Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Moreover, I have heard the groan of Bnei Yisrael whom Egypt enslaves. (6:5)

A businessman once came to the Chasam Sofer to pour out his heart. Apparently, he was doing poorly in business and needed the blessing of a great man of the Chasam Sofer's stature. The Chasam Sofer looked at the man and said, "V'gam ani shomati," "Moreover, (also) I have heard that your brother is destitute with no source of income, and you have refused to help him." The man looked back at the Chasam Sofer and replied, "But Rebbe, I just finished saying that I am not doing well myself. I have enough to worry about myself." The Chasam Sofer explained, "Hashem said, "I have also heard the groan of Bnei Yisrael." The word "gam," moreover, also, is an inclusive term. It incorporates something or someone else. Hashem was saying, "I am also listening to their groan, to their pain. What does Hashem mean? Is there anyone else who was listening to them? This teaches us that, although every Jew was in an "eis tzarah," period of misfortune and pain, he still thought of his brother's suffering. He suffered, but he thought of his brother! As a result of their empathy for one another, they were liberated from the Egyptian exile. The fact that you are in need does not in any way mitigate your responsibility towards your brother.

I am Hashem. Speak to Pharaoh…everything that I speak to you. (6:29)

Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Jewish People be released from bondage. If Pharoah would not listen, Hashem would punish him and his nation severely. In order to understand Moshe Rabbeinu's position fully vis a vis Pharaoh, we should consider their dialogue and the ensuing plagues in context. Imagine a family that was compelled to flee their country in response to a tyrannical king. Overnight, they escaped by train with whatever belongings they could gather. In the ensuing excitement and tumult, a small bassinet containing their infant fell off the train. Miraculously, a wealthy man happened by and heard a young baby crying. The wealthy man took pity on the infant and brought him home. Days became weeks, weeks became months and years as the child grew into adulthood in the home of his surrogate father. The wealthy man gave the child everything. He sent him to the finest schools and even found a wife for him. He supported them after their marriage, taking care of the young couple's every need.

One day the infant, turned young man, rebelled against his surrogate father. He beat him and destroyed his property. He set fire to his storehouses and abused his slaves. He forgot who his benefactor was, all the bounty he had showered upon him. He cared only about himself. This sounds like a shocking story. How could this young man repay his surrogate father in such a debasing manner? Where was his hakoras hatov, sense of appreciation and gratitude? Is this the way that one expresses his appreciation to the individual who saved him from certain death, sustaining and raising him to responsible adulthood? Yet, is this not what happened to Moshe Rabbeinu? He was thrown into the river with the hope that, somehow, he might be saved. Pharaoh's daughter happened by and noticed the infant Moshe. She took him home and raised him in the palace. He was, indeed, Pharaoh's prince. Suddenly, he rebelled against the one who had saved him. He brought terrible plagues, which devastated the people and the land, against Pharaoh and his household. He struck without compassion. A debilitating darkness enveloped the land. The people were struck mercilessly time and time again, until all of the first-born in the land were smitten. This is not all. When Moshe and his people left Egypt, they were chased by Pharaoh and his cohorts. The final payback: they were all drowned in the sea.

Does this story sound familiar? When we look at both cases in their proper perspectives, it would seem that Moshe Rabbeinu was manifesting an extreme lack of hakoras hatov too. Does Hashem not have any other agents to liberate the Jews from Egypt? Is it right to compel Moshe to act in such a disparaging manner, to exhibit such ingratitude to the one who raised him? Indeed, Moshe was to refrain from striking the water and the earth for the first three plagues, since he personally had benefited from these creations. What happened during the rest of the plagues? Did his obligation towards hakoras hatov end prematurely? There were other great men among the Jewish people. Why did Hashem send Moshe, thereby placing his middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov in jeopardy?

In the ethical discourses of Yeshivas Bais Shalom Mordechai, it is explained that Hashem always repays middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. What goes around, comes around. Pharaoh had a short memory. He conveniently forgot that a Jew had preceded Moshe, who had helped him, an ancestor of the current Jews in Egypt. In fact, most of Pharoah's wealth could be attributed to Yosef's acumen and integrity. Without Yosef, the entire Egyptian people would have perished from hunger. Pharaoh forgot who had interpreted his dreams, who had rightfully attributed his own ability to Hashem, whose humility and veracity never permitted him to take a thing for himself. Pharaoh forgot - Hashem remembered. Pharaoh did not "remember" Yosef, so Hashem sent someone whom Pharaoh would raise in his own palace, who would not remember him. Who was better than Moshe Rabbeinu to teach Pharaoh a lesson in appreciation and gratitude?

David Ha'Melech asserts in Sefer Tehillim 121, "Hashem tzilcha," "Hashem is your shadow." The Baal Shem Tov explains that the Almighty is to us like a shadow. He acts towards us the way we act towards others. Furthermore, the way we act in this world mirrors the way He will act towards us in the Eternal World.

