Sunday, January 28, 2007
REVENGE IS SWEET
After the Israelites have passed safely through the Sea of Reeds, and seen the Egyptians drowned, they sang a song of praise to G-d. The majority of that Song relates the downfall and death of the Egyptians. "I shall sing to G-d, for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse and rider into the sea; G-d is master of war; Pharaoh's chariots and army He threw in the sea; In Your abundant grandeur you shatter Your opponents..." (Exodus 15; 1 ff.). Here it seems that G-d is praised through wreaking vengeance on His enemies.
This is in contrast to the specific prohibition against seeking revenge, "You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge..." (Leviticus 19; 18). The Talmud highly praises someone who does not seek revenge, "Those who are insulted, and don't respond, that hear themselves being denigrated and don't respond, who act from love, and rejoice in their suffering about them the verse states, 'Those who love G-d are like the rising sun in its might' (Judges 5; 31)" (Yoma 23a).
Furthermore, the song that the Israelites sang was forbidden to the angels to sing: After the Israelites had crossed through the Reed Sea the angels wanted to sing a song of praise of G-d. He said to them, 'Should you sing a song while My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea? (Megillah 10b). It seems that the angels were expected to show compassion at the deaths of the Egyptians, despite the suffering that they caused to the Israelites. How were the Israelites themselves permitted to sing praises of G-d?
The Talmud also implies that revenge is not always a bad thing, "Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak, any Torah scholar who does not seek revenge and bear a grudge like a snake is not a true scholar" (Yoma 22b). Elsewhere it states, "How great is revenge, for it was written between two names of G-d, as the verse states, 'G-d, Who seeks revenge is G-d' (Psalms 114; 1)" (Brachot 33a). Furthermore, the Midrash states that the revelation of G-d's revenge that the nations witnessed at the Reed Sea brought great glory to G-d:
"Then Moshe sang..." (Exodus 15; 1). This is the meaning of the verse "Your [G-d's] throne was established from then" (Psalms 93; 1). Rav Berachiah stated in the name of Rabbi Abahu that even though You are eternal, but You were not seated on Your throne, and not known in Your world until Your children recited the Song of the Sea. (Shemos Rabba 23; 1).
The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that there are two kinds of revenge. The common usage of the word revenge implies something which is motivated by pride and a base desire for punishment for one's enemies. The Talmud explains:
"What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour's sickle, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow his axe. If he refuses saying, 'Just as you wouldn't lend to me', this is revenge. What is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour's axe, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow an item of clothing. If he responds, 'You may borrow it, because unlike you I do lend out my possessions' this is bearing a grudge. (Yoma 23a).
There is also vengeance which is solely a quest for justice. Though in English the word 'vengeance' has a pejorative meaning, in Hebrew does not necessarily have connotations of vindictiveness. It is this type of vengeance which a Torah scholar must possess, and which was written in the Torah between two of G-d's names.
The world was set up in a constant balance between G-d's mercy and His strict justice. Without mercy the world would not have been able to exist for a moment, at the first sin everything would have been returned to emptiness and void. However, without justice G-d is not a G-d of truth. Therefore He must meet out justice, and reward and punishment so that fairness is preserved. It is through G-d's carrying out of justice that He is clearly perceived in the world. Every time that a sin goes unpunished, because of G-d's mercy, there is an opportunity to think that there is no Judge and no justice. When the wicked are punished we see the Heavenly Judge in action.
However, only the injured party can seek this revenge. If someone else seeks revenge on their behalf it cannot be solely a quest for justice. This is why the Israelites were permitted to sing G-d's praises, because they had suffered under the Egyptians. But the angels who had only observed their suffering were not permitted to rejoice at the downfall of the Egyptians.
We can now understand why G-d was not 'seated on His throne' until after the splitting of the sea. For 210 years the Egyptians had persecuted the Israelites with apparent impunity. They forgot that there was a G-d who ran the world. At the time of their punishment all the nations witnessed the fact that everyone ultimately receives their just desserts.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians regret letting the Jews leave and chase after them with horses and chariots. The Jews are terrified; the Egyptians are right behind them and the sea is facing them. With no way out they complain to Moshe. G-d instructs Moshe to hold out his staff over the sea, and it splits, allowing the Jews to cross. Once they have all crossed safely , G-d again instructs Moshe to hold out his staff, and the sea returns to its normal state, drowning all the pursuing Egyptians. The Jews, led by Moshe, sing praise to G-d for all of the good that he has done for them.
They travel onward to the wilderness of Shur, walking three days without water. They arrive in Marra but the water is too bitter to drink. The Jews complain about Moshe, who prays to G-d and is told to place wood from a certain tree into the waters, which sweetens them. In Marra G-d gives them some of the 613 commandments.
They journey on to Elim, and camp by twelve springs surrounded by seventy palm trees. Next they go to the wilderness of Sin. The Jews complain about the lack of food and moan about Moshe and Aharon's leadership. G-d sends them Manna and quails, and instructs them about Shabbat. G-d instructs Aharon to take a container, place Manna in it, and keep it as an eternal reminder that He provided for them in the desert. Again there is no water to drink, so G-d instructs Moshe to hit a rock with his staff in front of the entire nation. Water then flows from it, and this spring follows them throughout their journey in the desert.
The nation of Amalek attacks the Jews at Rephidim. Joshua leads the men in battle, and they eventually succeed in weakening Amalek. G-d instructs them to write down what Amalek did, as an eternal reminder. G-d also states that he will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
I have already written the following story in my book ‘Makor Baruch’. But since it relates to this verse, and since it contains a gem of Torah, and is also a story from my youth which is dear to me despite the passage of many years, I have decided to retell it here.
