Dedicated in Honor of Harry Adjmi for His Birthday by His Wife Alice
Parashat Va'era Not Just Innocent Bystanders 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 (5:18)!” 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. Though Pharaoh did not allow the Hebrews straw, Hashem gifted the Egyptian people straw, so they would have the opportunity to share with the Israelites. But since they refused to help make life even slightly easier for the slaves, Hashem later 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. 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—Egyptians felt a perverse joy over watching B’nei Yisrael fight, therefore earning their punishment of the plagues. “Bad” vs. “Bitter Parashat Va’era begins with G-d telling Moshe “I am Hashem. I have appeared before the patriarchs (.” This was a response to something Moshe said in the previous parasha, which was, “Lama hareota l’am hazeh—why have You done evil to this nation (5:22)?” When Pharaoh took away the straw, Moshe started to doubt himself and questioned Hashem on behalf of B’nei Yisrael. The Midrash elaborates on Hashem’s response, explaining that Hashem was rebuking Moshe for questioning His abilities, when the Avot had never doubted Him, even through their struggles. Rabbi Frand explains that Moshe Rabbenu used a poor choice of words here. Hareota—done evil or worsened implies that G-d has been ra—bad to the people, and that’s inappropriate. That was G-d’s objection. The patriarchs never uttered the word bad. It may have been difficult. It may have been trying. There are many adjectives that can be used regarding situations brought about by Divine Providence, but bad should not be one of them. The Chafetz Chaim once gave a parable. Sometimes we take a medicine, and it is terribly bitter. But the medicine cures the disease. What word do we use to describe the medicine? Bitter? Yes. Bad? No! The medicine is healing! There are instances in life when our natural human reaction is to say that an event is bad. But a Jew has the obligation to believe that everything that G-d does is ultimately for the best. Full Circle In this parasha, Hashem performs remarkable miracles before He takes B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt. Even today, we have the privilege of witnessing the Hand of Hashem work to perform miracles for us. Rabbi Yoel Gold told a story about a sofer—scribe who had an incredible experience with Hashgacha Peratit—Divine Providence. Shortly after the tragedy in Meron, Chaim Ganz, the sofer, took it upon himself to visit some of the people that had lost family members at the event, because he had recently lost his five-year-old daughter, and wanted to give them some nechama—comfort. The first family he went to visit happened to be his neighbors, the Zeckbach family, who lost their young son Menachem. He was a 24-year-old kollel boy who was recently married. When Chaim got to the house, he saw Birkat Hamazon cards on the table, and printed on them were the words: “The last will of Menachem Asher Zeckbach was to pray Birkat Hamazon out of a bentcher.” He asked the family, “How could such a young boy have a will?” His family explained that Menachem took this upon himself eight years before, and he was so meticulous about it, he never ever washed without knowing he had a Birkat Hamazon card available. Chaim was amazed, he went there to give chizuk—strength, and he ended up leaving strengthened. He decided to take on this mitzvah in memory of Menachem. Fast forward a few weeks later. Chaim was currently trying to find sofer opportunities, but every time he gave publishers a sample of his scribing, they told him it’s nice, but there’s something missing in his writing style. Dejected from all the rejection, he stopped in Bnei Brak at a bakery and bought a bagel for lunch. He went to the apartment that was provided for community sofrim to write. He washed, ate, and quickly realized he didn’t have a Birkat Hamazon card or siddur. He looked all through the apartment to find one, and finally found a card printed in sofer scribing. The writing and symbols were a vintage style and really interesting. After he prayed, inspired, he rewrote a page from his book sample and copied the letters from this Birkat Hamazon card. He spent hours copying them over. Not even five minutes after he finished, another sofer knocked on the door and entered the apartment. He saw Chaim there and said, “I was offered a project, but I’m swamped; I can’t do it. Do you want it?” Chaim said, “Of course, I’ve been looking for a new project!” The friend said, “Okay, but they need a sample of your work. Do you happen to have anything on you that I could give them today?” Amazed, Chaim handed over the freshly completed page, and his friend said he would go drop it off and let him know soon. Half an hour later, the friend called Chaim, “I’m here with the family and they’re absolutely blown away from your writing. They want to hire you to write a Sefer Torah.” Chaim was ecstatic! He said, “I’m in! What is this for?” His friend said, “There’s a rabbi in Boro Park, Rav Shmuel Dovid Friedman. He wants to help the families whose loved ones passed away in Meron. Every family who lost someone will get a Sefer Torah in their memory. You’ll be writing one for the Zeckbach family, in memory of Menachem Asher Zeckbach.” It was unbelievable! The whole story came full circle! It is written in the Sefer HaChinuch, “Anyone who is careful with saying Birkat Hamazon, will have his needs provided with honor and dignity.” Let’s all take a few minutes a day to say Birkat Hamazon with concentration to help instill our sense of gratitude, and to help remember that Hashem is in control. 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. 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 could 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. Which path we want to take is in our hands: one that leads to spiritual growth or, chas veshalom, descent. 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. May we all strive to reach our own personal potential, while keeping our humility, as Moshe Rabbenu 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 chas veshalom become hardened and 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 be grateful for our families, our health, our successes, and even our challenges! Amen! Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey Discussion Points:
Moshe didn’t pray to remove his speech impediment, so he may use it as a reminder to have Hakarat Hatov to Hashem for saving his life. Do we have our own reminders to be grateful to Hashem?
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, chas veshalom, descent. 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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