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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


She opened it, and saw him, the child, and behold! A youth was crying… This is one of the Hebrew boys. (2:6)

A child, a youth: Is it a child or a youth? Chazal ask this question in the Talmud Sotah 12b. The Torah calls him a yeled, child, and it calls him a naar, youth. Which is it? He is a child, but his voice is that of a youth. Chazal seem to imply that Moshe Rabbeinu's voice had the maturity of that of a young boy. We wonder at the Torah's expression, "This is one of the Hebrew boys." Why could the Torah not have simply said, "This is a Hebrew boy." Why does it say, "One of the Hebrew boys"? Furthermore, what do Chazal mean when they say that Moshe Rabbeinu cried like a youth? How does a youth cry?

Horav Meir Shapiro,zl, explains that the difference between a child's tears and that of a youth lies not in the sound but in the reason for the tears. A child cries when he is in pain or in need. The child cries only for his personal reasons - nothing else. He still lacks the understanding that one also cries for the hurt sustained by others. The youth, however, understands that others also have pain, and he expresses his empathy with them through his own tears. A youth cries when his parents are in pain, while a child does not recognize the pain, nor does he understand the need to empathize with others.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the infant floating upon the water, was in personal danger. His life hung in the balance. At any moment, his precious basket could capsize, and he would perish. It is, therefore, no wonder that he would cry - he was in danger. What shocked Pharaoh's daughter was the fact that even after she rescued him from the water, he continued to cry. She now realized this child was not crying for his own petty needs. This was a youth who had an acute understanding of the circumstances that confronted his People. Moshe Rabbeinu, the child/youth, cried for Klal Yisrael as he empathized with their pain.

The future leader of Klal Yisrael studied his circumstances. While it was true that he was miraculously saved, what about the tens of thousands of other Jewish boys who did not merit this miracle? Can they be ignored? This is implied by the pasuk, "She opened it and saw him" - after she took Moshe out of the water, after he was saved, she saw that he was still crying. Then she realized that this was no ordinary child - this was a youth, a mature young man, crying for his People. We now understand why the Torah writes, "This is one of the Hebrew boys." Moshe Rabbeinu cried for the other Jewish babies whose lives were still in danger. He had the body of a child, but he cried with the wisdom and maturity of a youth.

And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man…He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man…He went out the next day and behold! Two Hebrew men were fighting…and he thought, "Indeed, the matter is known." (2:11,12,13,14)

Horav Azariah Figu, zl, says that Moshe Rabbeinu's first impression of his Jewish brethren worried him. He went out and saw an Egyptian beating a Jew. His first reaction was to look around to see if there were any other Jews around to help. He was shocked to see that ein ish, "there was no man." There were Jews, but they did not seem to want to become involved -- or perhaps they did not care. Moshe could not believe this sense of indifference to the plight of another Jew. He attributed their lack of involvement to the fact that Jews shied away from controversy. If Jewish men saw any type of dispute brewing, they would immediately leave. They stayed away from the fight between the Egyptian and the Jew, because they stayed away from fights - period. While they were certainly wrong, this principle at least provided Moshe with a justification for the Jews' inaction.

The next day, however, Moshe was confronted with an anomaly that refuted his prior understanding of the community. He saw two Jews quarrelling with one another. "Jewish people fighting with one another?" How could this be?" wondered Moshe. He then realized, "Indeed, the matter is [now] known." Regrettably, the problem confronting the Jewish People was their moral hypocrisy. When a Jew was struck by an Egyptian, they cowered in indifference. "We are not permitted to use force," they claimed. This might have been negotiable had it been true. It seems, however, that when Jew was fighting Jew, the rules changed. They rained blow upon blow upon each other, as those very same people whose righteous indignation did not permit them to interfere forcibly when their brother was being beaten by an Egyptian demonstrated no moral reluctance in beating a Jew, when the antagonist was another Jew. It is truly unfortunate that this anomaly has not changed with time. What a sad commentary on Jewish life, when brothers exhibit a more positive attitude to the outside world than they display towards each other.

