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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


They embittered their lives with hard work,…..All their labors that they performed with them were with crushing harshness. (1:14)

In the Talmud Sotah 11b, Chazal give us an insight into the avodas perach, crushing/harsh labor, to which the Egyptians subjected Klal Yisrael. They invented their tasks, giving the men work that was usually performed by women and vice versa. This seems enigmatic. If a man is forced to perform a woman's work, is that to be considered crushing and harsh? It may not be his style, but it certainly is not heartless. The Ozrover Rebbe, zl, derives from here that any form of labor that is not habitual for an individual is, in effect, considered avodas perach. The difficulty arises from the fact that it is unusual and not his natural form of labor. Whenever one is directed to go against his grain, he is being brutally subjugated. He cites the Rambam in Hilchos Avadim, 1:6, who says that one who imposes upon his slave to labor only for the purpose of demonstrating to the slave that he belongs to him - in order to assert that he is a slave who must serve his master -- is subjecting the slave to avodas perach. His intention is to humiliate and demean the slave, not to seek benefit from his labor.

We now understand why the Egyptian galus, exile, is considered to have begun with the birth of Yitzchak Avinu. The Patriarch had what one might call an "easy life." With the exception of the incident regarding the wells, the Torah does not record anything in Yitzchak's life experience that would be considered galus-like in nature. Why, then, is the exile counted from his birth? Yitzchak was subjected to living in proximity of the Pelishtim, a pagan, immoral nation. It was counter to his nature for Yitzchak, the Olah Temimah, perfect sacrifice, the individual who achieved the zenith of spirituality and holiness, to be relegated to living near such a base nation. For him, this constituted exile! Therefore, the four hundred years of exile that was decreed against the Jewish people could be counted from the birth of Yitzchak.

The Jewish People were in Egypt for two hundred and ten years. Hashem counted these years as the exile years, thus, he redeemed them after this term was completed. When we think about it, were all of these years a time of travail for the Jews? In Seder Olam Rabbah, it is stated that the Jews suffered for eighty six years, beginning with the birth of Miriam. Why, then, do we begin counting the exile from the moment Yaakov entered Egypt? According to the above thesis, when one is compelled to perform an endeavor that goes against his very nature, or to live in a place that is contrary to his nature and religious conviction, it is crushing and demeaning; he is essentially in exile. Yaakov came with his family to a land known for its immoral and iniquitous lifestyle. For people of such spiritual nobility and holiness to be exposed to such an experience is demoralizing. Shevet Levi might not have been forced to labor as his brothers, but he was certainly subject to the demeaning experience of living in Egypt. That alone, for someone of Shevet Levi's spiritual plateau, is devastating.

This remains an important lesson for us all. Any endeavor that goes against the nature and will of an individual is a crushing experience. Therefore, when one is dealing with people, he must be sensitive to their habits and natural proclivities so as not to impose upon them in such a manner that would be destructive and ultimately self-defeating.

Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observedm their burdens. (2:11)

Although raised in the splendor of Pharaoh's palace, exposed constantly to the antisemitic vitriol that was undoubtedly a part of the daily conversation, Moshe Rabbeinu remained the son of Amram and Yocheved. He did not become an Egyptian prince; he remained a Jew, proud of his heritage, empathetic with his brethren, compassionate for the downtrodden, broken slaves. He did not merely identify with his People through lip service; he went out to them. He wanted to observe their suffering and grieve with them. He was a true "noseh b'ol im chaveiro," one who carries the yoke with his friend. He sought to be a part of their persecutions.

Horav Simchah Zissel, zl, m'Kelm observes that Moshe's empathy extended beyond the larger community. He also demonstrated his sensitivity to the needs of the individual when he rescued a Jew from the murderous hands of his Egyptian oppressor. In another incident, when two Jews were fighting with each other, Moshe intervened. Moshe's efforts were not limited only to his country. Even in Midyan, when he saw the Midyanite shepherds abusing Yisro's daughters, he came to their rescue. He even gave water to their sheep.

When Hashem appeared to Moshe through the Burning Bush, He was thereby conveying a message: imo anochi b'tzarah, I am with him in his pain. Hashem empathizes with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the persecuted.

Furthermore, out of the eighty years of Moshe's life preceding his first meeting with Pharaoh, the only episodes of his life that the Torah finds worthy of inclusion are those in which his empathy for another Jew is manifest. This demonstrated the essence of Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership capabilities.

Moshe Rabbeinu finally achieved his primary vocation -- "Moshe was a shepherd" -- taking care of Yisro's sheep. Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, observes that this is the zenith of Moshe's career to this point in his life.. He attained the position of roeh, shepherd. All of the previous incidents in his life, the sensitivity, the caring, the empathy, all climaxed at this moment-he became a shepherd. Our greatest leaders were shepherds. Yaakov Avinu and David Hamelech were both shepherds. The Midrash tells us that one day a young sheep ran away to drink water from a stream. When he was found, Moshe came over and apologized, saying, "I did not realize that you were thirsty. You must be tired from the running, I will carry you." When Hashem saw this, He said, "You have compassion to lead the sheep, by your life, you will lead My sheep: Klal Yisrael. We derive from here that when the leader, the elder, the parent, the teacher, apologizes for a slight error, it is not merely a lesson in humility -- it comprises a prerequisite for leadership. One who apologizes is sensitive to the other's feelings. He is, thereby, strengthening his friend. He empathizes. He is ready to lead.

