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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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So says the L-rd, By this you shall know that I am the L-rd: behold, I will strike with the staff that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall change to blood.
It seemed like a regular evening on the twelfth of Elul 5650 (1889) for Rabbi Yaakov Dovid, who lived in Plavanah, a small village on the Vart river, near the large city of Radomsk. He planned to follow his regular custom of getting up at midnight to learn Torah, mishnayos, Zohar, and Chovos Ha-levavos until morning. When dawn came he would say Tehillim, slowly and with tears in his eyes, until it was time for him to immerse himself in the mikveh, and go to daven with a minyan. Afterwards, he would continue learning until midday, when he would take a break to have something to eat.
This evening was the yahrtzeit of his rebbi, the famous Rabbi Bunim of Pashischa. He lay down to sleep a bit before arising at midnight, but awoke after a short while, excited by a dream he had dreamt. In his dream he saw his father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Sofer, who lived in nearby Radomsk and was a chasid of Pashischa, a dear friend of Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk, and an expert scribe. He had even written the parashios for the tefillin of Rabbi Bunim of Pashischa.
In the dream, Rabbi Avraham Sofer said to Rabbi Yaakov Dovid, "Get up my son, and go to the city of Radomsk, to the beis midrash of Gur. In the aron kodesh you will find the last sefer Torah that I wrote, and you must erase in it an extra letter vav in the parashah of Bamidbar in the verse . . . It is the only mistake in the whole sefer Torah. Please, I ask of you, do this for me." And with these final words his father-in-law disappeared and he woke up.
This was quite strange to Rabbi Yaakov Dovid. Why would his father-in-law come to him in a dream? If it was true, why did he not go himself to correct the mistake in the sefer Torah? If he could not go to where the sefer Torah was kept, why could the sefer Torah not be brought to him in his house? How did his father-in-law suddenly discover the mistake? Why did Rabbi Avraham Sofer appear exactly on this night, which was the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Bunim of Pashischa? Why did he come to Rabbi Yaakov Dovid in a dream instead of sending someone to call him, since Radomsk was not far away?
Rabbi Yaakov Dovid stopped speculating and ran to his neighbor, who was a student of Rabbi Avraham Sofer, and asked him to travel with him to Radomsk. The neighbor consented and they traveled to Radomsk, arriving at dawn. At first they thought to go to Rabbi Avraham Sofer and ask him for an explanation of the dream. But, on second thought, they decided to go straight to the beis midrash as Rabbi Avraham Sofer had requested in the dream. Upon arriving there, they removed the sefer Torah from the aron kodesh, and looked up the verse in Bamidbar. Lo and behold, the dream had been true, for there was the exact mistake of an extra letter vav in the verse. The neighbor took out a knife and erased it from the sefer Torah, thus making it kosher. After returning the sefer Torah to its place, they went to the house of Rabbi Avraham Sofer to discover the explanation of this strange dream.
As they approached the house, they saw a large crowd of people outside, who had come to take part in Rabbi Avraham Sofer's funeral. He had passed away during the night, the night of the yahrzeit of his rebbi, Rabbi Bunim of Pashischa.
Suddenly, the mystery was solved. Now they understood why Rabbi Avraham Sofer had appeared to him in a dream and had not come in person. Now they knew how he had discovered the mistake, since he was told of it in heaven. Now they knew why he did not send a messenger to tell Rabbi Yaakov Dovid, and why he was in such a rush that it should be done that very night. His soul was being prevented from entering its place in heaven because of this mistake. Rabbi Avraham Sofer had come to Rabbi Yaakov Dovid to ask him to help him in his dilemma.
Step after step, Rabbi Yaakov Dovid walked after the coffin of his father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Sofer, on the day of the rebbi's yahrzeit, with his eyes to the ground, and his mind wandering elsewhere.
Rabbi Avraham Sofer's soul was prevented from reaching its place in heaven because of one tiny mistake. This teaches us that we must strive for perfection and educate our children likewise.
The ten plagues are blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, boils, pestilence, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the first-born. Why were these particular plagues brought upon the Egyptians?
Why is Pharaoh's haughtiness on account of the Nile a reason for G-d to begin Egypt's punishment with the Nile? Why is the fact that Israel is compared to water a reason to punish Egypt with water? Why is Israel's being compared to dust a reason for the Egyptians to be punished with lice? How is the comparison of Israel to wild animals a reason for the Egyptians to be punished with wild animals? Why is pestilence a fitting punishment for those who wished to destroy a nation that is willing to die? What is the connection between boils being formed by a substance from the furnace, and the fact that Egypt received a plague of boils? What does the whitening of Israel's sins have to do with the fact that the Egyptians were punished with hail? What is the connection between locusts and the Jewish people being called an "army?" Why did the darkness come upon the Egyptians because of the fact that Jews were separated from gentiles? What does Avraham's going out at night to destroy G-d's enemies have to do with killing Egypt's first-born at night?
