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PARSHAS VA'ERAI shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you, and you shall know that I am Hashem, your G-d. (6:6, 7)
The Torah uses four expressions of geulah, redemption, to convey the four progressive stages of redemption. These four expressions form the foundation of the requirement to drink four cups of wine during the Pesach Seder. The first three stages of geulah refer to the Jews becoming free men and leaving the country. The last one, "And I shall take you to Me," seems to be a bit superfluous in context to the redemption. It means that Hashem will give us the Torah, and then we will be His People. It does not seem to add anything intrinsic to the redemption process. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, describes to us what we would be like had Hashem not taken us to Him. The word, v'lakachti, is an integral component of the redemption without which we might have physically left Egypt, but Egypt would still be a part of our lives. The expungement of Egypt from the Jewish psyche could only take place once we made a commitment to Hashem, His Torah, and the way of life that a Torah Jew must live.
Rav Sholom relates that when he was a young yeshivah student, he and a group of other students would walk through the market on Friday afternoons to "remind" the storekeepers that Shabbos was rapidly approaching. It was time to close their shops. One barber consistently kvetched, taking his sweet time closing up. Usually, it was already after shekiah, sunset, when he finally locked his shop. He was a nice, sincere individual who either did not care or did not understand. He would shave his customers with a razor, transgressing a serious prohibition. Did he know better? Perhaps. Did he care? Perhaps. Did he listen? No. Yet, when he left his shop, he made a point to kiss the Mezuzah-- no less than three times!
Once, six weeks elapsed, and the barbershop remained closed. No one knew why this had occurred, but, as suddenly as it closed, it re-opened and the barber returned to his shop. Of course, the bachurim, yeshivah students, inquired as to what had taken place. Had he been ill? Had there been a death in the family?
"Yes, I was gravely ill," he replied. "Hashem miraculously saved me from certain death. Let me tell you something. When I lay there on my bed, I made an oath to the Almighty that if He would allow me to live, I would travel to Meron, to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and I would shave off my beard there" - with a razor, no less! Rav Sholom continues, "This is the attitude of one who does not comprehend the meaning of v'lokachti eschem li l'am. Without Torah, he has no perception concerning right and wrong. The individual who does not have Torah has not really been liberated from Egypt. The influence of that g-dless society continues to pervade his psyche."
Chazal teach us that the shifchah al ha'yam, simple maidservant at the Red Sea, was privy to a much greater revelation of Hashem than even the Navi Yechezkel. Yet, as Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, was wont to add, "But she nevertheless remained a shifchah!" Despite observing so much, perceiving Hashem on an unprecedented level of clarity, she did not change into a more spiritually correct human being. She remained a maidservant. Why? One would think that such a revelation would transform a person forever.
Rav Sholom explains that without the Torah's powerful impact on our lives, all of the miracles and spiritual revelations to which we might be exposed would not leave a lasting impression. Yes, one can experience Hashem's manifestation during the splitting of the Red Sea and still remain a maidservant. The essential ingredient required to distill and preserve this remarkable event is Torah. Without it, one cannot interpret the events of his own life.
Chazal tell us that one may drink wine between the four Kossos, cups, that are a part of the Pesach Seder ritual. This applies between the first, second and third cups. Between the third and fourth cup, however, one may not drink. The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that if one drinks between the first and second cup, or the second and third cup, he will not become inebriated, because he will eat shortly thereafter, and the food will absorb the alcoholic effects of the wine. Participants of a seder drink the third cup, however, after the meal. Since the individual will no longer be eating, it is possible that, if he drinks more wine, he will not remain in control of his faculties.
Rav Sholom explains this homiletically. The four cups of wine are symbolic of the Egyptian liberation. Hashem redeemed us from the Egyptian center of immorality and perversion, from the slavery and continual persecution. He did so with wondrous miracles and an incredible revelation of his power and strength. The experience of liberation, with its ensuing supernatural events, can go to a person's head. Indeed, he might become "drunk" with the experience. One might become so out of control that he might speculate," I have made it! I am there! I have been liberated from Egypt. I am walking with Moshe and Aharon, surrounded by the Pillars of Cloud: The Manna is delivered to my home everyday! What more is there?"
