Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Parshas Vaeira

לכן אמר לבני ישראל אני ד' והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלת מצרים (6:6)

Hashem instructed Moshe to tell the Jewish people that He will take them out from under the burdens of their suffering. Although the verse literally refers to Hashem taking the Jews out from under the burdens placed upon them by Pharaoh and their Egyptian taskmasters, the Chiddushei HaRim suggests an alternate reading which teaches a powerful lesson.

The same words which mean “the suffering caused by the Egyptians” can also mean “the patience to tolerate life in Egypt.” As difficult as their life was in Egypt, the Jews had grown accustomed to it and learned to cope. It represented the only stability they had ever known, and they didn’t even feel an intense desire to be redeemed and go free into the unknown. Hashem told Moshe to hint to the Jews that the first prerequisite to their salvation was the creation of a desire and willingness to be saved.

The Medrash emphasizes the magnitude of the miracle involved in redeeming an entire nation from slavery in Egypt by recording that prior to the Exodus, not a single slave every successfully escaped from Egypt. While the simple understanding is that this was due to an effective system of policing the borders, Rav Gedalyah Schorr suggests that it was due less to physical control than to mind control. He suggests that the reason no slave ever escaped was because none of them ever tried! Egypt had such an effective system of brainwashing the slaves and convincing them that life beyond the border offered nothing they were currently lacking that they grew complacent and content with their existence.

The following anecdote presents a modern application of this idea. When the town of Brisk needed a Rav, they offered the position to the Beis HaLevi, who refused. Undeterred, the community sent back messengers to inform the Beis HaLevi that 25,000 Jews were anxiously awaiting his arrival at the train station in Brisk. This message caused him to reconsider and accept the position.

Upon hearing this story, the Chofetz Chaim burst into tears. He explained, “If the Beis HaLevi couldn’t refuse 25,000 Jews eagerly anticipating his arrival, surely Moshiach can’t do so either. His delay in coming can only be due to the fact that we’ve grown so accustomed to our comfortable lives in golus (exile) that we don’t feel lacking and aren’t yearning for the final redemption,” a message we can sadly relate to all too well amidst the abundant creature comforts we enjoy in 21st-century America.


וידבר ד' אל משה ואל אהרן ויצום אל בני ישראל (6:13)

In our verse, the Torah tells us that Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon regarding the Jewish people, but it glaringly omits the details of the instructions. The Yerushalmi elucidates (Rosh Hashana 17a) that they were instructed to relate the mitzvah of sending Jewish slaves free after they have worked for six years (21:2). Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz notes that this was a peculiar time to command the Jews regarding this mitzvah, which wouldn’t even be applicable until after they had conquered and settled the land of Israel. Why wasn’t it sufficient to wait until they reached Mount Sinai, where they could receive this mitzvah together will all of the others?

Rav Shmuelevitz explains that the mitzvah of sending one’s servants away is quite difficult. After a person pays the initial purchase price, he has free help for six years and grows quite accustomed to it. Suddenly, the time comes when the Torah requires that not only must the slave be sent free, but the master must also send him away with various gifts.

It was specifically at this time when the Jews were being told that their own personal redemption was imminent that they were able to put themselves in the slave’s shoes and appreciate how much he must yearn for his freedom. While it would still be difficult to actually free the servant, this represented the ideal time to present the mitzvah for their acceptance. Although the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was just around the corner, the interim period would cause them to slightly forget the great joy they had experienced at their own freedom and would make the acceptance of this mitzvah that much harder.

The following story presents a modern application of this concept. In one of the great yeshivos in Europe where the students were renowned for their extensive knowledge, the students were once eating lunch together and discussing a certain Torah topic. One of them volunteered his opinion on the subject, to which one of his peers sharply responded, “Don’t you know that what you said is explicitly written in a certain Tosefos?” Upon realizing his oversight, the first student was overcome with shame and humiliation and quickly fled the room.

