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Finding the Common Denominator
In this week’s parashah we begin reading about the plagues of Egypt, which continue into next week’s parashah. Each plague differs from the next, raising the question of whether or not they share some common denominator. One of the great giants of religious thought of recent generations, the “Saba” of Kelm zs”l, has taught us the following principle: if we see a book and wish to discover its essential quality, then we should open to the first page. It discusses a certain topic, but may very well address a variety of issues. So, how will we know what it’s really about? By flipping to the last page. If it discusses the same topic, then we may reasonably assume that this subject runs through the entire book beginning to end. He thus explains the Gemara in Masechet Sotah (14b) studied recently in “Daf Yomi,” which writes that the Torah begins and ends with the topic of “gemilut hasadim” (kindness). If this topic arises at both the beginning and end of the Torah, then it must be that this concept is embedded within its entirety. Indeed, in the introduction to his work “Ahavat Hessed,” the Hafess Hayyim zs”l reviews one parashah after another and finds critical lessons about kindness in each parashah. Equipped with this important principle, we will take a look at the first and tenth plagues and, when we do, we will discover that they both reflect the same concept. By extension, then, they form the central hinge around which all the plagues revolve. First, the waters in the river turned to blood and all the fish died. The river was the very life source for the Egyptians, providing water for both drinking and irrigation. In addition, it supplied the country with fish, a major component of the Egyptian diet (“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt”), whereas sheep was worshipped as a deity and hence not eaten (“for any shepherds of sheep was an abomination”; “would we slaughter the Egyptian deity in front of their eyes and they wouldn’t stone us?!”). Most importantly, the river was the pride and joy of Egypt, as it would overflow its banks and irrigate the fields without any effort (Devarim 11:10). The river was the Egyptian god upon which they relied. When it turned to blood, the Egyptians were left perplexed and helpless.
The last plague brought death upon the Egyptian population. Not a single home was spared the shrieks of terror. It was not, however, a random plague that struck anyone and everyone. It hit specifically the firstborn, the pride and joy of the home, the source of security for the parents and siblings. If there was no firstborn in the home, Hazal tell us, the eldest member in the household died. In both plagues, the message is one and the same. They both constituted painful plagues, which hit the very basis of life and transmitted a crucial lesson. These plagues destroyed the source of pride and security, leaving behind a sense of turmoil, uncertainty, and helplessness. People felt that their entire world has collapsed: “... in order that you know that Hashem owns the world.” Everything is in His hands, and people are entirely subject to His will.
In this light we must examine all the ten plagues. The frogs took control of the home, the source of personal safety and security; they overtook pillows and cushions as well as stoves and pantries. The body is the source of one’s physical strength, and it fell prey to the lice and boils. A person seeks safety on his roads and highways, but the Egyptians found them overrun by wild animals. The Egyptians relied heavily on their cattle, which suffered the devastating pestilence. They were dependent upon their agriculture, which was decimated by the hail and locust. At very least, they felt they could rely on the natural cycles. But even these were overturned by the plague of darkness. In short, the plagues involved more than the actual disasters themselves and the knowledge that the Creator controls everything and rules the world as He wishes. Perhaps first and foremost, the entire world of Egypt came crashing down, the people’s sense of security was lost as all that upon which they depended collapsed: “He performed judgment with their gods.” The people were shown that there is but a single source of security: “Behold, G-d is My salvation, I will trust and not be afraid.”
We have been promised, “I will show miracles like the days when you left Egypt.” If we look around us we will see that the plagues of Egypt repeat themselves today. All our insurers and guarantors have disappointed. Theories and beliefs are being disproved - those involving security, government policy, society and economics, all to bring us to a single conclusion: “Blessed is the man that trusts in Hashem - and Hashem will be his guarantor!”
"Elokim spoke to Mosheh, and He said to him, 'I am Hashem'"
Our sages have noted that the pasuk opens with the Name “Elokim” but concludes with the Name of “H-V-Y-H.” Rabbenu Ovadiah Seforno zs”l explained that the Name “Elokim” refers to Hashem’s quality of possessing all powers (the word “e-l” means strength), while the Name “H-V-Y-H” speaks of Hashem being the source of all creation. Therefore, the pasuk begins with “Elokim,” the knowledge that Hashem is all-powerful and controls nature as He wishes. But the plagues of Egypt will demonstrate that He possesses the quality of “H-V-Y-H,” that He alone sustains the universe at every moment. By His word water turns to blood, thus proving that even when it is water it retains its quality only by the Creator’s will. By His word one’s body is filled with painful boils, thus proving that healthy bodies remain so only by His word. When He so desires, the sun and moon stop functioning, thus demonstrating that He sustains the heavenly bodies at every moment.
