By Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
This was Aharon and Moshe. (6:26)
Rashi notes that in some places Moshe precedes Aharon, while, in others, the Torah lists Aharon’s name prior to Moshe’s. He explains that this teaches us that they were equal to one another. This is surprising, given that Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest prophet of all time; Hashem selected him to be the individual through whom the Torah would be given; Moshe was the rebbe of all Klal Yisrael, as well as its quintessential leader. Clearly, he had to have been greater than Aharon. Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, responds to this discrepancy in two ways, both of which can teach us profound lessons.
First, although Moshe’s power was greater than that of Aharon, the mere fact that Moshe could not do it alone, that he needed Aharon to be his “partner” in catalyzing the redemption, indicates that Aharon had an element of equality with his brother. It is no different than a business partnership, in which one partner might play a greater role in the running of the business. Since the enterprise would not function without the participation of both, however, they were equals in that sense. An organization has leadership, but it cannot operate without the cooperation of its entire staff. Thus, in a sense, all members of the staff should be considered to be equal.
Second, Aharon is considered to be Moshe’s equal, since throughout his life he carried out Hashem’s will to the utmost of his ability and with total conviction. Veritably, Moshe was more capable. Therefore, Hashem gave him greater responsibility and instructed him to perform more significant tasks. As far as their dedication and commitment, however, they were both equal.
We find individuals who are not blessed with superior talents or outstanding acumen. Yet, they produce and achieve to their maximum potential. Truthfully, they are on a higher plane than those who have been granted superior capabilities but do not utilize their talents to the maximum. Moshe and Aharon were dissimilar in their abilities, but are considered equal in that they each achieved to the limit of his individual potential.
And you shall know that I am Hashem your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt. (6:7)
The above pasuk seems redundant since, previously in pasuk 6, the Torah writes, “And I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” What is added by the words, v’yidatem, “and you will know”? It is almost as if all of the miracles Klal Yisrael experienced in Egypt, followed by the splitting of the Red Sea, were insufficient in raising Klal Yisrael to the level of yediah, knowledge. What were they lacking in order to achieve the level of “v’yadatem”? Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, explains that v’yadatem occurs after the pasuk, v’Lakachti eschem le’am, “And I will take you to Me for a nation,” which signifies the giving of the Torah. Only after the Jewish nation accepted the Torah did the people acquire the ability and the tools to really “know” Hashem in the true spiritual sense of the word. Their connection with Torah became one by which they transcended physicality and materialism, both obstacles which prevent the development of a profound understanding of Hashem.
The ten plagues were undeniably a miraculous experience for both the Egyptians and the Jews. The Torah makes a point of listing these plagues in great detail. Why? What does all of the detail accomplish? The Chazon Ish, zl, explains that the intention was not to prove to a world of non-believers that the Jewish faith is real and it is true. Rather, it is for the benefit of those who already believe in Hashem. The non-believers are not stirred by the miracles. They find some scientific phenomena – or natural occurrence – to validate their non-belief. Neither is the Torah likely to have an effect on their thinking, nor any other form of proof. The believer, however, does not really need proof. He believes in Hashem because he has faith. He recognizes the truth. The purpose is to relate the story of the Exodus, so that he will know what occurred and so that he can observe the commandment of remembering the Exodus daily. In other words, it is all about knowing. For some, their belief leads to knowledge, while others refuse to know the truth.
Hashem actually conceals His miracles under a veil of nature. He wants man to seek the miraculous within nature in order to reveal the truth. The non-believer always finds excuses. The believer is charged to concretize his belief to the point that he knows the truth. He can only accomplish this through his affiliation with Torah.
Horav Shlomo Wolbe, zl, related that he once sought advice from Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, concerning a difficult student in the yeshivah. The revered Mashgiach of Ponevez gave his response, and, as Rav Wolbe was about to leave, the Mashgiach called him back. Rav Chatzkel looked at him and asked, “Tell me: Do you know that there is a Borei Olam, Creator of the World?” Rav Wolbe reviewed the question a number of times in his mind before replying, “Yes, I know that there is a Creator.”
