbinic leaders ordered everybody to go to the Kosel (Western Wall) to pour out their hearts and plead for Divine mercy. After reciting several chapters of Tehillim and other appropriate prayers the clear sky suddenly grew dark and full of ominous clouds, which shortly gave way to a full-fledged torrential downpour. Those present were so overjoyed by the answering of their prayers that they didn’t even mind that they were getting soaked to the bone, all except for one elderly, wheelchair-bound Chassidic Rebbe who remained completely dry … because he brought an umbrella!

Life will surely send us many challenges in the areas of health, finances, marriage, and children. Although the tests that we receive are beyond our control, we can learn from the Jewish women in Egypt (and from Grandma Dorothy) that the choice to persevere through the trials and live each day with happiness and confidence is fully in our hands.


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

1) On the way out of Egypt, Hashem chose not to lead the Jewish people by way of the nearby land of the Philistines because He feared that when they would see a war there, they would get scared and return to Egypt (13:17). Indeed, the Targum Yonason ben Uziel writes (14:13) that when they were trapped at the Red Sea, one group of Jews suggested returning to Egypt. As scared as they may have been, why would they even want to consider returning to a land where they had been brutally enslaved, oppressed, and killed for more than two centuries? (Noam HaMussar)

2) Hashem said to Moshe at the Red Sea (14:15), “Why are you crying out to me (in prayer)? Speak to the Jewish people and tell them to travel!” What did they do wrong by praying to Hashem, which is exactly what we are taught to do in a dangerous and difficult situation? (Gur Aryeh, Maharil Diskin, Ayeles HaShachar, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

3) Although Hashem commanded Moshe (14:16) to lift up his staff and stretch out his arm over the Red Sea to split it for the Jewish people, the Torah relates (14:21) only that he stretched out his hand to do so. Did he also use his staff as to split the sea as he was commanded, and if not, why did he deviate from Hashem’s instructions? (Targum Yonason 2:21 and 14:21, Shemos Rabbah 21:9, Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 42, Medrash Shochar Tov 106 and 114, Rashi 17:5, Ibn Ezra, Peirush HaRosh, Rashbam, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Kli Yakar, HaEmek Davar, Ayeles HaShachar)

4) Rashi notes (15:5) that the Torah compares the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea to stone, straw, and lead. He explains that the wickedest Egyptians were tossed repeatedly like light straw, the most righteous sunk immediately like lead, while those in between suffered moderately like medium-weight stones. On Chanukah, we sing in Maoz Tzur חיל פרעה וכל זרעו ירדו כאבן במצולה – Pharaoh’s army and all his offspring went down like a stone into the deep. As there were three different types of punishment meted out to the Egyptians, why do we refer to only one, and given that Pharaoh was the wickedest of them all, why do we compare his death to the middle group? (Gevuras Yitzchok Chanukah U’Purim pg. 155, K’Motzei Shalal Rav Chanukah pg. 248)

5) The Gemora in Yoma (75a) teaches that the Manna fell at the doorsteps of the righteous, far away from the tents of the wicked, and somewhere in-between for the average. Hashem doesn’t give clear reward and punishment in this world because it would take away free choice and people wouldn’t receive reward for their actions. How did the Jews have free choice in the desert, and on what basis did the righteous merit reward for their good deeds? (Mishmeres Ariel)

6) The Gemora in Berachos (48b) teaches that after eating the Manna, the Jews recited Birkas HaMazon. Was this only when they made the Manna taste like bread, or even if it tasted like a food which doesn’t normally require Birkas HaMazon? (Taima D’Kra, Dagan Shomayim 13)


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