“Elokim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am Hashem’”
The Alshich Hakadosh zs”l mentions in this context the comment of the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 73b) that sadikim can turn the attribute of justice into the attribute of mercy, as it says, “In times of wrath, You will remember compassion.” The wicked, by contrast, can turn even the attribute of mercy into the attribute of justice, as the pasuk states, “Hashem [the attribute of mercy] said, ‘I will eradicate mankind.’” Therefore, it says at the end of the previous parashah, “Hashem said, ‘You will now see what I will do to Pharaoh.’” For him, the attribute of mercy will transform into the attribute of justice, bringing about harsh judgment and severe plagues. For Am Yisrael, however, the pasuk says, “Elokim [the attribute of justice] said to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am Hashem.’” Meaning, even the attribute of justice will transform into the attribute of mercy and compassion.
“Elokim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am Hashem’”
The Hid”a zs”l elaborates in praise of the quality of humility. The Hebrew word “anav” (modest) consists of the three letters “ayin,” “nun” and “vav.” The numerical value of all the letters spelling the names of these letters equals the term “rehem,” associated with the Hebrew word “rahamim,” compassion. Meaning, the humble bring about divine compassion. Similarly, the pasuk says “kindness for Avraham,” and “Avraham” has the same numerical value - “rehem.” Meaning, the humble earn kindness from the heavens. Additionally, the first letters of the three words “nosei avon vafesha” - “Who forgives sin and iniquity” - spell the word “anav,” humble. In our pasuk, Elokim speaks to Moshe, the most humble of all men, “and He said to him, ‘I am Hashem.’” Meaning, in the merit of humility the attribute of justice transforms into the attribute of mercy. The humble individual forgoes on that which was committed against him, and thus his sins are forgiven. This is alluded to in the pasuk, “I have uplifted a ‘bahur’ from the nation.” The word “bahur” has the same numerical value of “gevurah” (power), and “me’am” (from the nation) may be understood as an acronym for the expression, “ma’avir al midotav” (foregoes on his pride). Meaning, in the merit of this quality one transforms the divine attribute of “power” and judgment to the attribute of mercy.
“Elokim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am Hashem’”
Rabbi Eliyahu David Mazoz zs”l, in his work, “Ben Yechabed Av,” explains this pasuk as an allusion to the plagues listed in this parashah and the promises to Am Yisrael spoken of in this parashah, as well. The phrase, “Vayedaber Elokim” (“Elokim spoke”) has the numerical value of 308, the combined value of the letters “shin” and “het,” which stand for the words “shivah halakim” - “seven portions.” Our parashah lists seven of the ten plagues that Hashem brought upon the Egyptians.
Then, “He said to him, ‘I am Hashem.’” The words, “ani Hashem” (‘I am Hashem’) has the numerical value of eighty-seven, the combined value of the letters “peh” and “zayin.” “Peh” represents the word “peninim,” pearls, and “zayin” equals seven, thus symbolizing the seven special promises Hashem grants His people in our parashah: “I have remembered My covenant,” “I will take you out,” “I will save you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you to Me as a nation,” “I will take you to the land,” and “I will give it you.” May Hashem be with us as He was with our forefathers!
Rabbenu Yehudah Halevi zs"l
Rabbenu Yehudah Halevi zs”l was among the great Rishonim who lived around nine hundred years ago. He was an authoritative voice of halachah, and his position regarding the “date line” served to guide the Hazon Ish zs”l in his approach in this regard. He was also among the pillars of Jewish thought, and his work “Hakuzari” has earned its place as a crucial primary source for scholars of Torah thought. He was also among the greatest religious poets our nation has known. Especially famous are his poems about his longings for Zion. He writes: “My heart is in the east, thought I am at the edge of the west.” When he reached old age, around the year 4900 (1140), he left his community and throngs of followers, including his lone daughter and beloved grandson, and took to the road. He crossed seas and countries as he composed a series of poems for Zion, including the well-known hymn, “Zion, won’t you ask for the peace of your prisoners?” In these poems he expresses his desire to prostrate himself on the sacred soil, breathe the “breath of the souls,” journey through places where the Al-mighty revealed Himself to the national patriarchs and prophets, and see the sacred sites with his own eyes. He arrived in Postat, which is near Cairo, and headed towards Yerushalayim, the city of which dreamed and for which he yearned. He writes: “My dream brought me to the Sanctuaries of G-d and I saw its beautiful pillars, the sacrifice with its flour-offering and libation, and all around were thick clouds of smoke. I was overcome with emotion when I heard the song of the Levi’im, when they gathered to arrange the services.” But the Yerushalayim to which he arrived was a desolate city, and when he saw its destruction he rented his garments and rolled in the dust, repeating over and over his lamentation, “Zion, won’t you ask for the peace of your prisoners?” An Arab horseman passed by and felt jealous over his remarkable emotional attachment to the land. The horseman trampled Rabbi Yehudah with his horse and killed him - may Hashem avenge his blood!
