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Weekly Chizuk

Parshas Bo


The Nature of Omens

And he [Pharaoh] said to them, "May Hashem indeed be with you if I would let you and your children go! Be aware, [though,] that [the] evil [you intend to do] will turn against you." (Shemos 10:10)

The following is adapted from Shiurei Da'as by R. Yehudah Leib Bloch.

Commenting on this verse, Rashi quotes a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Ki Sisa, 365) which explains that the word "evil" here refers to a particular star. Pharaoh was telling Moshe and Aharon, "Astrological calculations show a certain star rising to greet you in the desert. It is a sign of blood and slaughter." What was this bloody sign that Pharaoh was referring to? When the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf and the Almighty wanted to destroy them, Moshe prayed (Shemos 32:12): "Why should Egypt say, 'He took them out with evil [referring to the star of that name which is a portent of blood and death]'?" Moshe was saying that if God were to destroy the Jewish nation, the Egyptians would say that Pharaoh's astrologers had been correct in foretelling a bitter end for Israel. We know that the Almighty accepted Moshe's supplication, as Rashi makes clear in the remainder of his explanation of Shemos 10:10: "Immediately, 'Hashem relented regarding the evil' [Shemos 32:14], and he changed the blood[shed] into the blood of the [mass] circumcision which took place under Yehoshua [after the Israelites crossed the Jordan into Eretz-Yisrael.]"

From what we have seen, it would appear that the star itself was the danger awaiting Israel. It was an astrological force that would bring bloodshed and death upon them. Moshe Rabbeinu successfully nullified this force through his prayer, and the Almighty transformed the blood that was linked to the star's power into the blood of bris milah.

This whole incident is very puzzling. Why was it necessary to switch the blood of evil with the blood of bris milah? Indeed, what is behind the whole concept of switching? If astrology truly revealed that a bloody death awaited Israel in the future, how could this be transformed into the blood of circumcision? Finally, if the Almighty wanted to save His children and prevent the evil decree foreseen by the astrologers, why did He have to resort to transforming it into something positive? Just annul it! Can anything take place in Creation that is contrary to His will?! All this is cryptic, to say the least.

An Omen of Blood

The evil star that Pharaoh saw as an astrological omen was a sign of blood and death that faced Israel. It was not merely a portent of the future. Rather, it signified something already in existence - something that was ready to take on a physical reality in the form of blood and death among the Jewish nation. The stars and constellations are the means through which the Heavenly emanations descend from the upper worlds down to this lowly one. Through the knowledge of astrology, it is possible to recognize what is taking place in the upper realms.

By observing the status of that star which portended evil, Pharaoh recognized a sign of blood and death hovering over Israel. According to the laws of astrology, this was more dangerous than the snakes and scorpions awaiting them in the desert. At the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt, they were protected by a wondrous Divine hashgachah that bore them on wings of eagles. Eventually, however, they would sin, and the hashgachah would be removed from them. At that time, the Children of Israel would face tremendous danger in the form of this destructive force which stood waiting to annihilate them. This is a mechanism that is woven into the very fabric of Creation, whereby transgression activates forces in the upper worlds that cause a flow of punishment to descend from above. As long as the illness (sin) had not been cured, it remained a constant threat to the Children of Israel, despite the continual protection they reaped from Moshe's prayers.

However, when the Almighty eventually transformed the blood of the evil star into the blood of circumcision, the illness was cured. Concerning this, Hashem says (Yehoshua 5:9): "Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from upon you." Through the laws by which these intangible realities develop and materialize, the evil itself was transformed into good. Instead of threatening evil and destruction to the nation of Israel, the omen of blood was transformed into the mitzvah of circumcision, which served to strengthen Hashem's covenant with the Jewish People. Their blood was now spilled only in a positive manner, to support and strengthen them in life, as it says in Yechezkel (16:6): "And I said to you, in your blood you shall live!"

Dreams Reveal a Different Reality

This is from Yated Ne'eman, Hebrew edition, parashas Bo, 5758, pp. 12-13.

