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The Purpose of Distant CalamitiesAnd the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them…. And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses. (Shmos 14:28,31)
Adapted from "Ha'aros" by Moreinu v'Rabbeinu Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l.
We have been reading the last few weeks the parshios describing how Hakadosh Baruch Hu brought 10 plagues on Egypt before taking the Children of Israel out of Mitzrayim. He told Moshe Rabbeinu explicitly that, "And I will harden Pharaoh's heart…. And Pharaoh will not listen to you." Taken at face value, Pharaoh couldn't do otherwise. His basic human faculty of free will was denied him.
Why should Hakadosh Baruch Hu deny someone free will? Freewill is so basic to the makeup of Man, it is an extreme measure to deny a person his free will. There is a dispute among the commentaries. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah Chap. 6) writes that one who commits an exceedingly terrible sin or numerous transgressions has his free will taken away as a punishment: he loses the ability to do teshuvah. Others however, argue that Hashem never denies a sinner the ability to do teshuvah. "I do not desire the death of a wicked person; rather he should repent and live" (Yechezkel 18:32).
According to these opinions, what did Hashem mean that he hardened Pharoah's heart? In order to answer this let us interject a short preface. Hakadosh Baruch Hu created a unique angel called the Yetzer Hora. His job is to be a stumbling block to Mankind. But not merely to trip people up. His job is to bring them all the way down; to divert them from the right path and rip them from their real purpose here in this world: service of Hashem Yisborach. Obviously, it is nearly impossible for a person to fight an angel and withstand his tests. Therefore Hakadosh Baruch Hu promised us that He will help us: "I will not abandon you into his hand." However, if a person sins to an extreme and rebels against his Maker, sometimes Hakadosh Baruch Hu removes His promised protection. "Let's see what you can do on your own." What hope does a mere mortal have to wage war with an angel so more powerful than he devoid of Divine aid?
This is pshat in "And I will harden Pharaoh's heart." Rashi comments that Hashem declared, "I will harden his heart since he had sinned so much and defied Me. It is obvious to Me that I will never have any satisfaction from the idol worshipping nations that they should recognize Me. It is better that I should harden his heart in order to increase the signs and miracles and you should recognize my power. This is the way of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He brings calamities upon the evil idol worshippers in order that Yisroel should fear Him. This is the intent of the possuk (Tzefania 3:6-7) "I have cut off nations; their pinnacles are desolate; I made their streets waste, so that none passes by; their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, there is no inhabitant. I said, Surely you will fear me, you will grasp the rebuke."
This is a remarkable concept. Hakadosh Baruch Hu brings calamities upon a person so that others, especially Klal Yisroel, will learn from this. There is hope that they will hear what happened, take it to heart, and do teshuvah.
Every incident, every tragedy and misfortune that occurs in the world has the possibly that it is taking place to teach others a lesson. (Why one should suffer for someone else's well-being is one of the hidden secrets of Creation. It is beyond the scope of this article.) This is the principle we learn from the 10 Plagues. Catastrophes befall the nations to arouse Klal Yisroel; it is clear to Hashem in His infinite wisdom that his beloved people possess a deep desire to do His will.
The idea of catastrophes being warnings is not new. The city of S'dom enjoyed a tremendous affluence (Bereishis Raba 49:6). But they misused this Heavenly gift and created one of the most corrupt societies in the history of mankind. For 25 years before their final destruction they suffered from earthquakes. Chazal reveal to us the purpose of those disasters: they were warnings to instill fear so they should repent and prevent total destruction.
Prior to the Generation of the Flood, during the generation of Enosh, Mankind began worshipping idols (Tanchuma Parshas Noach 18 and 24). Hakadosh Baruch Hu caused the Ocean to flood the land and a third of the world sunk into the sea. Maybe they would do teshuvah. (This seems to have been the first tsunami. It may be the source for the mythical sunken land of Atlantis.)
Rav Zeidel remarked, "I once merited to hear from the Chofetz Chaim pshat on the possuk, 'Who makes the winds his messengers; the flames of fire his ministers' (Tehillim 104:4). Originally when Hakadosh Baruch Hu was displeased with His children, the Nation of Yisroel, He would send his prophets to urge them to repent. But once prophecy ceased, He sent out echoes of voices. With the descent of the generations, they failed to merit even this, so he made "His winds His messengers." He sends terrible wind storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, giant forest fires, and earthquakes to arouse people that they should open their eyes and see that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is displeased with them. He wants them to return to His service and become close to Him. When a person sees such calamities he must recognize what Hashem wants from him.
All this is the voice of Hashem calling out to us, "Return. Open your eyes. Can't you see what is going on around you?" He's shaking up the whole Creation. Why? Just for us. The nations will never learn the lesson. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is calling out to us. Just like the captain called out to Yonah, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and call out to your God!" Do teshuvah and strengthen yourself in service to your Maker.
Even amidst all these tragedies we can see the hashgacha, how the King of Kings metes out life and death. We hear stories of people buried under the rubble of fallen buildings with no air, no food no drink. Then, after 5 or even 10 days, they were pulled out alive unharmed. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is showing us that even in these terrible tragedies there is an exact reckoning with each individual. If it wasn't decreed that he should die, he will come out alive.
Rav Zeidel continued, "Once, in Poland a tourist bus was carrying tourists from many different countries. It turned over and plunged into the river killing most of the passengers. I heard Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the Mirrer Mashgiach, zt"l, say, one can see in this incident an awesome hashgacha pratis. Several people from various and distant countries were decreed to die. They were brought together in one bus so that they all perish in a specific place in a specific manner."
A person has to habituate himself to recognize that everything that occurs in Creation, even in a distant island, is with a very direct Divine Supervision. It is very possible that we hear about it because the message is being directed at us to arouse us to teshuvah.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network