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Parashat Va’era

Dedicated Leilui Nishmat Sarah Bat Mazal and Mazal Bat Miriam by the Liniado Family

Parashat Va’era

At the end of last week’s parasha, Pharaoh — in retaliation for Moshe’s request to free B’nei Yisrael — Pharoah decided to punish them by withholding the straw to make the bricks: “Now you will not be given straw to make bricks but your quota of bricks must not diminish!”

Rabbi Frand brings an interesting question: “Why didn’t Pharaoh just double their quota of bricks instead of holding back the straw?” The answer is that Pharaoh wanted to break the Israelites’ spirit. Had he merely doubled the quota of bricks, they would have been forced to work harder. But by compelling them to find straw to make the bricks, he created a situation of anxiety and distress: They now had the added worry of needing to find the straw. Today, when someone has to work hard, they can manage, but when you throw financial, health, or other problems that brings worry into the equation, the result is psychological pressure and stress that can break a person! Pharoah just like the Nazi’s wanted to also break the Jews spirit.

Not Just Innocent Bystanders

Hashem was going to punish the Egyptian people for what they did to the Israelites. But what if they said it was their rulers’ fault, not theirs? Therefore Hashem gave the Egyptian people the opportunity to help the Israelites by giving them straw. But they refused to help make life even slightly easier for the slaves. In this way they lost their chance to escape punishment. There’s another commentary that says the Egyptian people didn’t help the Israelites find straw intentionally, in order to cause dissension among the Israelites, as they would fight with each other over the straw needed to fill their individual quota of bricks.

The same is true with the German and Polish people during the Holocaust, who were also not innocent bystanders. They cannot say it was the army and those in charge who persecuted the Jews, because the vast majority participated. They might say, “I just drove the train,” or “I was just following orders from my superiors,” but in the end they must all be held responsible for their actions against the Jewish people. They were willing “cogs in the wheel” of the Nazi machine, destined to be destroyed and to pay for their actions. Of course there were many stories of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews and they were rewarded by Hashem. Unfortunately, they were a very small minority. The goal of the Egyptians, like the Nazis, was destruction of both body and spirit.

Pointless Work

Rav Pam zt”l told a story about a man who received a lengthy prison sentence of hard labor. He had to push a large wheel round and round for fifteen hours a day. The work was exhausting and monotonous. One day he asked the jailer why the wheel was being turned, and he was told that the wheel was attached to a mill outside the cell, which ground wheat. Upon hearing this, the man’s efforts took on a new purpose. He imagined that his toil was producing flour for bread that would feed a hungry child somewhere. He visualized the satisfaction of an old woman on a cold winter morning eating a bowl of hot cereal made from the crushed wheat. These thoughts kept him going through the arduous years of labor.

When the day finally arrived and he was released from his captivity, his first request was to see the mill that the wheel was attached to. The guard looked at him with puzzlement. “What are you talking about? There’s no mill here, the wheel is attached to nothing! That was your punishment!”

When the man heard that his back-breaking efforts for all those years had been in vain, he collapsed and died. This is what Pharaoh intended to inflict on the Israelites. As humans, we need to have a sense of accomplishment and when that’s taken away from us, it can destroy us!

Reaching Our Potential

In this week’s parasha, we learn more about the life of Moshe Rabenu, the man whom Hashem chose to redeem the Israelites from their unbearable bondage. Hashem showed us, through Moshe, wonders the world had never seen before and will never see again. Through the wondrous acts that were performed in order to liberate the slaves, Hashem's love for His people was displayed for all the nations to witness. You might think that the leader for a job like that would have to be a person of great stature, with the confidence to be an outstanding orator. Moshe wasn't any of those things, but he possessed the more essential character traits of humility and sensitivity, among others, and that is why Hashem chose him.

We learn from this that we have all been given talents from Hashem, and that we must take advantage of those talents so that we may reach our true potential. It is for this reason that we should not look at the people around us and ask, “Why is this person smarter, more diligent, or more ambitious than I am?” We can only look at ourselves and try to be the best that we can be. Hashem does not expect us to know the entire Talmud by heart, or to make millions of dollars, although many people strive to excel in these areas. Hashem has given each of us a different set of goals in this world.

I remember a speech that Rabbi Yissocher Frand delivered at the siyum hashas over ten years ago. The Rabbi spoke about a man who had never learned Gemara, but was able to complete one daf (page) of Gemara with his son and on his son’s level. When he accomplished this, it was as if he had studied the entire Talmud! Hashem only expects us to strive to reach our own potential.

In this week and last weeks parashiot Moshe complains that he stutters and he pleads to Hashem to give the job of taking B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt to his brother Aharon instead. So the question that many of the Rabbi’s ask is why didn’t Moshe ask to take away the stuttering and the second obvious question is why didn’t Hashem take it away since it was an impediment to communicating properly with Pharoah. The answer is that Moshe didn’t want to forget how Hashem saved his life when he reached for the burning coals as an infant which burnt his tongue. Moshe didn’t want to forget the Hakarat Hatov he had for Hashem saving his life as a baby. Also, if Moshe was an eloquent speaker, people would think its Moshe’s talent as an orator that saved the Jewish Nation as opposed to showing that every word that Moshe spoke was a miracle from Hashem!

A Hardened Heart

Later in the parasha, when Egypt was barely surviving the plagues inflicted on it by Hashem’s wrath, we read, “But I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (7:3). Hashem is speaking after Pharaoh was stubbornly refused to let the Israelites leave Egypt to serve Hashem.