And now, go and I shall dispatch you to Pharaoh and you shall take my people, the Bnei Yisrael, out of Egypt, (3:10)

Hashem assures Moshe of success despite the odds, the apparent hopelessness of one man triumphing over the strongest power in the world. That is mesiras nefesh, dedication to the point of self-sacrifice, of Klal Yisrael. One endeavors whatever he can on behalf of his people who are incarcerated. The Skulener Rebbe, Horav Elazar Zushe Portugal, zl, was like that. Nothing stood in his way in his mission to rescue Jews who were in need. He was in Chernowitz, which was under Soviet dominion, in order to assist Soviet Jews who had smuggled themselves across the border in to Romania. Furthermore, it was much easier to get papers to enable them to go to America or Israel. The Jews were caught and immediately found guilty. The punishment was imprisonment in Siberia or a quick bullet to the head. The Rebbe was indefatigable; nothing stood in his way. "I will get them out - regardless!" he exclaimed.

The colonel who was in charge of the border guards lived in Chernowitz and knew the Rebbe well. The Rebbe had won him over many a time with heartrending entreaties on behalf of his brethren. The last time he was there the colonel had told him, "This is the very last time you will bother me. If you come again on behalf of your Jews- I will kill you!"

Nonetheless, when the Rebbe was notified about a family of nine people that had been captured, he immediately undertook the daunting and dangerous task of rescuing them. Nothing worked, not even a hefty bribe. They were adamant; these people were to serve as an example for others. There was still one avenue to be employed: the Rebbe would go to the colonel and beg, regardless of the imminent personal danger involved. Jewish lives were in danger and that was more important than his life. His family begged him not to go. "How can you risk your life like this?" they asked. He responded, "It is not clear that he will take out his wrath against me, but one thing is for sure, their lot is sealed unless I am able to do something in their behalf."

The Rebbe approached the colonel's house with trepidation, climbed up the steps and knocked on the door. When the colonel saw who stood at his doorstep, he was overcome with anger. He grabbed the Rebbe and threw him down the stairs. The Rebbe was hurt badly, yet, with extreme difficulty, he was able to get up. With the little strength he had left, he once again climbed the stairs and knocked on the colonel's door.

The colonel opened the door and could not believe his eyes. There stood the Skulener Rebbe, dirty, bloodied, clothes torn - but with defiance in his eyes. "I must speak to you, colonel!" the Rebbe said, with tears streaming down his face. The colonel listened: the Rebbe begged, he cried, as he depicted the bitter plight of this hapless family. The colonel's hardened heart could not ignore the selfless pleas, the heartfelt emotion of the Rebbe. His devotion to others at the expense of his own health impressed the colonel. The family was freed. Mesiras nefesh triumphed.

Stretch out your hand and grasp its tail. (4:4)

Hashem prepared Moshe Rabbeinu with signs/miracles to demonstrate to Pharaoh His powers. He was to take the Mateh Elokim, holy staff -- given to him by Hashem -- and throw it before Pharaoh, and it would become a serpent. He was then instructed to grab the serpent's tail, and it would turn back into the Mateh. We wonder why Hashem insisted that Moshe grasp the serpent by its tail? Does the tail have significance?

The Kli Yakar views the entire miracle as a simile, a lesson about Klal Yisrael. The signs that Hashem chose were certainly by design. Each one had a symbolism; each one served as a lesson to Pharoah.

The Mateh Elokim that was transformed into a lowly serpent signified Klal Yisrael at its nadir. At first, it was a proud nation, standing erect and firm as a staff. During its tenure in the moral filth of Egypt, living in an environment where debauchery was a way of life and sin was a matter of choice, they fell to the depths of depravity - symbolized by the lowly serpent, standard bearer of evil. It slithers on the dirt and makes its home in its filth. Indeed, as the serpent was punished and degraded as a result of its involvement and promotion of lashon hora, evil speech, so, too, were the Jews in Egypt deposed from spiritual distinction because there were informers and slanderers among them. How does one remedy such a situation? How can Klal Yisrael rise from the depths to enjoy spiritual superiority once again? How can the serpent once again become the staff of G-d? They must rebel! It is incumbent upon them to straighten themselves, so that they no longer bend to the lowliness of Egyptian culture.

This is not, however, Hashem's way. His thoughts are quite different from ours. Hashem instructed Moshe to grasp hold of the serpent's tail - not to raise its head! Do not straighten yourselves out. On the contrary - take hold of the tail. When Klal Yisrael has descended to the nadir, then the salvation for which they thirst comes. Me'ashpos yarim evyon, "He raises the needy from the dust" (Tehillim 113). When the evyon, the one who is in dire need, falls to the depths, to the lowest level of spirituality, then, Hashem lifts him up and places him with those who are in the appropriate spiritual plane.