A Series of Halachot According to the Order of the Shulhan Aruch, Based on the Rulings of Rav Ovadia Yossef shlit"a
By Rav David Yossef shlit"a
The Halachot of Tefillin (continued)
Someone suffering from a stomach illness is exempt from the misvah of tefillin, even if he does not experience discomfort and even if he is well enough to walk in the streets. The same applies to anyone who cannot restrain his bodily functions without discomfort, as well as to one who drank medication that causes diarrhea.
If a patient with a stomach disorder wishes to be stringent and wear tefillin despite his exemption, he may not do so, even if he can maintain bodily cleanliness while wearing tefillin. Nevertheless, he may wear tefillin for the recitation of shema and Amidah if he can maintain the required standards of bodily cleanliness. If he cannot, however, he may not wear tefillin at all.
Even one who does not have a disorder but cannot hold himself from passing air while wearing tefillin may not wear tefillin. If, however, he knows that he can control himself for a short period of time in which he can recite shema with tefillin, he should place his tefillin after completing “ahavat olam” and recite the berachah. He should then recite the shema with his tefillin and remove them thereafter. Some maintain that if the individual knows that he can control himself until he removes his tefillin shel rosh but not until he removes the tefillin shel yad, he may wear both tefillin. If he passes air before removing the tefillin shel yad no prohibition has been violated, whereas the prohibition applies specifically while wearing the tefillin shel rosh, which are worn in full view and have the letter “shin” inscribed thereon. A sick patient who cannot properly concentrate due to his illness is exempt from tefillin. He may, however, be stringent and wear tefillin if he so desires.
A person with a urinary disorder that renders him incapable of controlling this bodily function or someone with a catheter to collect urine may wear tefillin so long as his outer layer of clothing is clean and has no foul odor.
Someone whose upper body is exposed until his heart may not wear tefillin even if he wears pants. If, however, he wears a shirt, he may place tefillin even if the neck is open. Deaf individuals who can speak but cannot hear and mutes who can hear but cannot speak, are included in the obligation of tefillin. A deaf-mute, however, who can neither speak nor hear, is exempt from the misvah. If, however, he wishes to wear tefillin and knows how to watch over them properly, he should be allowed to do so. A deaf-mute who studied in a special school and knows and understands how to conduct himself in the proper direction must wear tefillin. A blind person is obligated in the misvah of tefillin like other people.
Women are exempt from the misvah of tefillin, whereas it constitutes a time-bound misvah, from which women are exempt. Tefillin is considered time-bound because its obligation does not apply on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Women who wish to be stringent and place tefillin, even without a berachah, should be discouraged from doing so, whereas they may be incapable of maintaining proper bodily cleanliness while wearing tefillin.
Some authorities maintain that a woman who wears tefillin violates the Torah prohibition of, “a male garment may not be upon a woman” (Devarim 22:5). Others rule that women may not wear tefillin because doing so resembles the conduct of those who reject the Sages’ interpretation of the pesukim. According to Kabbalah, too, women should not wear tefillin.
“Also, the nation that they will serve I will judge.” This is how the Al-mighty informed Avraham Avinu of the culmination of the Egyptian slavery. Indeed, as we read in this week’s parashah, Hashem unleashed devastating plagues against the Egyptians, beginning with the plague of blood. Why does this plague begin the Egyptians’ punishment, and what message does it convey?v Rav Moshe Feinstein zs”l uncovers for us the critical lesson. The Egyptians enslaved Benei Yisrael, slaughtered children in order to bathe in their blood, cast children into the river, and used them as bricks in walls. These are awful and gruesome crimes - pure evil. On the other hand, the Egyptians most likely had a fair legal system, legislation that ensured the well being of the citizenry and their basic rights.
The first plague came along and revealed the secret, it pushed away the darkness behind the mystery. Even the water is blood! Evil and corruption penetrated all levels of existence, be it a government council supporting indiscriminate murder of fetuses, or the government’s battle against raising child grants for large families while at the same time looking for an increase of spending on behalf of the kibbussim. If the Education Ministry discriminates between children and the Culture Ministry seeks to strangle Torah education, then even the water is blood, everything there is bleeding...
