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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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And I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt will I execute judgement, I am the L-rd.
In the year 5569 (1809) war broke out between France and Austria and the city of Pressburg was under siege. During this time, the Chasam Sofer went through a terrible experience and only through a miracle was his life saved. This is his story.
Some Jews who lived in Pressburg endangered their lives by buying weapons from villagers who had collected them from the battlegrounds. At that time France ruled over Pressburg and demanded that all weapons be turned in to the French authorities. But the Jews sent the weapons they had bought to Austrian headquarters, where the Kaiser paid a high price for them.
One day when these Jews were dividing their profits, an argument broke out among them about how to split the money. This dispute was brought before the beis din of Pressburg over which the Chasam Sofer presided. The beis din decided in favor of one of the parties. The winning party decided to confirm their victory in the local gentile court as well.
When the case came before the judges, they immediately realized that it involved a serious criminal act, and informed the French authorities. As a consequence the French military court charged the Chasam Sofer with illegally authorizing trading in weapons in an effort to assist the enemy. Since the beis din was under the Chasam Sofer's authority, they held him responsible. The Chasam Sofer faced charges of helping the enemy in time of war, a very serious offense. As such he would stand trial at a military court.
A great fear fell over the Jewish community since they knew that the punishment for treason was death. They looked for a way for the Chasam Sofer to escape Pressburg. The leaders of the community, however, were somehow convinced that the Chasam Sofer could stand trial and that G-d would save their beloved rabbi from harm. In the city, a large sum of money was collected to cover the expenses of the trial.
The day of the trial arrived. When the Chasam Sofer entered the courtroom, he was struck with fear. The judges sat in a semi-circle wearing army uniforms with stern faces and their swords drawn.
The presiding judge was a French army officer with the rank of general. He tried to pacify the Chasam Sofer, telling him that he need not worry, the drawn sword was merely a military procedure to give the accused a feeling of awe. The general ordered all the judges to sheath their swords. Then he waited a while until the Chasam Sofer had calmed down before he began the trial.
After hearing the Chasam Sofer, who spoke eloquently and logically, judgement was passed in his favor and he was acquitted of all charges.
Afterwards, the general and the Chasam Sofer went into private conference behind locked doors. This amazed everyon present.
Later, the Chasam Sofer explained what had happened. Many years earlier when the Chasam Sofer was a young boy, he had studied in the city of Mintz and had lodged there in the house of a wealthy man. When Napolean's army conquered the city, a few soldiers stayed at this wealthy man's house. One of them, a talented young officer, became friendly with the Chasam Sofer, and offered to teach him various things if he would serve him. The Chasam Sofer agreed and cleaned his shoes, washed his clothes, and performed other services that he needed.
Over the years, the officer rose in rank and became a general. This man happened to be the presiding judge at the Chasam Sofer's trial. He had immediately recognized that the rabbi in front of him was the boy he had liked so much, and therefore he made sure that the Chasam Sofer was acquitted. Then, when they met privately afterwards, he revealed his identity to the Chasam Sofer.
The Chasam Sofer remarked that the unusual friendship he had formed in his youth was a perfect example of the many things in our lives which have a significance we do not comprehend initially, but only later can be understood.
The Chasam Sofer saw that what had happened in his childhood had a great influence later in life. Similarly, if we watch our children grow up and see that they fail to meet our expectations, the reason may be that we have not set a proper example in their childhood for them to follow. A child does not learn primarily from sermons, but rather from the actions of his parents. Their example has a profound influence on all aspects of his character and personality.
"And I will pass through the land of Egypt."(1) On this word "pass" Rabbi Yehudah says, "as a king that passes from place to place." Another explanation is, "I shall give my anger and fear in Egypt." [The word for "pass" in Hebrew can also mean anger.]
What are our Sages referring to when they speak of G-d's anger? What is the significance of G-d punishing Egypt without using an angel or some other messenger? Why did the firstborn of other countries also die? Why should an Egyptian firstborn living in another country be killed when it seems that he did not participate in the affliction of the Jewish people? What difference does it make who receives punishment or reward first, when in the end all will get what they deserve? What is the significance of the difference of opinion as to whether the gods of stone disintegrated or rotted? Why should the gods receive a greater punishment than those who worshipped them, when one would think that the worshipper is more guilty than the god, which is merely a rock or a piece of wood?
"I shall give my anger and fear in Egypt."
