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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eira: Divine protection
Everyone sighed with relief when it became known that Hamas accepted the truce unilaterally introduced by the Israelis. Just because the actual fighting has ceased, we should not change our behaviour. We must express our thanks and gratitude for the miraculous protection we have experienced with so few Israeli casualties. Three young Jews, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, refused to follow Nebuchadnezzar's command to bow to his statue. If the Egyptian frogs were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of G'd, the three friends reasoned that they must certainly be prepared to do the same. Tosafos explains that Nebuchadnezzar's statue was not really an idol, but was erected for his personal honour. There is such a concept as to sacrifice oneself in order to sanctify the name of G'd. The descriptions of G'd as the King Who is a Helper, Saviour and Shield correspond to three different levels of trust in G'd. "G'd will not help me; G'd is doing everything for me." An even higher level of trust is when a person does something where he risks his life and only can be saved if G'd shields him. Chanania, Mishael and Azaria let themselves be thrown into the fire to sanctify G'd's name. When our enemies attack the Jewish people they do so not just because they hate us as human beings, but even more so they hate us for being G'd's chosen nation. When the soldiers of the Israeli army engage in battle to defend their country and its citizens, they touch upon the highest level of sanctifying G'd's name.
Everyone sighed with relief when it became known that Hamas accepted the truce unilaterally introduced by the Israelis. However, we must realize who we are dealing with and continue our prayers, as well as our other undertakings, for the danger is far from over. As a matter of fact, many people wonder if Israel has made the right decision to stop before ensuring that the terrorists will not be able to harm the citizens of southern Israel.
On the spiritual battlefront, we certainly have no reason to stop our efforts. Years ago when the Jewish people were in a similar situation, the late Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vedaas in New York, Rabbi Avraham Pam, expressed that just because the actual fighting has ceased, we should not change our behaviour. Otherwise, we would be like Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, who, as it says in this week's Parasha, changed his mind every time a plague stopped and forgot about his promise to let the Jewish people out of Egypt (see Shemos 8:11 and 18)
At the same time that we continue to pray that our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land shall be able to live in peace and security, and that no human blood should be spilled, we must express our thanks and gratitude for the miraculous protection we have experienced with so few Israeli casualties. Who cannot but marvel at the fact that despite hundreds of rockets and missiles being fired, hardly anyone was hurt. In addition, everyone knows the danger of combating terrorists who have absolutely no respect for human life and are more than ready to sacrifice their own people merely to harm their enemy. Under such circumstances, it is nothing short of a miracle how the Israeli troops were able to advance, with hardly any losses of life. We are confident that the merit of thousands of Jews, who gathered in Israel and worldwide to pray and strengthen their observance of G'd's commandments, aroused the Heavenly mercy to protect the army as it fought the physical battle.
Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria
But the soldiers also have a merit of their own as they put their lives in danger to protect their people. The Talmud (Pesachim 53b) brings an unusual Drashah. During the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue and commanded everyone to bow down before it. In the Book of Daniel (Chapter 3) it is related how three young Jews, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, refused to follow the king's command. Nebuchadnezzar was enraged by their disobedience and threatened to throw them into a burning furnace if they would not obey. The three friends were not intimidated and proclaimed (ibid 3:17-18): "There is a G'd Who we serve. He can save us from the burning fire of the oven, and from the hands of the king. And even if He decides not to save us, you shall know we will not serve your idol, and to your statue we will not bow down." Nebuchadnezzar proceeded with his threat, bound them with ropes and threw them into the fire. At that point, Nebuchadnezzar witnessed an open miracle, as he saw four, and not three, individuals walking around freely inside the fire, unbound and unharmed. He realized that G'd had sent an angel to free the victims and went over to the gate of the oven and said (ibid 26-28): "Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, servants of the Supreme G'd, go out and come to me." When they came out Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed: "Blessed be the G'd of Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, Who sent an angel to save His servants who put their trust in Him."
The Talmud asks, what inspired these young Jews to be ready to sacrifice themselves in order to sanctify the name of G'd? The Talmud answers that they reasoned that they should take a lesson from the frogs in Egypt. As mentioned in this week's Parasha, in the second of the ten plagues, Egypt was overrun with frogs. Frogs obviously have no obligation to sanctify the name of G'd. Nevertheless, the Torah relates (Shemos 7:28) how these frogs went into the ovens and the kneaded dough. Said Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, a dough goes into the oven only after the oven has been lit. If the frogs jumped into the oven at that point, they risked being burned alive. If the frogs were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of G'd, the three friends reasoned that they must certainly be prepared to do the same.
