Dedicated Leilui Nishmat Yoseph ben Letifa, Joe V. Harary A'h by His Son Victor J. Harary and Family
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.
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.
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.
Respect the Monarchy
Rabbi Frand comments more on this parasha. The passuk says, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding B’nei Yisrael and regarding Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to take B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt (6:13).” Rashi comments that Moshe was commanded to deal respectfully with Pharaoh, because Hashem emphasized Pharaoh’s role as King of Egypt. We derive from here that we are obligated to give honor to our country’s malchut—monarchy. Even though Moshe was called upon to warn, threaten, and rebuke Pharaoh, he was commanded to deliver all these messages with respect and honor.
At the end of the parasha Pharaoh tells Moshe to stop the hail. Moshe delivers a rebuke to Pharaoh, saying, “The flax and the barley were struck, for the barley was ripe and the flax was in its stalk. And the wheat and the spelt were not struck; for they ripen later (9:31-32).” The Gemara says “A person should be soft like a reed rather than stiff like a cedar tree (Taanit 20a).” A person should be flexible, bendable like the reed. When there’s a windstorm, a reed that is flexible will bend and survive. The cedar will either stand up to the wind or break in half.
Moshe could have been rude and told the King of Egypt, “Wake up and smell the coffee, Pharaoh. You are doomed! Look where your obstinacy has gotten you. You have ruined your country. Don’t be such a stubborn idiot!” But because Hashem told him he must have kavod malchut—honor due the King, Moshe delivered his message in a much gentler fashion. Moshe politely told Pharaoh to look out his window and consider how the respective crops fared during the storm of hail. The flax and barley were broken because they were too inflexible. The wheat and spelt survived because they were flexible. The message was the same, but it was delivered in a more subtle fashion, out of respect for the leader of the land.
Rabbi David Ashear writes in his book Living Emunah: On the Parasha that one of the main reasons Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt in such a miraculous way was to teach us that Hashem is behind all miracles, both large and small. Rabbi Ashear recounted a story he read in Sefer Emunah Shelemah about a religious man named Daniel, who traveled to Russia on a business trip. While in a taxi there, Daniel was listening to Hebrew music through his headphones and sang along in a low voice. The driver, who looked like a non-Jew, said, “I know that language! It’s Hebrew, right? My mother speaks some Hebrew.” Daniel was intrigued. “Does she live nearby? I’d like to meet her.” The driver took Daniel to his mother’s house.
Daniel spoke a little Russian and, after some small talk, asked the driver’s mother how she came to live in Russia. She related she had managed to escape Europe with her son, and they ended up in Russia, but her husband and daughter passed away in the Holocaust. “Why did you never remarry?” Daniel asked. “Because there were no Jews here for me to marry! And now that there are, I am elderly. It is too late.” Daniel was amazed by the woman’s self-sacrifice. She had raised a son alone in a foreign country for decades, unwilling to compromise her Judaism and marry out of the faith. Daniel took it upon himself to rekindle the spark in the taxi driver’s soul. He found a shul close to the man’s home and brought him there to meet the rabbi. Eventually, the man became fully observant. By the time his mother passed away, he was learning daily and was able to say kaddish for her.
The story on the surface seems like a nice coincidence. A religious man finds out his driver is Jewish and helps him reconnect to Judaism. Yet, there are no coincidences. Hashem performed outrageous miracles in Egypt, and He orchestrated every seemingly small miracle, like Daniel singing along to Hebrew music in a taxi in Russia.
Just One Shabbat
Rabbi Paysach Krohn told a story about the Klausenberger Rebbe. He had lost his wife and his eleven children in the Holocaust, and he had kept an incredible amount of bitachon. The first Shabbat after the war ended, he was in a Displaced Persons Camp, and he gathered a crowd to say kabalat Shabbat for the first time in a minyan after the Holocaust. He promised them a warm meal afterward. There was a skimpy white paper tablecloth on the table and barely a minyan, but the Rebbe started to pray with all his heart. He started to cry and said a prayer to thank Hashem for all the chessed that He did for him. All the people watching were amazed at the tremendous faith of the Rebbe; they understood his sorrow and had just gotten out of the concentration camps dejected and lost. His emunah was so moving, some of the men tore off pieces of the tablecloth and used them as a kippah to cover their heads. The Klausenberger Rebbe was so ready to accept Shabbat even though he lost so much. Rabbi Krohn asks his audience to remember this story, and to remember that we have so much, that we’re so lucky to be free to celebrate and enjoy Shabbat. We owe it to Hashem to be grateful that we can go home to our families to observe Shabbat.
May we all 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. May we learn from Moshe to respect the monarchy, even if we disagree with the leadership. May we always understand that Hashem is in control, and may we be grateful for our families, our health, and our opportunity to keep Shabbat! Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey
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!
Moshe was commanded to deal respectfully with Pharaoh because of his role as King of Egypt. Moshe rebuked him but did so with subtlety and respect.
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