This is the story:
Many decades ago I spent Shabbat with my uncle (who was also my brother-in-law) the Netziv. It was Parshat Beshalach, and on Motzei Shabbat many of the wise men from the Yeshiva were sitting around the table, and I was with them. Just then a man came to the house, one of the people of the town, and came to ask my uncle a question about something that had just occurred on that day. He began to speak:
‘More than twenty years ago, after many years of partnership in business with Mr ‘A’, we had a fight. The dispute became so bitter that I took a vow that I would never look him in his face again. For all these years I have kept this vow completely. However, today this man has just passed away. I wanted to go now, on his last day on this earth, to look at him one last time and ask him for forgiveness, as is the custom. But I am afraid that I may not be permitted to do so because of my vow. This is my question. Am I permitted to look now at his face in order to ask his forgiveness?
My uncle turned to the assembled guests at the table and asked them to give their opinions on the matter. Almost all of them focussed on one point, which was that ‘had he known that this would happen he would not have made the vow’ (a phrase from the Gemara which allows the judge to nullify the vow). They discussed this at length, in all its details.
When it came my turn to give my opinion, I told them that I was amazed at their uncertainty. I told them that it was only a few hours ago that we read the solution to this problem in the Torah. And this answer is so clear that it does not leave room for any doubt or further discussion.
All of them looked at me incredulously and waited for my solution.
I explained: It has only been a few hours since we read in parshat hashavua (I have already explained that it was just after Parshat Beshalach). G-d promised us “For as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them again”. Later in the same parsha it states “And Israel saw Egypt dead….” We see clearly that ‘seeing’ normally applies only to live people and not to the dead.
Furthermore, perhaps you will tell me that this was only superficial ‘seeing’, glancing at the corpses. In which case this is not an answer to our question, since our questioner wishes to actually look at the face of the deceased. For this I will bring you the Midrash which tells us that each Israelite recognised the Egyptian who had persecuted him, and saw him dead. So we see that even looking properly at someone who is dead is not included in the normal usage of the word ‘to see’. Therefore the oath not to look at his partner again, only applies to during his lifetime, and not after his death.
Based on my words my uncle permitted the questioner to go and look at the deceased and ask for forgiveness. The next morning my uncle told me that he had spent the night thinking of beautiful gems hidden in the Torah, and that this insight of mine had been one of them. With great feelings of love he wished me ‘yashar kochacha’ - ‘well done’.
The previous verse states that “G-d led them through the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds”, and the following verse says “they travelled from Succot”. These two verses are connected, i.e. they list the order and direction of travel. Therefore it is not easy to understand why the Torah interrupts these two verses with the fact that Moshe took Yosef’s bones with him. This should have been written later, after verse 22. Here it doesn’t seem to connect at all with what comes before or after, and appears to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Perhaps it is possible to explain (allegorically) based on the Midrash brought on the verse in Tehillim (114; 3) “The Sea saw and fled.” What did the Sea see (that caused it to split)? – the coffin of Yosef. Therefore since the previous verse states that G-d led them towards the Sea of Reeds, the Torah comes to explain here that Moshe took Yosef’s bones in order that the Sea should split.
“It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled” (14; 5)
It is hard to understand what they told the king. He himself went to Moshe and Aharon to hurry them out of Egypt. Also the rest of the Egyptians pressured B’nei Yisrael that they should leave as quickly as possible, as explained in Parshat Bo (12; 31 – 33) “Pharaoh arose in the night and called to Moshe and Aharon and said to them ‘Get up and leave, you and all of Israel’ and the Egyptians pressured the people to leave.” What suddenly awakened in Pharaoh and the Egyptians the strong regret that they had let the Israelites go?
Furthermore the phrase “that the people had fled” doesn’t seem to make sense. There is no indication in the Torah that they were fleeing or running away quickly. In fact it was just the opposite, “The Children of Israel left with a mighty hand” (verse 8). Not only were they not fleeing, but they were going determinedly and deliberately.
Even Rashi is forced to explain according to the Mechilta that Pharaoh’s intention was only to send them for three days, and when he saw that they were not returning he chased after them. But this is not the simple reading of the verses at the end of Parshat Bo. When Pharaoh told them to “Get out” it seems as though he was trying to get rid of them for good.
Perhaps we can explain that the word ‘flee’ here does not mean to run away quickly. Rather it means leaving a place before the appointed or appropriate time. We find this meaning in Parshat Vayetze (Bereishit 31; 20) “For he did not tell him that he was ‘fleeing’ (leaving’)”. In other words that Ya’akov left without Lavan’s knowledge. Similarly with Yonah we find that “he ‘fled’ from before G-d” (chapter 1). In other words he tried to leave the place of prophecy – to leave Israel. Similarly in the Talmud we find ‘a slave who ‘flees’ before his time’ (Kiddushin 16a). In all of these cases the meaning is not that they fled quickly, running, but rather that it was before the appropriate time and not according to the proper fair behaviour.
So too here, as is known, the Israelites were supposed to be enslaved for 400 years (as it says in Parshat Lech Lecha – Bereishit 15; 13) “They will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years”. Their slavery was only shortened because of outside reasons – either because the slavery was too harsh, or because of the merit of the patriarchs, that G-d had pity on them.
Therefore it could be that Pharaoh’s advisors and magicians informed him that the Jews had only been enslaved for 210 years and not the full 400 that they deserved (this secret was only known to certain individuals from the time of Avraham, and it was made known to the magicians).