Tosafos (supra) asks why Chanania, Mishael and Azaria needed to learn a lesson from the frogs. Idol worship is one of the three prohibitions for which every Jew is obligated to let himself be killed rather than transgress. Tosafos explains that Nebuchadnezzar's statue was not really an idol, but was erected for his personal honour. Therefore, halachically they would have been permitted to bow down. But in order to sanctify G'd's name, they reasoned that it would be acceptable to allow themselves to risk their lives not to bow down to this image.
Sanctify G'd's name
However, we still need to clarify what kind of logic it is to learn a lesson from frogs that obviously have no free will. Our sages teach that the frogs that appeared during the plague in Egypt were not regular frogs. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (14) that the plague started with one huge frog emerging from the river but as the Egyptians struck it, it split into swarms of frogs. The purpose of all the plagues was first and foremost to punish the Egyptians. But at the same time, there was a sanctification of G'd's name in the way these plagues were performed. Every plague was a manifestation of G'd's sovereign power over another part of the universe and His full control over every detail. The fact that G'd brought about that some of the frogs were at risk to be burned alive to do G'd's will, this taught a lesson that there is such a concept as to sacrifice oneself in order to sanctify the name of G'd. Already our Patriarch Abraham conducted himself this way when he let himself be thrown into the oven at Ur Kasdim after refusing to bow to his father's idols (see Rashi Bereishis 11:28).
Helper, Saviour and Shield
In the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei we describe G'd as the King Who is a Helper, Saviour and Shield. We conclude this blessing with the words "Blessed are You G'd, the Shield of Abraham." Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, explains that these three adjectives correspond to three different levels of trust in G'd. If a person feels that he has to take care of himself, but requires G'd's help to succeed, such a person will merit Divine assistance in his dealings and undertakings.
G'd made it happen
But there are people who are on a higher level of trust. I recently heard a story about a person who was in a difficult situation. His friend tried to comfort him and said, "Don't worry, G'd will help you." The distressed person answered back, "No He won't." The friend was shocked since he knew this person to be G'd-fearing. He tried a second time and said, "I'm sure, G'd will help you." But again the distressed person answered, "No He won't." The friend could not believe what he heard and exclaimed: "How can you talk like that?" At this point the person answered him back, "You don't understand. G'd will not help me; G'd does everything for me." This is the level of trust that Joseph exhibited in Egypt, as it says (Bereishis 39:2-3): "And G'd was with Joseph and he became a successful person … and whatever he did G'd made it succeed in his hand." It does not say that G'd helped Joseph to succeed; rather, it was G'd Who made it happen.
Shield of Abraham
There is an even higher level of trust. This is when a person does something where he risks his life and only can be saved if G'd shields him. That was the level that Abraham achieved when he let himself be thrown into the furnace in Ur Kasdim. According to the laws of nature he should have been burned alive. But G'd protected him as a shield from the burning flames, and Abraham emerged unharmed from the fire. This is why we conclude this blessing with the words "Shield of Abraham".
When Chanania, Mishael and Azaria defied Nebuchadnezzar's command and let themselves be thrown into the fire they had no guarantee that G'd would save them. But they were ready to give their lives to sanctify G'd's name. At this point, they also reached the highest level of trust in G'd, and therefore merited that G'd protected and saved them as a Shield against the flames.
Our sages explain that when our enemies attack the Jewish people they do so not just because they hate us as human beings, but even more so they hate us for being G'd's chosen nation (see Midrash Tanchuma Matos 3). This is clearly evident in Tehillim (83:2-7) where it says: "G'd do not be silent … for Your enemies are in uproar and those that hate You have raised their head. Against You they plot secretly … The say, 'Come let us annihilate them from nationhood, and the name of Israel shall not be remembered any more … against You they strike a covenant. The tents of Edom [Rome who are descendants of Eisav] and Yishmaelim [the Arabs who are descendants of Yishmael] (see Rashi Bamidbar 10:35)." Therefore, they are not just our enemies but enemies of G'd Himself.
It now follows that when the soldiers of the Israeli army engage in battle to defend their country and its citizens, in a sense they defend the honour of G'd. And there is no doubt that if they, G'd forbid, are killed, they automatically belong to the category of those who died for the sanctification of G'd's name, irrelevant of their personal level of observance. Besides, it is well known that even those soldiers who in general are not observant, go to battle with a prayer on their lips and feel a special closeness to G'd and His people that they otherwise do not experience. When they risk their lives in this situation they touch upon the highest level of trust risking their lives to sanctify G'd's name. It is no wonder then that G'd looks at them according to their situation in that instant (see Rashi Bereishis 21:17) and extends His protection to shield them and the people who they defend.
May we all continue to strengthen ourselves in our trust in G'd and in the performance of His commandments. And in that merit, may we soon see peace ascend upon the land of Israel and the whole world with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
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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