The Torah is eternal, as are its lessons. In every generation, every year, every Jew hears this parashah in order to learn therefrom, in order to extract the relevant lessons, especially the lessons of the redemption from Egypt. We are, after all, commanded to recall the Exodus each day, day and night. We recall Yessi’at Missrayim every Shabbat eve in kiddush, and we ensure that its memory will never fade from our minds. This redemption was the first of all forms of redemption, both physical and spiritual, at both the individual and national levels. It initiated the concept of redemption, until the final redemption for which we yearn and about which it says, “I will show wonders like the days when you left Egypt.”
How did the process unfold? How did it happen? First, the subjugation worsened and intensified. Benei Yisrael’s eyes and hearts darkened. When it finally seemed that the light of redemption began to shine, when a ray of hope appeared after such intense desperation, the situation became even worse: they were denied straw. Brutal beatings were administered routinely when quotas weren’t completed. Bitterness reached its peak, desperation abounded. Does this not bring to mind our situation today, on the eve of redemption?
Then Hashem spoke with Moshe Rabbenu, the faithful shepherd, and conveyed to him the four expressions of redemption, together with a warning: “Elokim spoke to Moshe...” This expression points to harsh speech and the attribute of justice. The pasuk continues, “He said to him, ‘I am Hashem.’” I am trustworthy in My promise, and one may not question my fulfillment thereof. “I appeared to Avraham, Yis’hak and Yaakov,” and they never questioned My commitment to the promise. Even when Avraham Avinu had to purchase the Cave of Machpelah, when Yis’hak was compelled to quarrel to keep his wells and when Yaakov paid for a plot of land despite of Hashem’s promise, they did not complain. Here, after the temporary intensification of the burden of slavery, the people lost hope. This is not how redemption occurs. The condition for redemption is unlimited faith.
This condition applies to both national redemption as well as personal redemption, the salvation of each individual from his personal troubles and crises - “draw near to my soul - redeem it!” The condition is “they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant,” to heed the voice of Hashem, obey His misvot unconditionally, and accept the authority of the “gedolim” of the generation without any questioning or hesitation. This is all that is required.
Two students from the yeshivah of Mir were stricken with an illness and required an operation. Their rabbi, the sadik Rav Yeruham Halevi zs”l, told them to go to the hospital in a certain town. If that hospital would determine that the operation was necessary, then they were to ensure that Professor so-and-so performs the surgery. He added that on the way they should stop over in the town of Radin and seek the blessing of the leader of the generation, the Hafess Hayyim zs”l. He emphasized that they should not leave there before receiving his berachah. The boys set out, got off the train and took a carriage to the town of Radin. Upon their arrival, they learned that due to weakness the Hafess Hayyim could not receive any visitors. One of the students decided to continue with the trip nonetheless, but the second insisted that they stay: the rabbi had ordered them not to leave without the sadik’s blessing! They waited patiently, and the scheduled departure of the train was soon approaching. The boy felt pressured to leave, but his friend would not give in. Suddenly, the door opened and permission was granted to come in and receive the sadik’s blessing. They entered the room and received their blessing. They quickly left, found a carriage, and made the train at just the last minute.
They arrived in the hospital and went through a whole series of tests. The doctors decided that they must go through with the operation. The boys said that they insisted on being operated on only by the doctor specified by their rabbi. The hospital employees told them that the professor had left to attend a medical conference and they had no idea when he would return. The medical staff added that the surgery was urgent, and his associate is no less skilled in the practice.
In private they mentioned to the boys that the professor is no youngster, and they should therefore prefer undergoing the surgery with the associate, the rising star in the field. The first boy was convinced, but his friend once again reminded him of the strict orders given by the rabbi. He insisted on waiting for the professor’s return. The first underwent the surgery while the second waited. Even when hearing that his friend’s operation went over even better than expected, the second boy did not change his mind. He instead waited for the professor’s return and had his surgery performed by him, as the rabbi had ordered. In the meantime, a complication developed in his friend’s condition, and all efforts to stabilize the situation failed. The second recovered from his surgery and attended his friend’s funeral... The report of what happened came to the rabbi, who was asked if he had really foreseen the complication. Was this a manifestation of “ru’ah hakodesh”? Or perhaps the associate actually falls short of the level of the professor?
The sadik answered, “There is only but one secret: this one obeyed, and the other did not.”