When Hashem asked Moshe to go lead the Jews from Egypt, Moshe refused. Where was his empathy for his oppressed brethren then? For seven days, he refused; for seven days, his brethren suffered. Where was his sensitivity? Chazal tell us that Moshe refused to lead out of a sense of respect for his older brother, Aharon. Yet, we still must ask: If Hashem Himself makes a request and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews are at stake, does Moshe have the right to delay their liberation and refuse Hashem-all because of his sensitivity towards Aharon?

We see from here, maintains Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, the extent to which one must concern himself with his friend's sensitivities. Moshe Rabbeinu would absolutely not do anything that might impinge on his brother Aharon's esteem. Hashem would take care of Klal Yisrael. Moshe would not lead if it meant hurting his brother. Furthermore, we derive from here that the end does not justify the means. Even if the entire nation was waiting, it did not warrant hurting another Jew's feelings. A mitzvah should not be performed through the medium of an aveirah, sin. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, cited by Rabbi Peysach Krohn tells a poignant story which underscores this idea. Reb Nachum was the baal tefillah, chazzan, on the Yamim Noraim, High Holydays, in the shul, in which Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, was the rav. To be selected for such an eminent position in such a prestigious shul was truly a distinctive honor. It happened one a year, several weeks prior to Rosh Hashanah that Reb Nachum took ill and died. Naturally, everyone mourned the passing of their dear friend, a Jew whose moral rectitude matched his beautiful voice.

After the period of mourning had passed, the elders of the congregation approached the rav and asked him what they should do to secure the service of a chazzan whose penetrating voice would inspire them as Reb Nochum's did. Rav Yosef Chaim told the people not to worry-they would have a baal tefillah in due time. A few days passed. It was five days to Rosh Hashanah and still there was no mention of the appointment of a new chazzan. Indeed, they were getting somewhat apprehensive that at such a late date this position had not yet been filled. A few days later, they approached the rav again, only to receive the same answer: when the time arrived, they would have a baal tefillah.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, they still had no baal-tefillah. The members of the shul were getting slightly impatient, to say the least. They could not contain themselves any longer. "Rebbe," they demanded, "tomorrow the chazzan will stand before Hashem, imploring Him on our behalf, and as yet we do not have a chazzan." The rav responded in his calm voice, "I told you that you have nothing to worry about; tomorrow you will have a chazzan."

Tomorrow came around, and there was a sense of anticipation in the air as everyone waited to see who Rav Yosef Chaim would "produce". Shacharis was concluded, followed by Krias ha'Torah, the Torah reading; the shofar was about to be blown, and there was still no chazzan. All eyes were on the rav. Suddenly, he arose from his seat and went over to Reb Nochum's son. He bent over him and said, "You are to fill your father's place: you will be the baal tefillah."

The young man was stupefied. He had never considered the idea that he would be asked to lead the Mussaf. He began to protest, "I am not prepared: I did not look over the davening. How can I go up to lead the congregation?" Rav Yosef Chaim responded in a soothing voice, "Do not worry. You have listened to your father daven for years. Go up there; it will all come to you. I am sure that you will do well." The young man listened to the rav and went to the bimah, lectern, to daven, to the consternation of the congregation.

After Mussaf, a group of esteemed lay people went over to Rav Yosef Chaim and respectfully asked him why he sent an avel, mourner, to lead the services. It clearly states in halachah that a mourner does not lead the services on Shabbos or Yom Tov.

The rav looked at the group and responded, "Perhaps you do not realize, but Reb Nachum's widow was with us today in shul. Can you imagine the grief and sorrow that she is feeling, especially on this day when her beloved husband was usually the chazzan? Imagine the pain she would have sustained if someone else had davened the tefillah that her husband had led for so many years. Her tears and anguish would be heard and felt by all. To minimize her grief, I sent her son to take his late father's place. Perhaps the nachas of seeing her son at the bimah might in some way mitigate her pain. We are admonished by the Torah to be sensitive to the needs of a widow. I felt that appointing Reb Nachum's son to daven outweighed the law that prohibits a mourner from leading the tefillah on Yom Tov. Indeed, for the sake of the widow there was no one else." It takes a great individual of the calibre of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld to act with such empathy. It takes a great person to think of the small things, because what might seem small to some of us is actually very big in the eyes of others.

And say to him (Pharaoh), "Hashem, G-d of the Ivriyim, Hebrews, happened upon us. (3:18)

Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to approach Pharaoh on behalf of the Jewish People. This is the first time that an address is to be made to a gentile king in the name of the Jewish People. We find the plural derivative of the word Ivri in a form, Ivriyim, with two 'yudin," which never occurs again. Elsewhere, it is always written as Ivrim. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, posits that the character which is defined by the word Ivri is herein underscored. The word, "Ivriyim," emphasizes not only the character that marks the people as a whole, but one which characterizes each individual member. The word Ivri was first used in connection with Avraham Avinu. He had the courage and fortitude to leave the whole world b'ever eched, one side, while he stood firm in his belief in Hashem-on the other side. Ivriyim bespeaks the nature of his descendants. They, too, have inherited his unique courage and conviction.

