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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


So they appointed taskmasters over the nation in order to afflict it with their burdens. (1:11)

In order to understand fully the meaning of geulas Mitzraim, redemption from Egypt, it is essential that we have a clearer conception of the shibud, slave labor, to which the Jewish People were subjected. Pharaoh was a cruel despot whose goal was to demoralize and dehumanize the Jewish people who were propagating by leaps and bounds. Simply subjecting them to hard labor would just not be an effective response to his problem. Chazal teach us that Jewish slaves built the two great treasure cities of Pisom and Raamses on soil which was totally unsuitable for construction. Indeed, as soon as a building was erected, it would topple over. Another opinion contends that as the work progressed, the building was swallowed up in the quicksand-like earth. Why would Pharaoh initiate a project that was doomed? Why would he waste the free labor of millions of workers, to say nothing of the tons of raw material that he was wasting?

Horav Avraham Pam, zl, suggests that this is the meaning of "l'maan anoso b'sivlosam," "to afflict it with their burdens." Pharaoh understood that hard work, even back-breaking labor, was something with which a person could learn to live, as long as he had the ability to enjoy the fruits of his labor. When a person toils and slaves, however, but receives no sense of satisfaction from the completed task - in fact, observes the destruction of the fruits of his labor - he is then being subjected to the most demeaning torture. Nothing demoralizes a person more than seeing everything for which he has slaved become rubble. This was Pharaoh's diabolical goal: to see to it that the Jews derived no fulfillment from their toil. He was willing to lose so much as long as the Jews could not gain anything from their work. This is evil at its nadir. Rav Pam applies this idea to parents and rebbeim, Torah teachers, as well. Parents toil endlessly in an attempt to support their families. The daily pressures, the inevitable crises, together with the regular dosage of tzaar gidul banim, the pain of raising children, all contribute to rendering parenthood an extremely difficult task. Yet, if the children grow into G-d-fearing Jews whose commitment to Torah and mitzvos is unequivocal, then it is all worth it. If, unfortunately, the converse occurs, and the children do not turn out as we had hoped, there is no greater source of pain and distress.

Likewise, in the world of education, it can all be worth it: the energy expended, the sacrifice of a more lucrative career, dealing with difficult students and parents; and devoting oneself to a profession which is far from glamorous and not yet held in its proper esteem. If one succeeds and produces students that are a credit to the rebbe and Am Yisrael - it is all-worthwhile. If one does not succeed, however, the feelings of frustration and regret are extremely difficult to manage. Now, if we can only get our children and students to appreciate this perspective, life would be much easier.

But the midwives feared G-d. and did not do as the king of Egypt ordered them, and they caused the boys to live. (1:17)

The midwives not only refused to kill the Jewish infant boys, they went out of their way to sustain them. The Torah relates to us what gave them the strength of character to challenge Pharaoh's decree and to risk their own lives: yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. Without yiraas Shomayim, they would have been like anyone else - scared, victimized, willing to do anything to stay alive, even to kill innocent babies. This has been the case throughout history. We do not have to go as far back as the Egyptian exile to support this idea. Let us turn back sixty years to the black period in our history known as the Holocaust. Let us examine the American response to rescuing the hapless Jews of Europe, and we will see that the various approaches to relief and rescue were determined largely in accordance with the religious orientation of the individual. At a time when millions were dying, only the united efforts of the Jewish groups could have an impact upon the events. Regrettably, the chasm that existed along ideological lines hampered the efforts for rescue and cost countless Jewish lives. American Jews clung stubbornly to courses of action dictated by their loyalties. The assimilated Jew focused on government policy and the greater war effort. In his eyes, his Jewish brothers who were being gassed and burned took a back seat to the war effort. There were individuals whose goal of a Jewish State took precedence over Jewish lives. Most of the Orthodox community was involved in a concerted effort to save their European brethren. At times, the battles between the groups were bitter. The Orthodox were denigrated and abused, called backwards and archaic, their patriotism and allegiance to the United States questioned. By the end of 1945, however, the Orthodox activists had developed a sophisticated and efficient rescue apparatus that was far more successful than any action sponsored by the American Jewish establishment. They worked, they persevered, they risked their lives - and they succeeded, because they feared G-d. Their fear of G-d was the primary motivating force in their relentless dedication to saving Jewish lives. This factor and their overwhelming love for their fellow Jew set them apart from their secular counterparts. The Germans learned a lesson in persecution and mass murder from Pharaoh. The Egyptian king was cunning. He chose the wife and daughter of Amram, the leader of the Jews, to help him exterminate the Jewish infant boys. Indeed, they were the first Judenrat. Pharaoh explained to the midwives that to extinguish the life of a fetus was only abortion - not murder. He threatened to kill them if they did not comply. In reality, according to Jewish law, what Pharaoh was asking of them was permissible, since he would have surely killed them for not complying with his orders.

