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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eira: Pharaoh and the teshuvah process
G'd says to Moses that He has heard the groan of the Jewish people and has remembered the covenant with the Patriarchs. The Jewish people did not listen to Moses due to the increased forced labour by Pharaoh. "The heart of a king is in the hand of G'd." In Parashas Bechukosai, if the Jewish people already confessed their sins, why is G'd going to deal with them harshly? On a deeper level this is a lesson for every individual to learn how to deal with his evil inclination, and make the effort to rid himself of this inclination. "One of the shrewd tactics of the evil inclination is to make a person extremely busy so that the person will not have time to analyze and watch in which direction he is headed …" The evil inclination of any individual will try harder to distract a person after he has started the process of teshuvah. When he saw that they initially accepted the words of Moses, Pharaoh came up with a new scheme to distract the Jewish people. Without Divine assistance, we will never be able to overcome our evil inclination. When the Jewish people will confess their sins and they will start their teshuvah process, G'd will challenge them and hide His face from them to see if their teshuvah is genuine. When a person makes a sincere effort to overcome his evil inclination, he will merit G'd's assistance.
G'd heard the groan
At the end of last week's Torah portion, Moses complained to G'd that since he had been sent to Egypt the Jewish people were suffering more than ever. G'd answered Moses that he should not worry. He would soon see that everything would work out and that the Jewish people would leave Egypt in due time. In the beginning of this week's portion, G'd again speaks to Moses and relates how He spoke to the Patriarchs and established a covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan. G'd continues and says to Moses that He has heard the groan of the Jewish people and has remembered the aforementioned covenant. G'd concludes and instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people and say to them, (Shemos 6:6-8): "I am G'd and I shall take you out from under the burden of Egypt … I shall bring you to the land that I raised My hand [in an oath] to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I shall give it to you as a heritage. I am G'd."
The Jewish people did not listen
Moses conveyed G'd's words to the Jewish people; however, they did not listen to him. As it says (Shemos 6:9) "And they did not listen to Moses because of shortness of breath and hard work." Originally, when Moses came down to Egypt, after meeting his brother Aaron, they went and spoke to the Jewish people as instructed by G'd. At that point the Jewish people believed and accepted what Aaron said when he told them that G'd had seen their affliction. It says, (Shemos 4:31): "And they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves"; this is an expression of total acceptance of the word of G'd. However, by now they had changed their attitude and were not ready to listen to Moses. This was obviously due to the fact that Pharaoh had increased the forced labour in response to the initial approach of Moses and Aaron to free the Jewish people, and had made the burden of the Jewish people much more difficult.
The heart of a king
It seems strange that G'd would allow this to happen. King Solomon says (Mishlei 21:1) "The heart of a king is in the hand of G'd." This indicates that there is a special supervision by G'd of the decision of a ruling king as it affects his subjects. So why would G'd allow Pharaoh to increase the forced labour? It is even more difficult to understand since our sages say (Mechilta 14:31) that the Jewish people were actually redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their trust in G'd and His proxies. The Jewish people had already proven that they trusted Moses and Aaron as the proxies of G'd, and accepted G'd's words. So what was the purpose of putting them in a position that made it so difficult for them to believe in G'd and trust His words.
A similar question arises in Parashas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:14-46) where the Torah chastises the Jewish people and warns them what will happen if they will not listen to the word of G'd. The Torah enumerates 49 curses that will befall the Jewish people as a punishment. Towards the end it says (Vayikra 26:14), "And they will confess their sins and the sins of their forefathers … ". In response, G'd says (ibid 41-42) "I too will deal with them harshly and I will bring them into the land of their enemies. Maybe then their covered hearts will be humbled. Then their sins will be appeased. And I will remember My covenant …" The Rambam writes (Laws of Teshuvah 1:1) that when a person does teshuvah and returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess to G'd. So the obvious question is, if the Jewish people already started to do teshuvah and confessed their sins, why is G'd going to deal with them harshly? The purpose of the curses is to bring us to do teshuvah. So why is it still necessary for G'd to deal harshly with the Jewish people?
Deal with evil inclination
Rabbi Moshe Schwab, the Mashgiach of Gateshead Yeshiva, writes that when we learn the Parashiot dealing with the slavery in Egypt and how we were redeemed, we do not only learn about how G'd conducts Himself dealing with the Jewish people in exile, and freeing them from there. On a deeper level this is lesson for every individual to learn how to deal with his personal evil inclination, and how to make the effort to rid himself and no longer be subservient to this inclination.
