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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Vaera

Hashem spoke to Moshe and said to him, "I am Hashem." (6:2)

The opening pasuk of this week's parsha serves as a response to Moshe Rabbeinu's question/demand of Hashem which ended the previous parsha. Moshe asked Hashem why He intensified Klal Yisroel's workload after his arrival in Egypt as Hashem's emissary. It is as if his arrival had made things worse. Hashem said to Moshe, "I am Hashem," which is interpreted to mean that Hashem has a cheshbon, reckoning, for everything that occurs. Pharaoh will receive his punishment in due time. Moshe's arrival in Egypt had a specific purpose - even if Moshe did not understand the implications. In truth, the response did not address the core of the question. The Torah does not give a rationale for what happened. It was as if Hashem told Moshe, "Don't worry, it will be all right."

Chazal pose a similar question to be asked later, in Shemos 33:13, when Moshe asked Hashem "Make Your way known to me." Hashem responded, "And you will see My back, but My face may not be seen." What relationship exists between the question and the answer? Moshe sought an explanation, the reasoning behind His actions. The response was that Moshe could not see Hashem's face. Obviously, there must be a deeper meaning to these questions and to the response they elicited.

Horav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zl, explains that both these questions address the same idea. The question and answer is primarily the same in both. Man is a visitor on this world for a limited period of time. Consequently, he does not have the opportunity to perceive occurrences in their full context, from beginning to end. He observes events happening; he has questions, because for the most part nothing seems to be logical in context. The famous question, which nags at everyone, glares at him: Why do the wicked prosper? If man could only see beyond his own limited stay, he would see how everything fits in and all of life's ambiguities would suddenly make sense. This concept can be compared to a person who was born and raised in the wilderness. He has never observed people planting and harvesting crops. One day he notices people taking little seeds of grain and burying them in the ground to become rotten. Not having the faintest idea about the process of planting, he will surely think that these people have lost their minds. Later on, however, when he sees the people harvesting the fully matured crops, he will comprehend what really took place.

Moshe asked Hashem to please show him His ways, to give him the opportunity to understand what is the process for directing the world: How does Divine retribution work? Why do some people suffer more than others? Hashem responded, "You will see My back." Only at the end of time, when Moshe leaves this world unrestricted by physical limitations, will he be able to look back and see the rationale behind every occurrence. The phrase, " My Face, you will not see" is an allusion to taking things at face value, viewing events closely up front without the advantage of looking at the whole picture. Man does not understand the occurrences of his lifetime, because they are all part of a large mosaic.

Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem not to send him to Egypt. He was sent, and the work escalated. The persecution became more aggravated. So he asked Hashem, "Why? Why did You make it worse for this nation?" Hashem responded, using the Name Elokim implying middas ha'din, the attribute of strict judgment - "I am Hashem." The Name Hashem, implying rachamim, mercy, and Elokim, implying judgment, are both the same. Judgment and mercy work together. Middas ha'din serves as a preamble for the compassion of middas ha'rachamim.

I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt...and I shall redeem you. (6:6)

It was not enough that Hashem was prepared to take the Jews out of Egypt; it was also necessary for them to want to leave. Perhaps they had become complacent with their way of life, albeit miserable, but it was the only one they knew. Indeed, they might even have wanted to stay in Egypt. They might not have been able to accept a lifestyle so different from their accustomed one. The story is told about Horav Nochum M'Chernobel, who once spent a night at an inn owned by a Jewish couple. It was chatzos, midnight, when Rav Nachum arose from his bed to recite his Tikkun Chatzos, a special prayer recited by tzaddikim, mourning the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash and the ensuing exile. Rav Nachum became so carried away in his expression of grief that his cries awoke the entire household. Immediately, the innkeeper ran over to him and asked, "Why does the Rebbe cry? Perhaps you are not well, or something hurts you?" "No," answered Rav Nachum, "I am fine. I am crying for the churban Bais Hamikdash, the destruction of the Temple." "What are you talking about?" asked the innkeeper, "What Bais Hamikdash? What churban?" "Do you not know," asked Rav Nachum, "that we once had a Bais Hamikdash that was destroyed as a result of our transgressions? Every night I pray to Hashem that He finally send us Moshiach Tzidkeinu who will redeem us from our exile and take us to Eretz Yisrael. Are you ready to move to Eretz Yisrael?" "Wait, " said the innkeeper, "I will speak it over with my wife and relay our decision to you."