The famous question is asked by all the commentaries: “How can Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart, thereby removing his bechira (free will), and then punish him and his people with even more severe plagues?”

The answer our Rabbis give is that Pharaoh was his own worst enemy. Hashem gives everyone a chance to choose how to utilize their own free will. We must not ignore the numerous opportunities that Hashem gives us to improve our ways. Nevertheless, Hashem can remove our free will at any time — as He did with Pharaoh, after he ignored Moshe’s request to let B’nei Yisrael go. If we choose to follow a path that leads us to sin and we continue on that path, then Hashem will make it harder for us to refrain from committing that sin.

In parashat Balak (22:35) the angel of Hashem says to Balaam, “Go with the men, but do not say anything other than the exact words that I declare to you.” Rashi comments: “bederech she’adam rotze le’lech, ba molchin oto — Along the road on which a person wishes to go, there he will be led!” In other words, the way that you really wish to go, that is the way you will allow yourself to be led. Hashem’s guidance proceeds from our own decisions. It is entirely in our hands, which path we want to take: One that will lead us to spiritual growth or has veshalom, to spiritual decline.

Rabbi Twersky relates how forty years of working with alcoholics enabled him to understand Pharaoh’s obstinacy. The alcoholic can suffer blow after blow, each time swearing off drinking: “I will never drink another drop as long as I live!” Invariably, the alcoholic resumes the drinking soon afterward.

The Rabbi remembers one man whose drinking resulted in severe pancreatitis, which caused such horrific pain that it was not relieved even by morphine. He cried bitterly, “If you can only get me over this pain, Doc, I swear I will never, ever even look at alcohol.” Three weeks after being released from the hospital, he was drunk once again. Alcoholics who go through the ordeal of a liver transplant may drink on their first visit outside the hospital.

Pharaoh acted like a typical alcoholic. When he felt the distress of a plague, he pleaded with Moshe (just as the patient pleaded with Dr. Twersky), promising to send out the Israelites. No sooner was the plague removed, when Pharaoh immediately retracted his words. Rabbi Twersky relates that this behavior is not at all unusual.

Free Will

Rabbi Elimelech Biderman told a story which took place in 2017 in Israel. There was a wealthy man, named Yaakov, who had a certain affinity for fine watches. In 2014 or so, he ordered a custom-made watch that was going to cost him more than 200,000 shekalim, (about $50,000). It was going to take three to four months until the watch would be ready, so he slowly set aside the money for the watch. The day came when he got the phone call that the watch was ready for pick up. He was very excited, but he happened to be out of town that day. He said, “When I return, I will pick it up.”

A few hours after that call, someone else called him saying that he just found out about a family in B’nei Brak that was left with nothing after their entire house with all their possessions burned down. “Baruch Hashem, the family is okay,” he reassured Yaakov, “but they literally have nothing. They have a lot of young children and there’s nowhere for them to stay. We are trying to raise $300,000–400,000 shekalim to rebuild their home. Can you please help us with a sizeable donation?”

Yaakov said, “Let me think about it and I will call you back tomorrow.” His money was all tied up, but he did have that $200,000shekalim that he had set aside for the expensive watch he ordered.

He started debating the issue in his mind. “On one hand,” he said, “I had that watch on special order. I can’t just back out of it now. On the other hand, how can I enjoy this luxury when I know that there is a family who is homeless who could use this money for their childrens essentials?”

He decided to call the watch dealer to ask if it would be problematic for him to back out now. The dealer said, “Actually, we have about seven other people who want this watch. There is a waiting list for it. We could easily sell it to someone else.”

Yaakov said, “Okay, so sell it to someone else.”

He gave the $200,000 shekalim to the family in B’nei Brak.

Three years later in 2017, there was a wave of over 630 different fires in Israel, and hundreds of apartments and buildings were destroyed. On Thursday night, November 24, the fires spread to the Moshav Bet Meir, which is just a 15 minute drive from Yerushalayim. The residents there were all forced to flee.

Yaakov owns a very large house on a large property on that moshav. His son, who was staying there at the time, was amongst those who had to run for safety. They came back on Friday morning to survey the damage. Shockingly, although the house right next door was totally destroyed, the fire didn’t cross the property line. Even the new trees that had just been planted on the edge of the property were not affected. Not even one branch was singed!

Yaakov rememberered that he had helped a family who lost their home in a fire. Three years later, measure for measure, his own house and son were saved from a devastating fire.

Hashem has a reason why every single house from amongst the other houses in Israel had to burn down. We do not understand Hashem’s ways. But we can see clearly from this story how Yaakov had the free will to either keep the money he had put aside for his expensive watch, or use it to save a family who was displaced. So because he used his bechira (free will) in the right way, he was tremendously rewarded three years later!

May we all learn from this so that we may strive to reach our own personal potential, while keeping our humility, as Moshe Rabenu showed us. We must also be sensitive to the needs of our fellow Jews. May we have the foresight to always travel on the right path and be able to utilize our bechira (free will) in the proper way, so that we never come to the point where our hearts has veshalom become hardened from an addiction, or stop us from growing in Torah and mitzvot. Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!

Discussion Points:

· What addictions do we have in our lives today and what are the areas we live with today in which our hearts may become hardened?

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

Leiluiy Nishmat....

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