Hashem responds: "Do not become drunk. You are not there yet. The ultimate, complete geulah, redemption, is still before you. V'lokachti eschem li l'am, 'I will take you to Me for a nation.'" That is the conclusion of redemption. That is the fourth cup. Until one reaches the finish line, the redemption has not fully taken place. Only after the purpose of redemption has occurred, after Klal Yisrael has received the Torah, is he truly free. Without the Torah, Egypt is still within him. Freedom comes when one connects with Hashem, which can only be experienced through committing himself to His Torah.
But they did not heed Moshe, because of shortness of breath and hard work. (6:9)
In the previous parsha (Shemos 4: 29-31), we find that when Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen had originally presented their case for freedom to the Jewish People, their response was positive: "Aharon spoke all the words that Hashem had spoken to Moshe; and he performed the signs in sight of the people. And the people believed, and they heard that Hashem had remembered Bnei Yisrael and that He saw their affliction." Yet, here when Moshe approached them again, their reaction was negative - almost no reaction. What was the difference? Moshe was essentially saying the same thing.
Horav Sholom Yosef Elyashiv, Shlita, explains that before Moshe's second encounter, he presented the consequences of their liberation. "I am Hashem: and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; and I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you, I shall take you to Me for a People and I shall be a G-d to you" (Ibid 6:6,7) The promise of redemption was lined with a demand, a responsibility that would be imposed on them. Hashem would become their G-d, and they would be His People. They would accept the Torah and become His Nation - not just any nation - but a mamleches Kohanim v'goi kadosh, a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. When they heard the demands that would be placed upon them, they no longer wanted to listen. Why? Because they were depressed by the hard work to which they had been subjected. They could not think rationally.
Rav Elyashiv derives from here an important principle in Jewish human nature. When a Jew does not listen, there is an explanation for it. A Jew does not just ignore someone who speaks to him about the positive aspects of observance and serving Hashem. A specific reason, an impediment, prevents him from listening properly. In this case, it was kotzer ruach, shortness of breath, and avodah kashah, hard work. Depression, dejection, indifference, low self-esteem, hopelessness: these are just some of the possibilities that come to mind. One who has fallen prey to these maladies will not listen. He has no interest in listening. Only an astute, caring and loving teacher realizes that a Jew who does not listen has a reason.
Stress comes in many shapes and forms. For some it is parnassah, earning a livelihood; for others, it is a low self-esteem resulting from various sources. After all is said and done, people are confronted with issues, both legitimate and imagined. These issues are sufficient cause to impede one's ability to "hear" properly. We are living in a period during which the spiritual climate is very intense. Baruch Hashem, Klal Yisrael is rebuilding. The Jewish outreach movement is moving ahead at full throttle. Yet, we find many disenchanted young people who, despite having been raised in observant and even yeshivishe homes, have absolutely no interest in frumkeit. They are indifferent, almost apathetic, to anything frum. Why?
V'lo shamu el Moshe, mi'kotzer ruach u'mei'avodah kashah. Some of us just do not thrive under the same pressure that others seem to find riveting and stimulating. Children who grow up in a home where their parents present the paradox of hypocrisy by playing the Orthodox role, while ignoring many of the simple ethics expounded by our Chazal in Pirkei Avos, are distressed about what they see. Instead of viewing the latest chumros, stringencies in Halachah, as an indication of Klal Yisrael's spiritual fortitude and exceptional growth, they see them as bogging them down and restricting them even more. They perceive the prohibitive mitzvos as the defining factor of Yiddishkeit - negativity and "do nots." In addition, certain disputes and machlokes "l'shem Shomayim" have crept into the Orthodox camp, with all of the "newly- found, permissible" ways to slander and undermine Yiddishkeit. All of this leads to kotzer ruach. It destroys a young person's self-esteem, because it enables him to question authority and view his heritage from a negative perspective. This is compounded when he is greeted in shul or at home with cynicism or outright hatred - greetings that only stoke his depression even more.
Rav Elyashiv teaches us that when a Jew does not listen, he has an explanation. Perhaps, instead of laying blame, we should take the time to search for that reason. It might make a world of difference. The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, was known for his boundless love for each and every Jew. After the war, when depression was, sadly, a way of life, he nurtured and held the hand of many a brokenhearted Jew, bringing them back to spiritual life. One incident that was recorded in these pages a number of years ago is worth repeating for its timeless message.
