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Parshas Vaeira - Vol. 10, Issue 14
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Prior to beginning the narrative of the redemption from Egypt, Parshas Vaeira first details the genealogy of its protagonists by recording the names of the children of the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, at which point the Torah proceeds to enumerate Levi's descendants and traces them down to Moshe and Aharon. However, the Shelah HaKadosh points out that in listing Levi's children, the Torah uses a peculiar expression. After mentioning the children of Reuven and Shimon, the Torah records, "These are the names of the sons of Levi in order of their birth: Gershon, Kehas, and Merari." Why does the Torah emphasize that these are the names of Levi's sons, a point which is not mentioned in conjunction with the sons of Reuven and Shimon?
The Shelah HaKadosh answers based on Rashi's comment (5:4) that the tribe of Levi was exempted from Pharaoh's enslavement of the Jewish people and therefore lived relatively easy and comfortable lives. As such, it would have been easy for them to isolate themselves in Goshen, learning Torah all day and turning a blind eye to the plight of their brethren.
Levi prophetically knew of this in advance, and in order to combat these feelings, he specifically gave his children names that would eternally remind them that even though they were not physically enslaved, they should still empathize with the plight of their suffering brethren, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses the significance of the names he gave them. Specifically, the name Gershon alludes to the fact that the Jewish people were considered foreigners and temporary dwellers in Egypt, not fitting in and belonging there. Kehas hints to the fact that the backbreaking labor set the slaves' teeth on edge, and Merari refers to the bitterness of their predicament in Egypt.
Rabbi Yissocher Frand notes that Levi's plan was successful. The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 2:5) teaches that when Moshe observed the burning bush (3:2), his reaction was to deduce that if the bush can burn without being consumed, this is an indication that so too the Jewish people will be able to endure their slavery in Egypt without being destroyed. This episode occurred 40 years after Moshe left Egypt, yet even though he was removed from the pain of his brethren by both time and geography, their suffering was so much on his mind that his immediate response to seeing the burning bush was to connect the two seemingly disparate subjects. This is exactly what Levi intended when he gave his children names that represented the plight of the Jewish slaves so that they would constantly think about them and feel their pain, even though they themselves were exempt from the physical enslavement.
As a contemporary application of this concept, the Chofetz Chaim's wife once panicked when she awoke in the middle of the night to find his bed empty. When she discovered him sleeping on the floor and asked for an explanation, he told her that with World War I raging around them and Jews being chased from their homes all across Europe, how could he possibly allow himself the pleasure of sleeping in a comfortable bed? Similarly, when a great fire ravaged most of the Jewish section of the town of Brisk, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (the Rav of the town, whose house was spared) insisted on sleeping in the synagogue together with the rest of his homeless congregants in order to share in their distress. These two vignettes aren't at all surprising, considering that the Chofetz Chaim was a Kohen and Rav Chaim was a Levi, and they clearly learned well the message taught by their ancestor Levi.
Although today the Jewish people are not collectively enslaved, there are still many Jews suffering - in France, in Israel, and in our own synagogues - and Levi's message is still relevant to each of us. So many times we hear of other people's pain, only to dismiss it as not germane to our comfortable lives. Levi teaches us that the suffering of every single Jew is indeed relevant to us, and in order to truly empathize with their plights, verbal declarations of support and understanding are insufficient. In order to truly identify with their distress, we must take concrete steps that become part of our everyday lives.
Although we typically associate Moshe Rabbeinu with bringing the ten plagues upon Egypt, a careful examination of the verses reveals that Hashem actually commanded Moshe to have Aharon bring about the first three plagues. Rashi explains that because Moshe had gratitude to the river which had protected him when he was placed there as an infant, it was inappropriate for him to strike the water for the first two plagues (blood and frogs). This sense of appreciation is understandable, as the water sheltered him, and it was there that Pharaoh's daughter discovered and rescued him.