"Regarding blood, since Pharaoh was haughty because of the Nile, saying he had created the Nile, therefore I shall begin the punishment with it."
Pharaoh claimed that he had created the Nile, as the verse says, "[Pharaoh said,] 'Mine is the Nile, and I have created it.'"(4) By claiming such a thing, Pharaoh was taking all the credit for the great Nile, saying that he had supernatural powers to create such a river. Instead of praising G-d for the blessing of the Nile, he utilized the Nile to brag of his own great "powers." G-d wanted to make it clear that this was a terrible sin. It is one thing to enslave a nation to bring oneself financial gain, but it is quite another to take credit for the creation of the Nile. This showed Pharaoh's great haughtiness and deceitfulness. Therefore G-d decided to begin the punishment of the Egyptians with the Nile.
When our Sages tell us that comparing Torah to water is a reason to punish Egypt with water, they are teaching us that all of G-d's punishments are measured out with exacting appropriateness. Although the Egyptians had to be punished and forced to release the Jewish people from bondage, the method G-d chose to accomplish this was very precise. Although the Egyptians had not the faintest idea that Israel was going to receive the Torah, and that the Torah would be compared to water, yet, because their intention was bad, they had to accept the consequences of their actions. Thus they were punished exactly as if they had known all this. Because they had decided to be wicked, they were not spared when the time came for their punishment.
"Something that is created from the dust shall come and punish Egypt that wanted to destroy a nation that was compared to dust."
When Israel was compared to dust, this showed their outstanding modesty and unpretentiousness. They had no feelings of false pride and considered themselves to be as lowly as dust compared to their obligations towards G-d. Since the wicked Egyptians wanted to destroy such a precious nation that is so modest, it was fitting to hint to them the consequences of their actions by punishing them with lice, which come from dust. Comparing Israel to wild animals teaches us their fierce devotion to a cause. A wild animal is willing to sacrifice its life for a piece of meat, just as the Jewish people were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the Torah or the continuation of the Jewish nation. This fierce devotion deserves the reward of having wild animals attack their enemies, the Egyptians, for it demonstrates the intensity of the punishment in store for anyone who tries to harm such a precious people.
"The pestilence that kills shall come and punish Egypt, that wanted to destroy a nation that was willing to die for the sanctification of My name."
Why is the plague of pestilence a fitting punishment for those who wished to destroy a nation that is willing to die for its beliefs? The plague kills great and small alike. No one understands why one person dies and another lives during a plague. The same is true when it comes to sacrificing their lives for G-d. It makes no difference whether a person is great in Torah or not. All Jews have the same responsibility and are willing to sanctify G-d's name. As with the plague of pestilence, all were affected equally without any apparent discrimination.
The furnace symbolizes the self-sacrifice of the brave ones who, rather than give up their belief in the One true G-d, were willing to be thrown into raging fires where they were sure to die a horrible death. A nation which produces such individuals is on a very high spiritual level indeed. They are praised and lauded by all who know them or have heard of their brave deeds. Boils, on the other hand, symbolize those who are shunned from society. Those stricken with boils are called unclean and are exiled. Therefore the plague of boils is a fitting punishment for those who do not recognize the greatness of the Jewish people.
"Hail, which is as white as snow, shall come and punish Egypt, that wanted to destroy a nation whose sins I will whiten."
What does the whitening of Israel's sins have to do with the Egyptians being punished with hail? Israel's ability to overcome their sins and become so clean that they are as white as snow indicates their great moral strength. It demonstrates their ability to work on themselves and become better individuals. This is the great power of teshuvah.
The color white represents purity, in contrast to the darkness which had prevailed when they were involved in sin. But the Egyptians were so deeply immersed in sin that they could not even imagine themselves achieving such a high level. Therefore the Egyptians received the appropriate punishment of hail, which represents this difference between their low spiritual level and the higher, pure level of the Israelites.
To understand the connection between the plague of locusts and the Jewish people being seen as an "army," we might consider that another unique quality of Israel is their unity. They are one people with one ideal, and therefore they are a cohesive group and worship G-d together. They fulfill the commandment, "You shall love your brother as yourself."(5)
An army without unity is worthless, since the only way they can take advantage of their large numbers is for all of them to follow the same orders. The locusts also operate as an army, since they move in unison to destroy crops. The Egyptians did not appreciate the greatness of Israel, who were able to unite as one great army to do G-d's will. Therefore, they were fittingly punished by locusts, which are unique in the animal kingdom in their ability to unite.
"Darkness shall come, which is separated from light, and punish Egypt, who wished to destroy a nation that is separated from the other nations."
Darkness engulfed the Egyptians to emphasize the contrast between Jews and gentiles. Darkness has a peculiar feature the moment any light enters its realm, it is no longer darkness. Only when there is a total absence of light can it be called true darkness.