The following story isn't well known. Nor is it the sort of story that is usually told about the Rav of Brisk. Nevertheless, it was related by a reliable source, R. Aryeh Yosef Prager z"l, who served as the shochet of Brisk during R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin's tenure there. R. Prager was affiliated with the Chassidic community of Brisk. A Torah scholar and a God-fearing individual, he often held halachic discussions with R. Yehoshua Leib. In R. Prager's comprehensive work Minchas Yosef, he testifies to the Brisker Rav's extensive knowledge of hilchos shechitah.

R. Prager's brother was the son-in-law of R. Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, the Rabbi of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, his brother passed away without leaving any children behind. As a result, R. Prager undertook the journey from Europe to Jerusalem so that his sister-in-law could perform the chalitzah ceremony, which would free her to remarry.

His visit to Jerusalem took place in 5651 (1890-91), several years after R. Yehoshua Leib had already settled in the Holy City. As a side benefit of his journey, R. Prager looked forward to meeting with R. Diskin - his rav and the rav of the whole generation. Jerusalem at that time was a city full of Torah and yiras Shamayim. However, R. Yehoshua Leib was the gem that adorned her crown, and he lit up the entire land with the light of his Torah. R. Diskin was delighted to see his friend from the "old country." Just as they had done so many times in Brisk, the two men engaged in a halachic discussion. In the course of their conversation, R. Diskin related a very interesting episode that occurred when he served as the Rabbi of Kovno:

One of the Jewish residents of the city came to the Rav's house seeking his counsel. This man's father had died within the past year. He, the son, had experienced a frightening dream the previous night, and he needed the Rav's advice. It seemed that his father had appeared to him and told him that he had been reincarnated in the form of a black bull. The animal belonged to a gentile who lived at the outskirts of a village about thirty miles from Kovno. The father requested that his son buy the bull, adding that it would cost 40 rubles. Afterwards, he was to bring the animal to the slaughterhouse in Kovno, have it ritually slaughtered, and distribute its meat among upright Jews. When the meat was eaten by such people, the father's soul would achieve the rectification (tikkun) it required.

There was one more detail to the story: the father assured his son that the bull would go with him without any resistance. As the story eventually unfolded, this point would gain much significance.

"I berated him," related R. Diskin, "and asked if his father had brought him the money to buy the bull. I concluded the conversation by reminding him that according to Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 68:12) dreams are meaningless."

The man returned to the Rav's house the next day, shaken and agitated. He related that his father had visited him again the previous night and repeated his request. R. Yehoshua Leib, who regarded every statement made by Chazal with the utmost gravity, did not retract his opinion: "Chazal tell us that dreams mean nothing!" He concluded by reiterating his question of the day before: "Did your father provide you with the necessary amount of money?"

R. Yehoshua Leib was deeply pained that he had to take such an unyielding stance against the unfortunate man and appear so unfeeling. However, he really had this person's best interests at heart. He knew that the man lived on the edge of poverty. He only made two or three rubles a week selling wheat and hides at the local market - a sum that barely sufficed to cover his family's minimal expenses. Forty rubles was almost an astronomical amount of money, and there was no realistic way he could acquire such a sum. Therefore, the Rav refused to change his mind even after the man returned a third and a fourth time.

The turning point came when the father changed his tactics and appeared to his son while he was wide awake. It happened about a week or so after the first dream. One afternoon, the man missed Minchah in the shul where he usually davened. And as he was in the first year after his father's passing, he was particularly anxious to find a minyan so that he could say Kaddish. His feet led him to the local Chassidic shul, and he went to the front of the synagogue in order to lead the service. As he was standing before the large congregation, he suddenly fell into a faint.

Even after the congregants managed to revive him, his face was ashen with fear. His whole world had collapsed, and he felt himself caught between the proverbial hammer and anvil. He clearly felt the force of R. Diskin's position. However, now things were different. Whereas his dream might be explained as a flight of fancy, this time his father had appeared to him while he was awake! That reality was just as forceful as anything the Rav had said.