This is the meaning of ‘fled’. In other words that the Israelites were leaving before the appropriate time. According to the original decree they still had another 190 years of slavery in Egypt, and Pharaoh should have been able to keep them. These is what inspired Pharaoh to chase after the Israelites and try to bring them back, since he realised (according to this calculation) that he should still enslave them for many more years. Perhaps we can find a hint to this in the fact that the gematria of the word ‘barach’ (fled) is 210, which is the number of years that they had been in slavery.
Translated by David Sedley
“And it was when Pharaoh sent the people” (13; 17)
In the Midrash Rabba it states:
“And it was, when Pharaoh sent out the people...”
Was it Pharaoh who sent them? It was G-d who sent them! As the verse states (Bamidbar 23; 22) “G-d brought them out of Egypt”. Rather ‘sent’ in this context means ‘accompanied’.
This Midrash is unbelievable! When the Midrash wants to prove that it was G-d who brought Israel out of Egypt could it find no other source than Bilaam? The whole Torah (from Shemot onwards), and the Prophets are full of quotes that it was G-d who took us out of Egypt. Almost every single parsha attests to this, both in the words of G-d and in the words of Moshe. Why did the Midrash leave all of those holy, trustworthy sources and had to search for this principle in the words of Bilaam! Is this not incredible?
I am amazed that none of the commentaries discuss this, and they all read it without question.
If this proof (that it was G-d who took us out of Egypt) would have been directed at the non-Jewish nations, in order that they should know, perhaps we could have explained that the Midrash wanted to bring a proof from a non-Jewish source (i.e. Bilaam). This would be saying that even their non-Jewish prophet accepts that G-d brought us out of Egypt. However this whole Midrash is clearly directed at Israel and for Israel, in order that we should understand the language of the Torah. It is explaining why the Torah used the word ‘when he sent’ and what it means. The Midrash is bothered as to why the Torah seems to make the Exodus from Egypt dependent on Pharaoh. The verse should have said ‘when G-d brought us out of Egypt’, or like the language of Tehillim “When Israel came out of Egypt” (114; 1). If so, why do we need the proof from Bilaam?
I have thought about this, and found one possible explanation based on something that appears many times in the Tanach and in Aggadata. This is that the word ‘Am’ (people) usually applies to people on the lowest level. This explains the phrase ‘Hamon Am’ (multitude of people – average person). There are many places in Tanach that show this, like in parshat Shelach (Bamidbar 13; 28) “The people that dwells in this land is powerful” and in Yishiahu (49; 1) “The people who are going in darkness” and in Yeremiah (8; 5) “Why is this rebellious people…” and in Tehillim (95; 10) “And errant hearted people are they” and in Iyov (12; 2) “Truly you are people” (meaning that they are unlearned and average). Also in the Midrash (Parshat Balak 20) ‘Every place that it says “Am” it is derogatory language. Rashi also explains based on this in Parshat Beha’alotecha on the verse “And the people were like complainers” (Bamidbar 11; 1) – the word ‘Am’ means wicked people. Also the normal word for unlearned people is ‘Am HaAretz’.
The root of the word ‘Am’ is ‘Amam’, meaning ‘dark (in colour), as Onkelos translates “The plague became darker” (Vayikra 13; 5) as “Amema Nagaah”. Aslo in Yechezkel (31; 8) “Even cedars could not obscure it (Amamuhu)”, or in the Talmud (Pesachim 27b) “Glowing coals” – meaning that they are about to become extinguished. We find similar language in Eicha (4; 1) “How did the gold become dimmed (yu’am)”, meaning that it has lost its shine.
Since most people are dim and their spirit and talents are ‘dark’, therefore they are called ‘am’. (The exception is when it is used with another word to describe holiness, for example “The people of G-d” or “A holy people”.)
It is known that the phrase used to describe the ‘Am’ in Egypt is ‘Erev Rav’. We see this in the Zohar (Parshat Ki Tissa) on the verse “The people (Am) saw that Moshe delayed” (32; 1) – ‘Who are the ‘Am’? The Erev Rav. It is explained in the Midrashim that there were people in Egypt who did not want to leave and they were forced by G-d to leave.
Look also in the Parsha there (Ki Tissa) on the verse “These are your gods Israel”, and “Go down because your people have sinned” (32; 8).
All of the statements of the Torah and the prophets that it was G-d who took the Israelites out of Egypt are only directed at the Children of Israel, who believe in G-d and observe the Mitzvot. Therefore it does not apply to the Erev Rav who abandon G-d and desecrate the Mitzvot.
But when Bilaam said “G-d brought them out of Egypt” he was speaking to Balak, who had said “Behold a people (Am) have left from Egypt” (Bamidbar 22; 5), “Go and curse this people (Am) for me” (verse 6). To this Bilaam responded that even the ‘people’, the Am did not leave on their own but only because “G-d brought them out of Egypt”.
According to this we can explain why the Midrash brings the proof from Bilaam. That G-d brought out the Am is only shown from there, and not from any of the other sources which refer to the Israelites. Since the verse here “When Pharaoh sent the people (Am)” and not the Israelites, the Midrash is correct in questioning that it was not Pharaoh who sent them but G-d. For this it needed to bring the proof from Bilaam.
Monday, January 22, 2007
“Each person asked from their ‘fellow’ (re’eihu)” (11; 2)
As is well known, the Talmud learns many times from the word re’eihu ‘fellow and not non-Jew’. Therefore it is very odd that the Torah here uses the word re’eihu to mean the Egyptian non-Jews.
