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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eira: Why did G'd allow everything to go wrong?
The meeting between Moses, Aaron and the elders of the Jewish people was very successful. When Moses and Aaron went to speak to Pharaoh everything seemed to go wrong. The Jewish supervisors went to complain to Pharaoh. G'd further hinted that Moses was not like the Patriarchs who maintained their faith even in times of difficulty. Although Moses had been warned by G'd that Pharaoh would not be ready to allow the Jewish people to go into the wilderness, he was taken by surprise at the turn of events. In one of the blessings in the weekday Shemona Esrei we ask for assistance to repent. G'd tests the mature Baal teshuvah to see if he will keep his commitment even when the situation is difficult. Without Divine assistance, we will never be able to overcome our evil inclination. After the initial Divine assistance, G'd challenged the Jewish people with the new decrees of Pharaoh to see whether their faith would stay intact. Why did G'd allow that the slave labour of the Jewish people was increased so that they basically lost their faith and did not believe what Moses told them in the name of G'd? When a person finds that he is constantly challenged in a specific area, the very purpose of his life is to overcome this challenge. The Talmud offers three reasons for Abraham's punishment. The common denominator in Abraham's three mistakes was a lack of faith in G'd. To rectify these mistakes, Abraham's descendants had to endure the challenges of the exile and bondage in Egypt. The whole purpose of the exile in Egypt was to establish a firm base for the Jewish people's faith in G'd. We hope and pray that the extreme difficulties encountered by the Jewish people that started at the time of the Holocaust are our final test as a nation.
Towards the end of last week's Parasha, the Torah relates how Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the Jewish people. Aaron told them what G'd had said to Moses and he performed the various signs that G'd had instructed. The meeting was very successful. As the Torah says (Shemos 4:31): "And the people believed and they heard that G'd had remembered the children of Israel, and that He saw their affliction."
Everything going wrong
After that, the Torah continues to tell how Moses and Aaron went to speak to Pharaoh. They told him that G'd had instructed them to request that he should send the Jewish people into the wilderness. As G'd had previously mentioned to Moses, Pharaoh was not ready to comply (see Shemos 3:19). But at this point everything seemed to go wrong. Pharaoh not only denied their request, he reacted by instructing the Egyptian overseers and the Jewish supervisors with a new decree against the Jewish people. He said to them (Shemos 5:7-9): "You shall no longer give straw to the [Jewish] people to produce the bricks as yesterday and the day before, they shall go themselves and gather the straw. And the quota of the bricks that they produced yesterday and the day before you shall obligate them … for they are lazy. Therefore, they cry saying, 'Let us go and bring offerings to our G'd.' Make the work harder on the men … and they will not turn to words of falsehood."
Jewish supervisors complain
As a result of this, the Jewish supervisors went to complain to Pharaoh, and when they met Moses and Aaron they said (Shemos 5:21): "May G'd look upon you and judge, for you have made our scent abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, and put a sword in their hands to kill us." In turn, Moses complained to G'd and said (Shemos 5:22-23), "G'd, why have You done evil to this people … And from the time that I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did more evil to this people, and You did not save Your people."
Moses not like the Patriarchs
In response to this complaint, G'd hinted a rebuke to Moses, as Rashi explains at the beginning of this week's Parasha. G'd further hinted that Moses was not like the Patriarchs who maintained their faith even in times of difficulty. At the same time, G'd assured Moses that He would redeem the Jewish people, and He told Moses to go and tell them that He would take them out from the bondage in Egypt. But by now the Jewish people were not ready to listen, and they did not believe that Moses spoke in the name of G'd. As it says (Shemos 6:9): "And they did not listen to Moses because of shortness of breath and hard work."
The Ibn Ezra explains that although Moses had been warned by G'd that Pharaoh would not be ready to allow the Jewish people to go into the wilderness, he was taken by surprise at the turn of events. G'd had clearly told Moses that He had chosen him to be the redeemer of the Jewish people. As such he expected that his arrival would at least bring some alleviation to their suffering. He was shocked at the fact that his initial meeting with Pharaoh caused a worsening of the Jewish people's conditions. The obvious question is, why did G'd allow this to happen? Surely, Pharaoh had free will, but as King Solomon says (Mishlei 21:1): "The heart of kings is in the hand of G'd."
Shemona Esrei blessing
We may be able to answer this question by analyzing one of the blessings in the weekday Shemona Esrei. In the blessing where we ask for assistance to repent we say, "Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service. And bring us back in complete repentance before You." Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz (Yaaros Devash, Drush 1) asks, what do we request towards the end of this blessing that we did not ask for at the beginning? When we say, "Bring us back to Your Torah", does that not include complete repentance? Returning to the Torah does not just mean the study of scripture or Talmud as theoretical wisdom. Rather, it includes following the Torah's instructions and commands, as it says in Pirkei Avos (1:17): "The main thing is not the study but the practical application". This is what the Jewish people declared at Mount Sinai (Mishpatim, Shemos 24:7): "We will do and we will listen." This clearly indicates that returning to the Torah is primarily acceptance to follow the laws of Torah, which is basically the same as repenting before G'd.
