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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bo: Internalizing the pain of Haiti
Why was Abraham punished by the enslavement of his offspring for 210 years? Everything a person experiences is Divinely-tailored to this person's purpose in life. Two great Torah scholars, Rabbi Yochanan and Ilfa, decided to leave the study hall and go and look for a way to earn a living. The Ten Plagues that G'd inflicted upon the Egyptians were a general message for the world at large, and for the Jewish people in particular, besides being a punishment for the Egyptians themselves. The ultimate purpose of the plagues was to send a message primarily to the Jewish people to teach us the consequences of our deeds. "Sometimes things will happen in far away countries, and on distant islands, to awake the Jewish people to repent that they should fear and tremble that the punishment should not reach them." Moses felt Egypt's pain and entreated G'd on their behalf to stop the suffering. Even if G'd has reasons to punish a nation, at the very same time G'd is pained that this has to happen. We do not have the ability to explain why such catastrophes happen, but we must remind ourselves, that if we heard about this catastrophe, it is a message for us.
Punishment for Abraham
In last week's Torah Attitude, we mentioned that the Talmud (Nedarim 32a) asks why Abraham was punished that his offspring were enslaved for 210 years. It is interesting to note that the Talmud refers to the exile in Egypt as a personal punishment for Abraham, although it took place long after his lifetime. However, G'd told Abraham about this exile and said to him (Bereishis 15:13): "You shall know with certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them." It is obvious that this distressed Abraham a lot, as any father would feel upon hearing that his children will suffer. This is why the Talmud asks why was Abraham punished, for if G'd did not want to punish him, He would not have informed Abraham what would happen to his offspring.
Divinely-tailored to purpose in life
The truth is that whenever someone hears about an event of any sort, he should realize that this event relates directly to him, and as such has a message for him. Otherwise, G'd would not have brought it to his attention. Rav E.E. Dessler explains that everything a person experiences is Divinely-tailored to this person's purpose in life. When something becomes public knowledge it is a message to the world at large; but if only a single individual or a few people hear about it, it only concerns them.
Rabbi Yochanan and Ilfa
The Talmud (Taanis 21a) relates an incident where a message was only intended for one person. Two great Torah scholars, Rabbi Yochanan and Ilfa, were very poor, and they decided to leave the study hall and go and look for a way to earn a living. After travelling for a while, they sat down to rest in the shade of a wall. Suddenly, Rabbi Yochanan heard two angels planning to throw the wall down upon them, as a punishment for leaving the study hall. Rabbi Yochanan asked his colleague whether he had heard anything. When Ilfa answered in the negative, Rabbi Yochanan understood that this was a message for him only, so he decided to go back immediately to where he came from. Soon after his return, Rabbi Yochanan was elected to be the Rosh Yeshiva and was provided for without having to look for sustenance elsewhere.
Message of the Ten Plagues
On the other hand, the Torah clearly shows that the Ten Plagues that G'd inflicted upon the Egyptians were a general message for the world at large, and for the Jewish people in particular, besides being a punishment for the Egyptians themselves. In last week's Parsha (Shemos 9:14-16) it says: "I shall send all My plagues … that you shall know that there is no one like Me in all the world … For this I have let you endure, in order to show you My strength and so that My name shall be spoken about in all the world." And in this week's Parasha (Shemos 10:1-2) it says: "And G'd said to Moses … for I have hardened his heart … in order that I can put these signs in his midst, and in order that you shall tell in the ears of your son, and the son of your son, how I made a mockery of Egypt and My signs that I put by them, and you shall know that I am G'd." Every year we fulfill this obligation when we sit down at the Seder table, and tell our children about the bondage in Egypt, and how G'd punished the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues, before taking us out to our freedom.
Demonstration of G'd's complete power
Rashi (Shemos 7:3) elaborates on this second purpose of the Ten Plagues and explains that this is why G'd hardened the heart of Pharaoh. For in this way G'd brought the various plagues to demonstrate His complete power and control over every part of the universe. However, the ultimate purpose of the plagues was to send a message primarily to the Jewish people to teach us the consequences of our deeds. Rashi quotes the Prophet Zephaniah (3:6-7): who says: "I cut down nations, made desolate their towers, and destroyed their marketplaces … I said, 'So that you should fear Me, and you should learn a lesson, in order that your place should not need to be cut down.'"
Awaken the Jewish people
Rabbeinu Nisim Gerundi (Drashos HaRan) also discusses the words of Zephaniah and says: "Sometimes things will happen in far away countries, and on distant islands, to awake the Jewish people to repent that they should fear and tremble that the punishment should not reach them … Whoever experiences these happenings … and nevertheless continues in his own ways is comparable to someone who sinned and received a personal warning with all its dire consequences."
Moses felt Egypt's pain
Last week, a terrible earthquake devastated Haiti with tremendous loss of human life. We have all heard about it and must understand that this is a direct message for all of us. First of all, we must share the pain and sorrow of those that are directly affected. If we analyze the situation in Egypt at the time of the Plagues, and how Moses dealt with it, we can gain an amazing insight. Moses was instrumental in bringing these Plagues as G'd's punishment for all the atrocities the Egyptians had committed against the Jewish people. Nevertheless, whenever Pharaoh asked Moses to pray on behalf of the Egyptians to remove the Plagues, he did so with a complete heart. As it says (Shemos 8:8): "And Moses cried out to G'd in regards to the frogs that He had placed by Pharaoh." This happened again and again. Moses could have easily responded, "This is your problem, not mine, you go and pray." But he felt their pain and entreated G'd on their behalf to stop the suffering.
Similarly, we find that the Talmud (Megillah 10b) relates that by the splitting of the Red Sea, the angels wanted to sing G'd's praise for the delivery of the Jewish people from their enemies: But G'd said: "My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you want to sing My praise?" This teaches that even if G'd has reasons to punish a nation, at the very same time G'd is pained that this has to happen. We must try to emulate these feelings of sharing other people's pain. One of the Masters of Mussar once commented that if someone is sitting at the breakfast table and hears of a major accident involving many casualties, and is able to continue to eat as if nothing happened, such a person is a potential murderer. For this person clearly shows that the lives of other people do not really concern him too much.
Thousands of lives not lost in vain
At the same time, we have to internalize what happened to strengthen ourselves in our fear of G'd. We have to remember that we live in a world where everything is being Divinely monitored and whatever we do has consequences. We do not have the ability to explain why such catastrophes happen, but we must remind ourselves, that if we heard about it, there is a message for us also. In this way, we can turn a catastrophe of such gigantic dimensions into an experience that has a positive side to it as well. And in this way the thousands of lives were not lost in vain.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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