About an hour passed, and the innkeeper returned with his answer, "We will not go! We cannot leave our cows and sheep, our donkeys and horses, and our chickens. How can we follow 'some' Moshiach and ignore our animals?" Rav Nachum was not provoked by his response. He said to him, "And what will happen if the robbers and thugs that surround us will one day decide to overrun your field and kill all of your animals?" The innkeeper, obviously neither astute nor erudite, went back and asked his wife what to do. She responded with a brilliant answer, one that left him in awe of her. He said, "My wife tells me that you should gather together the thugs and have them sent to Eretz Yisrael, so that we can remain here with our livestock and chickens."

While this story may be anecdotal, it relays an important lesson. There are people who, as a result of ignorance, complacency, or pure malevolence, are content to remain in exile.

Aharon cast down his staff before Pharaoh...and it became a snake...and they too, the magicians of Egypt, did so with their incantations...and the staff of Aharon swallowed their staffs. (7:10, 11, 12)

Moshe came before Pharaoh and demanded that the Jews be released from slavery, so that they might serve Hashem. Pharaoh responded in the expected manner, questioning who is Hashem who is and what powers He has that would impress him. Moshe asked Aharon to throw his staff down before Pharaoh, and it was transformed into a snake. Pharaoh was not impressed. Indeed, he called out his magicians, who duplicated Aharon's miracle. Egypt was the center of magic and necromancy. Such a feat was child's play for the Egyptians. To prove this point, Pharaoh called out his wife, who transformed a staff into a snake. He then called out a number of Egyptian youngsters, who also performed this magic. Observing all of this, Moshe had Aharon's staff, which had reverted to its original state, swallow up the Egyptian staffs. Upon seeing this, Pharaoh became anxious, saying to himself, "Next his staff will swallow me too!"

Why did Hashem have Moshe use this miracle as his "greeting" to Pharaoh? Certainly, Hashem could have had Moshe perform another miracle, one that would leave a more compelling impression upon Pharaoh. What message was Hashem sending to Pharaoh with this miracle?

Horav Avraham Kilav, Shlita, explains that the Egyptian magicians prided themselves upon their ability to perform magic. The Egyptian sorcerers were by far the most proficient in the world. They delved in all areas of spiritual impurity, seeking to learn as much as they could about black magic and witchcraft. They taught this way of life to their children. They thought that being proficient in this area gave them supremacy over the Jews who were a slave nation, unintellectual, not versed in magic and other areas of sorcery. They felt they were on top of the world.

How could Moshe have the nerve to ask them to release the Jews? Instead, Pharaoh decreed that the Jews work harder by making their own bricks. He called them a lazy nation who had no ability to understand the scope of serving a G-d. Pharaoh derided Moshe, "You want them to leave to serve G-d - I say they should be given more work!" Keep them involved in the physical/mundane dimension. That is where they belong."

This attitude prevailed until Aharon's mateh, staff, swallowed the Egyptian staffs. This miracle indicated to Pharaoh that there was a deeper lesson to be derived from Moshe's miracle. The staff was a piece of wood - simple wood - like the "simple" Jews. When Hashem so wants, however, this piece of wood would swallow up the Egyptian serpents. Nothing can stand in the way of Hashem - not even Pharaoh. If it pleases Hashem, Aharon's staff would also swallow Pharaoh, who is characterized by the Midrash as the tanin ha'gadol, large serpent. Yes, Pharaoh, the miracle of the snake was designed to impress upon you that if Klal Yisrael is not released, you, the large serpent, are next!

Pharaoh saw that there was a relief, and kept making his heart stubborn. He did not heed them. (8:11)

Every time Pharaoh was down and the plagues were getting to him, he ran to Moshe Rabbeinu and implored him to pray to Hashem. The instant he experienced relief, he forgot who Moshe was, he forgot that Hashem could just as well send another devastating plague. He did not care. He experienced relief at that moment. The Midrash claims that this is the way of the wicked. When it hurts, they cry. When circumstances change and life becomes tolerable, they forget about Hashem and immediately proceed to revert to their old ways. One of the gedolei ha'mussar after citing this Midrash, once commented, "Are we any different? Do we remember Hashem during a time of joy as we do during a period of grief? When the sun shines upon us, when things are going well, do we exclaim, Baruch Hashem that I merited what I did, in the same manner in which we cry out to Him when we are dealt one of life's challenges? Indeed, this Midrash does not apply only to the wicked. Chazal's statement is regrettably a portrayal of our own attitude towards Hashem's gifts. We simply forget to thank Him once life seems to take a turn for the better.