G'd tests the mature Baal teshuvah
Rabbi Eibeschutz answers that when a person sincerely starts to become a Baal teshuvah we find that G'd initially gives him a tremendous amount of Divine assistance. However, at a later stage, we often find that this very same person encounters many difficulties. It seems as if G'd has hidden and withdrawn His outstretched hand that originally accepted him. Says Rabbi Eibeschutz, this is a test that G'd gives the mature Baal teshuvah to see if he 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 reason for 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, by coming back to His Torah and serve Him. After that, we have an additional request. We ask that when we are being challenged and tested, G'd shall continue to assist us to achieve complete teshuvah and help us overcome our challenges and tests. For as the Talmud says (Succah 52b), without Divine assistance, we will never be able to overcome our evil inclination.
Jewish people challenged in Egypt
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. At that point, they were strong in their faith and believed Moses and Aaron. However, after this initial Divine assistance, G'd challenged them with the new decrees of Pharaoh to see whether their faith would stay intact.
Why did G'd increase the slave labour?
We now understand why G'd challenged the Jewish people. But we still need to clarify why He challenged them in their actual faith in G'd. There is no limit to the ways that G'd can challenge a person. Why did G'd allow that the slave labour of the Jewish people was increased so that they basically lost their faith and did not believe what Moses told them in the name of G'd?
Challenge is the very purpose
The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on the Book of Jonah (4:3), explains that when a person finds that he is constantly challenged in a specific area, to overcome this challenge is the very purpose of his life.
The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) asks, why was Abraham punished that his descendants were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years? The Talmud offers three reasons. First of all, when Abraham was informed that his nephew Lot had been captured in the war between the four and five kings, it says (Bereishis 14:14): "And he armed his disciples … and he pursued till Dan." Says the Talmud, this was a mistake. Abraham should not have taken his Torah students along into war. The second mistake for which Abraham was punished was in connection with G'd's revelation to Abraham, when G'd promised him that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel. Abraham asked G'd (Bereishis 15:8), "How will I know that I will inherit it." The Talmud explains that Abraham here over-stepped his relationship with G'd by asking such a question. The third of Abraham's mistakes happened after the war where he rescued Lot. The King of Sodom asked Abraham for a favour and said (Bereishis 14:21): "Give me the people and take the spoils for yourself." Abraham agreed to let the King of Sodom take the people back with him and even declined to take any of the spoils. Says the Talmud, Abraham here had the opportunity to influence a large group of people to believe in G'd and he failed to take advantage of the situation.
The Maharal (Gevuros Hashem Chapter 9) explains that the common denominator in Abraham's three mistakes was a lack of faith in G'd. Obviously, we are dealing with very minute issues of lack of faith. But since Abraham is the foundation of faith for the Jewish people, the slightest mistake has most serious consequences for future generations and must be rectified. This can be compared to a multi-storied building where even the smallest flaw in the foundation can have a disastrous consequence for the upper stories of the building. If it is not corrected it may cause the whole building to collapse. The Maharal explains that when Abraham went to war he ought to have taken trained warriors along with him. By taking Torah students it shows that he was somewhat in a panic when he entered the battle. We may add that he should have taken into consideration that he needed the merit of his Torah students to win the war over his enemies. (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos: The Secret Army). In the second incident, when Abraham asked how he would know that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel, he obviously did not doubt for one moment that G'd could keep His promises. However, he was concerned that maybe his descendants would not be worthy to inherit the Holy Land. But then again he should have put his complete trust in G'd and not ask for a sign. Abraham's third mistake, when he missed an opportunity to bring people to believe in G'd, says the Maharal, was also connected to a very slight lack of faith. Who better than Abraham knew the importance of bringing people to believe in the Creator of the world? He had made this his life's mission. The Rambam (Laws of Idol Worship 1:3) describes how Abraham would go from place to place to teach the masses the basics of monotheism. Every additional person who believed in G'd would add to the honour of G'd in this world. To miss such an opportunity is a sign of a lack in the complete understanding of the importance of making sure that everyone believes in G'd.
To rectify these mistakes, Abraham's descendants had to endure the challenges of the exile and bondage in Egypt. In this way, they could reach a solid foundation of belief in G'd themselves.
Purpose of the exile
We now see that the whole purpose of the exile in Egypt was to establish a firm base for the Jewish people's faith in G'd. G'd therefore challenged them in the final stages of the exile to test them whether they would remain firm in their faith. It is possible that if the Jewish people would have overcome this test, the exodus in Egypt would have been the final redemption and we would not have had to gone into exile anymore. However, this was not the case. Only when G'd brought the ten plagues on the Egyptians, and spared the Jewish people, was their faith restored.
Hinting to our exile
Rabbeinu Bachayei explains that the exile in Egypt, besides having its own purpose, was also hinting to our exile. Just as the Jewish people were tested then in the final stages of their exile, history will repeat itself. We hope and pray that the extreme difficulties encountered by the Jewish people that started at the time of the Holocaust are our final test as a nation. Unfortunately, many people find it difficult to keep their faith in G'd after the horrors we went through. But, as we see, thousands of Jews are slowly returning to the faith of our forefathers, strengthening their belief in G'd. Hopefully, this return to Torah and to the service of G'd will allow us soon to be redeemed without having to endure any more suffering 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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