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Parashat Va'era

Dedicated Le'ilui Nishmat Moshe Ben Bahiya, Morris Shames A'h by His Son Joe

Parashat Va'era

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

Rabbi Frand asks 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. Today, when someone has to work hard, they can manage. However, when financial, health, or other worrisome problems are added into the equation, the result is a psychological pressure that can break a person’s spirit! Pharaoh wanted to harm the Jews’ collective mental state.

Not Just Innocent Bystanders

Hashem gave the Egyptian people straw, so they would have the opportunity to help the Israelites and share with them. But since they refused to help make life even slightly easier for the slaves, Hashem punished the Egyptians for their lack of action. They were not able to say it was just Pharaoh’s fault, since they withheld their materials when the Jewish nation was forced to scrounge. Another commentary goes even further, saying the Egyptian people didn’t let the Israelites have straw to specifically cause dissension among the Hebrews, as they would argue over the straw needed to fill their individual brick quotas. The Mitzriyim felt a perverse joy over watching B’nei Yisrael fight.

The same is true with the German and Polish people during the Holocaust, who were also not innocent bystanders. They couldn’t say it was the army and those in charge who persecuted the Jews, because the vast majority had an opportunity to help. They might say, “I was just following orders from my superiors,” but they must all be held responsible for their actions against the Jewish people. They were willing cogs in the Nazi machine, required to pay for their actions. Of course, there were many stories of non-Jews who used their G-d given opportunities to help, risking their lives to hide or assist Jews. They were rewarded by Hashem. Unfortunately, they were a very small minority. The goal of the Nazis, like the Egyptians, 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, 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. One may 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 about 15 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 week’s 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. The question that many rabbis ask is why Moshe didn’t ask to take away the stuttering. The answer is that Moshe didn’t want to forget the Hakarat Hatov he had for Hashem for saving his life when Moshe was a baby. His speech impediment was a constant reminder that Hashem sent the angel to push Moshe’s hand to the hot coals that burned his mouth, but effectively saved his life. The second question is why Hashem didn’t take his impediment away since it interfered with communicating properly with Pharaoh. We learn that if Moshe spoke eloquently, people might think it was Moshe’s talent as a persuasive and articulate speaker that saved the Jewish nation, as opposed to understanding 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 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 his or her own free will. Nevertheless, Hashem can remove 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 that path, then Hashem will make it harder for us to refrain from committing that sin.

In Parashat Balak the angel of Hashem says to Bilaam, “Go with the men, but do not say anything other than the exact words that I declare to you (22:35).” Rashi comments: “Be’derech 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 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. Invariably, the alcoholic may resume 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 succumbed to his addiction once again.

Pharaoh acted like a person with an addiction. 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 2016 in Israel. There was a wealthy man, named Yaakov, who had a certain affinity for fine watches. Back in 2014, he ordered a custom-made watch that was going to cost him more than $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 Bnei 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 shekel 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 $50,000 that he had set aside for the expensive watch he ordered. That was equal to approximately 200,000 shekel that year.

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 children’s 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 shekel to the family in Bnei Brak.

Two years later in November 2016, there was a wave of over 1,700 fires in Israel, and hundreds of apartments and buildings were destroyed. One Thursday night, the fires spread to the Moshav Bet Meir, which is just a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem. The residents there were all forced to flee. Yaakov owned a very large house on a large property there. 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 completely 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 remembered that he had helped a family who lost their home in a fire. Two years later, measure for measure, his own house and family were saved from a devastating fire. 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. Because he used his bechira in the right way, he was tremendously rewarded soon after!

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 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!

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Points:

  • What addictions do we have in our lives today from which our hearts may become hardened?


  • Pharaoh wanted to break the Israelites’ spirit as well as their bodies. By compelling them to find straw to make the bricks instead of doubling the brick quota, he created a situation of anxiety and distress.

  • Hashem gave the Egyptian people straw, so they would have the opportunity to help the Israelites and share with them. But since they refused to help make life even slightly easier for the slaves, Hashem punished the Egyptians for their lack of action.

  • Hashem gives everyone a chance to choose how to utilize his or her own free will. Nevertheless, Hashem can remove free will at any time, as He did with Pharaoh, after he ignored Moshe’s request to let B’nei Yisrael go.

  • Rashi says, “Along the road on which a person wishes to go, there he will be led!” Hashem’s guidance proceeds from our own decisions. Although Hashem can remove free will, choosing a path is basically in our hands—a path that will lead to spiritual growth or has veshalom to spiritual decline. We must use our bechira the right way!

Le’ilui Nishmat....

Eliyahu Ben Rachel

Rabbi Shimon Chay Ben Yaasher

Avraham Ben Garaz

Sarah Bat Chanah

Esther Bat Sarah

Avraham Ben Mazal

Shulamit Bat Helaina

Rabbi Meyer Ben Chana

Rahamim Ben Mazal

Batsheva Bat Sarah Esther

Rafael Ben Miriam

Ovadia Ben Esther

Rav Haim Ben Rivka

Moshe Ben Mazal

Moshe Ben Yael

Yitzchak Ben Adele

Avraham Ben Mazal

Meir Ben Latifa

Chanah Bat Esther

Yaakov Ben Rachel

Malka Bat Garaz

Moshe Ben Garaz

Avraham Ben Kami

Yaakov Ben Leah

Mordechai Ben Rachel

Chacham Shaul Rachamim Ben Mazal

Natan Ben Rachel

Saadia Ben Miriam

Eliyah Ben Latifa Simhon

Margalit Bat Mazal

Ovadia Haim Ben Malaky

Rabbi Aharon Chaim Ben Ruchama

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