Feeling Another's Pain
וידבר משה כן אל בני ישראל ולא שמעו אל משה מקצר רוח ומעבדה קשה
“So Moses spoke accordingly to the Children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work.” (Shemot 6:9)
In this week’s portion, G-d responded to Moses’ complaint (see end of last week’s Torah portion) about his G-d-given mission. Rather than improving the Jewish people’s lot, Moses asserted that his efforts made things worse. G-d initially chastised Moses for his diminished faith and proceeded to instruct him on what he should say to reassure the Jewish people about their impending redemption from slavery. Though Moses carries out his new assignment, the enslaved Jews were unable to accept the good tidings “because of shortness of breath and hard work.”
The author of Yaarot Devash, Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz, is puzzled by the reason given for the Jewish people’s inability to accept Moses’ reassurance. Shouldn’t their distress and hard work be cause for them to grasp at straws and believe in any chance for redemption? He explains however that the reason they were unable to accept G-d’s message of reassurance is because they believed that someone who was not personally enslaved could not properly serve as their representative. Moses, a member of the tribe of Levi – a tribe that was not part of Pharoah’s decree – was therefore unsuited for the position.
Why would Pharaoh leave one tribe free to do as they pleased, while subjecting the rest of the nation to harsh slavery?
The answer offers a profound insight into human psychology. Pharaoh did not subjugate the tribe of Levi, because his astrologers told him that the Jewish savior would come from that tribe. He allowed the Levites to remain free so that they would not feel the pain of the other Jews, and thus feel the urgency to release them from their bondage.
King Solomon said that “The protector of the fig tree shall eat its fruit” (Proverbs 27:18). In this verse, he conveyed that only the one who invests enormous efforts into a fig tree – watching it, weeding it, watering it, and tending to it – will truly reap the reward of eating its fruit. Anyone else who eats the fruit will not share that experience, because he never invested any effort into its development. With this in mind, Pharaoh diabolically kept the tribe of Levi free from enslavement so that they would not come to the Jews’ rescue.
So how was Moses indeed able to advocate for the Jewish slaves? Our Sages tell us that while he was still a prince in the royal palace, long before he was asked by G-d to serve as the emissary of the Jews, Moses felt his brothers’ pain. When he came out of the palace and saw the Jews toiling under their merciless taskmasters, he would throw off his royal cloak, put his shoulder under the load, and assist his brothers with their burden. This bit of knowledge was unknown to the Jews and was the cause of their lack of confidence in Moses to serve as their representative to Pharaoh.
After World War II, countless refugees wandered around aimlessly in various Displaced Persons camps, their lives shattered by the horror they experienced and from the suffering they endured. There was one man to whom people flocked for solace – a man who was able to give hope to thousands of seemingly inconsolable people. That man, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the founding Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenberger chasidic dynasty, had suffered together with his brethren. (His own wife and eleven children were murdered by the Nazis while incarcerated in several concentration camps.) He felt their pain and was able to uplift their spirits. Like Moses, he shouldered the burdens of his people.
While it might not seem obvious, we all play a leadership role – whether as a parent, teacher, community member or sibling. The message we learn from the Jewish people’s underestimation of Moses’ sensitivity should serve as a reminder for us that the key to successful leadership is feeling not only the joy of others, but also sharing in their pain. If we open ourselves up to another’s distress, we will be able to lead them to a better place.
Seize The Moment
וידבר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרן ויצום אל בני ישראל
“And G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron and commanded them regarding the children of Israel.” (Shemot 6:13)
The Torah tells us that G-d commanded Moses and Aaron regarding the Jewish people, but it omits the details of the instructions. The Talmud elucidates (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 17a) that they were instructed to relate the mitzvah of sending one’s Jewish slaves free after they have worked for six years (Shemot 21:2).
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, who served as head of the Mir yeshiva, 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, when they could receive this mitzvah together with all of the others?
In one of the great yeshivos in Europe where the students were renowned for their far-reaching knowledge, the boys were once eating lunch together and discussing a certain Torah topic. One of the boys volunteered his opinion on the subject, to which one of his peers responded, “Don’t you know that what you said is explicitly written in a certain Tosefot (one of the early Talmudic commentaries which is printed on the standard page of the Talmud)?” Upon realizing his oversight, the boy was overcome with shame and humiliation and quickly fled the room.
The student 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 the Grace after Meals over the meal he had been eating!
A great Rosh Yeshiva was asked for his thoughts on the propriety of the boy’s actions, and 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 the Grace after Meals, his initial burst of inspiration would have cooled off and by that point he would never have made it out of the room to continue on the path that he did!”
Rav Shmuelevitz explains that the mitzvah of sending one’s servants away is quite difficult. After paying the initial purchase price, one 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 send him away with various gifts.
It was specifically at this time, when they 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. This, then, was the ideal time to present the mitzvah to the Children of Israel. 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.
We all have moments in our lives – an uplifting Torah class, 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 change, yet so often the passage of time wears away at that enthusiasm and we are left with nothing. The Torah teaches us that the best way to seize such moments is to immediately make concrete resolutions to practically apply the inspiration so that we may keep it with us forever.
Slaves Are People Too
ויצוום אל בני ישראל ואל פרעה… להוציא את בני ישראל מארץ מצריים
“And He commanded the Jewish people and Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to take the Jews out of Egypt” (Shemot 6:13).