Yocheved and Miriam were confronted with a difficult decision. Should they refuse Pharaoh and forfeit their lives, or should they commit "abortion" which might be permissible in this case since their lives were being threatened. They decided to place their trust in Hashem and firmly resolved not to kill the Jewish boys.

The Germans followed Pharaoh's example by appointing Jews to deal with their own brethren. In response to the Nazi's incessant threats, the Jews had to decide which was the lesser evil: to cooperate with the enemy and, thereby, perhaps lessen the cruelty using the offices of the Judenrat; or refuse to join and let the Germans do their own dirty work.. (This is not the place to discuss the halachic issues and ramifications involved in this decision.) Indeed, many leaders of the Judenrat risked their lives to save their brethren. Regrettably, for the most part they did not succeed and were themselves subjected to cruel punishment.

After all is said and done, yiraas Shomayim was the sole differentiating factor between those who saved Jewish lives and those who did not. The observant Jew, whose heart and soul is filled with awe of the Almighty and love for his fellow Jew, is the one we can count on to place Jewish lives above his personal commitments, ideologies and patriotic feelings, and even his own life. He responds to a higher call - the word of Hashem.

The Aushwitz-Birkenau death camp also had a team similar to Yocheved and Miriam, who risked their lives on behalf of their People. They were Tzila Orlean of Bais Yaakov and her student, Tillie Rinderly. In her book, "To Vanquish the Dragon," Mrs. Pearl Benish, a Holocaust survivor and witness, gives the following account: The Bais Yaakov girls were a close-knit group who avoided high positions in the camps at all costs. They preferred hard manual labor, maltreatment and beating, walking for miles in the worst weather - anything to avoid helping the Nazis torment other Jews. These two young women were different. They accepted the challenge and took positions in the camp administration with the hope that they might help, rather than hurt, the Jewish inmates. Tzila became head nurse in the camp infirmary, and Tillie served as secretary. Both positions, although extremely dangerous, served as vehicles in saving Jewish lives. These two young women daily walked a tightrope between life and death.

Tzila Orlean was a brilliant woman who had the respect of even such Nazi murderers as the infamous Dr. Mengele and Dr. Koenigal, the commandant of Block 10. She was the nucleus who inspired all those around her. She preached chesed, loving kindness, to others. She was like a magnet, drawing scores of women who needed help and encouragement in their moments of distress. She and Tillie would devise various methods and strategies for rescuing fellow inmates from under Dr. Mengele's nose. They were not alone. Doctors, non-Jewish inmates, secretaries, even some of the German camp personnel, lent assistance out of a sense of respect to these special women. Their hearts were open to everyone. Having no fear, they did what had to be done, regardless of the mortal danger to themselves.