Perhaps we can say that all of those drashot in the Talmud only apply to the times that the word re’eihu that is written after the giving of the Torah. From then there was a separation between the Jews and non-Jews in terms of specific Mitzvot. This is what it says in parshat kedoshim “I will separate you from the nations”. In our prayers we say “You have separated and sanctified Your nation Israel”.
We find a similar logic in parshat beshalach regarding the Song of the Sea. We may not sing a ‘song’ outside of Israel (Erechin 10b), and for this reason we don’t say Hallel (which is a ‘song’) on Purim because it recalls a miracle which happened outside of Israel. So how did we sing at the splitting of the sea which occurred outside of Israel?
The answer must be that the sanctity of Israel only began from the time that the people of Israel entered into it. Then it became sanctified, but not before.
There is also a similar reasoning in the Agadot, that the sanctity of Mount Sinai began only from the time that the Torah was given upon it. Before that it had no advantage or preference over any other mountain.
Another similar idea is found in Chulin (101b) ‘We were not called B’nei Yisrael until Sinai’. Only from that time were we titled with this name. Look there at the Talmud and what they point out about this.
In Zevachim (112b) it states ‘Until Yerushalayim was sanctified all the countries were suitable for sacrifices. From the time that the Ark came to Yerushalayim all of the other places became forbidden’. Look further there at similar ideas.
Until the time that Aharon became a Cohen all of Israel could have been cohanim, and only after him did everyone else become forbidden, since it says about him “An eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his children after him.”
Similarly with the kingship of David. Before him, everyone was suitable to be the king. From his time onward the kingship was given only to him and his descendents.
Regarding our original question of re’eihu and the drasha to exclude non-Jews, I have already written to explain this matter that the drasha only applies to the nations of that time (the time of the sages of the Talmud). This is because they did not keep the seven Noachide laws that all non-Jews are commanded to keep. The seven laws are well known – they are to set up courts or law (to judge civil matters), cursing G-d, serving idols, sexual immorality, murder, theft and eating a limb from a living animal. All of these mitzvot are built and founded on the fabric of the existence of the world, civilisation and safety of life and property. In addition they engender feelings of compassion and mercy on every creation and the path of life in general.
The non-Jews at that time were acting totally counter to those mitzvot. They had no laws or justice, they cursed G-d the creator of the universe, they worshipped idols, and acted immorally, they murdered, stole and ate from living animals. Therefore it was appropriate and obligatory to treat them as a wild, animalistic nation who tried to destroy the world and its inhabitants. This was to prevent the total destruction of the order of the world and those who dwell upon it.
All of these matters were mentioned by the Sages in terse terms when they explained the laws of the Mishna (Bava Kamma 38a) that the owner of an ox owned by a Jew that gores an ox owned by a non-Jew is exempt from payment. This is because it is written in the Torah “When a man’s ox gores the ox of his re’eihu” (Mishpatim) and they learn re’eihu and not a non-Jew. They based this on the verse in Habbakuk (3; 6) “He stood and measured the earth, he saw and nullified the non-Jews”. What did He see? He saw that they were not keeping the seven mitzvot. Therefore He stood up and gave away their money. These few words are the basis of everything that I have written.
The Rambam in his explanation of that Mishna writes that the owner of an ox owned by a Jew that gores an ox owned by non-Jew is exempt. These are his words there: ‘Don’t be surprised about this, just as you should not be upset by the fact that we are permitted to slaughter animals, even though the animals have not sinned. Someone who does not have the perfection of human character traits is not truly part of humanity, and the purpose of his existence is only for other people. According to what we have written you can understand his words clearly.
But in places and times when the non-Jews are acting appropriately, and they keep their mitzvot as commanded, they are certainly included in re’eihu, at any time and in any place. We find when Moshe sent the messengers to the king of Edom he said “thus says your brother Israel” (Bamidbar 20; 14). Chiram the king of Tyre called Shlomo his brother (Melachim 1 - 9; 13) and there are many other similar examples. In the Talmud (Shabbat 150a) it states: A person should not say to their friend to hire workers for him. The Talmud asks ‘isn’t this obvious?’ and answers that we are talking about a non-Jewish friend. Also Ya’akov called the shepherds of Padam Aram “My brothers” (Bereishit 29; 4).
We should add here the concept from the Talmud (Makkot 8a) that every word or idea in a verse that has two meanings should be explained according to both meanings. Look also at Yevamot (102b).
Plagues and Commandments
"By ten Divine utterances was the world created." (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 1). The Kabbalistic texts explain the ten plagues in Egypt corresponded to these ten utterances with which the world was created. At the time of creation the greatest revelation of G-d's Presence was 'In the beginning', when there was only G-d and nothing else. Each act of creation served to further disguise G-d's role in the world. However, with the plagues in Egypt, each new affliction brought the Egyptians and the Israelites closer to the recognition of G-d as Master of the Universe. Therefore, the plagues correspond to creation in reverse order.
The second utterance of creation was "Let there be light" (Genesis 1; 3). This light was not the normal light that illuminates our world today, as the heavenly bodies were not created until the fourth day of creation. Rather, according to the Midrash (quoted in Rashi) it was an intense spiritual light, and G-d saw that the wicked were unworthy of enjoying it. Therefore He separated it from the rest of the universe, and set it aside for the use of the righteous in the World to Come. It is clear that this light was not what we call light, because originally it was mingled with 'darkness' until "G-d separated between the light and the darkness..." (ibid. 4). We know darkness to be simply the absence of light, and therefore it is physically impossible to have dark and light mingled together, yet this impossibility was the light and darkness of the first day of creation.