However, regarding the third plague - lice - Rashi's explanation (8:12) that it was inappropriate for Moshe to strike the same ground which protected him by hiding the body of the Egyptian that he slew is difficult to understand. Although Moshe thought that nobody saw the killing, in reality Dasan and Aviram witnessed the murder. They informed on him to Pharaoh, who would have killed Moshe if not for a miracle that saved his life (Rashi 2:14-15). Practically speaking, the ground did absolutely nothing to benefit or assist Moshe in any way. If so, why did he feel gratitude toward it, and why couldn't he strike it himself to bring about the plague of lice?
In his commentary on the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 10:7), the Maharzu suggests that the ground provided Moshe temporary peace-of-mind by allowing him to think for at least one day that his killing would go unnoticed. I would like to alternately suggest that the Torah is teaching us the fallacy of a common English expression.
If we give of our precious time, energy, and heart in an earnest attempt to help somebody out, only to have our efforts fail, the average American will tell us, "Thanks for nothing." This expression indicates that he owes us no debt of gratitude for our efforts and not-so-subtly suggests that next time we should just mind our own business. However, the Torah teaches that because the ground was willing to help and tried to be of assistance in doing its best to cover up the taskmaster's corpse, Moshe was obligated to show his appreciation for its good-faith efforts and was unable to strike it to bring about the plague of lice.
Similarly, in Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah stipulates (22:30) that upon discovering that an animal in his flock or herd has been killed by wild animals, the owner must give the carcass to the dogs, a connection which doesn't seem to be readily apparent. The Daas Z'keinim explains that most farmers and shepherds employ guard dogs to protect their animals against predators. Presumably, when the wolf stealthily came to attack in the middle of the night, the dog detected its presence and fought valiantly, albeit unsuccessfully, to ward it off.
For this effort, as well as for its successful guarding of all of the other animals until now, the Torah requires the owner to show gratitude to the dog by presenting it with the dead animal's remains. As we saw with Moshe and the ground, the Torah orders us not to fall prey to the fallacious thinking of "Thanks for nothing," but rather to focus on the fact that the dog was willing to help and tried to be of assistance in doing its best to protect the animals, and to show appreciation for its good-faith efforts by rewarding it with the carcass.
I once shared this thought in a shiur that I gave. Later that week, a woman called to say that her husband had offered to help her clean the floor before Shabbos. Unfortunately, although his intentions were good, his cleaning skills left something to be desired. She explained that when he finished, not only was the floor still a mess, but it would take her considerable work just to get it back to where he started. She was about to tell him, "Thanks for nothing," when she remembered the lesson she learned at that week's shiur.
So many times a relative, a co-worker, or a shadchan will volunteer to try to help us out. Unfortunately, these efforts don't always lead to the results we were hoping for. The next time it happens, instead of rubbing the failure in to somebody who already feels badly enough, let us remember the lessons of Moshe Rabbeinu and of the guard dogs and express our sincere appreciation for their time and good intentions.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) At the time of Moshe's birth, his parents are referred to generically as a man and a woman from the tribe of Levi (2:1-2). Their names are only mentioned for the first time in this week's parsha (6:20), after Moshe had already been chosen to redeem the Jewish people. As his parents obviously possessed great holiness in order to merit giving birth to such a special child, why are their names omitted until much later? (Kehillas Yitzchok, Darash Moshe)
2) The Torah records (6:23) that Aharon married Elisheva, the sister of Nachshon. Rashi writes that from the fact that the Torah mentions the seemingly extraneous detail about Elisheva's brother, we may derive that before marrying a woman, one should first examine her brothers, because her sons will grow up to be similar to them. If a woman has two brothers, of whom one is righteous and one is wicked, is it appropriate to marry her? (Shu"t Imrei Dovid 38)
3) The word in the Torah containing the most letters is in Parshas Va'eira. What is it?
4) What critical role did the octopus play in the plagues in Egypt? (Seder HaDoros 2447)
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