On the Seder night, we are enjoined to say/focus on three things: Pesach, referring to the Korban Pesach, that we slaughtered prior to the liberation; Matzoh, a reference to the speed in which we were redeemed, not allowing our dough to rise; Marror, recounting the suffering and persecution to which we were subjected. The Baal Hagaddah formats these three concepts in the above sequence, with Marror following Matzoh. This is enigmatic. The bitterness that was so much a part of our lives preceded the Matzoh/speed of redemption. Should it not be: Pesach, Marror, Matzoh?

Hamayon Hanitzchi points out that all too often - we reach the "matzoh," we are liberated from bondage, we are freed from persecution; we finally merit the opportunity to experience peace and harmony. But - we, regrettably, quickly forget the past, the suffering, the "Marror" that preceded the "Matzoh." Some of us simply forget, while others block the past out of their minds. We think that it is over, it can never happen again. The Baal Hagaddah would like us to know otherwise. It can happen again! Always remember the "Marror", so that through prayer we will merit that it will not occur again. The tribulations to which man is subject are for the purpose of stimulating him to reach out to the Almighty through prayer. Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, cites the Midrash that says that when Klal Yisrael were in Egypt suffering from the persecution, they turned to Hashem and cried out. He responded to their pleas and took them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Hashem wanted to hear their voices one more time. But Klal Yisrael no longer responded. They were saved! Hashem, therefore, sent Pharaoh after them - to provoke their prayer. It is that simple. The purpose of Creation is for man to cling to Hashem. If we do it on our own, we will not need Hashem's "encouragement."

We must thank Hashem for the past and implore Him for the future. The Torah tells us that when Leah gave birth to Yehudah, she said, "This time let me gratefully praise Hashem. Therefore, she called his name Yehudah. Then she stopped giving birth." (Bereishis 29:35) Yehudah's name is derived from the word "hodah", which means to give thanks. The Chozeh M'Lublin asks why Leah stopped having children after she thanked Hashem for having Yehudah? Indeed, this is implied by the pasuk; she gave thanks, and she stopped giving birth! Does this make sense? He answers that Leah only offered gratitude for the past. She thanked Hashem for the gift of a child, but she did not turn to Him for the future. Consequently, Hashem gave her a reason to implore Him for the future.

"We are called Yehudim," says the Chidushei Ha'Rim, "because ingrained and imbued in the Jewish neshamah, soul, is the ability and proclivity to be makir tov, show appreciation, to offer gratitude, for every favor and gift that we receive. We are Yehudim because of our ability to give hodaah." Moreover, just as Leah realized that with Yehudah's birth she had received more than she deserved, so too, do we recognize that whatever beneficence Hashem shines upon us, it is more than we deserve. How important it is for all of us to live up to the standard of Yahadus.


1. How were Moshe and Aharon to act towards Pharaoh when they met with him?

2. Who lived the longest of Yaakov's sons?

3. Chazal teach us that one should research the character of a prospective bride's brothers before marrying her. Where do we see this in our parsha?

4. Did Hashem harden Pharaoh's heart for all the makos?

5. Why was "blood" the first plague?

6. For which makos were the Egyptians able to save their livestock by taking them inside under cover?

7. What was unique about the way makas barad ended?

ANSWERS: 1. With the respect appropriate for a king.

2. Levi

3. The Torah emphasizes that the brother of Elisheva, Aharon's wife was Nachshon, indicating the importance of checking out a prospective kallah's brothers.

4. No. Pharaoh hardened his heart for the first five makos.

5. Hashem first "punishes" a nation's idol before He punishes the nation. The Egyptians worshipped the Nile River. Hashem, therefore, transformed it into blood.

6. Dever and barad.

7. When Hashem halted the plague, even the rain/hail that was in midair stayed there.

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