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Parshas Vaeira - Vol. 11, Issue 14
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Hashem instructed Moshe to tell the Jewish people that He will take them out from under the burdens of their suffering. Although the verse literally refers to Hashem taking the Jews out from under the burdens placed upon them by Pharaoh and their Egyptian taskmasters, the Chiddushei HaRim suggests an alternate reading which teaches a powerful lesson.
The same words that mean "the suffering caused by the Egyptians" can also mean "the patience to tolerate life in Egypt." As difficult as their life was in Egypt, the Jews had grown accustomed to it and learned to cope. It represented the only stability they had ever known, and they didn't even feel an intense desire to be redeemed and go free into the unknown. Hashem told Moshe to hint to the Jews that the first prerequisite to their salvation was the creation of a desire and willingness to be saved.
The Medrash emphasizes the magnitude of the miracle involved in redeeming an entire nation from slavery in Egypt by recording that prior to the Exodus, not a single slave every successfully escaped from Egypt. While the simple understanding is that this was due to an effective system of policing the borders, Rav Gedaliah Schorr suggests that it was due less to physical control than to mind control. He suggests that the reason no slave ever escaped was because none of them ever tried. Egypt had such an effective system of brainwashing the slaves and convincing them that life beyond the border offered nothing they were currently lacking that they grew complacent and content with their existence.
The following anecdote presents a modern application of this idea. When the town of Brisk needed a Rav, they offered the position to the Beis HaLevi, who refused. Undeterred, the community sent back messengers to inform the Beis HaLevi that 25,000 Jews were anxiously awaiting his arrival at the train station in Brisk. This message caused him to reconsider and accept the position.
Upon hearing this story, the Chofetz Chaim burst into tears. He explained, "If the Beis HaLevi couldn't refuse 25,000 Jews eagerly anticipating his arrival, surely Moshiach can't do so either. His delay in coming can only be due to the fact that we've grown so accustomed to our comfortable lives in golus (exile) that we don't feel lacking and aren't yearning for the final redemption," a message we can sadly relate to all too well amidst the abundant creature comforts we enjoy in 21st-century America.
In challenging Moshe and Aharon, Pharaoh insisted that they perform a miracle to back up their threats and prove their abilities. Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein writes that throughout the generations, there has always been a need for Rabbis to know how to similarly prove themselves in their fights on behalf of Torah-true Judaism. When Rav Shimon Sofer, son of the Chasam Sofer, became Rav of Krakow, which was one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland, he was a mere 24 years old and understood the need to quickly assert his authority.
In his first public speech, Rav Sofer recounted that in the city of Pressburg, where his father served as Rav, one of the non-observant Jews dared to break with established tradition and began publicly opening his store on Shabbos. The Chasam Sofer sent two students from the yeshiva to warn the man to close his store, but he insulted them and refused to comply. When they were sent back a second time, he chased them away and threatened to attack them if they dared show up again.
When the Chasam Sofer instructed them to return a third time, they expressed fear about their well-being. He taught them one of Hashem's mystical names, instructing them that if the man threatens them, they should touch the nearest mezuzah while concentrating on this name. When the man saw them coming near, he began to approach them menacingly. They quickly ran to the nearest mezuzah while focusing on the name that they had been taught, at which point the storekeeper dropped dead.
At this point, Rav Shimon Sofer dramatically looked around the room packed with congregants old enough to be his grandfather, and concluded that he was one of the two students, and he still remembered the name. Suffice it to say that from this point on, his rulings were accepted with the awe normally accorded an older and more experienced Rav.
A number of our greatest Rabbis (Rambam, Rabbeinu Yonah, Meiri, Vilna Gaon) write in their commentaries on Pirkei Avos (5:4) that although nine of the ten plagues in Egypt didn't affect the Jews in any way, the lice which afflicted Egypt during the third plague also infested the land of Goshen where the Jews lived. However, the lice didn't cause the Jews any suffering as they did the Egyptians. Where is this astonishing fact alluded to, and what was the reason for it?