What exactly was the “command” that G-d gave the Jewish people? The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5) says that the command refers to the laws of releasing Jewish slaves from their service.
This is quite perplexing. The Jews were steeped in slavery in Egypt, laboring with broken bodies and spirits, with nothing but a tiny glimmer of hope for some future redemption. Was this an opportune time to command anything about the future? And freeing slaves? Now? Why did G-d choose this moment to talk to these pitiful slaves about what must have been a very sore topic?
A king was dying. He knew that his son, untrained in the art of leadership, would succeed him. The king sent him to a professional trainer to learn all about politics and justice. After his training, the king tested his son to see how effective the training had been. He was pleased to see that his son had learned a great deal; in fact, it seemed that he was ready to rule the kingdom. Then the trainer asked for one more session, and the king agreed. Imagine the king’s surprise when the prince came back after his final session half-starved, bloodied, broken, and beaten! Outraged, the king ordered the trainer’s execution. Just before it was to be carried out, he asked the trainer, “How could you think you would ever get away with this? I trusted you with my son, the heir to the throne!”
In response, the trainer explained, “Your son will be a great leader. He has acquired the requisite skills and knowledge to advance the kingdom even further than it’s ever been. He will, however, also be required to make decisions that will affect many people’s lives. He will adjudicate between parties and sentence the guilty. But, as someone who has never known what it feels like to be in need, how will he ever understand the need for compassion? He has never gone hungry, never been whipped, and never felt unprotected… until now. Now he’ll be equipped to rule with sensitivity and compassion, and won’t make decisions lightly.”
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz explains that the time that the Jews in Egypt were at their weakest and most vulnerable point was precisely the best time to speak to them about caring for slaves and freeing them from servitude — for it was then that they would fully understand their plight and appreciate the importance of relieving them of their suffering.
No one enjoys life’s inevitable downs. But going through a rough time can give us the tools we need to understand and help others when they experience similar trials.
Claim to Fame
ויקח עמרם את יוכבד דדתו לו לאשה ותלד לו את אהרן ואת משה
“For when shall I pray for you, for your servants, and for your people, to destroy the frogs from you and from your houses?” (Shemot 8:5)
After Pharaoh refused to heed Moses’s request to “Let my people go,” G-d brought about the Ten Plagues. There is an interesting discussion between Moses and Pharaoh after the second plague. The Egyptians were suffering from billions of frogs that invaded every corner of their land — in bedrooms, ovens… even people’s stomachs. After nearly a week of this torture, Moses told Pharaoh that he could end the plague whenever he wanted, simply by praying to G-d. Pharaoh agreed, requesting that the plague end the following day.
Since Moses offered to end the horrible plague by praying at any time, why would Pharaoh ask for it to stop only tomorrow? Why not immediately?
The Ibn Ezra commetary explains that Pharaoh suspected that the frogs were not miraculous but rather some sort of natural phenomenon. He thought that Moses, through science and astrology, knew that the phenomenon was about to subside and therefore presented himself to Pharaoh immediately, so it would look like he had control over this natural phenomenon. Thus, Pharaoh said, “Pray for it to end tomorrow,” thus upsetting Moses’s ability to capitalize on the expected cessation.
Pharaoh saw the terrible onslaught of frogs that comprised the second plague, just as he’d seen water miraculously turn to blood during the first. Yet he still held out hope that the cause might be natural. It seems ludicrous.
Pharaoh’s determination teaches us something powerful about the human psyche. People often believe what they want to believe and then find justifications for that belief, rather than making decisions based on facts. Pharaoh desperately wanted to believe that there was no G-d who could control him. Therefore, he was grasping at any possible shred of misconstrued evidence to substantiate what he was looking to prove.
The very first dictum in Ethics of Our Fathers is “Be deliberate in judgment.” If we can’t see past our biases, can’t see how we may be misconstruing reality, then we will be unable to access the value of all the other life-enhancing ideas that follow in the rest of Ethics of Our Fathers. Unlike Pharaoh, we can let go of our biases and allow ourselves to experience life as it really is.
Have an Attitude of Gratitude
ויאמר ה’ אל משה אמר אל אהרן נטה את מטך והך את עפר הארץ והיה לכנס בכל ארץ מצרים
“G-d said to Moses, Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land, and it shall become lice throughout the land of Egypt.'” (Shemot 8:12)
Although we typically associate Moses with bringing the 10 plagues upon Egypt, a careful examination of the verses reveals that G-d actually commanded Moses to have Aaron bring about the first three plagues.
Rashi explains that Moses had gratitude to the river and the ground which had protected and assisted him earlier in his life.
The commentators point out that the river and ground are inanimate objects with neither free will to help somebody nor feelings to recognize that their efforts were appreciated. They explain that the Torah is teaching us that the concept of gratitude is so fundamental that Moses was nevertheless obligated to feel and express his thanks, not for the river and the ground, but for himself.
Later in the book of Shemot the Torah extends for us even farther the degree to which we are required to show gratitude. Upon discovering that an animal in his flock or herd has been killed by wild animals, the Torah requires (Shemot 22:30) the owner to give the carcass to the dogs, a connection which doesn’t seem to be readily apparent. The Daas Z’keinim explains that most farmers and shepherds employ guard dogs to protect their animals against predators. Presumably, when the wolf stealthily came to attack in the middle of the night, the dog detected its presence and fought valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to ward it off. For this effort as well as for all of its successful guarding of the other animals until now, we are required to show gratitude to the dog and present it with the dead animal’s remains.
