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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


G-d spoke to Moshe…so Moshe spoke accordingly to Bnei Yisrael; but they did not heed Moshe, because of shortness of breath and hard work…Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding Bnei Yisrael. (7:2,9,12,13)

Rashi explains that Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon to lead the people gently, to sustain them. We wonder how the events described in the text follow one another. First, Hashem gave an introduction regarding the Bris, Covenant, that He established with the Avos, Patriarchs, promising Eretz Yisrael to their descendants. Moshe related this news to Klal Yisrael, who did not listen to him because of the suffering they had endured under Pharaoh. Why, then, did Hashem command Moshe and Aharon to lead the People gently? What was to be gained from leading them gently, if Pharaoh continued to torture them?

In a homily on Parshas Vaera regarding the erosion of religious commitment as a result of overwhelming torture and suffering, the Piazcesner Rebbe, zl, gives the following explanation. He first cites the phrase from Tefillas Shacharis which we recite daily: V'sitneinu l'chein, u'l'chesed u'lerachamim, "Grant us today and every day grace, loving-kindness, and mercy in Your eyes." We first seek grace, because grace is granted without regard to individual merit. V'Noach matzah chein, "Noach found grace/favor in the eyes of Hashem."

Following grace is chesed, loving-kindness, a trait that has no limitations. It extends equally to the undeserving and to the deserving. Last is mercy, which contains an element of judgment. It is extended only to individuals who are deserving of it.

When we supplicate Hashem's favor, we pray in this order. We are quite undeserving. Indeed, because of our tzaros, troubles, we are so preoccupied that we cannot bear examination by a judgmental eye. Even under the most merciful eye, we are deemed so undeserving that we are compelled to entreat Hashem, begging for grace and freely given loving-kindness. All of this is a result of the terrible suffering which is integral to our lives. We, therefore, first pray for chein v'chesed, grace and loving-kindness. Experiencing these middos, attributes, will save us from the agony and suffering which make it impossible for us to attain any level of entitlement. Only then will we have the resources to become deserving of at least a little mercy.

The Rebbe then focused on their current circumstances. " The profound suffering of our current matzav, situation, makes it impossible for us to be osek, busy/involved, with Torah and performing the mitzvos in the proper manner and with the correct kavanah, intention/devotion. Furthermore, even those duties that we are able to carry out are devoid of any living spirit. They are done without good cheer, without joy and enthusiasm, begrudgingly, because we have to - not because we want to."

Moshe came to Klal Yisrael saying that Elokim, the G-d of Judgment, understood the suffering, therefore he would grant them mercy and would, consequently, reprieve the originally ordained amount of time they were to be in Egypt. They would not, however, listen. Their shortness of spirit and hard work had gotten to them. They could not cope with mercy. It was necessary to lead them with a more gentle hand. Whenever the Jews earned Hashem's mercy only as a result of suffering, their response was cheerless and devoid of life. Hashem had to change the order from judgment followed by mercy. Due to their suffering, the Jews had to be led gently, with grace and loving-kindness from the onset. One of the many lessons that we learn from this powerful homily is that even to be granted mercy, one must be worthy.

And they too - the magicians of Egypt - did so with their incantations. (7:11)

Why did Hashem choose miracles and wonders that Pharaoh thought he could replicate? It started with the staff transforming into a serpent; next the river turned into blood; and then the earth became frogs. In each case, Pharaoh's magicians were able to create a similar ruse - sufficient reason for Pharaoh to think that he had little to fear. Why not give him a sign that he would remember, so that he would have no recourse but to listen to Moshe? This goes on throughout Hashem's "dialogue" with Pharaoh. Even when Klal Yisrael left Egypt, Hashem left one idol, Baal Tzafon, standing. Why? Horav Yechezkel Levenstein, zl, explains that this is all by design in order to retain Pharaoh's bechirah, ability to choose, to continue with his free-willed choice of evil. Had every miracle been shown in "black and white," not in "grey," Pharaoh could not have erred. When there is no free-will, the opportunity for reward diminishes.