Rabbi Schwab quotes a letter the Rambam sent to his son where he writes that Pharaoh symbolizes the evil inclination. If we want to understand how the evil inclination functions, we can do so by analyzing the tactics of Pharaoh. Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto writes in Path of the Just (Chapter 2): "One of the shrewd tactics of the evil inclination is to make a person extremely busy so that he will not have time to analyze and watch in which direction he is headed … This is similar to the evil Pharaoh's strategy. As it says, (Shemos 5:9) 'Let the work be heavier upon the men … and they will not pay attention ...' His intention was not only to distract them, that they should not think about how to rise against him, but to bring about that they should not have the ability to concentrate and think about anything but their forced labour."
The same thing happened in the labour camps and concentration camps throughout the Holocaust. The Nazis did everything to dehumanize their victims and tried to bring them to a situation where they would not think straight. This corresponds to the explanation of the Sforno in the beginning of this week's portion where it is related that the Jewish people did not listen to Moses. The Sforno explains that they could not listen to Moses and think about the promise that he conveyed in the name of G'd. 'The shortness of breath' took away their heart and made them unable to think clearly. And if not for the 'hard labour' they would have taken the words of Moses to heart and would have understood that they could trust him.
The evil inclination of any individual will try harder to distract a person once he has started the process of teshuvah. In the same way, Pharaoh came up with a new scheme to distract the Jewish people when he saw that they initially accepted the words of Moses. As the Talmud (Succah 52a) teaches: "Every day the evil inclination of a person comes up with new schemes to challenge him." This is the purpose of our evil inclination. Its job is to test and challenge us at every turn of our life. By overcoming our challenges and tests, we grow and achieve our potential in life.
Divine assistance necessary
We say everyday in the Shemona Esrei, "Bring us back our Father to Your Torah, and brings us close Our King to Your service, and bring us to return in complete teshuvah before You." Asks Rabbi Yonathan Eibeschutz (Yaaros Devash Drush 1) why do we ask a second time that G'd should bring us to return, we already asked G'd to bring us back to the Torah? He answers that when a person sincerely starts to become a Baal teshuvah we find that G'd gives a tremendous amount of Divine assistance to help this person to return to Him. However, at a later stage, we often find that this very same person encounters many difficulties. It seems like G'd has hidden from him and withdrawn His outstretched hand that initially accepted him. Says Rabbi Eibeschutz, this is a test G'd gives the mature Baal teshuvah to see if this person is sincere and will keep his commitment even when the situation is difficult. Only when a person has overcome this test is the teshuvah process complete.
This is the double request in Shemona Esrei. Initially, we ask for assistance for ourselves and our fellow Jews that G'd shall assist us and help us to do teshuvah, to come back to His Torah and serve Him. After that, we have an additional request, that when the Baal teshuvah is being challenged and tested, and encounters difficulties, then G'd shall again assist him to reach the complete teshuvah and overcome the challenges and tests. For as the Talmud says (ibid), without Divine assistance, we will never be able to overcome our evil inclination.
This is what happened in Egypt. When the Jewish people cried out to G'd from their bondage (see Shemos 2:23), G'd sent them Moses and Aaron in response to their prayers and teshuvah process. However, after this initial Divine assistance, G'd challenged them with the new decrees of Pharaoh to see whether their teshuvah was sincere. Similarly, when the Jewish people will confess their sins, as mentioned at the end of Parashas Bechukosai, and start their teshuvah process, G'd will give them a period of grace with an abundance of Divine assistance. However, after that G'd will challenge them and hide His face to see if their teshuvah is genuine and will persist even in the face of these new difficulties.
Merit G'd's assistance
We all go through our phases of challenges when we find it difficult to see the Hand of G'd, whether in our personal life or as a nation. The awareness that this is part of G'd's masterplan, allowing our evil inclination to challenge us and test our sincerity in His service, gives us the strength and ability to overcome our difficulties. We have the power to pray to G'd for His Divine assistance in every situation, especially when we try to overcome our evil inclination. As Rabbi Luzatto writes, "When a person makes a sincere effort to overcome his evil inclination, he will merit G'd's assistance." The Jewish people are faced with many difficulties and challenges. We pray to G'd that He shall assist us all to return to be sincere Baalei Teshuvah and in that merit, just as He sent His redeemer to take the Jewish people out of Egypt, He shall sends us the Redeemer to take us out of our present exile.
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