In doing so, the Torah is coming to teach us the fallacy of a natural human reaction. If somebody gives of his precious time and energy in an earnest attempt to help us out, only to have his efforts fail, human nature is to feel that we owe him no debt of gratitude for his efforts. Yet the Torah teaches us that because the dog was willing to help, and tried to be of assistance in doing its best to protect the animals, the owner is obligated to show his appreciation for its good-faith efforts and reward it with the carcass.
I once shared this thought in a Torah class that I taught. Later that week, a woman called to say that her husband had offered to help her clean the house. Though his intentions were good, his skills left something to be desired. She explained that when he finished, not only was the house still not clean, but it would take her considerable work just to get it back to where he started! She was about to tell him, “Thanks, but no thanks,” when she remembered the lesson she had just been taught.
This episode brings to mind a humorous suggestion often given to newlywed men. They are advised that one night, early in the marriage, they should offer to help their tired wife do the dishes. A few episodes of “slippery” hands which result in broken dishes will absolve him of any kitchen responsibilities for a long time to come! Suffice it to say that although we’ve learned that we should feel and express gratitude for good-faith efforts which don’t work out, this wasn’t the type of “assistance” the Torah had in mind!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
G-d commanded Moses and Aaron to take the Jews out of Egypt, promising them “signs and wonders” to accomplish this great task.
The first three miracles performed by Moses and Aaron to intimidate Pharaoh (turning a staff into a snake and the plagues of blood and frogs) were duplicated by the magicians. G-d could have chosen any signs He wanted for Moses and Aaron to perform in order to imbue Pharaoh and the Egyptians with fear and awe of Him. Yet He specifically chose signs that could be replicated by Pharaoh’s magicians. Why might G-d have used signs that Pharaoh’s magicians could perform, rather than ones beyond their abilities?
Rashi writes that when G-d instructed Moses and Aaron to approach Pharaoh to demand the release of the Jewish people, He commanded them to speak respectfully to Pharaoh and to give him the honor to which a king is entitled (Shemot 6:13). As Pharaoh was among the greatest oppressors of the Jews in history, why was it so important that he be treated with dignity?
Q: After listing Jacob’s grandchildren from his two oldest sons, Reuben and Simon, the Torah records (Shemot 6:14-16), “And these are the names of the sons of Levi in order of their birth: Gershon, Kehat, and Merari.” Why does the Torah emphasize that it is stating the names of Levi’s sons, a point which isn’t mentioned with regard to the sons of Reuben and Simon?
A: The Shelah HaKadosh answers (based on Rashi’s comment Shemot 5:4) that the tribe of Levi wasn’t included in Pharaoh’s enslavement of the rest 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’hat hints to the fact that the backbreaking labor left their teeth on edge, and Merari – containing the same root as maror, the bitter herbs we eat at the Seder – 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. Levi teaches us to feel along with our brethren; the suffering of every single Jew is indeed relevant to us. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Rashi writes (Shemot 6:26) that in some places the Torah lists Moses before Aaron while in others it mentions Aaron before Moses in order to teach that they were equal. How is it possible to understand that Aaron, great as he was, was on the level of Moses, who we are taught was the greatest prophet who ever was or ever will be?
A: While it’s true that Moses scored 1000, this was only because he received a special neshama (soul) with the capability of scoring 1000. It may be that Aaron only scored 900 or 950, yet he is still considered to be Moses’s equal because his soul didn’t have the same abilities as Moses’. When Moses was born, he filled up the house with spiritual light (Sotah 12a), something which can’t be said of Aaron and certainly not of any of us. Aaron did, however, utilize every last talent with which he was blessed, such that whatever score he received was the maximum possible for his soul. In this sense, although his raw score was lower, his “grade” was the same 100% as Moses’, and in that sense they were equal.
The boy or girl at the top of the class, our neighbor or relative or co-worker who always seems to do more than us and accomplish it quicker, will be held to a higher standard by G-d. We should take comfort in the fact that G-d won’t compare us to anybody else, judging every individual on the basis of his or her talents and trials, and at the same time use that knowledge to utilize our personal strengths to become the best Jew that we are capable of being – one who will merit to sit next to Moses in Gan Eden. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
“G-d said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you a master over Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your spokesman. You shall speak everything that I shall command you, and Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he should send the Children of Israel from his land. But I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not heed you, and I shall put My hand upon Egypt; and I shall take out My legions – My people the Children of Israel – from the land of Egypt, with great judgments. And Egypt shall know that I am G-d, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt; and I shall take the Children of Israel out from among them.’” (Shemot 7:1-5)
As it was clear that G-d intended to end the bondage of the Jewish people – regardless of Pharaoh’s consent, why was it important to secure his approval?
Once it was clear that Pharaoh did not intend to free the Jews, why would G-d harden Pharaoh’s heart? Hardening his heart seems to have unnecessarily prolonged the pain of the process.
Why would it be important for all of Egypt to know, “I am G-d when I stretch out My hand over Egypt”? Of what importance is their opinion?
If G-d wanted the Jews to be freed from their bondage in Egypt, why did He harden Pharaoh’s heart (Shemot 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? [Rabbi Chaim Friedlander quoted in Peninim Vol. 8]
G-d told Moses and Aaron that when they would appear before Pharaoh for the first time, he would expect them to establish their credentials in the form of a wondrous act. G-d told them to perform a miracle: Aaron should drop his rod, and it would turn into a serpent. When this actually occurred, Pharaoh told his court magicians to duplicate the feat. They did, and then Aaron’s rod promptly swallowed their rods (Shemot 7:8-13).
