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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem said to Moshe, "Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn. (10:1)

The concept of hachbodas ha'lev, hardening of the heart, and basically removing one's bechirah chafshis, free will, is a difficult idea to accept. G-d has endowed man with the ability to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. This concept plays a critical role in providing the correct balance for reward and punishment. Why did Hashem take this opportunity from Pharaoh? In his Sefer Simchas HaTorah, Horav Simchah HaKohen Shepps, zl, applies the following analogy to explain and validate hardening Pharaoh's heart. A Jew once had a litigation with a gentile, which necessitated going to a secular court for adjudication. The Jew, realizing what he was up against, went to the gentile judge on the day of the trial and offered him a hefty bribe. The judge, understandably, was taken aback. "Is it not written in your Bible that one should not accept a bribe, because it blinds the eyes of even the most astute individual?" the judge asked indignantly. "How can you justify giving me a bribe?"

The Jew quickly responded, "Your honor, what I did was really not inappropriate. After all, you and my litigant are both non-Jews. It makes sense, therefore, that you are predisposed to hear his side of the case with greater sensitivity than you would my claim. Thus, by giving you a bribe, I am only balancing the scales of justice by attempting to override your predisposition."

The same idea applies to Pharaoh's hachbodas ha'lev. The plagues wreaked havoc on Egypt. They left an indelible impact on the Egyptian psyche. Hence, Pharaoh and his people were partial to the Jewish cause. He was inclined to let the Jews leave the country, but for the wrong reason. He had no remorse; he did not regret the evil decrees that he had directed against the Jewish People. His contrition was insincere. Hashem, therefore, hardened his heart, in order to counteract the effect of the plagues.

There was a darkness of gloom throughout the land of Egypt for a three-day period. No man could see his brother, nor could anyone rise from his place. (10:22,23)

Rashi explains the rationale behind the intense darkness that lasted three days. It seems that among the Jews of that generation were wicked individuals who had no desire to depart the Egyptian exile. They perished during the three days of gloom, in order that the Egyptians should not be witness to their downfall and say, "They, too, are being smitten as we are." The question that glares at us is basic: Is the fact that they did not want to leave Egypt sufficient reason to die? We see later, concerning the eved Ivri, Hebrew slave, who wants to extend his servitude beyond the required six years, that he goes to Bais Din, Jewish court, and has his ear drilled. That is it! One does not incur capitol punishment because he is foolish enough to remain a slave. What is Rashi teaching us?

Horav Shmuel David Walkin, zl, explains this pragmatically. How could there have been Jews who refused to leave Egypt? Who, in their right mind, would want to remain in Egypt only to be subjected to back-breaking labor and brutal suffering? Perhaps there were those Jews who were exempted from the slavery. They were not subject to the suffering that their brethren sustained. How could they remain indifferent to the suffering of their brothers? How could they go about Egypt and ignore the pain of their brethren? Apparently, they neither saw nor were sensitive to the pain of their fellow Jews. Such a person who does not empathize with the plight of his brethren does not deserve to be liberated with them.

This is the underlying meaning of the words, "No man could see his brother, nor could anyone rise from his place." Hashem punishes middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. If one wonders why they were punished in such a manner that they could not see one another, it is because they did not get up to help when they saw a Jew suffering.

In an alternative explanation, the wicked Jews were punished because they followed the pattern of centuries. Those who did not want to leave were not satisfied by simply staying back themselves; they had to make sure that others stayed with them. This attitude has plagued us for millennia. Jews that do not want to join in the quest for spiritual development wamt to arrange that those who are observant are similarly hampered. The adage of "live and let live" does not apply to them. That is why they were left with the Egyptians. Their attitude toward their brethren was inherently Egyptian in nature.

Against all Bnei Yisrael, no dog shall whet his tongue. (11:7)

Rashi cites the Mechilta that teaches us that the dogs became the beneficiaries of treifah meat, in the event an animal is deemed not kosher as the result of a wound. This is all due to their keeping still during the deaths of the Egyptian first-born. Another animal, the donkey, also received a reward for its role in the Egyptian exodus. The Torah instructs us (Shemos 13:13), "Every first-born donkey you shall redeem with a lamb." Rashi tells us that this law applies only to the first-born donkey, not to any other non-kosher animal. This is because the donkey carried the Egyptian spoils that the Jews took with them out of Egypt.

The question is evident. Two unclean animals both played a role in the Exodus. Both were rewarded; one with being fed unkosher, defiled meat; the other with the exalted status of kedushah, sanctity, which applies to bechorah, the first-born. Why did the donkey achieve kedushas bechor, while the dog became the repository for defiled meat?

Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, gives a practical explanation that conveys to us a compelling lesson. The donkeys acted in a proactive manner. Their good deeds consisted of exertion in carrying the heavy burdens that were placed upon them. They provided necessary assistance to the Jews. For helping another fellow to carry his burden, one earns the merit of being rewarded with added sanctity. The dog also assisted, but, by contrast, it was in a passive manner. For refraining from barking it deserved a reward, but since no exertion was expended on its part, the reward is not very impressive. Perhaps we can say it is fit for a dog.

On the other hand, I question the above, since the dog went against its nature and refrained from barking, but the donkey did what it usually does: it carried a load. One would think that the dog should receive a greater reward than the donkey. Apparently, active performance of a chesed is of greater significance than unnatural, passive accomplishment.

You shall guard the matzos, for on this very day I will have taken your legions out of the land of Egypt. (12:17)

Rashi cites the famous dictum of Rabbi Yoshiah, "Do not read the word only as 'matzos,' but rather, also, as 'mitzvos,' commandments. In this sense the pasuk is teaching us that just as people do not permit the matzos to become leavened, so should they not allow the mitzvos to become leavened, by leaving opportunities for their fulfillment unattended. Rather, "if the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah comes to your hand, do it immediately." A noteworthy statement, but how does it fit into the textual flow of the pasuk? What does meticulous observance of mitzvos have to do with the fact that on that very day the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt?

The Kesav Sofer explains that it is a well-known axiom that, prior to the geulah, Exodus, Klal Yisrael were at a precarious point. Had they remained any longer in Egypt, they would have descended to the nadir of depravity and reached the fiftieth level of spiritual impurity. Had this occurred, they could not have arisen from defeat and would have been relegated to a posterity of servitude in Egypt. The Exodus teaches us the overwhelming significance of seizing the moment. That fleeting moment made the difference in their redemption. Had they waited another minute we would still be there, enslaved to the Egyptian culture and mindset. Likewise, when the opportunity for performing a mitzvah materializes, one should not waste it and immediately react to perform the mitzvah.

Otzros HaTorah derives this same lesson from the blessings that Yitzchak Avinu gave to Yaakov Avinu. The Torah relates (Bereishis 27:30), "And it was, when Yitzchak had finished blessing Yaakov, and Yaakov had scarcely left from the presence of Yitzchak his father, that Eisav his brother came back from the hunt." Rashi adds, "This one left, and the other one arrived." The Midrash delves into how they missed each other, but after all is said and done, we are talking about mere moments, when Yaakov preceded Eisav in receiving the blessings, that made the difference in the lot of his descendants for all time. Another minute - had Eisav returned a moment earlier or had Yaakov tarried a moment longer - our history would have been forever altered!

When the wellsprings of spiritual bounty open in Heaven, we have to be prepared and waiting to receive our share - or lose it forever. The value of a moment is incredible. For some, it is the opportunity for tremendous spiritual or material benefit, while for others, it could mean the difference between success and failure. The Gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders, knew how to value every minute of their lives. The following short vignettes, cited by Otzros HaTorah, lend us insight into their lives.

Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, the legendary Rosh Hayeshivah of Baranowitz and one of the preeminent Torah leaders of pre World War II Europe, was known for his piety and intensity in Torah study. His diligence was so outstanding that, as a student in the Telshe Yeshivah in Lithuania, he would study for eighteen hours a day. Time was of the essence and it could not be wasted. As Rosh Hayeshivah, he refused to take a salary from the yeshivah, leaving him quite poor - but satisfied. It is related that his shoes were so worn-out that the students took up a collection in the yeshivah to purchase a new pair of shoes for their venerable rebbe. He accepted the gift, but after a while lamented the new shoes. It seems that it took him an extra two minutes every day to lace up his new shoes, while his old, torn shoes no longer had laces. The amount of time he wasted from Torah study disturbed him greatly!

On the last Yom Kippur of his life, the great tzaddik Horav Yehudah Leib Chasman, zl, Mashgiach of Yeshivas Chevron, davened Neilah at his home, surrounded by his closest students. In his weakened state after fasting the entire day, the Mashgiach sat down and waited for the zman, time, to begin Maariv. He looked at his students and said, "In the Haftorah of Minchah, we read that Yonah HaNavi tells the captain and crew of the boat that was rocking precariously in the turbulent sea, 'Lift me up and throw me into the water!' Why did he say 'Lift me up'? He should have simply said, 'Throw me into the water.' He said this because he wanted to gain another moment of life! We must do the same. We have a few minutes left. Let us not waste these precious moments."

At times, one can delay a positive undertaking, and it can make the difference between success and failure. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, related the following story: A member of a distinguished Yerushalmi family once had occasion to spend Shabbos in a hotel. Shortly after the Shabbos meal, he noticed an Israeli soldier writing. When the soldier became aware of the man staring at him, he said, "You are surprised that I am writing on Shabbos? Well, let me tell you what led to this."

The soldier began, "I would like you to know that I believe in Hashem just as you do. Let me explain to you why I do not observe Shabbos. My parents were not observant. As a result, I grew up with no knowledge of Judaism. My sole exposure to Judaism was being called 'dirty Jew' by the Polish peasants. I was drafted into the army at the beginning of World War I and sent to the front. During an exceptionally heavy military attack, I noticed a group of Jewish soldiers taking out a Sefer Tehillim from their pockets and beginning to pray fervently to Hashem. I was heartbroken to see that I, also a Jew, had nothing. I was not accepted by the gentiles, but neither did I know how to act as a Jew.

"At that moment, I looked up at Heaven and said to Hashem, 'You know that I have no way of knowing of Your existence. I entreat You that You demonstrate Your existence to me by having a piece of shrapnel puncture my finger, so that I will no longer be able to shoot.' The moment I finished speaking, a piece of shrapnel hit my finger and wounded me to the point that till this very day I cannot bend that finger. I was released from the army and decided that I would enter the bais hamedrash on that very day and begin to study about my religion.

"Regrettably, I pushed off my visit to the bais hamedrash until after the war. Then, I was already enrolled in school with three months left to graduation. One thing led to another, and by the time I found my way to the bais hamedrash, my heart that had originally been so turned on, had turned into stone. Nothing could penetrate it. The motivation and enthusiasm that had reigned months earlier had cooled. I had waited too long. The mind understood, but the emotion was no longer there."

If the opportunity for mitzvah performance appears, do not waste it. Act immediately. A split second decision to act correctly, to follow up on a positive experience, can spell the difference between success or failure. In an incredible story cited by Rabbi Yechiel Spero in his book, "Touched by a Story," we see how the saintly Chafetz Chaim exemplified this idea. The cold, harsh winters in Radin, Poland, home of the Chafetz Chaim, were a challenge for the poor Jews due to inadequate heating. As bad as it was at home, it was much worse outdoors. Consequently, they would remain at home, unless they had to take an occasional trip to the market.

Warm clothes were a scarce commodity. Gloves, especially were a sought after item. Once a wealthy man came to visit the Chafetz Chaim and, after spending some time with the sage, left him a precious gift: an expensive pair of fur-lined gloves. The Chafetz Chaim was not one to accept gifts, nor was he inclined to wear such fancy gloves. After seeing how much it meant to the man, the Chafetz Chaim acquiesced and accepted the gift.

A few days later, the Chafetz Chaim, accompanied by a few of his closest students, traveled by train to a neighboring town to attend an important meeting. The compartment on the train in which they sat was small and compact. The trip was short, so the Chafetz Chaim sat in his coat with his new gloves stored in his pockets. After a short while, it became stuffy in the compartment, so one of the students opened the window to let in some fresh air. The Chafetz Chaim moved to another seat, and, in the process, his coat brushed against the open window, causing one of his gloves to fall out of his pocket and out the window. A student noticed this and, when he told his rebbe, the Chafetz Chaim, to the amazement of his students, took the second glove and immediately threw it out of the window as well.

Noticing the puzzled stare of his students, he explained, "Someone is going to be walking along the tracks one day and will find the beautiful glove, but since it is a single glove, it will have very little use for him. I asked myself, what benefit would I derive from a single glove. I might as well provide another person with a pair of gloves, so at least he will benefit from them.

The Chafetz Chaim was the paradigm of the ish hachesed, man of loving kindness. His thoughts before he acted were even more impressive. He saw an opportunity to perform chesed, and he acted immediately. Wasted opportunities are lost opportunities.

Va'ani Tefillah

Birkas Asher Yotzar

We take the brachah of Asher Yotzar for granted. This is a blessing that deals with bodily functions; therefore, it is one that is neglected. I will never forget watching in awe as the Manchester Rosh Hayeshivah, Horav Yehudah Zev Segal, zl, recited Asher Yotzar with trepidation, enunciating each word, placing great emphasis on its meaning. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites a number of narratives that support the notion that Asher Yotzar is a segulah, remedy/good omen, for a refuah shleimah, complete recovery. It would make sense that, when one has the proper kavanah, intention and devotion, upon reciting its words, it will inspire him to a deeper realization of its meaning and thus, realize that Hashem is the true rofeh, Healer. Indeed, in one of the kollelim in Bnei Brak, when the young child of one of the kollel fellows was stricken ill, all the members of the kollel took it upon themselves to recite Asher Yotzar with greater kavanah. This simple but profound kabalah, affirmation, turned the tide and the child was miraculously cured. We search for brachos and segulos in our time of need and often ignore the opportunities that are right before our eyes.

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