The second to last plague in Egypt was that of darkness. But again, this was not merely the absence of light, as the verse states, "the darkness will be tangible ... No person could see another, nor could anyone rise from their place for a three day period." (Exodus 10; 21 - 23). Ramban explains that this darkness was an opaque, fog-like condition that extinguished all flames, so that the Egyptians could not use lamps. For the first three days they were confined to their homes by this darkness, but for the next three days the darkness intensified and became so palpable that the Egyptians literally could not move (Rashi).
Furthermore, this darkness was mingled with light, as the Torah says "but for all the Children of Israel there was light in their dwellings". Rashi explains that there were two reasons for this plague of darkness. Among the Jews there were many people who had assimilated to the point where there was no hope for them to return to the covenant of Israel. Therefore they were not able to be redeemed from Egypt. G-d provided the darkness so that the Egyptians would not see their deaths and claim that the plagues affected Jews and Egyptians alike. Secondly, G-d had promised that the Jews would go free with all the wealth of Egypt. During the plague of darkness they were able to examine the possessions of the Egyptians, and determine their locations. When the Israelites were about to leave the Egyptians were not be able to deny them anything, as the verse states, "G-d gave the people favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they granted their requests, so they emptied Egypt" (ibid. 12; 36). So while the Egyptians were paralysed by the darkness, the Jews were able to walk through their homes, looking through their possessions with clear illumination. This seems to be the mingling of light and darkness before G-d decreed their separation at the time of creation.
The first utterance of creation was the opening word of "In the beginning". At this moment of the 'Big Bang' there was nothing in the universe other than G-d. His unity was so clearly recognisable that the Torah calls the first day "Day one", because the only existence was the Oneness of G-d. Even the angels and other spiritual entities were not created until the second day.
With the final plague on the Egyptians G-d's Presence and unity was once again clearly recognisable to all. "I shall go through Egypt on this night, and I shall strike every firstborn ... I shall mete out punishment - I am G-d" (ibid. 12). We stress this in our reading of the Haggadah, "G-d took us out of Egypt - not through an angel, not through a seraph, not through a messenger, but the Holy One, Blessed is He, in His glory, Himself". Just as at the birth of the universe G-d asserted His unity, and direct involvement with the universe, so too from the foundation of Israel as a nation G-d's relationship was direct and personal.
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“And the locusts came up on all of the land of Egypt and rested on all the borders of Egypt.” (10;14)
According to the explanations of the verses, the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived was not affected by any of the plagues except for the plague of locusts. The reason is that the Israelites were about to leave Egypt in the very near future, and G-d did not want their crops to remain for the Egyptians to eat. This is implicit in the words “on all the borders of Egypt” – even in Goshen.
“And there was darkness” (10; 21)
Rashi in the name of the midrash asks, ‘why did G-d bring the plague of darkness on the Egyptians?’ and he gives two answers. Why did the midrash feel the need to ask the reason for the plague only about the plague of darkness and not about any of the other plagues?
It seems that the reason that they asked only about this plague is because in all the other plagues the Egyptians could see that only they were smitten, and the Israelites were not affected. Therefore each plague was clearly miraculous. But in the plague of darkness, when the Egyptians couldn’t see anything they may have thought that it was a natural phenomenon which affected also the Israelites. Therefore the midrash asks why G-d brought this plague on them, since the miraculous nature of the plague itself was not as obvious as in the others, and the Egyptians would have been able to doubt its Divine origin.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Hashem tells Moshe that He is hardening Pharaoh's heart, so that through miraculous plagues the world will know for all time that He is the one true G-d. Pharaoh is warned about the plague of locust and is told how severe it will be. Pharaoh agrees to release only the men, but Moshe insists that everyone must be allowed to go free. During the plague, Pharaoh calls for Moshe and Aaron to remove the locusts and he admits that he has sinned. Hashem ends the plague but hardens Pharaoh's heat, and again Pharaoh fails to free the Children of Israel.
The country, except for the Jewish People, is then engulfed in a palpable darkness. Pharaoh calls for Moshe, and tells him to take all the Jews out of Egypt, and to leave their flocks behind. Moshe tells him that not only will they take their own flocks, but Pharaoh must add his own too. Moshe tells Pharaoh that Hashem is going to bring one more plague, the death of the first born, and then the Children of Israel will leave Egypt. Hashem again hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh warns Moshe that if he sees him again he will be put to death.
Hashem tells Moshe that the month of Nissan will be the first month in the calendar year. The Children of Israel are commanded to take a sheep on the tenth of the month, and guard it until the fourteenth. The sheep is then to be slaughtered as a Pesach sacrifice, its blood to be put on their door-posts, and its roasted meat to be eaten. The blood on the door-post will be a sign to Hashem, to pass over their homes when He strikes the first born of Egypt.
The Jewish People are told to memorialise this day as the Exodus from Egypt, by never eating chametz on Pesach. Moshe relays Hashem's commands, and the Jewish People fulfill them flawlessly. Hashem sends the final plague, killing the first born, and Pharaoh sends the Jews out of Egypt. Hashem tells Moshe and Aaron the laws concerning the Pesach sacrifice, pidyon haben (the redemption of the first born son), and tefillin.
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Hail, Chesed and the Foundation of Scientific Enquiry
We begin this week to read about the Ten Plagues. It is interesting to note that the plagues are divided up between this week’s parsha and next week’s. The division is not the simple ‘fifty-fifty’ split, but rather we have seven plagues in Vaera and only three in Bo. Let us try to understand why the Rabbis decided to divide the parshiot in this manner.