The young man proceeded to spend the next several years in isolation studying with unprecedented diligence and went on to become one of the great scholars of the generation. There was only one problem with his actions: before darting from the room, he forgot to recite Birkas HaMazon (Grace after Meals) over the meal he had been eating!

A great Rosh Yeshiva was asked for his thoughts about the propriety of the student’s actions. He responded, “While I can’t justify the neglecting of a Biblical commandment, one thing is certain. If he would have paused for the few minutes necessary to recite Birkas HaMazon, his initial burst of inspiration would have dissipated, and he wouldn’t have made it out of the room to continue on the path that he did!”

We all have moments in our lives – an uplifting Torah class, a meaningful and inspiring Yom Kippur, or a miraculous sign from Heaven – when we see, hear, or experience something which gives us a tremendous flash of inspiration and excitement to undertake new projects. Unfortunately, the passage of time often wears away that enthusiasm and we are sadly left with nothing to show for it. The Torah teaches us that the best way to seize such moments is to make concrete resolutions to practically apply the inspiration so that we may keep it with us forever.


כי ידבר אלכם פרעה לאמר תנו לכם מופת (7:9)

In challenging Moshe and Aharon, Pharaoh insisted that they perform a miracle to back up their threats and prove their abilities. Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein writes that throughout the generations, there has always been a need for Rabbis to know how to similarly prove themsleves in their fights on behalf of Torah-true Judaism. When Rav Shimon Sofer, son of the Chasam Sofer, became Rav of Krakow, which was one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland, he was a mere 24 years old and understood the need to quickly assert his authority.

In his first public speech, Rav Sofer recounted that in the city of Pressburg, where his father served as Rav, one of the non-observant Jews dared to break with established tradition and began publicly opening his store on Shabbos. The Chasam Sofer sent two students from the yeshiva to warn the man to close his store, but he insulted them and refused to comply. When they were sent back a second time, he chased them away and threatened to attack them if they dared show up again.

When the Chasam Sofer instructed them to return a third time, they expressed fear about their well-being. He taught them one of Hashem’s mystical names, instructing them that if the man threatens them, they should touch the nearest mezuzah while concentrating on this name. When the man saw them coming near, he began to approach them menacingly. They quickly ran to the nearest mezuzah while focusing on the name that they had been taught, at which point the storekeeper dropped dead!

At this point, Rav Shimon Sofer dramatically looked around the room packed with congregants old enough to be his grandfather, and concluded that he was one of the two students, and he still remembered the name! Suffice it to say that from this point on, his rulings were accepted with the awe normally accorded an older and more experienced Rav.


ויט אהרן את ידו על מימי מצרים ותעל הצפרדע (8:2)

צפרדע אחת היתה והיו מכין אותה והיא מתזת נחילים נחילים (רש"י)

Rashi writes that initially, the dreaded plague of frogs only consisted of one frog. However, the Egyptians didn’t like the frog and hit it in an attempt to kill it or make it go away. Unbeknownst to them, this frog had the miraculous quality that every time it was stricken, it actually multiplied into more frogs. While we can understand the first few people who innocently hit the frogs in their naïveté, after it became clear that each successive strike produced more frogs, why did they continue striking them? Didn’t they realize that every additional hit was counterproductive and only made a bad situation worse?

The Steipler answers that these questions are fundamentally flawed. Although they certainly make sense on a rational level, the Egyptians were attacking the frogs out of anger, and when a person is angry, common sense is unfortunately the farthest thing from his mind. In a fit of rage, the emotional pain one is experiencing acts with a “logic” all its own. In the heat of the moment, the wisest course of action is almost always silence, as every additional comment or action only magnifies the long-term damage which must be repaired after the situation cools down. Now that we understand how irrational the Egyptians were to continue hitting the frogs and fanning the flames, perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves why we so often fail to learn from their foolish mistakes and continue in their footsteps.