Just as G-d knew that Pharaoh would demand to see proof that Moses and Aaron were sent on a Divine mission, G-d also knew that Pharaoh would tell his magicians to duplicate whatever action they performed — and that they would do so successfully. Why might G-d have told Moses and Aaron to perform an action that He knew the magicians could copy?
The snakes turned back into rods (Rashi), and only then did Aaron’s rod swallow the others. It seems that G-d performed the miracle in this way to impress Pharaoh even more; after all, a snake swallowing other snakes is less remarkable than a rod swallowing another rod! As G-d knew that even the more complex miracle would not sway Pharaoh, why might He have added this extra step to Aaron’s performance?
Why was Pharaoh deserving of punishment for enslaving the Jewish people when he was only fulfilling G-d’s decree to Abraham (Bereishit 15:13) that his descendants would be aliens in a foreign land, where they would be oppressed as slaves, for 400 years? [Rambam and Raavad Hilchot Teshuvah 6:5]
As private citizens, why were the Egyptians and their animals subjected to the plagues which should have been meted out exclusively to Pharaoh for his cruel role in enslaving the Jewish people? (Taima D’Kra Parshat Vayigash by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky)
Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and asked them to pray to G-d for the cessation of the plague of frogs (Shemot 8:4). Moses asked Pharaoh when he would like the plague to end, and Pharaoh answered, “Tomorrow,” which is indeed what transpired. If Pharaoh was suffering from the frogs and wanted their removal, why didn’t he instruct Moses to pray for their immediate end? (Ramban, Rabbi Shlomo Luria quoted in Sifsei Chochomim)
Q: The Vilna Gaon is bothered by several apparent inconsistencies in the Torah’s description (Shemot 9:6-7) 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 Jew 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. How is all of this to be explained?
A: The Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains that the resolution to all of these difficulties is based on a single piece of information. Rashi writes (Shemot 2:11) that one of the Egyptian taskmasters set his eyes on a Jewish woman by the name of Shulamit bat Divri. One night he ordered her husband out of the house and entered pretending to be him, and a child was born from that union. 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 Shulamit was considered a non-Jew.
Although the first verse states that among the children of Israel – proper Jews – no animals died, the animals of Shulamit’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 the news that the Jews weren’t completely spared from the plague, Pharaoh was able to attribute the entire episode to one big coincidence, and not surprisingly hardened his heart and refused to free the Jews. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: In what way was the 3rd plague, the plague of lice, different than all of the other plagues?
A: Gaon write in their commentaries to Ethics of Our Fathers (5:4) that during the plague of lice, the lice also infested the land of Goshen where the Jews lived, but they didn’t cause them any suffering as they did to the Egyptians. 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 Moses and Aaron’s plagues were caused by G-d 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, however, Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to copy the plague and freely admitted that it had surely been performed by G-d, and therefore there was no need for the additional miracle of preventing them from entering the land of Goshen. Rav Shmaryahu Arieli brings a strikingly simple proof for this astonishing fact. Rashi writes (Bereishit 47:29) that one of Jacob’s reasons for requesting that Joseph not bury him in Egypt was to avoid the lice which would be crawling throughout the land. If, however, the lice were nowhere to be found in the land of Goshen, then Jacob could have simply made Joseph swear to bury him there, and not burden him to carry his body all the way to the land of Israel. Jacob must have known that the land of Goshen, too, would be infested and the only recourse was burial in the land of Israel. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
“I revealed Myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as E-l Sha-dai, but My Name Ad-noy I did not make known to them.” Shemot 6:3
My Name Ad-noy I did not make known to them – “Lo Hodaati” is not written here (I did not make known), but, rather “Lo Nodaati” (I did not become known) meaning: “I was not recognized by them by My attribute of keeping My word, the reason for which My Name is called Ad-noy, which denotes that I can be trusted to keep My promises. For I made promises but I have not yet fulfilled them.” – Rashi
Certainly the Almighty appeared to them using this Name of His numerous times, but as Rashi explained, this Name is the one that connotes His trustworthiness and until this point, the Almighty had not yet fulfilled His promise to them. Thus, their perception of this Name of His was incomplete. Now, with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, they would finally witness the fulfillment of His promise and appreciate His trait of truthfulness. It should be noted that since the Almighty works on a different timetable than humans who are severely limited in their scope, it can often appear as if He has [G-d forbid] forgotten a promise or failed to abide by one. He, however, is unconstrained by time and space, and can take long periods of time before bringing a matter to its promised conclusion. The Patriarchs, up until this point, trusted that He would keep His word to them and never doubted that for an instant, but only now would fully understand that His promises could take generations to occur in precisely the right moment, and under the ideal circumstances.