He told his distressing story to the crowd of men around him - his dreams, the Rav's response, and this latest incident. In his father's unrelenting demand to have his request fulfilled, he had even threatened his son's life!

Once again, the hapless son made his way to the Rav's house, this time accompanied by two wealthy members of the Chassidic community. At first, the two men remained in the waiting room while the man went in to speak to the Rav. But after the man told the Rav what had happened in the shul, these two companions came in and verified the story.

R. Yehoshua Leib, however, stuck to his position: "And who is going to pay for this bull?"

"We will pay for it out of our own pockets," the two men replied without hesitation.

Still, the Rav was not persuaded. "But who is going to take care of this man's family while he's gone? The sale may take a while to finalize, and the man may well have to go back to the Gentile several times. This whole thing could take weeks!" "We are prepared to donate an additional six rubles to cover his family's living expenses," was their firm response.

With all the financial barriers removed, R. Yehoshua Leib finally agreed that the man carry out his father's request. However, he had one stipulation: it was essential that the son carry out his mission without deviating from the six characteristics that defined it. These six were: a black bull; owned by a Gentile named Stanislav; the Gentile lived at the outskirts of such and such a town; the town was 30 miles from Kovno; 40 rubles; the bull would come willingly. "Otherwise," he told the man, "you have no right to waste other people's money."

Heartened by R. Diskin's acquiescence, the man set out on his journey. When he neared his destination, he stopped at a Jewish inn that was situated at the edge of the village. He inquired of the owner if he knew of a Stanislav who lived nearby. The innkeeper responded in the affirmative, adding that there was a Stanislav living at the outskirts of the town. The guest then asked, "Does he have a black bull which he is interested in selling?"

"You already seem to know everything," replied the innkeeper, "so why are you asking me?" Perhaps it was fear of the unknown that prompted him to make the innkeeper a partner to his secret. In any event, the son couldn't contain himself any longer, and he divulged the entire story to his fellow Jew.

"Such an amazing episode is going to take place so close by?!" thought the incredulous innkeeper to himself. "I'd like to go along with you and see how everything works out," he said.

Together, the two men made their way to the Gentile's house.

There was quite a bit of bargaining before the sale was finally completed. When the man first offered to buy the animal, the Gentile asked for an outrageous sum. However, the buyer did not forget the Rav's warning, and he stuck to the price that was quoted in the dream. "Forty rubles and not a kopek more," he exclaimed.

On the other hand, the farmer wasn't quick to give in either. "Someone else offered me 60 rubles and I refused to sell it for such a paltry amount," he shot back in response. Eventually, however, the Gentile agreed to the Jew's price. The man counted out the 40 rubles and handed the money over to the farmer.

Once the Gentile had the money in his hand, he warned the new owner about the problems he would encounter in transporting the bull. "This is a wild animal that attacks anyone who tries to get near him. Others who considered purchasing him planned to buy other livestock in the area and bring an expert who knows how to handle animals. How are you planning to take care of it?"

"That's my problem," answered the Jew confidently. He then took out a small length of rope, tied one end around the bull's horns, and led the docile animal down the road. The Gentile just stared, his mouth agape at the unbelievable sight before him. The innkeeper accompanied the man on his way back to Kovno, wanting to see for himself how the rest of the story would unfold.

News traveled fast about the "wonder bull." Throngs of people gathered in the center of the Kovno marketplace, whence the bull was to make its final passage to the slaughterhouse. The strange story of the dream piqued the interest of the populace, and they wanted to see the fabulous animal with their own eyes. "Could it really be true?" they wondered excitedly among themselves. Even R. Yehoshua Leib raised his eyes from the book he was studying and asked his Rebbetzin what all the commotion was about.

The slaughtered bull was inspected within and without and declared glatt kosher. The meat was also sent to poor Torah scholars. Among the recipients was R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin.

Gut Shabbos

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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