Archive for category Weekly Parsha
WHY IS THIS PLAGUE DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PLAGUES?
At the outset of the Second Temple era some twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe oversaw the division of the Torah into parshios – portions, and set in place the practice of reading successive parshios publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service. In this way, the Jewish people would collectively review of the entire Torah from year to year. The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.
It is curious, therefore, that Ezra saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Egyptian Plagues into last week’s Torah portion, while leaving the final three for this week.
But that is not the only question. The commentaries explain that the plagues can be arranged into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself. Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, presumably it would be better to place the point of division after the sixth plague – which completes the second set of three – rather than after the seventh.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does mark a watershed moment, not by virtue of the nature of the plague itself, but because of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction.
After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague was over. But after the seventh plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission: This time I have sinned; G-d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.
In a discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am atzaddik – a righteous man.” The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation. Why? Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man (Kiddushin 49b).
If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession when confronted by the irrefutable suspension of nature — as the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians — opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.
From the very beginning, the Almighty had made clear His plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go free, providing just cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.” After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart and refusing to let the people go. In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart: once Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.
After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions: first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, G-d informs Moses that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. How can both be true at the same time?
The power of teshuva – repentance – is unimaginable. In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men, if he sincerely desires to change and puts into effect a plan to embrace virtue. Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth. Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, G-d Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.
We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, G-d had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart. In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.
No force, that is, except himself. Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…
The moment for change was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured. Instead of seizing his opportunity and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into the oblivion of his past.
And so last week’s parsha ends: by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country. But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.
How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth? How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?
And what do we do with these opportunities? Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, reflexively follow the promptings of pride and stubbornness by returning to the habits of the past? Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard. The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.
Students of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.
Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Published in Jewish World Review
And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.’” And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” (Exodus 4:1-2)
It’s easy to understand why Moses was anything but eager to accept the onus of leadership. After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what possible reason would the Jewish people have to believe Moses when he claimed that the Almighty had sent him to redeem them? How would he convince a broken nation that he had either the authority or the ability to lead them out of slavery?
G-d’s answer, however, is even more difficult to comprehend. Seemingly, G-d wanted Moses to cast his staff upon the ground to show him its miraculous transformation into a snake – the sign by which Moses would prove himself to the people. If so, why did G-d not simply say, “Cast your staff upon the ground.” Why did the Almighty first ask Moses to identify the object he was holding?
In his classic commentary, Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moses could have answered in one of three possible ways. As a shepherd, he could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook. As an eighty year old man, he could have referred to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick. Finally, he could have called it as he did — a matteh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.
Moses had directed his objection not solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader. Who am I, he questioned, that the people should put their trust in me? And so, G-d presented Moses with a test.
The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.
The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”
The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.
What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:
“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 732).
Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:
“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”
Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.
Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:
“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”
At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.
The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?
The secret of all this is found in the world chinam — “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.
Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.
Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.
Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.
An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:
It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.
Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty. And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.
For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past. Explains the Sfas Emes: although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.
And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach. Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved. But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete. Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.
Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach. For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence. But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.
We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”
It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate. But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.
After two decades of trying, by constant teaching and imperfect modeling, to instill in my children the primacy of middos tovos, after laboring to impress upon them by any means that qualities such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, and respect are the foundations of Torah life and Torah society, I thank the Ribono Shel Olam that my son has chosen a young woman whose impeccably fine character testifies to the quality of her parents and her upbringing. I look with nachas at my own son, whose maturation into a ben Torah and a ba’al middos testifies to the inscrutable power of tefillah.
And looking at them, I feel as the Jews must have felt when they were passing through the Yam Suf – I want to sing shira. For as frightened as I am for them and all the challenges they will have to face, they give me hope for the future and inspire me with confidence that very soon we will all merit the final redemption and the coming of Moshiach.
Originally posted at Beyondbt.com.
None can match the power and eloquence of Rav Shimshon Rafoel Hirsch:
There can be true peace among men only if they are all at peace with G-d. One who dares to struggle against the enemies of what is good and true in the eyes of G-d is – by this very struggle – one of the fighters for the “covenant of peace” on earth.
Conversely, one who, for the sake of what he imagines to be peace with his fellow men, cedes the field without protest and allows them to stir up strife with G-d makes common cause – by his very love of peace – with the enemies of the “covenant of peace” on earth.
Parshas Vayeishev reveals insights into our unending war for spiritual integrity and survival.
The number seven is neither random nor coincidental in the pattern of Creation.
No one understands everything. The problems begin when we think we do.
This week’s parsha concludes the arba parshios — the four special readings that help us prepare ourselves to enter Nisan, the month of redemption. If you haven’t seen it yet, please take a look and my adaptation of a shiur by Rabbi Nachman Bulman zt”l, which brings into focus what we hope to accomplish during this season.
The parsha itself revisits the construction of the mishkan, already described in Parshas Terumah. Please see my discussion there.