Finding Food in Frozen Conditions
At the peak of cold weather, many animals reduce their intake of food. The storage of fat that they had accumulated during the summer months suffices for quite an extended period of time. Additionally, they try as much as possible to minimize their physical activity in order not to waste energy. In essence, then, they spend the harsh winter lying in complete inactivity until better times arrive. Some animals, such as bears, are capable of sleeping for six or seven months. Seals look for food in the sea, chasing after fish in the dark. The seal lets out loud shrieks that echo when the sound waves encounter a fish, thus enabling the seal to locate them. Other seals are equipped with sharp-edged teeth that allow them to trap creatures in their mouths while at the same time expelling water. Some animals can wait for the prey for several hours in frozen, snowy areas, driven by nothing other than the thoughts of the warmth soon to come. One such animal is the white bear, which can catch its prey with one quick blow of its powerful front arms.
Needless to say, livelihood is a real problem for animals in frozen regions. Each one has adopted sophisticated means to acquire food without investing energy so as to avoid a situation where it finds itself without food or strength. For example, the lynx, an animal resembling a cat, knows when to give in. When it begins running after a hare but cannot catch up within two hundred yards, it simply stops running. It understands that whatever strength it will receive from the meat of the hare pales in comparison with the energy required to catch it. Therefore, it overcomes the enticement and brings the chase to a halt. In some instances, however, it will not give up even when the chances for success seem slight. The roe deer, which is much bigger than a hare, is a prey considered by the lynx as something not to be missed. The lynx is therefore prepared to chase after it at all costs in order to extract from it energy for an extended period of time, often for the majority of a season. This assessment, of what is worth investment of energy and what is better to forego is an important decision, one which animals and - “lehavdil” - human beings must seriously address.
We Jews know that all of an individual’s work in this world is to direct one’s life according to the set of priorities determined by what bears more importance at any given moment and which opportunities will be lost. Undoubtedly, what Am Yisrael needs most today is an increase of merits to protect it from all those who rise up against it, merits that we generate through learning Torah and the performance of misvot.
The Scorpion's Bite (4) - Taken From the Work, "Hasaraf M'Brisk"
Flashback: A woman came before Rav Binyamin Diskin zs"l, the rabbi of Walkobisk, and introduced herself as the daughter of the ill-reputed heretic who composed the work "Netivot Olam," a work that scorned all that is sacred and precious. She managed to get her life back in order and build her home, until suddenly she received a letter from her father, the one who had brought on her family such shame and humiliation.
“Indeed,” said her husband as he lifted his eyes from the torn paper. “Your father has performed teshuvah!”
“I do not believe it!” cried his wife.
He responded, “Listen to what he writes. He expresses remorse over everything he had done and acknowledges his guilt. He realizes how much he is despised by his kinsmen, and he knows that he burned the bridges by rejecting his faith. He understands that he has sunken in the filth of spiritual impurity and even published writings of hate in order to find favor in the eyes of the missionaries who adopted and supported him.”
“Then what does he want?” muttered the woman bitterly.
“That’s it, we’ve come to the main point,” replied the husband. “He writes that when the work ‘Zerubavel’ was published, containing convincing refutations to all his arguments and contradictions to his lies, subjecting his ideas to ridicule, the missionaries’ attitude towards him changed. They realized that he had effectively undermined their efforts, and they separated from him. They severed all ties with him and stopped their generous funding for his works. He now lives in some dilapidated attic and suffers from hunger. He is excommunicated from his brethren and rejected by those who incited him. He suffers as well from pangs of remorse and a heavy conscience, and wishes to return to his source.”
“Who’s stopping him?” grumbled the wife.
“That’s the point,” answered the husband. “He wants us to host him and care for him in his old age.”
“Never!” shouted the woman with a tremble. She recalled the shame and humiliation her family suffered on his account, the embarrassment he caused them, and the terrible suffering. Her husband did not respond. He put down the letter, stood up, went to the glass bookcase and took out a Humash. After flipping through some pages, he began reading some pesukim from the end of the “tochahah” section:
“It will be, when all these things - the blessing and curse that I placed before you - come upon you, you will return to your heart in all the nations to which Hashem your G-d has driven you. You will return to Hashem your G-d and listen to His voice. Hashem your G-d will then restore your exiles and have compassion on you... If your exile is at the edge of the heavens, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you and from there He will take you.”
When he finished his recital, he lifted his eyes and said softly, “There is no one exiled more than your father, but the Creator looks to gather and bring back the exiles.”
“Who can be like the Creator?” she questioned bitterly.
The husband answered, “There is a positive commandment, ‘You shall walk in His ways.’ We must adopt His characteristics.”
“Your husband is a very precious man,” said the rabbi after hearing the entire exchange. “The most precious of all!” she enthusiastically responded. “But even he understood that certain conditions must be set.”
To be continued
Eliyahu Ben Masudah & Yaakov ben Senyar
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