It is known that the Ten Plagues correspond to all the other ‘tens’ in Torah. Therefore they can be matched up with the Ten Commandments and with the Ten Utterances with which heaven and earth were created. The root of all of these ‘tens’ is from the kabbalistic concept of sefirot – the ten facets of G-d through which He interacts with the world. The sefirot (Chachma, Bina, Da’at, Chesed, Gevura, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut) are divided into the three ‘upper’ sefirot of chabad (Chachma, Bina and Da’at) and the seven lower sefirot. The sefirot are the mechanism by which G-d interfaces with the world, and there is a descent from the most ‘G-dly’ to the most physical. The plagues also showed G-d interacting with the world. However with the plagues the order was the other way – G-d began with the most physical, and ended with the clearest revelation of His Divine intervention in the world - the plague of the killing of the first born (I and not an angel etc.). Therefore it seems clear that the division of the plagues between the parshiot corresponds to this division between the upper and the lower sefirot. (Look at Rav Tzadok HaCohen who explains in Pri Tzadik on parshat Bo many of the connections between the plagues and the sefirot).
So the last plague in our parsha, the plague of hail, corresponds to the first and highest of the lower sefirot – chesed. Chesed is usually translated as kindness most closely associated with Avraham. The question is, how does this relate to the plague of hail?
The Torah tells us that this was no ordinary hail, but rather that there was fire burning inside the ice of the hail (Shemot 9; 23). Any crop that was not destroyed by the impact of the hail suffered from the burning of the fire. Yet we know (from the Rambam chapter 8 of yesodei hatorah) that G-d only does miracles when they are necessary, not simply to ‘show off’. So it is legitimate to ask why there was a need for a miracle within a miracle in the hail – the fire within the ice.
Pharaoh’s response to this plague is unique. Only after the plague of hail does he admit “This time I am guilty! G-d is just! It is I and my people who are wrong!” (ibid. v. 27). What was it about this plague that showed Pharaoh so clearly that G-d is just more than any of the other plagues?
One final question – this plague is also unique in that the Torah states: “Never before in Egypt, since the day it was founded, has there been anything like it.” (ibid. v. 18). About the plague of locusts (for example) it states “Never before had there been such a locust plague and never again would the like be seen” (ibid. 10; 14). We would expect that the plagues only happened once in history, and their like was never seen before nor since. Yet with the plague of hail it states that it had never happened since the day that Egypt was founded. This clearly implies that on the day Egypt was founded there was a plague like this. Egypt, like all the nations, became a distinct nation at the time of the Tower of Bavel. It was then that all the nations of the earth were separated from each other and took on their own individuality. Therefore we should look there for a hint to another plague of fiery hail. If we look at the Ba’al HaTurim on Bereishit 11; 8 he points out that the word vayechd’lu (ceased) only occurs twice in the Torah – once by the Tower of Bavel and once by the plague hail. He therefore concludes that when G-d destroyed the tower and dispersed the nations there was the same fiery hail as at the time of the plagues in Egypt. So we must now ask, what is the connection between the Tower and dispersion, and the hail?
In summary we have four questions:
1. How is hail connected to chesed?
2. Why was there a need for a special ‘miracle within a miracle’ to have fire within the ice?
3. Why was this plague more convincing for Pharaoh than any of the others?
4. What is the connection between hail and the Tower of Bavel?
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Friday, January 19, 2007
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“And the magicians of
Later in verse 22 regarding the plague of blood it states “the magicians of
A way of remembering that the work of demons is called lateihem and magic lahateihem is the verse in Parshat Bereishit (3; 24) “So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming (lahat) sword which turned every way (hamithapechet), to keep the way of the tree of life”. Since magic turn things from one to another it is lahat, like the sword which turns.
When the Torah describes the actions of the magicians at the plague of blood it talks of them changing the water into blood. So it should have used the word lahateihem which is the magic of changing one thing to another. Yet we see that the Torah uses the word lateihem which refers to the work of demons.
The explanation is that in that case the magicians were forced to use demons to perform their magic, to bring blood from elsewhere and switch it with the water. The reason for this is that the Talmud explains that magic has no influence over water. Therefore the magicians were forced to ‘cheat’ and use demons.
The reason that magic has no influence over water can be explained based on the Yerushalmi (Kilaim 9; 4). The Talmud there explains the verse in Tehillim (24; 2) “For He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods”. The
Based on this we can also understand the Yerushalmi there that relates how one of the Sages requested that if he died outside of
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“She saw him, that he was good” (2; 2)
In the Talmud (Megillah 14a) it states: When Moshe was born the whole house was filled with light. The basis for this drasha is the word ‘good’ which appears in Bereishit (1; 5) as a description of the creation of light. So ‘good’ is a synonym for ‘light’.
It also states in the Talmud there that before Moshe was born his sister Miriam prophesied that her mother was going to give birth to a son who would save
It is not clear why, when it seemed that her prophecy had come true, that it was her father who kissed her, and afterwards when it appeared that it would not be fulfilled it was her mother who slapped her. Why did her mother not also kiss her at the beginning, or her father slap her at the end?
Perhaps we can explain based on the verse in Mishlei (10; 1) “A wise son will make his father happy, but a foolish son brings depression to his mother”. Therefore, when they thought the prophecy had been fulfilled Miriam was in the category of ‘wise’, and this made his father happy. Therefore he expressed his joy by kissing his daughter. But afterwards when they thought that the prophecy was not to be, Miriam seemed like a fool which brought depression to her mother and this was expressed with the slap.
Let us try to understand the verse in Mishlei – why should there be a distinction between the father and the mother’s reactions to a wise or foolish son? Why do both parents not feel the same way?