CAN YOU HEAR ME
“And also, I have heard the groaning of the Children of Israel, whom the Egyptians enslave, and I have recalled My covenant.” Shemot 6:5
I have heard the groaning…and I have recalled My covenant – In the merit of their groaning and prayers to Me, they have become worthy of the fulfillment of My covenant with them. – Sforno
I have heard the groaning…and I have recalled My covenant – They complained that the Egyptians were mistreating them far in excess of what G-d had intended. G-d agreed, and He therefore recalled His covenant and decided to emancipate them. – Taz al HaTorah
Chatam Sofer points out that the word “also” in the verse is redundant, for it need not have said more than, “And I have heard groans of the Jewish people…” The extra word “also” implies that someone other than G-d also heard their groans and somehow that had an influence on G-d’s decision to help us. Chatam Sofer explains that indeed, the extra word intends to include the Jewish people, and that the verse should be understood as follows: Not only did G-d hear their groaning, but the Jewish people also heard each other’s cries, and although each person suffered on a personal level, they were deeply sympathetic to each other’s plight. Amazingly, their personal suffering did not blind them to the pain of the others. This incredible display of selflessness and love for the other convinced the Almighty to take them out of Egypt.
“Therefore say to the Children of Israel: ‘I am G-d, and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you…I shall redeem you…I shall take you to Me for a people…” Shemot 6:6, 7
These four terms of salvation represent the four stages of the redemption from Egypt. First their slavery would be abolished. Following that, they’d be removed from Egypt. One week later, the sea would split for them and the Egyptian army would be entirely destroyed. The fourth and final stage would be completed when G-d took us as His nation by giving us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Four Cups of Wine that we traditionally drink at the Seder, correspond to, and memorialize, these four stages of redemption. – Rabbeinu Bachya
I shall take you out from among the nations, I shall gather you in from the lands, I shall bring them to their land, and I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the habitable places of the country. – Sefer Yechezkel 34:13
Just as there were four stages to the redemption from Egypt, there will be four stages to the ultimate redemption: the advent of the Messiah. Our sages tell us that the miracles that occurred on our behalf in Egpyt, were miniscule when compared to the miracles that will occur in the Messianic Era. Just as we firmly adhere to the tradition to celebrate the exodus from Egypt, we must anticipate the coming of the Messiah, which will usher in an era of peace, tranquility, and the ability to serve G-d without any impediments.
HOW WELL DID YOU FULFILL YOUR MISSION?
“This was the Moses and Aaron, to whom G-d said, ‘Bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt in organized groups.’” Shemot 6:26
There are places where Aaron’s name precedes Moses’, and there are places where Moses’ name precedes Aaron’s. This is to teach us that they were both equally great. – Rashi
Although the Torah teaches us that in the level of his prophecy Moses was undoubtedly greater than Aaron, the Torah still describes Aaron as Moses’ equal. This is because although he wasn’t endowed with the same spiritual gifts as Moses, he achieved the absolute maximum of his potential, just as Moses did. How well one fulfilled his potential is the yardstick by which G-d measures us.
THE OBJECTIVE OF THE TEN PLAGUES
“…And I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” Shemot 7:3
The plagues served a purpose greater than just to punish Egypt. As the epicenter of culture, idolatry, and philosophy in the ancient world, Egypt was the ideal location for G-d to demonstrate His power and dominion over the universe. Each of the plagues was uniquely designed to demonstrate a specific facet of G-d’s control over nature. It is to symbolize their dual purpose that the plagues are referred to in the Torah not only as plagues, but also as signs and wonders.
CLOUDY BUT CLEAR
“And Moses was eighty years old and Aaron was eighty-three years old when they spoke to Pharaoh.” Shemot 7:7
These are the only prophets that we find G-d conversing with at such an advanced age. This is because they were indeed, different than all of the others. They were the only prophets with whom G-d spoke from a Cloud of Glory, for only through Moses and Aaron did He give us the Torah. All the other prophets were only used to chastise, or foretell the future. – Ibn Ezra
“These are the Mitzvot that G-d commanded Moses to [teach] the Children of Israel on Mt. Sinai.” [VaYikra 27:34] – This verse teaches us that no later prophet may innovate any Halachic matter. – Talmud, Tractate Yoma 104a
Although there were many prophets, none were as venerated as Moses, who was charged with transmitting the Torah to the Jewish people. This required a level of clarity unavailable to any other prophet, and it is the reason that the words that Moses transcribed in the Five Books of Moses are considered the Dvar Elokim [the authentic Word of G-d]. Their Divine origins guarantee that they meet the Divine standard of perfection, which means that no letter is superfluous, and that each is inlaid with layers upon layers of meaning.
THE REALITY OF MAGIC
“Pharaoh summoned his scholars and magicians. The necromancers were able to do the same thing with their magic tricks.” Shemot 7:11
There is no such thing as magic. It is sleight of hand, something only foolish people believe in. – Rambam Hil. Avodas Kochavim 11:16, Moreh Nevuchim 3:37
These were his astrologers. – Targum Yonatan 7:22
It is possible for people to harness heavenly forces for profane purposes and override the laws of nature. This is how the Egyptian magicians and others whose feats are recorded in scripture, as well the false Jewish prophets, were able to deceive their followers into believing in the power of idols. [Ramban Devarim 18:9] Regardless of whether magic is real or not, its practice is strictly forbidden by the Torah [Shemot 22:7, Devarim 18:10] and was one of the primary reasons G-d drove the Cannanites out of the Land of Israel in favor of the Jewish people who did not practice witchcraft. Idolaters rely on magic and sorcery to distract their followers from seeing G-d’s control over the forces of nature. This is the antithesis of mission of the Jewish people: to live lives that testify to G-d’s omnipotence [Devarim 18:13].