The emotional and mental condition of the newly-liberated survivors was, at best, fragile. They were broken and shattered in body and soul. During the war, they concealed their bottled-up emotions. After liberation, they were forced to confront these feelings, considering the destruction and personal loss that each one had sustained. Adding to their tragedy was the knowledge that the world had, for the most part, stood idly by, indifferent to their pain and persecution. The spiritual crisis that resulted from these factors affected virtually every survivor. It was precisely during this time of darkness and depression that the light of the Klausenberger Rebbe shone brightly, illuminating the path back to spirituality and emotional health. He was one of them, who suffered like they did, but remained unbroken in spirit, resolute in his commitment to rebuild and reclaim the spiritual legacy of the Jewish nation.
Many stories occurred connected with him. O incident particularly comes to mind, which I feel is indicative of the underlying idea expressed in this thesis. After the war, the Rebbe turned his attention to convincing the surviving Jews to follow him to the Displaced Persons camp which served as the center for the Jews who had survived the war. Many went because here they would receive food and support from the Americans. The Rebbe made every attempt to persuade these Jews to return body and soul to the Jewish People. Some said openly that they had no desire to live as Jews. The Rebbe was patient. He did not badger; he listened with love, interjecting with a word here and there. Many were moved by the way he listened to them, and they came back.
There was a young man who had lost everything, having experienced the cruelty of watching his wife and children die before his eyes. He really had no desire to continue living. Every day that went by, he persevered and pushed himself to the next day. Religious observance, however, was the furthest thing from his mind. One day, as this young man was walking through the camp, he noticed the Rebbe walking with a group of students. He tried to turn away, but it was too late; the Rebbe had already noticed him.
Motioning him aside, the Rebbe asked to speak with him - alone. At first, the young man demurred, claiming that he was busy. He really had no interest in speaking with the Rebbe about frumkeit. He was not buying what the Rebbe was selling. Nonetheless, the Rebbe was a difficult person to refuse, so he relented, and they walked off to a side. "My child," the Rebbe began, "I know why you do not want to talk. You are upset after having gone through so much. Your personal losses are staggering. I know. I lost my wife and ten children." Suddenly, the Rebbe began to cry - and cry. Observing this, the young man finally allowed himself to release the pent-up pressures that had been driving him insane. The two just stood there, arms embracing each other, weeping uncontrollably on one another's shoulder.
A few minutes went by, and the Rebbe composed himself. He looked into the eyes of the young man, who no longer seemed so bitter and said, "I do not blame you for the way you feel, but I ask you to remember one thing - who you are! Always remember to be yourself." With these words, the Rebbe ignited a spark that continues to burn to this very day, as the young man, now a grandfather many times over, reflects on the carefully worded message of the Rebbe, and how it saved his spiritual life.
The Rebbe understood that the bitterness that had been bottled up within this young man prevented him from listening. He told him something that we should all remember. "Be yourself." All too often, parents expect their children to be someone else, someone they are not. Let them be who they are, and you will see the nachas you deserve.
For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart. (9:14)
The ten makos, plagues, that struck Egypt took their toll on the populace. Each one touched a specific nerve. Makas barad, the plague of hail, however, seems to have had a compelling effect on Pharaoh, more so than the other plagues. Indeed, the Torah emphasizes this with Moshe Rabbeinu's introduction of the plague. "For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart." Why is barad considered "all My plagues"? It was only one of ten. Furthermore, the reaction to the hail was also exceptional. The Egyptian who prepared himself and his animals for this plague is referred to as "G-d-fearing." This is the overwhelming effect that the hail had on them.
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that barad is referred to as kol mageifosai, "all My plagues," because through the barad, the Egyptians came to realize that all the plagues originated from Hashem. Until that point, Pharaoh had tried to convince himself that the power of magic or some other form of mysticism had been empowering Moshe to effect the plagues. Barad taught Pharaoh that this was no simple act of magic. This was the real thing. Now Pharaoh realized that he was dealing with a super power, a Supreme Being. No longer did he think that the previous plagues were the work of some mystic. They were also authentic. What traits of the plague of hail engendered such a reaction from Pharaoh?
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the uniqueness of barad lies in the fact that neither the hail nor the fire had any effect on the other: the hail did not weaken the heat of the fire; the fire did not melt the hail. In other words, the hail was comprised of ice and fire synthesized together, each retaining its unique properties without having any adverse effect on the other. This is similar to a king who was served by two dukes who were sworn enemies of each other. When the king went to war and needed the services of both of his dukes, they made peace with each other in order to serve their master, the king.