Tillie Rinderly was young, hardly eighteen, with a soft, angelic countenance. Under other conditions, she would have been at the threshold of a happy life; instead she became the "white angel of Aushwitz." Unseen by the ever-watching eyes of the sentries, she would go from block to block during the night, bringing much needed supplies and medicine to the inmates. She would "relieve" the infirmary of injections and hard-to-find medicines just to make life a bit easier for the hapless inmates. She brought water to the fever-stricken and sugar to the typhus victims lying half-dead on the floor. Back and forth, all through the night, the "white angel" went, giving sustenance and succor to the ill and infirm. At times, she would even give away her own bread ration or cup of water. She seemed to subsist on nothing. They might have called her an angel, but - in truth - she soared much higher than any angel in Heaven.

These women were part of an elite group of Jews whose fear of Heaven dictated their every movement. They feared nothing and no one, because they answered to a Higher Authority - Hashem.

Moreover, behold, he is going out to meet you and when he sees you he will rejoice in his heart. (4:15)

Chazal teach us that Hashem overlooks no good deed, however natural or insignificant. The Midrash views Aharon's sincere joy at meeting his brother, and celebrating his appointment as leader and spokesman for the emerging Klal Yisrael, as an act of great nobility. Indeed, it states that had Aharon realized that the Torah took note of his joy at Moshe's good fortune, he would have greeted Moshe with drums and danced. In other words, had Aharon known that his natural, sincere feelings of brotherly love and joy was significant enough to be recorded in the Torah as a lesson for eternity, he would have done even more than he had already done. Chazal continue, deriving a lesson in derech eretz, proper conduct, from Aharon's actions: a person carrying out a mitzvah should do so with a happy heart. They express a similar thought in regard to Reuven and Boaz. If Reuven would have known that Hashem would write about him, "Reuven heard and saved him (Yosef) from their hands," he would have put Yosef up on his shoulders and carried him to his father. Furthermore, if Boaz had known that Hashem would write about him, "He pinched up a bit of grain for (Rus)," he would have brought fattened cows and served her. Obviously, this Midrash demands elucidation. These great tzaddikim were not the type whose actions were influenced by the plaudits they received. They did what had to be done. They were capable of performing great deeds - and if in these three incidents they only did so much, it was because they ascertained that this is what was warranted at the time. How would an awareness of Hashem's high regard for them and their actions change what they felt should be done? Did they not always act in accordance with the demands of the situation?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, cites what he heard his father-in-law, Horav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, zl, say in regard to this Midrash. Aharon HaKohen appraised and scrutinized every one of his actions. Despite being a great Navi, prophet, in his own right and also Moshe Rabbeinu's older brother, his natural humility overrode any feelings of envy he might have harbored over Moshe's appointed role as savior of the Jews in Egypt. Moreover, in his great self-effacement, he even went out to greet and pay respect to Moshe with a heart filled with sincere happiness. However, his constant introspection impeded him from expressing his feeling of joy through music and dancing. He was unsure of himself. Was it for real? Would such an exhibition of joy be sincere, or would it be tainted, an empty, insincere display that did not veritably reflect his true inner emotions. Because he was not sure, he kept his joy silent, his emotions concealed from the world.

Had he known that Hashem would write about him a testimony to his untarnished integrity, he would certainly have gone out to greet Moshe with dance. Aharon was unsure of the integrity of his actions. How far are we from this concept?

Horav Bergman extends this idea further as he explains the rest of the Midrash which focuses on Reuven and Boaz's dilemma. Reuven was concerned. How could he take upon himself the responsibility to save Yosef if his brothers had rendered a halachic decision against him? They were righteous scholars who had even included the Shechinah in their deliberations. Who could say authoritatively that Reuven was right and the brothers were wrong? Perhaps he was not a hero but, simply, a rebel who was undermining the power of Bais Din?

If he had known, however, that Hashem would write about him, "Reuven heard and saved him from their hands," attesting to the integrity of his rescue, he would not have thought twice about putting Yosef on his shoulders and carrying him to his father.