NO GOOD DEED GOES UNREWARDED
“The fish that were in the river died, and the river became so polluted that the Egyptians were unable to drink the water from the river, and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt… Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and his heart was not bestirred even by this.” Shemot 7:21-23
Even by this – He remained unimpressed by the miracle of the rod that turned into a serpent, and by the water that turned to blood. – Rashi
This was the only plague which failed to impress Pharaoh in the least. By all the remaining plagues his heart was humbled during the actual plague, but after its conclusion it hardened once again. – Panim Yafot
Why did the plague of blood fail to impress Pharaoh altogether? Was the suffering of his subjects of so little interest to him? Meshech Chochmah explains that at the onset of the plagues, there was still a debt of gratitude that had to be paid to the palace of Pharaoh which had collectively raised Moses in his youth. Therefore, G-d ordained that the plague of blood should not affect the palace at all. Untouched by the plague, Pharaoh remained oblivious to his countrymen’s plight. Once the debt was repaid, all remaining plagues affected his palace as well. Forced to suffer too, Pharaoh would become overwhelmed by his suffering and plead for it to be brought to a close. Such is the degree of justice that the Almighty dispenses that even a wicked man like Pharaoh is rewarded for a good deed committed many years earlier.
THE UNPOPULAR CROCS
“Aaron extended his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frog emerged and covered the land of Egypt.” Shemot 8:2
The frog emerged – There was only one frog and as they struck at it, it split apart into various teeming swarms. That is the verses’midrashic explanation. But as to its plain meaning, it may be said that the swarming of the frogs is referred to in the singular [and there were many frogs that emerged from the water initially… – Rashi
The Frog – Tzfardeah does not mean frog, but crocodile. The Egyptians worshipped a crocodile god. Therefore, in keeping with the purpose of the plagues – which was not only to punish but also to educate them about the truth of G-d’s existence – the Egyptians were attacked by their very own god. Furthermore, the verse in Psalms [78:45] says that G-d sent “wild animals which consumed them, and tzfardeah which destroyed them.” Frogs are not generally instruments of destruction, whereas crocodiles are. – Abarbanel al HaTorah
If the frog continued to reproduce each time it was struck, why didn’t the Egyptians realize that they were only making matters worse by striking it, and refrain from continuing to doing so? Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky Shlit”a explains in the name of his father, Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov (of blessed memory), that their illogical behavior demonstrates the incredibly destructive power of anger. When the Egyptians saw the tzfardeah, they grew frightened and angry and began to hit it. When they saw that it multiplied, they grew even angrier. Their anger prevented them from rational thinking that would have told them stop their counter-attack. Often, a person who is verbally attacked is tempted to respond in kind. What he doesn’t stop to consider is that an angry response will only generate more venomous attacks and make the problem even worse than it had previously been. Sometimes the best response to an attack is to remain calm and wait for it to pass. Damage will be done, no doubt, but far less than if one responds in anger.
IF YOU CAN’T TAKE THE HEAT
“And G-d did as Moses requested, and He removed the wild beasts from Pharaoh, and his servants and from his nation; there did not remain even one.”Shemot 8:27
Removed the wild beasts – They did not die as did the frogs, for had they died the Egyptians would have benefitted from the skins. – Rashi
“And G-d did as Moses requested and the frogs perished from the houses, the courtyards, and the fields.” – Shemot 8:9
The question remains why the frogs perished and weren’t removed just as the wild beasts were? Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Lunshintz, 1550-1619) explains that herein lies a powerful message about the power of mesirat nefesh [sacrificing one’s life for the sake of G-d.] Although the verse seems to indicate that all of the frogs died, in reality, a careful analysis of the verse reveals that there was one group of frogs that was not included in the list of deceased frogs: the ones that jumped into the ovens. They, the ones who consigned themselves to an almost certain death in an effort to carry out the will of the Almighty, were the only frogs who did not perish at the conclusion of the plague. All the others who sought other more cushy and safe havens from which to pester the Egyptians, died, except for the frogs that willingly sacrificed their life. The lesson derived from here is that refraining from offering ones life for the Almighty is no guarantee of life. To the contrary, sometimes only those who do, merit life.
CRASHING THE PALACE PARTY
“G-d said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh and say to him, This is what Hashem, G-d of the Hebrews has said, Send out My people and let them serve Me.’” Shemot 9:1
Come to Pharaoh – There are two terms used by G-d to instruct Moses to present himself before Pharaoh: “Come to Pharaoh” and “Go to Pharaoh.” The term “Come to Pharaoh,” was used to describe his visits to Pharaoh in his palace, whereas “Go to Pharaoh,” was used to describe their encounters at the Nile. – Ohr HaChayim
Ohr Hachayim explains that any time the term “Come to Pharaoh” is used, it implies that he must present himself although Pharaoh had not agreed to see him, for Moses had never been invited, and the royal palace was surrounded by guards, vicious dogs, and wild beasts. Nevertheless, Moses was instructed to go to the palace and pay no heed to any of them. This he did, and miraculously they were powerless to stop him. Moses came and went, and there was nothing anyone or anything could do about it. This was one of the many open miracles that occurred during this period that were not even mentioned explicitly in the Torah.