Alternatively, Horav Nosson Wachtfogel, zl, submits that specifically because they thought they could duplicate the miracles, they were able to understand the profound nature of these signs. The more one knows about a subject, the greater respect he has for he who excels in it.

This can be compared to one who delivers a brilliant Torah exegesis to a child. Certainly, the child, due to his limited knowledge and acumen, will not appreciate the depth and scholarship of the speaker. As the child grows and becomes more astute and knowledgeable himself, he develops a greater appreciation of the dvar Torah and the lecturer, because now he has a "shaichus," relationship, to -- and understanding of -- the matter.

The plagues had to be of such a nature that the Egyptian sorcerers would appreciate their distinction, as well as their own helplessness to replicate these plagues and prevent them from occurring. It was specifically through this manner that the Egyptians would come to believe in Hashem.

Say to Aharon, "Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt. (7:19)

People are always searching for that magic elixir that will grant them everlasting happiness - and they do not succeed in finding it. They go for therapy sessions and take vacations in the most remote and exotic places in the world, yet the secret continues to elude them. Why? Because they are missing a fundamental point, a crucial lesson about life, human nature, and G-d. Without this point, they will never be truly happy. They are missing the attribute of hakoras hatov, gratitude. The concept of gratitude is probably the most important lesson a person should internalize and integrate into his psyche. Having successfully done so, the individual will be guaranteed a happy and meaningful life. When a person learns to thank Hashem for the many blessings of life, when he realizes how many more blessings he really has, he becomes filled with joy at being the beneficiary of so much good.

We refuse to recognize Hashem's benevolence, because we do not want to accept the responsibility of paying gratitude - especially if part of that gratitude means maintaining a commitment to listen to Him and observe His dictates. For some people, saying thank you is a natural response. For others, pulling teeth would be easier. The inability to express gratitude is one of the reasons that there are so many bitter people. One who does not permit himself to express his appreciation will invariably find fault in every kindness that he receives. Such people make terrible mates and tyrannical parents, and they cannot sustain a friendship. They are so into themselves that they cannot see anyone else. They are never happy, because they do not permit themselves to be.

Throughout the Torah, we are taught the significance of hakoras hatov. In this parsha, we see how Hashem did not permit Moshe Rabbeinu to strike the Nile River, an act which would initiate the plagues and would further work to catalyze the Jews' liberation from Egypt. As an infant, Moshe was saved by the Nile as he lay in a basket floating in the water. He felt gratitude towards the Nile and could not act towards it ungraciously. He also was not allowed to lift his staff to the earth for the plagues of frogs and lice, for a similar reason. The earth protected Moshe when he buried the Egyptian that he had killed. These incidents seem far-fetched as far as gratitude is concerned. Yet, Hashem wanted to train Moshe's subconscious to the fact that one must always repay kindness to anyone, for anything, anytime.

Gratitude takes many forms. For some, it can change their lives; for others, it can save their lives. Let me share with you two such stories. One is about a young man who not only has become observant, but goes out of his way to use his expertise to benefit the Jewish community - all because of hakoras hatov. It occurred a few years ago, when this young man, whom we will refer to as D.G., was living a totally assimilated lifestyle in New York. He had no understanding of Yiddishkeit, something which did not really concern him very much. His life revolved around one thing - music. In fact, at the time the incident took place, he was preparing to leave the States for Paris to pursue his musical studies.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and he was walking down Kings Highway in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Suddenly he heard a loud crash, followed by the screech of brakes. He looked up at the source of the noise. There in the street, covered with blood, was an elderly rabbi who had been hit by a car. He rushed over to his side and attempted to speak to him, but there was no response. He stayed with him and held his hand until an ambulance came to administer first aid.

As the rabbi was being lifted onto the stretcher, D.G. noticed that his lips were moving. It appeared that he wanted to say something to him. So he leaned down and bent his ear close to his lips, so that he could hear what he was trying to say. What he heard shocked him, "Sonny, are you Jewish?" the rabbi asked in broken English.

