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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bo: Three areas of excellence
One way to understand the apparent contradiction of the conduct of the Jewish people in Egypt could be that the various sources focus on different parts of the Jewish people. Only when we combine both reports would we get a complete picture of the Jewish people today. The four-fifths of the Jewish people who had no interest in leaving Egypt, especially after the bondage had stopped, died during the Plague of Darkness. "A redeemer will come to [the City of] Zion. And to those who repent from willful sin in Jacob [i.e. the Jewish people], says G'd." If we analyze the situation of the Jewish people in Egypt we find that they were exceedingly careful in all three areas of conduct: honesty, morality, and not gossiping. The following three days, the darkness was so "thick" that the Egyptians could not even move around and were stuck in their positions when this intense darkness started. The darkness gave the Jewish people the ability to enter the Egyptian homes to see where they hid their valuables. This was a perfect opportunity to take revenge against their cruel Egyptian masters. G'd added his own name to each Jewish family to testify that these were indeed the descendents of their ancestors in Egypt. She was called "Shelomis" because she was saying "shalom" and gossiping with everybody. Four merits brought about the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt: (1) They did not change their names; (2) they did not change their language; (3) they did not gossip; and (4) they did not indulge in immorality. The Jewish people were extremely careful to be honest and not get involved in any immorality or gossiping, and these merits helped them when the time came to be redeemed from Egypt.
A lot has been written about the spiritual level of the Jewish people during their bondage in Egypt. On one hand, we find that the Midrash Tehillim (15:5) relates that there were idol worshippers amongst them. On the other hand, Seder night in the Haggadah, we read that the Jewish people were distinctive throughout their ordeal in Egypt, clearly indicating that they did not assimilate and mix with the gentile population. We may be able to understand this apparent contradiction by analyzing the present situation of the Jewish people.
Two contradictory reports
If two journalists were given an assignment to describe the spiritual level of the contemporary Jewish population, they might very well come out with two contradictory reports. It would depend on which part of the population they interviewed and observed. On one hand, we have experienced a tremendous growth in Torah institutions over the past fifty years, as well as thousands of Baalei Teshuvah who have returned to the faith of earlier generations, meticulous in their observance of every possible mitzvah. A report concerning this segment of the Jewish people would be very optimistic about the future and would look very impressive. On the other hand, assimilation has risen to unprecedented levels and a very high percentage of Jewish youth intermarry with their gentile neighbours. Someone reporting about this segment of the Jewish people would likely finish the report with a serious concern that in a few generations we would become extinct as a nation, G'd forbid. Both reports would be correct, and only when we combine both reports do we get a complete picture of the Jewish people today.
No doubt there were different trends within the Jewish people in Egypt as well. As a matter of fact, Rashi in the beginning of Parashas Beshalach (Shemos 13:18) quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that only one-fifth of the total Jewish people merited to be redeemed. The four-fifths, who had no interest in leaving Egypt, especially after the bondage had stopped, died during the Plague of Darkness. Even amongst those who left, many had been idol worshippers. So we can well understand that if the various sources focus on different parts of the Jewish people in Egypt, their descriptions would differ.
Every morning, towards the end of our prayer service, we quote the Prophet Isaiah (59:20) and say "A redeemer will come to [the City of] Zion, and to those who repent from willful sin in Jacob [i.e. the Jewish people], says G'd." This clearly indicates that just as in Egypt, only those who were longing to be redeemed and repented from their idol worship actually merited to be included as part of the exodus, the same pattern will repeat itself at the Final Redemption. It is therefore our holy obligation to help as many as possible of our brothers and sisters to return to observe the mitzvot. Obviously, a large part of our youth are totally ignorant to what it means to be Jewish, and therefore cannot be classified as willful sinners. Nevertheless, the biggest tragedy is that many children born into interfaith marriages are in a situation where not only do they not know what it means to be Jewish, but they are not considered Jewish by the Torah.
Dishonesty, immorality, gossip
The Talmud (Bava Basra 165a) teaches that the majority of people are suspected of stealing. As Rashi explains, this does not refer to common thieves who break into someone's house but rather to people who justify their dishonesty in their business dealings. The Talmud continues to teach that a minority [COMPUTER GRAMMAR CHECKER SAYS THIS AND ABOVE ARECORRECT] of people is suspected of immorality, and all people are suspected of gossiping that can lead to derogatory comments amount fellow human beings. It is interesting to note that if we analyze the situation of the Jewish people in Egypt we find that they were exceedingly careful in all these three areas of conduct: honesty, morality, and not gossiping.
