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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt and I will save you from their work and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements.
Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, the rosh yeshivah of Baranovitz, was a person of true modesty. Once, when someone asked him for the customary blessing from a tzaddik, Rabbi Wasserman's answer was, "Believe me, if you knew me the way I know myself, you would not ask for a blessing."
His students relate that he begged not to be given an aliyab to the Torah on rosh Hashanah. The surprised students asked, "But, Rabbi, the halachah states that a person should try to obtain an aliyab during the "Ten Days of Repentance." How, then, can you refuse?"
The Rabbi answered modestly, "I am afraid to standout during the Days of judgement, since I might come under scrutiny. I prefer to be obscure, as it is written, 'Among my nation I dwell.' " 1
Rabbi Moshe Blau told of the time he met Rabbi Wasserman at the Agudah conference of 1937, during one of the meetings of Gedolei Torah. A problem was presented to the great rabbis, and one rabbi announced, "I request that anyone who is not a rabbi or an admor, should leave the hall."
To Rabbi Blau's surprise, Rabbi Wasserman started to leave the hall. Rabbi Blau asked him, "What is the rosh yeshivah doing? They are now disputing a matter concerning which your advice greatly needed."
Rabbi Wasserman answered in complete simplicity, "Reb Moshe did you not hear the announcement that anyone who is not a rabbi or an admor should leave the hall? I am neither a rabbi nor admor!"
Rabbi Wasserman did not see his being a rosh yeshivah as opportunity to gain honor, but rather as an opportunity be humble. This exemplifies for us how one can utilize opportunities to do good no matter how tempting it is to do otherwise. In marriage, many such tests arise where we must consciously choose to be good to our spouses even though it would be easier to get angry or say something hurtful.
What was different about Egypt, that it was chosen among all the nations for Israel to enter [for servitude]? The Sages answered that at that time the Egyptians ruled from one end of the world to the other. G-d said, "There is no nation that is more loathsome in sin and in ugly and unfitting actions, more full of witchcraft, promiscuity, and suspected of all evil, than the Egyptians."
Therefore, suffering came to the Jews through them, and G-d wanted to make pleasant His Great Name through them [the Egyptians]. And in the future also the nations of the world will stumble because of Israel, as it is written, "And on that day I shall place Jerusalem as a stone of burden."2 (YALKUT 182)
Why does the midrash question how Egypt was selected from the other nations, when it seems obvious that they had chosen to take Israel into bondage of their own free will? Why is it significant that Egypt ruled over the entire world? How did it come about that Israel was enslaved by a nation infamous for its many sins? What does the midrash mean when it says, "G-d wanted to make pleasant His Great Name through them"? And what is the midrash referring to concerning the future of other nations?
Regarding the question of how Egypt was different from other nations, we have a rule that "Good things are brought about by good people, and bad things by evil people." 3 In other words, even though we are given free choice, we are helped by Heaven to go in the direction that we have chosen for ourselves. Therefore, when someone strives to do mitzvos, he is surrounded by many opportunities to do mitzvos. And when a person strives to do sins, he is given ample opportunities to make progress in that direction also.
G-d had already decided that Israel would go into bondage, as it is written, "You should know that your descendants will be strangers in a land that does not belong to them, and they will enslave them and cause them pain." 4 The "privilege" of doing this dire work of enslaving Israel was given to the most wicked nation, in order to give that nation an opportunity to accumulate even more sins. Since Egypt was notorious for its wickedness, it was given the opportunity to take on the task of enslaving Israel.
Our Sages also say, "In the path that a person wants to go, he is led." 5 This means that when a person wants to pursue a certain lifestyle, he is allowed to do it and is even helped to progress in that direction. Since the Egyptians were so evil, they were more than willing to take advantage of other people and even enslave them. The Egyptians were given free will when it came to deciding if they would refrain from oppressing Israel, but they gladly took advantage of the opportunity and welcomed it with open arms.
It is significant that we are told that Egypt ruled over the entire world because it gives us a clearer picture of how it was possible for a nation to deteriorate to such a low level spiritually. The more a person attains in material wealth and power, the more he is inclined to utilize that wealth and power for gratifying his own selfish desires and fantasies. If Egypt had not had all that power, they would have been more humble and would have been less tempted to commit such extreme evils.
We see in this example how wealth can be a person's downfall. This concept is also attested to by King Shlomo when he says, "Wealth kept by its owner to do him harm." 6 In other words, a person will see that his wealth is more often a liability than an asset. I heard in the name of Rav Eliezer Shach shlita, the great rosh yeshivah of Poneviz in Bnei-Brak, that he had been saved by his lack of wealth. He related that when he was a young man, he had married a girl without any assets, while many of his friends had found rich shidduchim and had thus accumulated wealth. When the enemies of the Jews invaded his hometown, all his rich friends went to gather their riches, but he, being poor, fled immediately. His being poor saved his life, since the others were caught and executed, while he was able to escape. This is a sadly graphic example of how a person's wealth can be his downfall.
To answer the question as to why Israel was enslaved by a nation that was infamous for its sins, we might say that this was part of Israel's spiritual test, to see whether they would learn to emulate the actions of the Egyptians or remain separate from them and their sins. Israel was very careful in this respect, as our Sages say, "They did not change their names, their language, etc."7 The more sins the Egyptians committed, the greater was the trial for the Israelites. Thus Israel was enslaved to a nation as wicked as Egypt in order to intensify their spiritual trial.
"G-d wanted to make pleasant His Great Name through them." The midrash is referring here to what is known as a kiddush Hashem. When the wicked are finally punished, that brings about a sanctification of His name, since it is now clearly apparent that G-d rules the world and He has final and absolute control over everyone, even those who are not doing His will. That is what the midrash means by "making pleasant His Great Name."
"And in the future also the nations of the world will stumble because of Israel, as it is written, 'And on that day, I shall place Jerusalem as a stone of burden.' "8 This process that we witnessed in Egypt is but a preview of what will be seen in the future when G-d will judge the nations of the world. All the nations that caused pain to Israel will be punished, since they had the opportunity to be kind to Israel, and they chose rather to cause harm. Therefore Israel is called their stumbling block, since it is through their contact with Israel that they will ultimately bring punishment on themselves.
Just as the Egyptians were given the choice to do good or to do evil, so too, being married presents us with numerous situations which test us to see if we will perform mitzvos or choose to sin. For example, many times when some minor disagreement comes up, you can either react with nasty remarks and insults that make your spouse feel bad, or else you can consider that this pain was sent from Heaven as recompense for your sins, and therefore you can choose to just smile and wait patiently the crisis to pass. Every encounter that you have with your spouse is really a spiritual trial. Every word you utter, every facial expression and every action you do can either make your spouse happy or cause anger and sadness. It is up to you to decide how you will treat your spouse. Since most people spend a good part of their lives at home, it is possible to add many mitzvos or G-d forbid, sins, which will weigh heavily when the Day of judgement comes. Thus being thoughtful will bring us great advantages both in this world and the next.
"In the path that a person wants to go he is led." 9 Once we begin to be good husbands and wives, we will be led in the right direction and it will become easier and easier as positive traits and positive values will become ingrained into our personal natures and our lifestyles.
I. Melacbim H 4:13
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network