Posts Tagged Exodus
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
WHY G-D IS CLOSEST WHEN HE FEELS FARTHEST AWAY
Then Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing …
As if with one voice, the commentaries wonder at the future tense employed here by the Torah. The meaning of the verse is clear: then, after the splitting of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, the Jews sang their praises of the Master of the World who had provided their miraculous salvation.
If so, why the future tense?
All the commentaries begin with Rashi: Then, when [the nation] saw the miracle, it felt inspired to sing. But what has Rashi added? Is it not obvious that their song of praise was inspired by the events through which they had been saved?
Perhaps we can find a clue in the structure of our daily prayers. The weekday Amidah, the standing prayer, is divided into three distinct sections. The first three blessings are expressions of praise, through which we acknowledge that we are standing before the One who hears supplications and has the power to answer them. The final three blessings are expressions of gratitude, wherein we thank Hashem for listening to and considering our entreaties.
The body of the Amidah, the thirteen central blessings, are expressions of request, wherein we ask Hashem to bestow upon us the basic necessities of life so that we can serve Him by studying His Torah and upholding His commandments. By recognizing that G-d is the source of all blessing — of intelligence, health, sustenance, justice, and all things physical and spiritual — we remind ourselves of our own responsibility to direct our lives toward fulfilling the higher purpose for which we were created, and we turn our attention inward to assess whether or not we are living up to our individual potentials.
Of this central group of petitions, the final blessing poses something of a curiosity. Shema koleinu – Listen to our voices, we cry out, and accept our prayers with favor and mercy. But is the value of asking Hashem to listen to our prayers? If He is already listening, then this request is superfluous; if He is not listening, then it is pointless. Moreover, why is it positioned at the end of our list of requests? Presumably we should ask G-d to listen before we begin to ask, not after we have finished asking?
I heard a variation of the following from Rav Dovid Gottleib: If I ask my friend to lend me ten dollars, and he lends me ten dollars, naturally I respond by saying, “Thank you.” However, if my friend tells me he doesn’t have the money, but he will get it for me, I also respond by saying, “Thank you.”
In the first case, I’m expressing appreciation for having gotten what I want. But in the second case, even though I still don’t have the ten dollars, I express my appreciation nonetheless. And in this second case, my expression of thanks describes a higher level of gratitude, not merely for having gotten what I want but for my friend’s interest, concern, and effort, which ultimately mean more to me than mere money.
Similarly, in the blessing of Shema koleinu, we are not asking the Almighty for what we have already requested; rather, we are asking Him to allow us to recognize His involvement in our lives. More than the things we have requested, we want to feel that Hashem cares about us, that He is responsive to our needs and our desires — and we want the accompanying confidence that when Hashem withholds what we want it is because the fulfillment of these requests is not in our own spiritual best interest.
At no time are we closer to G-d than when He is in the process of granting our petitions, for it is then that He is most actively involved in our lives. The moment our requests are answered, we once again feel a sense of independence, which is a manifestation of the illusion that we can survive and prosper without the grace of G-d.
If we apply this principle to the splitting of the sea, we can understand that the Jews had two different ways they could have praised Hashem for their salvation. They might have expressed their gratitude after they had been saved, seeing then that they were truly secure from the threat of the Egyptian army. However, a higher expression of gratitude would have been to sing the praises of Hashem as they were passing through the sea, for it would have been at that moment, with the walls of water towering above them and Pharaoh’s chariots bearing down upon them, that Hashem was closer to them than ever before. In that instant, their trust in the inevitability of their salvation inspired a song like no other, describing their gratitude for the greatest gift any human soul could desire — true spiritual intimacy with the Divine.
Nevertheless, for the Jews to stop and sing in the midst of their flight to safety would have shown needless dependence upon Hashem’s miraculous intervention. Per force, they waited until their survival was assured. But the Torah testifies to the feelings that motivated their song. Then, when they were still fleeing from the Egyptians between the walls of water, the Children of Israel would sing. Even if their mouths did not form the words until later, their hearts were already inspired to sing in the greatest possible expression of gratitude and closeness to their Creator.
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.
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.