Witchcraft/sorcery is a spiritual entity that functions within the sphere of creation, receiving its power from the forces of tumah, spiritual contamination. Egypt was the center of witchcraft. Indeed, the Christian godhead studied witchcraft there. Any product of the forces of tumah, which is in its own right disjointed from the source of holiness, cannot by its very nature ever unite with anything else. Blood, frogs, lice, pestilence, and boils are all natural creations which carry out Hashem's command. The forces of impurity have the ability to create such natural entities. This is why Pharaoh was unimpressed by the first six plagues. It was only with the advent of the seventh plague that he became nervous. This plague had two opposing creations working together. This was impossible in Pharaoh's world of spiritual impurity. This could not have been the result of the forces of evil. It had to be the work of the Creator - as similarly evidenced by the previous plagues. To put it simply, it is highly unlikely that peace can be affected between two warring dukes unless they are both subservient to one king. Thus, if there is such a king that rules over opposing factions, then he must be the Supreme Ruler over the entire world. This idea frightened Pharaoh, because he now knew that he had met his match.
Alternatively, I recently heard an insight concerning another aspect of makas barad that left an indelible impression on Pharaoh. In the natural order of events, the nation that triumphs in war does not act with compassion to the defeated nation. On the contrary, it collects its spoils and usually leaves the loser with nothing more than bitter memories of its defeat. Here we find Moshe instructing Pharaoh to "send, gather in your livestock and everything you have in the field" (ibid 9:19). When the victor demonstrates his nobility by showing sensitivity to the vanquished, it indicates that we are dealing with a different sort of conqueror. In fact, 'champion' would be a better word to describe this individual. In any event, Pharaoh was stunned to the point that he proclaimed, Hashem ha'tzaddik, "Hashem is the Righteous One" (ibid 9:27), something he was not accustomed to saying.
The seventh plague created a mahapeichah, metamorphosis, within the Egyptian psyche and culture. Into their world of cold, desolate darkness, malevolence and bigotry a tiny ray of light crept. Regrettably, it was too late.
Ivdu es Hashem b'simcha - Serve Hashem with joy.
The following narrative will give us some idea of the meaning of serving Hashem with joy. The story took place a few hundred years ago in the small town of Telz in Lithuania. The Russian army was traveling through the city of Telz.
Naturally, all of the Jews made themselves scarce. Whenever an army traveled through a city, they took it over, subjecting its inhabitants to doing their every whim. This time, they were in need of directions. After seeing that the town appeared desolate, they stopped by the bais hamedrash and found one Jew engrossed in Torah study. It was the saintly Rav Leib m'Telz, a well-known tzaddik about whom the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna remarked, "He is a neshamah without a body, he is so spiritual." Rav Leib was attired in his Tallis and Tefillin, bent over a folio of Talmud. He did not notice the soldiers who had entered the shul. They approached him and asked him to lead them through the forest to the next town.
Rav Leib left the shul with the Talmud in his hands. He did not remove his Tallis and Tefillin, nor did he cease to utter the words of Torah. When the time for Tefillas Minchah approached, Rav Leib went off the path in the forest, stopped by a spring, immersed his hands, and stood next to the tree and began to daven Minchah. This enraged the soldiers, who were on a schedule. How dare this insolent Jew stop to pray! The captain in charge prevented them from disturbing Rav Leib. There was something about the way he prayed that was awe-inspiring. He stood there and stared in amazement and veneration, watching the sheer joy that emanated from Rav Leib as he entreated the Almighty. His prayer was a scene of devotion, passion, enthusiasm and utter joy. It was something to behold.
When Rav Leib concluded Minchah, they continued on to the next town, where they were "greeted" by the populace. When the members of the Jewish community noticed who was leading the group of soldiers, they accorded great reverence to Rav Leib.
The captain commented to those assembled, "I envy this holy man. I cannot ever expect to accumulate or be worthy of his portion in Paradise. He is simply too holy for me. What I envy is his portion in This World. When I see his expansive jubilance, his rapture and ecstasy when he communes with G-d through prayer, I am profoundly jealous. Perchance, if once in seventy years, I could experience such success in my work that could warrant such joy, I would be quite pleased. This man, however, experiences such elation three times a day! Do you now understand why I am jealous of him?"
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