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

1) If Hashem wanted the Jews to be freed from their bondage in Egypt, why did He harden Pharaoh’s heart (7:3) so that he would refuse to free the Jewish people instead of causing him to agree to allow the Jews to leave so that they could receive their freedom and the Torah that much sooner? (Rav Chaim Friedlander quoted in Peninim Vol. 8)

2) Rashi writes (7:19, 8:12) that Moshe was commanded to instruct Aharon to bring about the first three plagues because Moshe had gratitude to the river which protected him when he was thrown into it as an infant and to the ground which hid the body of the Egyptian he slew. As the water and the ground were inanimate objects with no free will of their own to assist Moshe or feelings to recognize his expression of gratitude, why was he required to show them appreciation for their assistance? (Me’Rosh Amanah, Ayeles HaShachar, Darkei HaShleimus, Taam V’Daas)

3) Rashi writes (7:25) that each of the plagues lasted seven days, after which Moshe spent three weeks warning Pharaoh about the plague to come. How could the plagues last seven days when Pharaoh often requested that Moshe remove the plague immediately (9:33) or the next day (8:6), and if one will answer that these requests were made on the 6th or 7th day of the plagues, why did Pharaoh ask Moshe to remove them if they only lasted seven days? (Tosefos Rid, Ibn Ezra 9:10)

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

5) Which plague was the most unbearable for the Egyptians? (Shaarei Aharon, Taam V’Daas)

6) Pharaoh summoned Moshe and asked him to pray for the cessation of the plague of frogs (8:4). Moshe asked him when he wanted the plague to end, and Pharaoh answered, “Tomorrow.” If Pharaoh was suffering from the frogs and wanted their removal, why didn’t he request their immediate end? (Ramban, Tosefos Rid, Sifsei Chochomim, Chanukas HaTorah HeChodosh)

7) Moshe warned Pharaoh (9:19) that any animals remaining in the field would be killed by hail. The Torah records that only those Egyptians who feared Hashem brought their animals inside, while the rest left their animals in the field where they were killed. How was it possible for the Egyptians to witness the first six plagues executed exactly as Moshe predicted and not take him seriously enough to protect their own livestock? (Birkas Peretz, Ohr Yahel, Yishm’ru Daas)

8) Moshe informed Pharaoh that he would only pray for the end of the plague of hail upon exiting the city (9:29). Rashi explains that he was unwilling to pray inside of the city because it was full of idols. Why didn’t he leave the city to pray for the cessation of the previous plagues? (Ramban, Daas Z’keinim, Chizkuni, Terumas HaDeshen 6, Chanukas Hatorah, Shu”t Meishiv Davar 1:10, Chasam Sofer, Chavatzeles HaSharon, Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha, K’motzei Shalal Rav)

9) As Moshe was preparing to leave the city to pray for the end of the hail, he informed Pharaoh (9:30) that he recognized that Pharaoh still didn’t fear “Hashem Elokim.” This is the first time since Parshas Bereishis (3:23) that these two names of Hashem are used in conjunction. What is the significance of this? (Shu”t Maharshdam Orach Chaim 3, Aleinu L’shabeiach)


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1 Comments:

Blogger Barzilai said...

I enjoyed your divrei Torah, and intend to visit often. I am particularly glad you don't identify yourself, thereby eliminating the tedious obligation to say things be'shem omram.

Re: the mitzvah of freeing slaves; two points you might enjoy.
1. The Satmarer says that the reason the mitzvah was given at that point is because the Torah and the Mitzvos are the ultimate source of teva, and change in teva has to be primed by the study of cognate mitzvos. Yetzias Mitzrayim was made possible through the zechus of our study of the mitzvah of shilu'ach avadim.
2. The Aznayim Latorah says a pshat that is diametrically opposed to Rav Shmuelevitz-- that a freed slave is the worst taskmaster, and they needed to be warned that the time would come when they will have to tame their psycholgical drive to oppress their own slaves.
I don't think the two approaches are contradictory. Some people react to suffering by becoming angels, some by becoming devils. The two meforshim were saying something about themselves as well as about the mitzvah.

Mon Jan 07, 07:23:00 PM  

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