It seems to me that we can explain it based on the Halachic concept that only the father is obligated in the Mitzvah of procreation and not the mother (Yevamot 65b). Therefore the father is required to fulfil his Mitzvah without any thought or consideration of what kind of child he will have. We find this with King Chizkiyahu who didn’t want to have children because he saw prophetically that his son would be wicked. The prophet Isaiah rebuked him for this, saying ‘Why are you involving yourself with the Divine plan? You must fulfil your Mitzvah and leave G-d to take care of His plans’ (Brachot 10a). We see from here that a father should not try to make calculations as to whether the child will be wise or foolish, but rather must do his Mitzvah without questioning.
Therefore, if the child is wise, for the father it is a great gift and unsought benefit. And if the child is foolish, the father can take comfort in knowing that he has fulfilled his Mitzvah.
However with the mother it is exactly the opposite. Since she is not obligated in this Mitzvah, if the child is wise she will consider it fair compensation for the pain and difficulties of pregnancy, childbirth and rearing. But if the child is foolish she will be upset at the effort expended for no purpose, since she is has not fulfilled a Mitzvah.
Using this idea I wanted to explain the Talmud (ibid.) which explains the verse in Isaiah (54; 1) “Sing, O barren, that you did not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, that you did not travail with child”. The Talmud asks, ‘Should she sing and rejoice that she has no children? Rather the verse means that she should rejoice that she did not give birth to children who would go to Gehinom.
Why does the verse not include the father also? Surely he is happy that he will not produce wicked children? But in reality he cannot rejoice, for although he may have the merit of not having children in Gehinom, nevertheless he also has the sin of not fulfilling his Mitzvah of procreation. When someone is deprived of a Mitzvah they cannot rejoice. For example someone who is unable to obtain an etrog for Succot, even though he will not be punished for this since a person is exempt if it is impossible to fulfil a Mitzvah due to circumstances beyond their control. Nevertheless he will certainly not be happy that he is unable to do the Mitzvah. Only a woman can sing and rejoice since she has no Mitzvah to fulfil.
(there are another two paragraphs that I have not translated).
“Remove your shoes” (3; 5)
The Torah states here ‘your shoes’, meaning both shoes from both feet. However regarding Joshua (Joshua 5; 15) the angel only tells him to remove his ‘shoe’ in the singular, implying from only one foot.
Perhaps we can explain the difference in the language between these two cases. Moshe was destined to remove from himself any connection with the physical world. He remained on
This is why Moshe removed both his shoes – removing all physicality from himself completely. Joshua, however, only reached the level of a ‘holy man’, but still retained some aspects of physicality. Therefore he was only instructed to remove one shoe, to hint at the fact that he kept one foot still in the realm of the physical. (like the phrase in Eruvin (58b) ‘with one foot still inside the boundary’)
Sunday, January 14, 2007
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Hard Heart or Free Choice?
"G-d said to Moshe: 'Speak to Pharaoh, that he should send the Children of Israel from his land. But I shall harden Pharaoh's heart..." (Exodus 7; 2-3). These verses raise two obvious questions - what does it mean when G-d hardens a persons heart? How does that accord with our understanding of free choice? Furthermore, if G-d has stated that He will harden Pharaoh's heart, what point is there in sending Moshe and Aharon to speak to him? This seems like mockery, asking Pharaoh to do something which has become impossible for him to do.
The Rambam writes (Hilchot Teshuva 5; 1 ff.):
Each person has the opportunity to turn themselves towards the good path and be righteous, or to choose to follow the path of evil, and become wicked. This the meaning of the verse "Behold mankind is like one of us to know good and evil" (Genesis 3; 22). This means that human beings are unique in the world in that through their own intellect they know the difference between good and evil, and do whichever they desire, without anyone (or anything) preventing them. This principle is a foundation of the Torah and commandments for if G-d would decree that a person would be righteous or wicked, or if there were something forcing a person to a certain path, how could G-d command us to act in a certain way, or how could the prophets chastise us and instruct us to improve our actions?
However, it is possible that a person could sin so grievously, or so often, that strict justice dictates that they must be punished for this, and therefore have their free choice removed so that they are prevented from repentance. Therefore the Torah writes "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (Exodus 7; 3). Since he sinned initially of his own choice, and acted evilly against Israel who were living in his land, justice therefore dictates that he eventually lose the option of repentance. Why then did G-d send Moshe to him to tell him to send the Jews from his land and repent, if that option was already removed from him? If a person should do something of their own free will, G-d may remove from them the ability to repent and they must die in their wickedness.
We have a principle that G-d helps a person to follow the path that they chose. Pharaoh chose to be stubborn and obstinate, therefore G-d caused him to take his path to its conclusion. His decisions to oppress and kill the Jews, and then refuse to listen to Moshe and Aaron, caused G-d to take him to a point where the gates of repentance were sealed before him.
Pharaoh was not the only one to exhibit this trait of stubbornness. G-d accuses the Jewish nation of being 'a stiff-necked people' at the time of the Golden Calf (ibid. 32; 9), and cites this as the reason that His presence will not remain within the midst of the nation (ibid. 33; 3). Yet despite their stubbornness, when confronted with the enormity of their sin they readily repent, as evidenced by their removal of the crowns that they gained at Sinai (ibid. 5).
Rambam writes (Hilchot Gerushin 1; 1) that a bill of divorce (get) may only be written with the voluntary consent of the husband. Yet later (2; 20) he writes that in a case where the law mandates that a husband should give his wife a get and he refuses, the beis din (Jewish court of law) should whip him until he says 'I want to give my wife a get'. The Rambam is telling us that sometimes a person's stubbornness gets in the way of their true intentions. Therefore whipping them removes the stubbornness, and enables them to give the divorce willingly.