We are always quick to question Hashem: Why me? Why this? What did I do? If we focus on the punishment, we might develop a perspective on what we did. In the Talmud Berachos 5A, Chazal say, "If one sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. If he examines and finds nothing objectionable, let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of Torah." In his Nefesh Hachaim, Horav Chaim Volozhiner zl, asks, "What do Chazal mean when they say, "He finds nothing objectionable."? Is not "bitul Torah," the neglect of Torah study, something objectionable? Is this sin not sufficient cause for punishment? He explains that the person does not find a sin that is similar in nature to his punishment. He is not able to equate his punishment with any specific negative action that he has committed. Yet, the study of Torah corresponds to all the mitzvos. One who does not study will not observe. Consequently, for the sin of neglecting the study of Torah, painful sufferings will visit him. One who does not study does not daven, pray, very well. One who does not study does not perform chesed, kindness, in accordance with the Torah's perspective . In fact, he does not carry out any mitzvos properly. He becomes deficient in all areas. One is free to do what he wants in this world. He will, however, ultimately pay for his choices.

The sorcerers said to Pharaoh, "It is the finger of G-d." (8:15)

Pharaoh's magicians were finally stymied. They could not replicate this latest plague. It must be the finger of G-d. To paraphrase Targum Yonasan, "This does not emanate from the powers of Moshe and Aharon." In other words, until this juncture, the magicians were able to duplicate the "miraculous" acts that "seemed" to be the result of Moshe and Aharon's mystical powers. Consequently, they refused to believe that Hashem had sent them, that He was the source of these miracles. Now that they saw that this plague was beyond their magical ability, they conceded that there must be a Divine element involved.

In truth, the magicians already were acutely aware that they were not on a level of expertise with Moshe and Aharon. They could not remove the plagues, only attempt to imitate them. What was it that encouraged them to hold out so long, to deny that they were up against a force superior to theirs, to a Supreme Power which rendered them powerless? Horav Simcha Zissel, zl, M'Kelm attributes this to human nature. If one were to place something sweet and tasty on his tongue and then be notified that this sweet food is poison, we would be hard-pressed to convince him otherwise. Likewise, if someone is under the impression that what he is doing is acceptable, one will have a difficult time impressing him with the truth. The Egyptian magicians wanted to believe and thus, they convinced themselves that their magical ability was greater than that of Moshe and Aharon. Nothing could convince them until the truth glared them in the face. They wanted so badly to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu that they would believe anything that would validate their own line of thinking.

Nachlas Tzvi cites the Ben Ish Chai, who relates the following story in one of his drashos, lectures. The famous city of Vilna was not always a city. The story relates that before it was founded, the ruling prince over the area called together his religious advisors and inquired of them whether he would be successful in building a city in this area. The pagan priests responded with a message from their gods: in order for the city to achieve success, it was necessary that a woman come forth out of her own free will and offer her only son as a sacrifice to be buried alive. He would be the foundation stone of the city. This sacrifice would ensure a successful tenure for the municipality.

The Prince immediately sent messengers throughout his provinces in search of such a woman, whose utter conviction would compel her to do the "right thing," to bring her only son as a sacrifice for the "greater good" of the community. At first, they could not find anyone so devoted or so foolish. After a few days, however, a simple-minded woman, who lived in a small village far away came forward and offered the "services" of her only son, a young boy, only twelve years old.

The prince and his advisors were ecstatic to hear that they would be able to proceed with dedicating the new city, now that their "sacrifice" had been located. They chose a day for the milestone event when the child would be buried alive, and the city would be founded. Everything was prepared. It would be a joyous occasion, a holiday for the entire population. Everyone, from the country's nobility to the common citizen, gathered for this auspicious event and to witness a mother sacrificing her only son.

Just before the predetermined moment, the young boy asked to speak to the prince. His request was granted, and the boy came over to the prince and said, "My prince, I cannot believe that our god is party to such a terrible endeavor. While you may counter that your religious advisors saw this in a vision, my feeling is that they misunderstood what they saw. I, therefore, ask of you to permit me to ask them three questions. If they answer these questions correctly, I will concede to their wisdom and go to my death quietly and peacefully, for I will know that this is our god's will."

The prince immediately agreed to the young boy's request. The boy thereupon turned to the advisors and asked them, "What is the lightest thing on the earth? What is the sweetest thing in the world? What is the hardest thing of all?" The priests considered the questions. After a serious discussion, they responded unanimously, "The lightest thing is a feather; the sweetest thing is honey; the hardest thing is a stone." As soon as they finished speaking they looked at the assemblage, each with a victorious smile across his face.

