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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: Sweet and sour


The Egyptian saved Jethro's daughters. Appreciate the wild donkey that bit me and the Egyptian I killed. Rewarding a speaker of gossip with treasure. Life can be a sweet and sour experience. Try to recognize the good, even from bad situations.

The Egyptian

In this week's Torah portion, Moses witnesses an Egyptian dealing deadly blows to a Jew. In order to save the Jew, Moses kills the Egyptian. When Pharaoh finds out, he orders that Moses be put to death. Moses flees Egypt in a hurry and ends up in Midyan. There he saves the daughters of Jethro from the bullying shepherds of Midyan. The daughters had for some time been taunted because their father had stopped bowing down to idols and had started serving G'd. Moses sees what is happening and steps in to chase the bullies away. When the daughters come home, Jethro questions them as to how they have returned earlier than usual. They tell him that an "Egyptian" saved them from the bullies. Now while it is true that Moses had spent many years in Egypt, our Sages tell us that it is unusual that Moses should refer to himself as an Egyptian. Rather, our Sages teach us that there is an important lesson to be learned from this reference to the "Egyptian".

Wild Donkey

The Midrash (Rabbah 1:32) compares this to a man that has just been bitten in the leg by a wild donkey. To relieve his pain, the man rushes over to a river where he dunks his aching leg in the cool rushing waters. Just then, the man sees a young child drowning in the raging torrents. The man stretches out his hand and pulls the child to safety. The child thanks the man profusely and tells him that "if not for you, I would have surely died." The man corrects the child and says "it was not I that saved you, but the donkey. If the donkey had not bitten me, I would not have had the opportunity to pull you from the river."

Don't thank me

Says the Midrash, when the daughters of Jethro thanked Moses for saving them from the bullying shepherds, he responded: "The Egyptian that I killed he saved you." Concludes the Midrash: This is what Jethro's daughters told their father: who caused Moses to come here; the Egyptian that he killed. Had he not perpetrated his evil act, Moses would not have run away from Egypt.

Irrespective of intentions

But does this make any sense? Is it not strange to suggest that one should attribute anything good to a wild donkey that bites a man, or an Egyptian that tries to beat a Jew to death? Why should the donkey or the Egyptian get any credit for their misdeeds? Is it not contradictory to give praise for an evil or harmful act? In order to understand this we must differentiate between the actual act that took place and the benefit derived from this act. The Torah does not propose to give credit for a misdeed or to praise a harmful or evil act. But if we receive a benefit from any person or being, it is important to realize that this was orchestrated by G'd for us. This also applies to situations where the benefit comes indirectly and even from evil acts and deeds. This is what Joseph said to his brothers at the end of last week's portion ,(Bereishis 50:20): "You intended to harm me, but G'd intended it for the good, in order to keep alive a vast people."

All for our benefit

We all have our challenges in life such as economic hardships, sickness, or the loss of a close relative or friend. Almost instinctively we ask why is this happening, why is G'd doing this to me? The truth is that in most cases we have no way of knowing why G'd made this or that happen. But once we realize and accept that this is an act of G'd, we must remember and internalize the basic lesson that Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto teaches us in Derech Hashem (The Way of G'd, Part 1, Ch.2) that the raison d'?tre of creation is for G'd to do good to man, and every act of G'd is for man's benefit. We may not see it immediately and we may never fully understand it while living in this temporary world of ours, but we must believe it.