"Yes, Pop," he answered. "I am Jewish."

"Sonny," the rabbi whispered in obvious pain and with great difficulty, "you must go to Jerusalem and study Torah."

When D.G. heard these words, it literally shocked him into reality. Here was this rabbi, suffering from multiple fractures, his body bloodied and bruised. In his intense pain, all he cared about was - that the young man who stood over him would go to Eretz Yisrael to study Torah! The experience transformed D.G. forever. He realized that the man who lay in his arms was no mere man. He was a saint, so committed to his faith that he was able to transcend his suffering and pain just to reach out to another Jew. The rabbi was G-d's messenger, sent to convey His message to D.G: "Come home. This is where you belong. Do not waste your life. Learn Torah."

D.G. listened to the message, and a few days later went to Eretz Yisrael and enrolled in a yeshivah. He has not returned to the States. He remembers only too well to whom he owes his newly-found life - and will never forget.

A second incident demonstrates how hakoras hatov saved a life. M.G. used to work as a newspaper reporter. Everyday, on his way home from work, he would stop by the hospital and visit a number of the sick people and read to them.

One day, he wrote an article exposing someone's fraudulent activities. Their response to his article was to put a contract out on his life. During the following week, one day he arrived home about two o'clock in the morning. A big, tall man appeared from the side of the house and asked, "Are you M.G.?"

The man told him that he had offended a very powerful man who had put out a contract on his life. He explained to M.G. that he was supposed to carry out the contract, but he was able to convince the mob to rescind the order.

Why did he do this? He gave the following story: "While I was in prison, my mother wrote me about a man, a reporter, who would visit her and read to her once a week. I found out that it was you who made my mother feel less lonely. I wanted to meet you. When I found out that there was a contract out against you, I took the contract and made sure that nothing bad would happen to you."

A man performs a simple gesture of chesed, and the beneficiary's son -- one of society's moral outcasts -- repays the kindness in a manner the benefactor never dreamed of. That is chesed and hakoras hatov.


I shall take you to me for a People…and you shall know that I am Hashem. (6:7)

Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchev, explains the sequence of this pasuk. Man cannot grasp the essence of Hashem, since it is beyond the limitations of the human mind. Klal Yisrael, however, can perceive somewhat the light of the Shechinah through the Torah study and mitzvos that we perform. Torah gives us access to comprehending the Shechinah. "I will take you to Me as a People" through the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. Then, you will come to know the light of the Shechinah.


And I have sealed lips. (6:12)

Yalkut Reuveni says that when Moshe said to Hashem, "I have sealed lips," all the people of the world shook with fear. They said, "If Moshe, about whom it is recorded that he spoke to the Shechinah one hundred and seventy-five times, and, also, he was the one who explained every word and letter in the Torah into seventy languages - yet, he says that he does not have the ability to speak - what should we say?"

And (Hashem) commanded them (Moshe and Aharon) regarding the Bnei Yisrael…to take the Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. (6:13)

The early Rebbes would pray to Hashem to speed up the Final Redemption, because Jews were assimilating in droves. They feared that the Jews who would remain to be redeemed would no longer be Jews. Horav Yitzchak Trunk, zl, m'Kutna interprets this into the pasuk. Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to study Torah with Klal Yisrael, so that He would be able to redeem Jews -- from Egypt, not, Heaven forbid, apostates who had reneged their faith.


The magicians did so with their incantations. (7:11)

The Egyptian sorcerers were able to bring about the plague. They had no ability to rid the country of the plague. They could bring evil - they could not get rid of it.


Hashem is the righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones. (9:27)

Did Pharaoh really confess to being the evil one? Midbar Kadeish interprets Pharaoh's words differently: Hashem is the tzaddik and I - and my People are the wicked ones. Now that is more like the Pharaoh we have come to know: blaming everyone but himself.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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