The wrath that is expressed by G-d is not anger as we understand it, since G-d is not human. When our Sages say that G-d sent His anger upon Egypt, they are teaching us that not only were the Jewish people saved from the Egyptians, but G-d was also meting out exact punishment as recompense for all the suffering of Israel. Our Sages often ascribe to G-d various human emotions as metaphors to aid our understanding of His interactions with His world.
The significance of saying that G-d punished Egypt by Himself and not through an angel or some other messenger is that we can learn from this how great G-d's affection was for the Jewish people. G-d does not lack messengers to do His will. However, just as a human being who has many servants will nevertheless insist on personally doing something which he enjoys, so too, G-d loved the Jewish people so much that He wanted to avenge them on His own. One shouldn't think that G-d had a desire for revenge; rather His motivation for acting as such was to impress on us our importance to Him.
...This includes even the firstborn from other countries.
Although the firstborns of other nations may have not oppressed the Jewish people, they witnessed our suffering and did not protest. Our Sages say that someone who does not protest when he is able to is considered an accomplice.(11) We find, for example, that this is the reason why Iyov was punished so severely.(12)
This may also be the reason why only the firstborn were killed and not other members of the family. The firstborn is looked up to in every family and is in many ways considered the elder of the house. His opinion is revered because of his position in the family. Therefore the firstborn, through their silence, carried a greater responsibility for the oppression of the Jewish people and consequently bore the brunt of the punishment.
Why should an Egyptian firstborn living in another country be killed when it seems that he did not participate in the affliction of the Jewish people? Since the firstborn has the responsibility of being the leader in his family, although he may have been in another country, he was given great respect even there, and he certainly could have protested against the oppression of the Jewish people.
It did not save them to be in another country at the time of the killing of the firstborn, since the hand of G-d reaches everywhere. This is what the verse says, "If a man shall hide himself in a secret place, shall I not see him?"(13)
"From man to animal." This verse teaches the chronological order of who was afflicted.
Man was punished before the animals since they were the first to act improperly. G-d's punishments are not random, but rather measured and precise. Since human beings sinned before the animals, the animals had more time to live in peace before they were afflicted, even if only for a few moments. All is calculated to the minutest detail, as the verse says, "The Rock, His actions are complete, all of His ways are just."14 There is not the smallest flaw in G-d's punishments, since all His judgements are exact and true. We may not always understand them, but here the Torah explains these so that we can learn from them to better understand the ones happening in our own generation and in our own personal lives.
G-d desires to reward, not punish. Therefore, when it comes to punishing, G-d tends to procrastinate. But when it comes to rewarding, G-d does not hold Himself back, since this is a demonstration of His true will. Here also the minutest details have importance. If a person is quicker to do a mitzvah than others, those few seconds he precedes them will be taken into account; and his reward will be greater. Everything is carefully measured; every single good deed receives its proper and full reward. From G-d's care in punishing transgressors, we can deduce that we will certainly be paid for our merits, although it may not be in this world. Reward in the World to Come is more worthwhile, since it lasts for eternity.
The opinion that the gods of stone disintegrated implies that G-d gave a punishment to the stone but did not do anything extraordinary, since it is the nature of a stone to disintegrate if it is subjected to strong pressure. The second opinion asserts that something which is contrary to the laws of nature occurred, since a stone cannot naturally rot.
Each explanation has different implications. The first implies that it was enough that all the gods of the Egyptians fell apart to show their powerlessness and G-d's omnipotence. If this had not happened, people might have thought that their idols were responsible for the miraculous events. The second opinion is that it was not enough for them to fall apart, since that would not necessarily show that anything extraordinary had toppled their idols. Only an open miracle would sufficiently make the point that the gods of Egypt were being punished for their participation in all the evil that had occurred.
We see the gods received four punishments, while those who worshipped them received only three...
Why should the gods receive a greater punishment than those who worshipped them? After all, the gods were merely stones or pieces of wood. Our Sages say that something that causes a person to sin is also punished. We see this principle in the law that an animal is to be killed when a human being commits bestiality with it.(15) Clearly the animal lacks the proper intelligence to restrain itself from this act. Nevertheless, because it was the instrument which brought a person to sin, it too must be punished.
This same idea applies here to the punishment of Egypt's gods. They were merely stone and wood, and of course could not be guilty of any wrongful behavior by themselves. However, they contributed to the Egyptians' sinning, since they were the objects they needed to practice idolatry. Therefore they also had to be punished, just like the animal involved in bestiality.