Horrific accident

One of the greatest Torah leaders of our generation was once visiting a bereaved family during the Shiva after a horrific traffic accident where they had lost several family members. He said that we can neither start to fathom the ways of G'd, nor can we question them. Not only because we are obligated to accept them as a Divine decree, but rather because we never know what really is good for us. As an example, he mentioned that prior to the outbreak of World War II, Germany and Russia split Poland between them. Many Jews who lived close to the Russian border were exiled to Siberia. Their families and friends were devastated and could not stop worrying for their fate. In the end, it turned out that many of those exiled survived the war, whereas the "lucky" ones who had been left behind were killed by the Nazis. The family asked the Rabbi, how could there possibly be any benefit from such a horrific accident? To this the Rabbi answered that in every society there are values that are greater than life for which people are ready to risk their lives, i.e. to save other people or to fight for one's homeland. In the Torah we also find that we are obligated to give up our life rather than to bow down to idols, to kill someone else, or to commit adultery. Similarly, if others are inspired to live more productive lives through an accident or catastrophe, by realizing how fragile life can be, this can be a greater merit for the ones who perished than they could have achieved in a long life.

Repent and return

The world is in shock after the great catastrophe that was caused by the earthquake and tidal waves in Asia, where tens of thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions have been left homeless. Again, we have no way of understanding or interpreting G'd's ways and acts. But if we turn to our great prophets of the past we can gain some general insight and benefit from such a major catastrophe. In Zephaniah (3:5-7) it says: "G'd is righteous does not do any injustice, everyday He judges I have wiped out nations, have made desolate their high towers, I have destroyed their marketplaces laid their towns empty I said fear Me learn a lesson " On this the Talmud (Yevamot 63a) comments that whenever G'd punishes anywhere in the world it is at the same time a call to the Jewish nation to repent and to return to the ways of G'd.

Treasure behind the walls

However, we still need to clarify why G'd would punish a person or a group of people to inspire and teach others or bring about a benefit through an evil act. Before trying to understand this apparent difficulty, let us look at one more situation. In Parashas Metzora (Vayikra 14:33-53), we are taught that a person who spoke badly about another may be punished with "leprosy" on the walls of his house. This could be very embarrassing to the speaker if his neighbours found out about the infected walls. Furthermore, in some cases, it was necessary to knock down the walls in order to get rid of the "leprosy". Now when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, some took possession of houses that had been abandoned by the Canaanites. When it was necessary to knock down a Jewish owned Canaanite house due to "leprosy", lo and behold, there were treasures hidden in the walls. The speaker of gossip received both the punishment of having his house knocked down and the reward of finding buried treasures at the same time. Why would the Master of the Universe reward a gossiper with a treasure?

Sweet and sour

The Sages teach us that rarely is life totally black or totally white. Many times, life can be a "sweet and sour" experience. A speaker of gossip may be punished by having the walls of his house knocked down, while being rewarded with the treasure inside the walls because even one who speaks evil about others may have some merit for which he is entitled to receive a reward. Similarly, even a wild donkey that bites, or an evil Egyptian who beats, may have done some good with their lives. The sages teach us that there are no accidents or coincidences in life. If something bad leads to something good, then the evildoer has some merit that deserves to be rewarded. If G'd chose someone to be instrumental in saving others, that person must have had some merit. Similarly, when something good leads to something bad, the one who did good must have had some fault that needs to be corrected. As it says in the Talmud (Shabbos 32A), G'd brings something good through a person who has a merit, and something bad through a person who has a fault.

Benefit from pain and suffering

The man who saved the child taught the child to give credit to the donkey because he appreciated the act that led him to the child, even though it was very painful at first. Moses told Jethro's daughters to give credit to the Egyptian for saving them for although the Egyptian certainly deserved punishment for his misdeeds, he nevertheless set in motion the whole chain of events which led Moses to Midyan, and to save them.

Recognize good even from bad situations

The world can be a nasty and dangerous place. Sure we can get beaten and bitten by man and beast or punished directly by acts of G'd. But sometimes being bitten by a donkey may help us save a person from drowning or a punishment from G'd can entail side-benefits for us or others. In such cases, instead of focusing on the pain or the suffering, one must recognize the good that came out from a bad situation. The world can be seen in many different ways. If we appreciate all the good around us, and focus on the benefits of life, trying to extract the good from the bitings and beatings, we will live a much more pleasant and happy life.

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
Jerusalem, Israel