JUMPING TO CONFUSIONS
“Behold the hand of G-d is on your livestock…a very severe epidemic. G-d shall distinguish between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, and not a thing that belongs to the Children of Israel shall die.” Shemot 9:3,4
Not A Thing – Not only will no Jewish-owned animal die in this plague, not a single animal will suffer the loss of even a single limb either. – Ksav V’Kabbalah
Not A Thing – The Egyptians worshipped their animals. Consequently, they would keep their flocks outside the big cities and house them in Goshen where they mingled with the Jewish livestock. Thus, the survival of the Jewish livestock, who were so intermingled with the Egyptian livestock, was an open and undeniable miracle. – Ramban
Willful blindness literally knows no bounds. Their precious deities lay dead before them, while those of the Jews frolicked in the sun, alive and well. Yet, Pharaoh was not swayed in the least. He had long since determined not be persuaded of the existence of G-d, and no amount of proof or logic was going to convince him to open his eyes. His obstinate refusal to accept the truth is what sets him apart from the legions of deniers throughout history. Leaving his country was therefore a prerequisite for the Jewish people to receive the Torah, which mandates that we open our hearts and minds to the truth, regardless of how it suits our fancy.
WHO’S MORE CONCERNED WITH THE PLIGHT OF THE CIVILIANS?
“Pharaoh sent word and summoned Moses and Aaron. He said to them, ‘This time I am guilty! G-d is Just, and it is I and my people who are wicked!” Shemot 9:27
Why was Pharaoh more contrite now [during the plague of hail] than at any other time? Pharaoh contrasted his actions with G-d’s. God warned the Egyptians prior to the plague to save their lives by bringing the people and livestock indoors. Pharaoh and his advisors however, were the wicked ones who allowed people and animals to remain in the fields and be struck by the lethal hail. – Medrash Rabbah Shmos 12:5
So desperate was Pharaoh to ignore the reality of G-d’s power that he allowed his own subjects to perish at the hands of the plague even while G-d urged him to save their lives. This is characteristic of the enemies of the Jewish people who are not averse to sacrificing the lives of their own people while the Jewish people themselves do all they can to save them.
Hey, I Never Knew That
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
Moses said to G-d, “Indeed the Children of Israel didn’t listen to me, how is it possible that Pharaoh will listen to me?” (Shemot 6:12) Rashi points out, based on the Medrash (Bereishit Rabba 92:7), that this is one of ten examples of a classic logical argument known as a “lenient and stringent” (a fortioriin Latin) found in the Torah. The argument is that if the Jewish people, who are more likely to listen to me, didn’t listen, how much more so will Pharaoh not listen to me! This is the first of the 13 rules of exegesis of Rabbi Yishmael (Beraita, cited in siddur, morning service) and is used frequently in the Talmud as a means of deriving laws from the Torah.
G-d told Moses that He would “harden the heart of Pharaoh” (Shemot 7:3) so that Pharaoh would not listen to the pleas and exhortations of Moses. The commentaries ask: If G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart and removed his free will, then how was it fair to punish him?! There are a number of responses to this question. Maimonides maintains that since Pharaoh had already “hardened his own heart” numerous times, he was punished by having his free will removed. Others say that the hardening of his heart was in order to facilitate his free will; the pressure of the plagues was so overwhelming that had G-d not hardened his heart, Pharaoh would have given in immediately. Therefore, G-d gave Pharaoh strength and stubbornness in order to allow him to make a free decision based on moral grounds (quoted by Ibn Ezra). Abarbanel says it means that G-d created a system in which one could have his heart “hardened” or conditioned to always respond in a particular way based on one’s prior decisions. If a person keeps choosing evil, he will eventually condition himself to automatically choose evil as if he has no free will.
Word of the Week
Moses threw down his staff before Pharaoh and “it became a תנין — tanin” (Exodus 7:10). This is usually translated as a snake (Rashi, ad loc) or as a viper (Living Torah). However, the Kli Yakar commentary says that it refers to a large, dangerous “fish.” Radak (Sefer Hashorashim) says that when a tanin is associated with land, it refers to a snake, and when it is associated with water, it refers to a “large aquatic animal that looks snakelike”; in other words, a crocodile. In Bereishit (1:21) the taninim — תנינים are understood to be huge sea creatures, probably whales (Ramban, ad loc). It is interesting to note that according to the Abarbanel, the plague of צפרדעים, usually translated as frogs, was in fact, a plague of crocodiles.
“I will send among you, your servants, your nation and your houses the ערב — arov…” (Shemot 8:17). Most commentaries understand arov as related to the word for mixture, so that the plague is a “mixture of wild animals” in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah (Medrash, Shemot 11:4). Rashbam relates the word to ערב — erev — evening, and says that the plague refers to wolves who hunt at night, so that arov would mean “animals of the evening.” Similarly, the Medrash(Medrash Tehillim 78:45) says that it means panthers, who also hunt at night, and are as dark as night. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understands arov as a form of aravah, a desert plain, and hence explains “wild desert animals.” (See Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah for further explanations.)
I’m into my third year of studying the Torah portion each week, and the idea of hardening Pharaoh’s heart seems to go against everything I’ve been taught about free will. Each time G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He punished him for refusing to send out the Jews. It seems unfair to take away someone’s free will, and then to punish him for his bad “decisions.” How can we understand this?
For thousands of years, Jewish thinkers and commentators have pondered this question. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953, Latvia- Israel), lists a number of their insights in his work, Michtav M’Eliyahu. Perhaps you will find one (or all) of them to be satisfying!
Rashi (1040-1105, France) says that Pharaoh had already shown such wickedness, and G-d knew that he would never truly repent. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that the Jewish people could be redeemed through open miracles. The whole world would thus recognize G-d as all-powerful.