Boaz's action may be viewed through the same prism. When he asked his servant, "To whom does this woman belong?" the servant was slightly taken aback. Boaz was not one to ask about strange women. Chazal say that Boaz was impressed with her wise conduct: She would glean two stalks at a time - not three - in accordance with halachah, Jewish law. The Alshich Hakadosh explains that the servant privately questioned Boaz's motives and thus his oblique answer, "She is a Moabite woman," was his way of telling Boaz, "You cannot marry her. Besides, because of your stature, there really is no Jewish woman that is suitable for you."

Boaz was humble and pure in spirit. He took the hint. He always made sure his behavior met with the approval of those who looked up to him. Now was no different. He questioned his motives; he introspected his intentions. Was he being truly altruistic or carried away by a young woman? Thus, when he called Rus to eat and she sat at one side, away from the men, he gave her only a token amount of food, for he was distrustful of his personal motivation. Hence, he would not allow himself to do more.

Had he known, however, that Hashem would later write about his conduct with praise, declaring his purity of heart to future generations, he would have undoubtedly have run and "brought her fattened calves and fed them to her."

We now understand the rationale behind Reuven, Aharon and Boaz's actions. Yet, the Midrash seems to criticize them for not doing the mitzvah wholeheartedly. If they had a good reason for their actions, why are they criticized? Horav Bergman explains that these great individuals acted with constraint precisely because they were great. Men of diminished spiritual stature, less respectful of the Divine Majesty, less in awe of the Heavenly Throne, might have acted with greater tolerance, but are these giants of Torah to be rebuked for their immense veneration? Horav Bergman responds affirmatively, explaining that people of such stature redefine the word "wholeheartedly." Although the self-distrust and consequent actions which Reuven, Aharon and Boaz exhibited, were motivated by greatness, meticulous integrity and objectivity - something is still missing from the picture. In the final analysis, they still did not act wholeheartedly. There was something missing in their avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. For however much a person should scrutinize and distrust himself, when a mitzvah presents itself, he should act with a pure heart and trust in Hashem - regardless of his personal doubts. This is the underlying meaning of the pasuk, "B'chol derachecha de'eihu; v'hu yeyasher orchosecha," "In all your ways know Him, then He will straighten your path." If "in all your ways you know Him," desiring that everything you do be in accordance with His will, then whenever a mitzvah presents itself, He will give you the fortitude and understanding to carry out your duty truthfully. We have to act, and Hashem will "straighten" our path.

Questions and Answers

1) Who were the Jewish midwives?

2) In what way was Moshe indirectly responsible, even as an infant, for the saving of thousands of Jewish infants.

3) What is symbolized by the Burning Bush?

4) Hashem told Moshe to remove his shoes when He spoke to him from the Burning Bush. Where do we find a parallel to this?


1) Rashi cites the Talmud Sota 11b that contends that Shifrah was Yocheved and Puah was her daughter, Miriam. According to a second opinion in the Talmud, the second midwife was actually Elisheva, Yocheved's daughter-in-law, the wife of Aharon.

2) The astrologers foresaw the Jewish leader's downfall through water. Thinking that this meant he would drown, they told Pharaoh to drown all Jewish male infants. When Moshe was placed in a basket in the Nile River, they erroneously believed that the Jewish savior had died. They, in turn, told Pharaoh to rescind the decree. Thus, thousands of Jewish babies were saved as a result of Moshe (Sotah 12b).

3) The lowly bush represents Klal Yisrael. Hashem was indicating to Moshe that despite the Jewish People's spiritual nadir and the various fires of exile that are ignited against them, they will not be consumed (Rabbeinu Bachya).

4) The Kohanim who served in the Bais Hamikdash were required to walk bare-foot because of the special sanctity of a place in which Hashem's Presence is revealed. Likewise, the entire mountain which was Har Sinai achieved unique spiritual significance as a result of the Divine Presence (Ramban).


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