In a sense this is what G-d was doing to Pharaoh. He smote him and all of Egypt with plagues to see whether he would repent and let the Jews go voluntarily. Only after the sixth plague, when it was clear that Pharaoh's inner desire was not to repent did G-d actually intervene to harden his heart. By this time if Pharaoh were to repent it would not be in order to bring him closer to G-d, but only to avoid the plagues. He had reached the point where he needed to follow through and see the consequences of his actions, and receive his due punishment.
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Summary of Parshat Vaera
Hashem tells Moshe to inform the Jewish People that He is going to take them out of Egypt; however the Jewish People do not listen. Hashem then commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh and tell him to free the Jewish People. Although Aaron shows Pharaoh a sign by turning a staff into a snake, Pharaoh's magicians copy the sign, emboldening Pharaoh to refuse the request.
Hashem punishes the Egyptians and sends plagues of blood and frogs, but the magicians copy the miracles on a smaller scale, again encouraging Pharaoh not to grant Moshe's request. However, after the plague of lice, even Pharaoh's magicians concede that only the one true G-d could be performing these miracles.
Only the Egyptians suffer during the plagues, not the Jews in Goshen. The plagues continue with wild animals, pestilence, boils and fiery hail. However Pharaoh continues to harden his heart and refuses to let the Jews go despite Moshe's offers to end the plagues if he will let them leave Egypt.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
SUFFERING AND REWARD
Today we begin the book of Exodus, which describes the Israelites' passage from the bondage of Egypt to the religious freedom of the Sinai desert that enabled them to receive the Torah, and construct the tabernacle. Every year at Pesach we give thanks to G-d for bringing us out of slavery. Why should we give thanks to G-d for saving us when it was He who brought exile upon us in the first place?
The Egyptian exile is the answer to Avraham's question.
G-d said to Avraham, "I am G-d Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it." Avraham replied, "My L-rd, How shall I know that I am to inherit it?" And G-d said to Avraham, "Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own..." (Genesis 15; 7 - 14).
We see from here that the promise that the Jews would inherit the Land of Israel is dependent on their having been slaves in a foreign land first.
The harsh bondage was intended to kill off the Jews. The irony of the slavery was that it achieved the exact opposite of what Pharaoh planned, "But as much as they would afflict them, so they would increase and spread out" (Exodus 1; 11). The slavery made the Jews so populous, leading to the exponential growth of the nation from 70 souls to millions in only three generations. The only tribe to remain comparatively small in number was the tribe of Levi, who we know from tradition were the only tribe not subject to slavery.
In the same way that the Egyptian exile created the nation numerically, it also led to a national consciousness and identity. Only through slavery were the Israelites able to appreciate the freedom that the Torah offered them, only through having first been slaves to Pharaoh were they able to subsequently subjugate themselves to become servants of G-d.
It also created the nation spiritually. The Talmud tells is that there are three things which were only acquired through suffering, Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come (Berachot 5a). Elsewhere (ibid. 8a) the Talmud tells us that affliction cleans away sin. The simple explanation of this is that as long as a person is involved in seeking physical comforts it is very difficult for them to elevate themselves to a point where they can appreciate the spiritual dimensions of life. However, when the Jews were in slavery they had all material comforts removed from them, leading to their search for G-d. This is the meaning of the verses, "The Children of Israel groaned because of the work, and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to G-d and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham..." (ibid. 2; 23 - 4). Only through this were the Jews able to appreciate and recognise the ultimate redemption from Egypt, and the revelation of G-d's presence then, and at Mount Sinai. The suffering which breaks the body allows the soul to be set free, and search for G-d.
However, afflicting the body to allow the inner spark of spirituality to shine through only works when there is an inner spark of goodness bound and confined within that body. Avraham's total faith created an inner quest for spirituality amongst his descendants. Without that, suffering and exile would be meaningless. This was G-d's answer to "How will I know?" - the exile is proof of an inner spark of sanctity which will guarantee the inheritance of the Land of Israel.
We can contrast this with Esav and his descendants, who were never persecuted or exiled. Rashi (to ibid. 36; 7) explains that Esav left the Land of Israel in order to avoid the obligation of slavery in a foreign land. By renouncing his rights to Israel, he also avoided suffering for his children. Ya'akov understood that the promise of the Land of Israel, and the eternal closeness to G-d which that brings, outweighed the temporary suffering of the Egyptian slavery. Esav, who was concerned only with material possessions saw no point in immediate suffering for what could only be a long term gain.
Only through the crucible of Egypt could they emerge as a nation able to receive G-d's promised rewards.
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Years later, Moshe witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and in anger kills the Egyptian. Moshe realises his life is in danger and flees to Midian where he rescues Tzipporah, whose father Yisro approves their subsequent marriage.
On Chorev (Mt. Sinai), Moshe witnesses the "burning bush" where Hashem commands him to lead the Jewish People from Egypt to the Land of Israel, which Hashem promised to their ancestors. Moshe protests that the Jewish People in Egypt will doubt him being Hashem's agent, so Hashem helps Moshe perform three miraculous transformations to validate him in the eyes of the people: Changing his staff into a snake, his healthy hand into a leprous one, and water into blood. When Moshe declares that he is not a good public speaker, Hashem tells him that his brother Aaron will be his spokesman.
Aaron greets Moshe on his return to Egypt and they petition Pharaoh to release the Jews. Pharaoh responds with even harsher decrees, declaring that the Jews must produce the same quota of bricks as before, but without being given supplies. The people become dispirited, but Hashem assures Moshe that He will force Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave.
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