The Mishmeres Ariel brings a strikingly simple proof to this claim. Rashi writes (Bereishis 47:29) that one of Yaakov's reasons for requesting that Yosef not bury him in Egypt was to avoid the lice that would be swarming in the ground. However, if the lice were nowhere to be found in the land of Goshen, Yaakov could have simply made Yosef swear to bury him there instead of burdening him to carry his body all the way to the land of Israel. From the fact that Yaakov made him do so, we can deduce that he knew that this option wouldn't be sufficient to alleviate his concern because the lice would also be present in Goshen.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky suggests the reason for this peculiarity was that in the first two plagues, Pharaoh's magicians were able to duplicate the actual plague. As such, the only proof that Moshe and Aharon's plagues were caused by Hashem and not through sorcery was the fact that they miraculously stopped at the borders of the Jewish land of Goshen. During the plague of lice, on the other hand, Pharaoh's magicians were unable to copy the plague. They freely admitted that it must have been performed by Hashem, and there was therefore no need for the additional miracle of preventing the lice from entering the land of Goshen.
The Vilna Gaon is bothered by several apparent inconsistencies in the Torah's description of the damage done by the plague of pestilence. Initially, the Torah states that not a single animal belonging to the Jews died. However, the wording of the second verse indicates that although not more than one Jew lost animals, one Jew did indeed suffer at the hands of the plague. Additionally, the first verse discusses "the animals of the children of Israel," while the latter refers simply to "the animals of Israel."
Finally, as difficult as Pharaoh's actions throughout this entire period are difficult to understand, there is generally some minimal logic to his stubbornness. Here, however, the Torah seems to indicate that hearing that the plague didn't affect the animals of the Jews somehow caused him to further harden his heart, which seems quite counter-intuitive.
The Vilna Gaon brilliantly resolves all of these difficulties with a single piece of information. Rashi writes (2:11) that one of the Egyptian taskmasters set his eyes on a Jewish woman by the name of Shlomis bas Divri. One night he ordered her husband out of the house and entered pretending to be him, and a child was born from that union. However, the Ramban (Vayikra 24:10) quotes an opinion that before the Torah was given, a person's nationality was determined by his father. If so, the son of the taskmaster and Shlomis was considered a non-Jew.
Although the first verse states that among the children of Israel, which refers to proper Jews, - no animals died, the animals of Shlomis's son were indeed stricken together with those of the Egyptians. It is to his animals that the second verse refers in hinting that one Jew - somebody viewed as a Jew even though in reality he wasn't - was afflicted. Upon hearing the news that the Jews weren't completely spared from the plague, Pharaoh attributed the entire episode to one big coincidence, and not surprisingly, he hardened his heart and refused to free the Jews.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi writes (6:13) that in instructing Moshe and Aharon to approach Pharaoh and demand the release of the Jewish people, Hashem also commanded them to speak to him respectfully and give him the honor to which a king was entitled. As Pharaoh was among the greatest oppressors of the Jews in history, was it really so important that he be treated with dignity? (Ohr Yahel)
2) The Torah records (6:25) that Elozar the son of Aharon took for himself one of the daughters of Putiel as a wife for himself, and she bore for him Pinchas. Why does the Torah stress three times in one verse that Elozar's wife and her actions were "for him?" (HaAmek Davar)
3) Were any of the Egyptians spared from the plague of blood? (Meshech Chochmah, Ayeles HaShachar, Matamei Yaakov)
4) As Moshe was preparing to leave the city to pray for the end of the hail, he informed Pharaoh (9:30) that he recognized that Pharaoh still didn't fear "Hashem Elokim." This is the first time since Parshas Bereishis (3:23) that these two names of Hashem are used in conjunction. What is the significance of this? (Shu"t Maharshdam Orach Chaim 3, Aleinu L'shabeiach)
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