Maimonides (1135-1204, Spain-Egypt) explains that G-d took away Pharaoh’s ability to repent by treating him with the attribute of strict judgment. Repentance is one of G-d’s greatest acts of kindness. He allows us to repent for our sins (with G-d and with other human beings) and accepts our repentance when it is done with sincerity. However, G-d did not extend this kindness to Pharaoh, so that he could not repent for the innumerable Jewish lives he was responsible for destroying.
Nachmonides (1194-1270, Gerona-Israel) shares a similar explanation to that of Maimonides and presents another insight as well. We have free will to steal or not to steal. However, if every time someone stole, a lightning bolt would come down from heaven and strike him, he would likely not steal again – nor would others do so either. Pharaoh saw G-d’s control so clearly that he would have had no other choice but to release the Jewish people in order to end any of the plagues. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to restore him to the level of free will he had possessed before the plagues occurred. Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) gives an almost identical answer.
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain) says that G-d set up the natural world in a way in which we are constantly fighting our yetzer hara (evil inclination). Our purpose in life is to overcome our natural tendencies to sin and to elevate ourselves. Every time we sin, we both fail the test sent by G-d and on our part, succumb to the challenge, instead of rising above it. When G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He tested him with the yetzer hara, which Pharaoh could not overcome. Ibn Ezra points to two verses in the Torah for support: “But G-d strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not heed them, as G-d had spoken to Moses”; “And he continued to sin, and he made his heart stubborn, he and his servants” (Shemot 9:12, 34). The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not only a test from G-d, who gave him an opportunity to make the proper choice and grow from it, but also Pharaoh’s failure to overcome his haughtiness in order to do what was right.
Rabbi Dessler himself explains that usually, when someone does something wrong, he feels bad about it. However, sinning repeatedly in the same way accustoms him to the sin, and he thus no longer feels that he is in the wrong. Pharaoh repeatedly denied G-d and his oppression of the Jews to the point at which he did not recognize his sin (so his heart was hardened).
I hope that some of these answers resonate with you!
Rabbi Leiby Burnham
There are four expressions of redemption mentioned in the Torah portion this week, and according to the Medrash (Bereishit Rabba 85:5) they hint at the obligation to drink four cups of wine at the Seder. A woman asked Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk if she could use milk to fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups. Rabbi Soloveitchik gave her a large amount of money and told her to buy wine. One of his students pointed out that the amount of money that the Rabbi gave her was much more than necessary for wine. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that since the woman was planning to use milk at the Seder, she obviously was not serving meat, because she could not afford it, so he gave her enough money to buy meat at the Seder as well as wine.
Parsha at a Glance
G-d speaks to Moses reiterating the promise to give His people the land of Canaan. He has heard the outcries of the children of Israel, and will redeem them from Egyptian bondage with great miracles. The children of Israel are too distraught to be comforted by this message. Even Moses protests: “if the children of Israel do not listen to me, how can I expect Pharoah to hear me out?” Nevertheless, G-d commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the children of Israel and to Pharoah. The genealogy of Moses and Aaron is given in detail. Now 80 and 83 years old, respectively, they are sent to Pharoah. G-d does warn them that the king will not be receptive to His words until his land has been devastated by great punishments. Should Pharoah ask for some sign that G-d has sent them, Aaron is to throw his staff on the ground before Pharoah and it will become a poisonous snake. At Pharoah’s court, this feat is easily duplicated by Pharoah’s magicians, until Aaron’s staff swallows up the others. Pharoah is unimpressed.
Moses warns Pharoah that the Nile River will be turned to blood. All animal life in the river will die and the Nile will stink. Aaron initiates this plague. Pharoah’s magicians also turn water into blood, and Pharoah refuses to give in. The waters of Egypt remain bloody for a week. The second plague blankets the country with croaking frogs. They are everywhere, in the ovens, in the dough, in the homes, and in the beds. Pharoah’s magicians can do this, too, but apparently they cannot make the frogs disappear because Pharoah begs Moses and Aaron to get rid of them. Moses cries out to G-d and the frogs die, piling up everywhere and causing a stench in the land. Pharoah remains stubborn. The third plague brings lice upon man and beast. The magicians cannot duplicate this plague and they call it the “finger of G-d,” but Pharoah is unmoved. The fourth plague is a terrifying mixture of wild animals roaming the land everywhere but in Jewish Goshen. Pharoah relents a little. He will allow the Jews to worship together, offering sacrifices in Egypt. Moses refuses, so Pharoah agrees that they may all go outside Egypt for 3 days if Moses will just remove all the wild animals. This is done, but again Pharoah refuses to honor his promise. A terrible pestilence upon the animals is announced next. Animals owned by Egyptians lie dead everywhere, but no animal owned by a Jew suffers. Pharoah refuses to yield. The sixth plague is a skin disease called boils, initiated by Moses and Aaron tossing handfuls of soot heavenward. The soot returns to earth causing havoc throughout the land. The court magicians cannot even appear before Moses in their distress. The seventh plague, hail in a strange mixture of fire and ice rains down destruction on everything which is not indoors. Those who fear G-d’s word take their slaves and livestock in from the fields. Crops and trees are destroyed. Only Goshen is spared. Pharoah begs for the hail to end. Moses promises to pray when he leaves the city “in order that Pharoah know that G-d owns the earth.” Moses prays for the hail to end, but Pharoah takes back his word.