Hashem instructed Moshe to make his demand on behalf of the Ivriyim, thereby implying the notion that in each individual Jew the entire nation is represented. Each single Jew has the courage and tenacity to stand alone, if necessary, against the whole world, to represent and even carry on the Jewish nation himself. The gentile nations are quite often described by a picture of an animal. It is their symbol of strength. Conversely, Klal Yisrael is pictured as a tree. An animal can be killed with one movement, a shot or a stab. A tree, however, reproduces itself, giving every part of it the possibility of representing the continuance of life of the whole unit. Even if the root is severed -- a branch, a twig, or a bud -- it is quite sufficient to revive the destroyed plant, granting it continued existence.

Moshe said to Pharaoh, "We are Ivriyim-not Ivrim." The spirit that moves me to speak is not within me alone, but in the elders and in the lives of every individual Jew. We do not let ourselves be destroyed. We endure, because in every individual spirit, the courage and the determination of the whole is reproduced. Klal Yisrael is a collective unit, composed of individuals who each are a microcosm of the totality.

I am not a man of words……for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech. (4:10)

Moshe Rabbeinu implored Hashem to send someone else to Pharaoh. He claims that his speech impediment would make it very difficult for him to express himself effectively and to articulate his demands. It is interesting to note that Moshe felt that his impediment would only be problematic in his dialogue with Pharaoh. What about Klal Yisrael? How would they react to a leader who could not communicate in a clear and effective manner? Apparently, Moshe Rabbeinu was not concerned about the Jews. They were not so vacuous and shallow to judge a person only according to his external qualities. They surely were more interested in his inner qualities and virtues than in his proficiency as a speaker.

Yet, one cannot ignore the fact that one's external characteristics weigh heavy on the average person. It takes a rare individual to overlook outward appearances and to focus upon one's inner essence. Our gedolim, Torah giants, were very concerned with another person's Feelings. Their sensitivity towards a fellow Jew was paramount. Indeed, the greater and more illustrious the gadol, the more sensitive he was to the needs and emotions of his fellow Jew. Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl, was one of the greatest Torah leaders of the past generation. His broad scope of Torah knowledge was matched only by his love and sensitivity towards his fellow Jews. As the leader of pre-World War II Europe, his concern for his People, from the great to the simple Jew, was legendary. He was once walking down the street accompanied by a number of his students when he met a man who asked him directions to a given street. Although this street was at the other end of town, totally out of Rav Chaim Ozer's way, the gadol ha'dor took the man by the arm and together they walked a half-hour to the man's destination.

Afterwards, his students asked Rav Chaim Ozer why he went out of his way, especially in light of the rav's weakened physical state. He could just as well have given him the directions. At worst, the man would have asked someone else along the way to guide him.

Rav Chaim Ozer turned to his students and said, "Did you not notice that this man had a speech impediment? Did you not notice his embarrassment when he asked me for directions? If I had not have gone with him, he would have been forced to stop elsewhere and once again ask directions. I would then have been the cause for him to once again be self-conscious and humiliated. In order to circumvent a Jew's humiliation, I was willing to go out of my way." It is such incredible little sensitivities that form the cornerstone of such a great man.

Vignettes on the Torah

But as much as they would afflict it, so it would increase and so it would spread out. (1:12) The words "yarbeh" and "yifrotz" are both written in the future tense. Horav Mordechai HaKohen, zl, comments that the Torah is hereby stating a portent for the future. Whatever persecution we sustain at the hands of our oppressors, we will be increased, commensurate with the degree of persecution, and leave stronger and with greater courage.

And she saw him, the child and behold! A youth was crying (2:6)

The Torah does not say, "She heard him crying," but, rather, "She saw him crying." Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa explains that the Jewish cry does not necessarily emit a sound. One needs only to look at the face of a Jew in galus, exile, and he will see the weeping. This is how Pharaoh's daughter knew this was a Jewish child. A gentile cannot cry without making a lot of noise. Only a Jewish child can express himself with a "bechiah tzenuah," gentle, modest weeping.


For the place where you stand is holy ground. (3:5)

The Chafetz Chaim interprets this to mean that the precise situation in which you find yourself at the present time is holy. In other words, Hashem expects us to serve Him, regardless of the situation, the environment, or the difficulty involved. It is Hashem's will that we serve Him even if the circumstances are less than desirable, because everything can be sanctified.


I shall be as I shall be. (3:15)

The Yehudi Ha'Kadosh explains that this "name" implies the concept of teshuvah, repentance. When a Jew is remorseful over his transgressions, asserting, "I shall be good from today; I will act differently in the future," Hashem responds, "I (also) shall be with you; I shall repose My Shechinah upon you from today."

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