The prince then turned to the young boy and asked, "What do you say to their answers?" The boy responded with the sagacity of a scholar, "Your priests do not understand my questions. If they have no clue how to interpret the questions of a young boy, how can they be expected to even fathom what a god tells them? My prince, I am no fool. I would not ask a wise man a question which has an obvious answer. I was looking for the obscure, the answer which only an astute man with a penetrating mind can answer. Even a young child knows that a feather is light, honey is sweet and a stone is hard. By their very nature this is their characteristic. I am looking for the anomaly to the naked eye, which appears heavy, but is really light, seems bitter, but is actually sweet, seems soft, but is in reality very hard.

I will now tell you the answers to my questions. The lightest thing in the world is an only child being carried by his mother. While he may seem heavy, for the mother he is no burden whatsoever. The sweetest thing in the world is a mother's milk to a nursing child. The hardest thing in the world is the heart of a mother who was prepared to sacrifice her only child." The prince and all those assembled were astonished by the young boy's incisive mind. His penetrating wisdom mesmerized all those who had gathered to see him sacrificed. He clearly proved with his perceptive questions that the advice of the prince's advisors was utter nonsense. He demonstrated that a person, regardless of his ability and acumen, will see only what he wants to see. Objectivity can come only to those whose personal integrity is regulated and guided by yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. Apparently, this was one virtue that Pharaoh's magicians did not possess.

Moshe said, "It is not proper to do so …behold if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight, will they not stone us?" (8:22)

Pharaoh told Moshe to offer their sacrifices in Egypt. Why should they leave for the wilderness? Moshe responded that such a suggestion was untenable. The Egyptians worshipped sheep, the very animal that the Jews sacrificed to Hashem. How could the Jews slaughter the Egyptian god in front of their eyes and not expect a violent reaction from the Egyptians? This is enigmatic. If Pharaoh had issued a decree that permitted the Jews to slaughter sheep in Egypt, then no one would dare to harm a Jew. The king's edict was law. Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlap zl, explains that Moshe did not want to cause the Egyptians to be disconcerted to the point that they would want to stone them. He was sensitive to their feelings.

This teaches us an important lesson regarding middos, character traits. Even if the mitzvah one is about to perform is a great and noble mitzvah, he should not do it in such a manner that it will cause pain unto others - even if this anxiety is self-imposed and perhaps foolish. Of course, if the mitzvah demands that it be carried out in a specific manner, then the mitzvah overrides everything. The Torah only wants us to be sensitive to another person's feelings, regardless of who he is.

Vignettes on the Parsha

This was Aharon and Moshe. This was Moshe and Aharon. (6:26, 27)

Chazal note that in some places in the Torah, Aharon's name precedes that of Moshe, while in other places, Moshe's name precedes Aharon's. This teaches that both were equally great. How is it possible for two people to be exactly the same? People have ups and downs; no one's nature remains the same all day. The Chozeh M'Lublin explains that Moshe and Aharon represented the quintessence of humility superceding even Avraham Avinu. They said, "V'nachnu mah," "What are we?" They attributed nothing to themselves. If they both viewed themselves as nothing; they are equal.

"But I shall harden Pharaoh's heart and I shall multiply My signs." (7:3)

The Kedushas Levi said, "Although Pharaoh was obstinate in defying Hashem, his role in glorifying Hashem's Name was enviable."

"The sorcerers did the same through their incantations, and they brought up frogs." (8:3)

Daas Chachomim observes that the sorcerer's "wisdom" sufficed only to do evil and bring forth a plague. To do good and rid Egypt of the plague was beyond the grasp of their ability.

Moshe cried out to Hashem concerning the frogs…Hashem carried out the word of Moshe. (8:8,9) Why did Hashem listen to Moshe's supplication regarding the frogs, and ignore his prayer later on in the wilderness when Klal Yisrael was besieged by snakes? Then, Moshe was instructed to fashion a copper snake, and everyone who gazed upon it lived. His prayer alone did not suffice. The Chafetz Chaim explains that in the wilderness the snakes were sent as punishment for speaking lashon hora, disparaging speech. Prayer helps for every tzarah, misfortune, with the exception of lashon hora. For lashon hora it was necessary that, corresponding with the prayer, the Jews would gaze upon the copper snake, thereby subjugating their hearts and minds to Hashem in order to achieve absolution.

Pharaoh sent…and said to them; "This time I have sinned." (9:27)

Horav Shlomo Margolis, Shlita, notes the nadir of depravity to which one can descend. Pharaoh had acted treacherously to the Jews, enslaving them, making their lives bitter, killing their male offspring and comitting countless other heinous crimes against them. Yet, when he sensed that he had acted inappropriately, the only thing he could bring himself to regret was the fact that he did not comply with Hashem's demand that he free the Jewish People.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

The fifth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588.

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.

This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel