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PARSHAS VAERA"And Hashem carried out the word of Moshe, and the frogs died - from the houses, from the courtyards, and from the fields." (8:9)
Pharaoh came around quickly. When he saw that his country was being overrun with frogs, he quickly repented, imploring Moshe Rabbeinu to seek relief for him. Moshe prayed to Hashem, and all the frogs died - well, almost all of the frogs died. Chazal teach us that, miraculously, the frogs who had entered the Egyptian ovens did not die. They were rewarded for their mesiras nefesh, dedication to the point of self-sacrifice. As the Commentators explain, they had a choice - either to go into the houses or into the ovens. Some of the frogs manifested such exemplary devotion to Hashem that they went where others shied away from going. They did not fear death if it was in the service of Hashem.
These frogs have presented a lesson for the many individuals who have undertaken it as their life's mission to serve Hashem and disseminate his Torah to the masses under circumstances that were far from appealing. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, used the frogs as a catchword when rallying his students to go out and "do" for Klal Yisrael. His frequent refrain was, "You have been drafted in a time of crisis. Klal Yisrael is waiting for you." In a time when assimilation and low birthrates prompted predictions that the world Jewish population would decline precipitously, mesiras nefesh was in great demand. The frogs sent to plague Egypt entered the stoves of the Egyptians knowing that they would die. Yet, they went. Many years later, Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah followed their example and entered Nebuchadnetzar's fiery furnace in order to sanctify Hashem's Name. "From this we learn," Reb Shraga Feivel would declare, "that when Hashem gives us a mission to fulfill, we have no right to consider our personal conflicting interests."
He planted a feeling in his talmidim, students, that they held the spiritual fate of American Jewry in their hands. He instilled in them a sense of obligation to worry about all Jewish boys who did not have the opportunity to attend a yeshivah. When it was time for the students to leave the confines of the bais hamedrash, he pushed them to act on behalf of the klal, community. He fired them with a sense of mission that gave them the fortitude to triumph over the myriad obstacles that they were certain to confront. He would admonish his students concerning their moral obligation to give something back to Klal Yisrael. He would state emphatically, "your first concern should be not what you can get out of a position, but what you can give."
Equally important is the self-confidence he imbued in his students. He would not tolerate negativity. To a student who complained that Reb Shraga Feivel's expectations of him were beyond his capabilities, he responded, "America is an "eretz lo zeruah" (literally, an unsown land i.e.: a desert), a place where the lo, no/or not, is planted everywhere. All one hears is, I am not capable; I cannot do it, We have to strive to change the prevailing negative attitude." Reb Shraga Feivel's students would do anything for their rebbe, because he would do anything for them. The love and devotion that flowed between the rebbe and talmid was legend. They were willing to go through fire for Reb Shraga Feivel - but, then, he would do the same for them. It was this zeal, devotion and courage that catalyzed the Torah education movement that we, their beneficiaries, enjoy today.
"Hashem said to Moshe, 'Say to Aharon, 'Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land; it shall become lice.'" (8:12)
As was the case in the previous two plagues, Aharon initiated this plague. Since the water had protected Moshe as an infant when his mother placed him upon it, it would have been inappropriate for him to serve as the vehicle to inflict a plague upon the water. Likewise, since the dust of the land had protected him from discovery when he used it to conceal the Egyptian he had slain, it would have shown ingratitude for Moshe to be the one to inflict the plague upon the earth. We derive from here a profound insight into the middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov, recognizing and showing appreciation and gratitude. One would normally assume that hakoras hatov means that if one person does a favor for someone else, the beneficiary of his favor "owes" him a favor. In this case, however, the ground has no sensitivity, no feelings. It is not a baal bechirah; it does not have the ability to choose between right and wrong, good and bad. When Moshe hid the Egyptian in the sand, it surely was not a favor "granted" by the sand. It had no choice in the matter. Moreover, the ground would not "suffer" were it to be besieged with lice. How, then, does the fact that Moshe did not strike the ground serve as a lesson in hakoras hatov?
Horav Meir Rubman, zl, derives from here that hakoras hatov is defined as a quality within an individual by which he recognizes and appreciates the benefit that he has received from others. It is of no consequence if the "benefactor" is aware of the gift or if he is sensitive to remuneration. His only concern is that he has received a service from someone, and he now owes something to the individual in return. In fact, he wants to repay the debt. It is not related to the benefactor's needs or feelings. The beneficiary is obligated to compensate the individual for the good he has received.
Thus, an individual who is not a makir tov, who does not recognize his obligation to the benefactor, is morally deficient. If we receive, we owe. It has nothing to do with who the benefactor is. Even a domaim, inanimate object, must be recognized, because it is the responsibility of the beneficiary.
We may learn hakoras hatov from Hashem, Who, although not in need of our favors, will repay those who have served Him. Indeed, no person leaves this world "owed" by Hashem. He pays His "debt." It might take some time, but every good action, every act of loving kindness which we perform, will be repaid to us by the Almighty. I recently came across a poignant story which demonstrated this idea.
The story took place in 1984, when a woman whom we will call Sarah Goldberg received a call from the administrator of a geriatric summer camp, where she thought her mother was safely ensconced. "Mrs. Goldberg," the administrator said in a quiet voice, "I am sorry to be the conveyer of tragic news, but your mother, Ethel Levine, just sustained a heart attack and died enroute to the hospital. I am very sorry. Please accept my deepest condolences."
The telephone began to slip from her hand as she adjusted to the traumatic news. Her mother had always been full of life, robust and exuberant. It was as if she would outlive everyone. How could she have died so suddenly?
"Mrs. Goldberg, Mrs. Goldberg," came the administrator's faint voice from the phone receiver which now lay on the floor, "are you still there?" he asked.
Sarah retrieved the phone in slow motion. Still in a state of shock, she answered, "Yes, I am here."
"Mrs. Goldberg, I feel terrible to add to your pain, but someone has to come to identify the body."
"I do not think I am up to doing it. I will send a close relative," she responded.
"That will be fine," answered the administrator.
"Once again, please accept our profound sympathy. Your mother was a fine woman. She loved you very much. In fact, she would always speak about you and your lovely children. She would rave about her marvelous daughter."
Sarah was shattered. Her mother was everything to her. Life would never be the same. At the funeral and during the first hours of shivah, seven-day mourning period, her tears flowed unrestrainedly. The shock was just too much for her to absorb so quickly.
A few hours after the funeral, as the family and closest friends sat in the house talking, remembering, crying, the phone rang, and someone handed the receiver to Sarah. A crisp voice asked, "I have a collect call for Sarah Goldberg from Ethel Levine. Will you accept the charges?"
"A collect call from whom?" Sarah asked incredulously. "Ethel Levine," the operator responded. "Is this someone's idea of a sick joke? I just buried her! How could she be calling me?" "Sarah," a beloved and dear voice came over the air waves, "I cannot seem to adjust to my medicine."
It was really her mother. Apparently, there were two Ethel Levines in the summer camp, and the wrong family had been notified. The relative who had been sent to identify the body had been so sickened and anxious by the sight of a dead body that she had given it only a quick, cursory glance and said, "Yes, that is her", before quickly moving away. Since coffins are kept closed during a Jewish funeral and there is no viewing of the body, the real identity was not discovered. They had buried the wrong Ethel Levine.
"Looking back," sighs Sarah Goldberg, "no one can imagine the emotional roller coaster I was on. First, I am shocked to hear my mother is suddenly dead. Then just a day later, I hear she is very much alive and that I had buried the wrong person."
The story, however, is not over. Remember, they had just buried the wrong woman. While Sarah's mother was very much alive, they now had to break the news to the family of the other Ethel Levine. They would offer their condolences and ask that the other family make arrangements to transfer the body out of their mother's burial plot. Unfortunately, the response received was far from positive.
"She is buried already, let her be. We are not interested," was their response. "We are not to go through the pain and hassle of digging her up, buying a plot and giving her another funeral. Once is enough!" was their disgusting answer.
Sarah was shocked by their chutzpah, audacity, and lack of respect for their mother, their total disregard for her honor. After all, how could she permit a stranger to lay in the burial plot designated for her mother? She begged the other woman's children to reconsider. She had rabbis and influential community leaders speak to them, to no avail. They remained intractable. Finally, she threatened them with a court order. This fear did the trick.
"So, are you at least going to give your mother a decent funeral?" Sarah asked the children of the other woman. To her consternation, the children responded that they could care less. They would settle for a simple gravesite service.
"In that case, I am coming," Sarah exclaimed passionately. During the period following the woman's death, she had developed a bond with the deceased and had become fiercely protective of her honor.
She went to the funeral. Except for her, no one else was present beyond the immediate family. They simply did not care. Standing by the new grave, watching the second Ethel Levine being lowered into the ground, Sarah became engulfed in a devastating sorrow for a woman she never knew, but to whom she had become inextricably bound in death.
Returning home after the funeral, Sarah reflected, "I have always wondered why the bizarre mix-up with my mother occurred. When I saw the dismal, wretched funeral that the second Ethel Levine had, I, however, understood G-d's Divine Plan. Ethel Levine must have been a very special woman. At least once in her lifetime she must have done something extraordinary, because three hundred people attended her funeral -thinking she was my mother. They paid homage to her - a homage she would never have received had the bizarre mix-up not occurred. G-d wanted to repay her good deeds by giving her an honorable funeral, one that she apparently would never have otherwise had. He arranged for the mix up."
What a moving story. The lesson is penetrating. Hashem recognizes, appreciates, remembers and repays every bit of good that one does. Should we not do the same?
"Pharaoh called to Moshe and Aharon and said, 'Go and bring sacrifices to your G-d in the land." Moshe said, "It is not proper to do so… for if we slaughter the god of Egypt in front of them (the people's) eyes, will they not stone us?'" (8:21,22)
Pharaoh was afflicted with four plagues which left Egypt in ruins. He finally capitulated and agreed to permit the Jewish People to offer their sacrifices to Hashem. There was one stipulation - they must do it in Egypt. Moshe had a problem with this criterion. To slaughter the Egyptian deity in front of the Egyptian pagans would stir up trouble. Surely the Egyptians would not tolerate having their god slaughtered without resisting. We wonder if Moshe was serious in this remark. Was he actually afraid this might occur? And if he was, was he not slightly embarrassed to say this in front of Pharaoh? After all, the nation had been brought to their knees. There was no fight left in them.
The Chasam Sofer asks this question and explains that indeed, Moshe was not afraid of the Egyptians rising up against them. Moshe meant to say however, that when the Egyptians would observe the slaughtering of their god, they would become so enraged that they would want to kill the Jews. Since they had been devastated by four plagues, they would not be able to harm the Jews. This would make their frustration that much greater - something that Moshe felt was improper. It is not right to cause another person unwarranted emotional pain. True, they deserved the most severe punishment for their cruel treatment of the Jews. This type of torture was unnecessary and inappropriate. Causing someone emotional trauma for no reason is pure cruelty.
Horav Avraham Pam, zl, observes that this thought has much practical significance. He cites one instance in which an individual accepts upon himself a specific chumra, stringency, which others might find unnecessary or even foolish. Yet, in order to demonstrate that he is correct in his observance of this stringency he will go out of his way to perform it in front of those who disapprove of it. It is his way of saying, "I do not care about you, what you think, or what you do." This type of foolish action only leads to resentment and strife.
How important it is to go out of our way to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. Moshe Rabbeinu was sensitive to the psychological needs of the pagan Egyptians. Should we not at least care about our fellow Jew?
Horav N. Z. Dessler, Shlita, recently shared with me a penetrating insight along these lines. Yosef HaTzaddik was incarcerated for ten years in an Egyptian prison. He was eventually released because of his ability to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. He established this reputation while in prison, when he correctly interpreted the dreams of the chief wine steward and chief baker. What catalyzed his liberation from prison? The Torah tells us that one day he noticed these men sitting with long faces, seemingly depressed. He asked them what was wrong, and the rest is history. Now let us imagine what would have happened had Yosef been thinking only of himself and had not been sensitive to the feelings of others. If he had not noticed that his two prison mates had long faces, nothing would have happened. Yosef would have remained in prison, and the entire story of Klal Yisrael in Egypt as we know it might not have occurred. History was formed because he cared about another person. That is the hallmark of a great man.
Questions and Answers
1. How many years was Klal Yisrael actually enslaved in Egypt?
2. Why did the fish in the river die?
3. Why were Pharaoh's magicians unable to replicate the plague of lice?
4. Which two plagues did not affect the "G-d-fearing" Egyptians?
1. The actual enslavement began when all of Yaakov's sons died. The last one to die was Levi, who died at 137 years of age. Levi was 43 years old when he came to Egypt. Thus, Levi lived in Egypt for 94 years. Since we know that Hashem shortened the Egyptian bondage to last 210 years, it would suggest that the actual enslavement was 116 years. (This is based on the calculation of Yalkut Shimoni, who holds that Levi was 43 years old when he came to Egypt. Seder Olam, however, contends that Levi was 44 years old, which would render the enslavement 117 years.)
2. The water looked like blood but tasted like water.When the fish died, the ensuing stench prevented the Egyptians from drinking the water of the Nile, regardless of its color.
3. Egyptian sorcery was executed by sheidim, demons, who do not have the power to create lice. This power is limited to creatures larger than a barley corn, which excludes lice.
4. The plague of barad, hail, only struck those animals who were left outdoors. Likewise, the plague of dever, pestilence, also afflicted only those animals left out in the fields.
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