What appears to the human eye as the end, the apogee of the spiritual rope, is in itself the springboard for our salvation. Hashem knows that we cannot do it alone and He, therefore, assists us in return. He spiritually resuscitates us, because we have lapsed into a coma in which we no longer can fend for ourselves. It is specifically when it appears the most bleak that the seeds of hope and salvation are about to germinate and produce fruit.

Moshe said to Hashem, "…I am not a man of words…for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech." (4:10)

Rashi teaches us that for seven days Hashem spoke to Moshe, attempting to convince him to go to Egypt and instruct Pharaoh to permit the Jews to leave his country. Seven days is a long time, especially when Hashem is talking. Moshe refused; he felt he was not worthy, because he had a speech impediment. How could he speak to Pharaoh if he had difficulty communicating orally? Moshe Rabbeinu used this excuse for seven days until Hashem finally became angry with him. Hashem said, "I will be with you, so you have nothing to worry about." Yet, Moshe did not want to give in. Why did Moshe refuse to go? Was his speech the problem? He should have asked Hashem to rectify his impediment. Hashem should have taken away Moshe's speech deficiency, and he would no longer have had an excuse. Apparently, Moshe wanted to retain his challenge. Hashem respected Moshe's wish and left him as he was. Why? Why was Moshe so obsessed with retaining his speech impairment?

Horav Zaidel Epstein, Shlita, explains that Moshe's impediment came as a result of a miracle that was performed for him, a miracle that had saved his life. Moshe did not want to forget this episode in his life, so that he could always feel a sense of gratitude to Hashem. Chazal teach us that Moshe was favored by Pharaoh and shown great affection. As a young child, Moshe would take Pharaoh's crown and play with it, even placing it on his own head! Seeing this, Pharaoh's advisors became concerned lest this child be the one, the future leader of the Jews whom they feared. There was a dispute among the advisors concerning how to deal with this child. Some said to kill him; others said to burn him. Yisro said that the child had no designs on Pharaoh's throne. He was merely an ordinary child with no special intelligence. He suggested a test to determine Moshe's level of intellect. They placed a bowl of gold and a bowl of hot coals in front of him to see to which one he would gravitate. Moshe, being of superior intelligence, was about to touch the gold when the angel Gavriel came and pushed his hand into the hot coals. Moshe immediately took his hand still holding the hot coal and placed it in his mouth to cool off the burn. Understandably, he burnt his tongue, causing his speech impairment.

Moshe did not want to forget this incident. His speech impediment represented his deliverance from a near-death experience. He never wanted to forget Hashem's benevolence. Hashem respected Moshe's wish and allowed him to remain this way.


Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. (2:11)

The Midrash states that Moshe "grew up" not in the usual manner. He was different. As they mature, most people become more involved in themselves. They become preoccupied with their own lives, ignoring family and friends. Moshe Rabbeinu was unique in that as he grew up, he went out to his brethren, seeking ways to ease their plight and lighten their burdens. His maturity catalyzed a greater sensitivity for others. Here was the true making of a gadol.

Horav Aharon Rokeach, zl, the Belzer Rebbe interpreted the words, "and (he) observed their burdens," in a positive light. Moshe did not look for the sins committed by the Jews. Although they worshipped idols, he overlooked this. All he saw was the Jewish travail, the bitter slavery, the burdens under which they were falling. He looked at their troubles, not their shortcomings.


I shall be as I shall be. (3:14)

Horav Yaakov Yitzchak, zl, m'Peshicha explains that Hashem's Name is "I shall be as I shall be" to underline the idea that when a person who has sinned is remorseful and declares that he will be observant from then on and mend his ways, Hashem immediately responds, "I will be with you." In other words, this Name denotes Hashem's reciprocity towards us. When we make the first move to return, He welcomes us with full support.


You shall no longer give straw to the Hebrew people. (5:7)

Why did he take away their straw? Why not simply double their quota? Horav Y. Yitzchak zl, m'Varka derives from here that the worry about finding straw was harder to bear than an increase in their labor. The body can tolerate much more pain than the mind can.


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