The same is true regarding the Jewish People. Only when they are entirely separated from the gentiles and feel no essential connection with them, can they be considered the Jewish People. That is what the verse means when it states, "Behold a nation by itself shall dwell."(6) Jewish identity demands that we remain a nation alone, since in order to remain true to the Torah and perform the mitzvos, we must separate ourselves from other nations. The darkness came to teach the Egyptians that they had not realized who the Jewish people were. Just as darkness cannot exist when it integrates with light, so too the Jews cannot integrate with other nations.
Avraham's going out at night to destroy G-d's enemies is related to the killing of Egypt's first-born at night. The Exodus from Egypt occurred at night, as the verse says, "And Moshe said, 'So says G-d, "In the middle of the night I shall appear in Egypt."'"(7) The fact that G-d brought the plague of the killing of the first-born at midnight adds a unique element to the miracle. When the Egyptians saw what was happening, they hurried to send the Jews out of Egypt on that very night. They did not dare wait for morning, since they were so afraid of G-d's power. Their despair made them get rid of the Jews as soon as possible, even though such major decisions are usually carried out only during the day. The reason we merited to have the miracle occur in such a way was because our forefather Avraham didn't wait until morning, but went out at night to take revenge against G-d's enemies.
Raising Children among Gentiles
Just as darkness is separated from light, so is Israel separated from the nations of the world, says the midrash. If this applies to adults, how much more must it apply to children, who are more susceptible to influences.
The threat of intermarriage arises when Jews and gentiles study together in the same schools. A Jew comes to know someone of the opposite sex, and a relationship develops. It is that simple. If you wish to ensure that your children will not marry non-Jews, you must send them to Jewish schools. This is a vital first step, but it is not enough. The school must also provide the child with a strong background in Jewish values. It must be a place where he will be able to learn Torah and mitzvos thoroughly and where he will constantly see Judaism being practiced with happiness, love and devotion. Only this will save your child from the temptation of intermarriage. But even a child in a suitable Jewish school has to deal with gentile neighbors and friends who may exert an influence on him. Here the parents must play a crucial role in preventing spiritual damage to their children. If the child is old enough, they must explain to him how the influence of gentiles can tear him away from Judaism. Explain to your child that although we respect every human being, our culture clashes with that of the gentiles, and, in order to preserve our heritage we must remain separate from them.
Great damage can be done by gentile nannies. I once heard of a gentile nanny who took care of a child and put him to bed every evening, since the mother worked at that hour. One day the mother stayed home and put the child to bed herself.
"Wait, Mom," said the child, "I cannot go to bed until I say my prayers." Then he kneeled near his bed and made the sign of the cross on his chest.
The astonished mother asked, "Where on earth did you learn to do that?"
"From my nanny," was the innocent reply.
This story demonstrates the influence a nanny can have on a child, since she brings her culture and religion to the child. Great caution must be taken to find the proper nanny, who will enhance, rather than thwart, the kind of spiritual education you want your child to have.
Television, radio, newspapers and magazines can bring the worst of gentile culture into your child's mind and heart. They present the world in bright exciting colors, and emphasize the physical pleasures of life. They may also carry the influences of other religions or have pornographic content. Try to find alternate entertainment for your children, such as carefully inspected computer games, kosher tapes and toys.
You can buy your child Jewish books or tapes to interest him. Don't worry about the cost. Our Sages say that a person's income for the year is predestined on Rosh Hashanah, excluding what he spends for Shabbos, Yom Tov, and his son's Torah education.(8) Anything you buy to help him grow in Torah will be calculated apart from your regular budget, and extra money will be sent to you from Heaven to bridge any financial gap.
This rule also applies concerning the school you choose for your children. Find the school that will give them the best possible education in Judaism. Do not worry about the cost of the tuition there. Even if it is beyond your budget, our Sages say that you can take a loan and G-d will repay it.(9) They mean by this that you will suddenly find extra income to cover this expense.
You must also take steps to ensure that your child is not exposed to bad influences on the Internet. Since the Internet is not censored, any kind of blasphemy or pornography can be presented there. It is possible for a child to make a dangerous or inappropriate connection with some unknown person on the Internet. Today many people are aware of the potential dangers of the Internet, and there is software available which censors out offensive material.
The most important way of protecting your child from foreign influences is to fill him with a love for learning Torah and keeping mitzvos. Show him an example by learning constantly and always expressing your own love for Torah. If you enjoy learning Torah, your children will see it by the expression on your face when you share with them some gem from the Torah. When you perform a mitzvah, have your child participate if possible, whether it is buying an esrog or matzos, or even buying food in honor of Shabbos. Whenever you take him with you, he feels he is a partner, and then the mitzvos are his very own, and he is much more than just a spectator.
As the midrash cited above states, Israel is "a nation separate from the other nations." We must educate our children to realize and preserve the wisdom of that separation.
1. Yeshayhu 55:1
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network