In this week's Torah portion the Torah relates the last three of the ten plagues. The second last plague of darkness provided a total blackout for the Egyptians at the same time that the Jewish people were able to see as usual. Our sages (Rashi ibid 10:22) explain that the first three days the darkness was darker than regular nights. The following three days, the darkness was so "thick" that the Egyptians could not even move around and were stuck in the positions they were in when this intense darkness started. Whoever was sitting could not stand, and whoever was standing could not sit.
Request Egyptian valuables
Our sages continue to explain that there were two reasons for this darkness. The first reason was, as mentioned above, that those Jews who were not worthy to be part of the exodus, died under the cover of darkness, so that the Egyptians could not claim that the plagues affected the Jewish people as well. The second reason was [NO COMMA] that the darkness gave the Jewish people an opportunity to enter the Egyptian homes to see where they hid their valuables. When Moses had returned to Egypt he had instructed them to request these valuables at a later stage, as G'd had said to Moses (ibid 3:22): "And each woman shall request from her neighbour and from her tenant silver vessels and golden vessels and garments."
Perfect opportunity for revenge
It is well known that generally when there is a blackout for an extended time, there is a surge in break-ins in stores and residences. Yet not one member of the Jewish people in Egypt took advantage of the darkness. These people had until recently been slaves, broken in body and spirit. We would expect them to justify any pillaging from the Egyptian households rightfully claiming that they had never been paid according to their hard labour. This seemed a perfect opportunity to take some revenge against their cruel Egyptian masters. However, G'd had instructed them to request their neighbour's valuables, and not even one person took any item without permission. The Mechilta (12:84) relates that the Egyptians realized that the Jews had been in their homes and could have taken whatever they wanted. The Egyptians were amazed at the self-control of the Jewish people and held them in very high esteem.
Tribes of G'd
In Parashas Pinchas (Bamidbar 26:3-51) G'd instructs Moses and Elazar, the son of Aharon, to count the Jewish people, each family on their own. Every family name is prefixed with the letter "Hey", and the letter "Yud" is written at the end of their name. Those two letters form one of G'd's names. Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabba (Shir HaShirim 4:12) that by connecting G'd's name to each family, G'd, so to say, testified to the purity of the lineage of the Jewish people. As King David says (Tehillim 122:4): "The tribes of G'd, a testimony for Israel." This was in response to the nations of the world who claimed and mocked, "How can the Jews name their lineage according to their paternal ancestry? If the Egyptians controlled their bodies, for sure they controlled their wives." Therefore, G'd added his own name to each family to testify that these were indeed the true descendents of the Jewish people in Egypt.
Only once did it happen that a Jewish woman was violated and had a child with an Egyptian. This was the Egyptian who Moses killed. As Rashi explains (Shemos 2:11), the Egyptian put his eyes on this Jewish woman and in the middle of the night he forced her husband out of their house. He later entered the house himself, pretending to be her husband. When the husband later came back to his home in the early morning and found out what had happened, the Egyptian pursued him and started beating him. At that point, Moses came by and saw the infliction on his fellow Jew and killed the Egyptian. The son born out of this relationship is the person mentioned at the end of Parashas Emor (Vayikra 24:10-11) who blasphemed the name of G'd. As it says, "The son of an Israelite woman, he was the son of an Egyptian man, went out … and he blasphemed the name [of G'd]. And the name of his mother was Shelomis, daughter of Divri." Rashi quotes from Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 32:5) that this incident is mentioned in order to praise the Jewish people, as this was the only time something like that happened throughout the whole bondage in Egypt. Rashi further quotes that our sages interpret this woman's name as an indication of a flaw in her conduct. She was called "Shelomis" because she was constantly saying "shalom" and gossiping with everybody. Being excessively outgoing, she brought attention to herself which eventually led to her violation.
The Midrash Rabba (ibid, see also Mechilta 12:28) points out four merits that brought about the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt: (1) They did not change their names; (2) they did not change their language; (3) they did not gossip; and (4) they did not indulge in immorality. Regarding their carefulness not to gossip, the Midrash explains that although they had been informed by Moses when he returned to Egypt that they were expected to request the valuables from their Egyptian neighbours, no one gossiped about this for a full twelve months.
It is amazing to see how the Jewish people, despite their long stay in Egypt, excelled in these areas of their conduct. First of all, they were very honest during the Plague of Darkness, despite all the suffering they had endured by their Egyptian masters. Secondly, they kept their high level of moral values in the most immoral society of Egypt. And finally, they were able to keep a secret for twelve months, although they no doubt were excited about the knowledge that they would be richly rewarded prior to the exodus. These merits helped them, when the time came, to be redeemed from Egypt. We too are longing to be redeemed from our exile. No doubt the Torah teaches us about how the Jewish people excelled in these three areas, as a lesson for us to emulate our ancestors. In this way we will have a share in bringing closer the time when G'd will bring "a redeemer to (the City of) Zion and to those who repent from willful sin in Jacob". Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network