The fact that they were afflicted more severely than the Egyptians themselves shows us that it is worse to cause others to sin than to sin oneself. The reasoning here is that when a person sins, he usually has some personal pleasure which entices him. But causing another to sin does not give pleasure, and thus is truly wickedness for its own sake. This is alluded to by the Torah when it tells us that the punishment of the gods was greater than that of the Egyptians.
Just as people can be influenced to sin, so too they can be influenced to act righteously. Our children need encouragement to do the right thing and to restrain themselves from doing wrong. They need our help to develop the traits which lead to proper behavior.
It is not sufficient to preach to your children, as this often does not penetrate a child's heart. We need to show that our actions are consistent with what we are saying.
When the child hears a "sermon" he says to himself, "Now my father is in a bad mood, and I had better not answer back. I will let him finish and let off steam, and them I can do as I please." Don't expect your child to be so full of yiras shamayim that the moment you tell him what is right and wrong, he will jump to act properly. He is only a child, and has not yet reached that level. You have to show him what is important in life and for what it is worthwhile to strive.
If a child hears from his father the importance of Torah, but sees that his father hardly ever opens a sefer to learn, it becomes apparent that his words are hollow. You cannot fool a child. He perceives what is really important to you. A father can convince his child that he loves Torah only if he himself learns, and has fixed times designated exclusively for Torah study. One's constant occupation with Torah will surely help the child appreciate how valuable it is.
It is not enough just for the father to learn. He must also make a point of showing his child how much he loves learning. When he says something from the Torah he should say it with enthusiasm and a smile. This outward joy conveys to a child how wonderful it is to learn Torah. When you are with a child and you meet a friend, ask the friend what he has learned lately, so that the child can see where your interests lie. Only by loving Torah yourself can you instill in your child the same feeling.
Say a devar Torah at the table while the family is eating. Ask your son to say a devar Torah, and listen carefully to what he says. When he finishes, repeat what he has said, to show him that you were paying close attention. Ask him questions to better understand him, but avoid making him look wrong, since that will only discourage him. When he finishes, praise him and show him that you really enjoyed hearing what he had to say. Tell your wife or your guests, in front of the child, how beautifully he spoke. This will show him that you are not just saying this to make him feel good, but what he said was so important that you are recounting his achievements to others.
You yourself must exemplify good middos. If you lose your temper in front of the child, he will rationalize that he can do the same. If you call your child bad names, it is likely that he will do the same to his own children. Show your child that you are patient and loving, so that he will adopt these traits. These will not be internalized from a sermon, only from seeing them manifest in your own actions.
If you are donating money to a yeshivah, try to do it in front of your child so he will see in practice the mitzvah of charity. Show him your charity account so he will see how you carefully deduct from your income ten percent for charity. This does not mean that you should disclose to him your entire income, but you can show him a specific segment that you earned and the corresponding sum that you gave. Giving charity is a particularly hard mitzvah for people to fulfill, and a child must see it being done in order to have it instilled in his heart.
Mothers should be role models for their daughters regarding the laws of family purity. Since this is always done privately, the mother can explain that although she cannot be explicit about the day she goes to the mikveh, she wants her daughter to know that she goes whenever necessary. A daughter before marriage should be given a basic tutoring of the laws involved and she should be informed where the local mikveh is located. If a daughter is never made aware of these things, she might think that her family does not practice family purity, and when she gets older it may be too late.
A commonly overlooked but necessary practice is to be careful to follow traffic rules. If you want to drive or cross streets recklessly, do it on your own, but when you are with a child, you are endangering his life. The child will copy your actions, and may not be as clever as you are to avoid the dangers. Show him an example of patience and consideration for others on the road.
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky was once riding in a car with his student driving. The student's car was parallel to a bus, so he speeded ahead to get in front of the bus. Rabbi Kaminetzky said to him, "That was a mistake. The bus should come first." "Why?" asked the student.
"Because they are many and we are few," answered the Rabbi.
This is an excellent example of the rabbi teaching a student proper behavior in a setting in which most people behave selfishly. Driving on the road gives ample opportunity to teach your child manners, chesed, tolerance, and other good character traits. If you behave on the road without good middos, you are giving your child the wrong example.
Being a role model for your child is a task that demands a great deal of self-restraint and devotion. But it will give your child the goal he needs to strive for.
1. Shemos 12:12
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network