Rav Chatzkel was not satisfied with his response, and he repeated the question, “Do you really know that there is a Creator?” Once again, Rav Wolbe creased his forehead in deep thought and replied, “Yes. I know that there is a Creator.” Rav Chatzkel countered, “So, if you are so certain that there is a Creator, return and share this awareness with the students of your yeshivah.”
Understandably, Rav Wolbe was troubled by this mysterious dialogue. What did the Mashgiach want? What was he trying to convey to him? Two weeks later, as Rav Wolbe was taking a walk, immersed in deep thought, an understanding of the Mashgiach’s words suddenly dawned on him. He realized that it was possible for one to be completely observant, yet unaware of the existence of Hashem. The individual performs all that is asked of him, yet he still has no relationship with the One Who commanded him to carry out these mitzvos. This is what the Mashgiach was intimating when he instructed him to share his awareness of Hashem with the students. It was necessary for them to hear about Hashem from an individual who had this elusive relationship. They had to hear it from someone who did not just “believe,” but from someone who “knew” Hashem – someone who felt a strong relationship with the Almighty – someone who felt connected to Hashem at every moment, at every juncture. An individual who recognizes and is constantly aware of Hashem’s Presence strolls through the palace of the King, because he understands that he is always in the presence of the King.
Not everyone seeks to know the truth, as a result of the added responsibilities this awareness incurs. Let me explain. The Torah refers to the two ancestors of the wife of Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen as Putiel. This is a reference to both Yisro and Yosef. Yisro is called Putiel, since, prior to the time in which he learned about Hashem, he would fatten calves for idolatrous worship. In this sense, Putiel is a construct of piteim, fatten, and la’eil, to god. Yosef, his other ancestor, is called Putiel due to his ability to vanquish his yetzer hora, evil inclination, when Potifar’s wife attempted to seduce him. In this instance, Putiel is a derivative of pitpeit, which means to oppose or disparage.
At first glance, Yisro, who had seven names, is being referred to by a name that has a negative connotation. The other names seem much more praiseworthy. Why, in connection to Elazar’s wife, does the Torah use a name that alludes to a derogatory aspect of Yisro’s spiritual journey?
Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, opines that it all depends through which perspective we seek to view Yisro. The name Putiel might not seem to signify the most laudatory qualities, but appearances can be deceiving. While it is true that Yisro worshipped every idol under the sun, it was all in an attempt to ascertain which one was real, which one was true. It took time, but eventually he found Hashem, the only true G-d. True, fattening calves for idol worship seems highly negative, but Yisro did this for one purpose: in search of the truth. The name Putiel, thus, signifies Yisro’s quest for truth, which is a totally positive trait.
Character traits are no different than physical DNA: they both carry over to the next generation. The hereditary effect occurs in such a manner that Yisro’s search for the truth, which was a part of his essence, also became an inherent component of the character makeup of his descendant. This heritage evidenced when Elazar HaKohen’s son, Pinchas, slew Zimri ben Salu, the Nasi, Prince, of the tribe of Shimon, who publicly consorted with a Midyanite woman, defying Moshe Rabbeinu and the spiritual leadership of the Jewish People. When this rebellion took place, an immediate response to the outrage was lacking. Indeed, the Zekeinim, Elders, wept at the entrance to the Ohel Moed. Chazal explain that their weeping was generated by the fact that they had forgotten the halachic response to Zimri’s mutiny. Halachah requires a kanai, person who is inspired to act zealously, a true zealot, whose commitment to Hashem and His Torah is uncompromising, to slay the transgressor. One person, however, came forward and acted appropriately: Pinchas. He did not forget the law, because, as Yisro’s grandson, he was imbued with a burning desire and uncanny ability to uncover the truth. He recalled the halachah and, as a result, saved Klal Yisrael.
Yes, some individuals have the ability – but lack the desire – to search for the truth. Others have the desire, but are not equipped to deal with the challenges that one must overcome in achieving a successful result. In any event, both of them are handicapped by their incapacity to access the truth.
And Moshe and Aharon did just as Hashem commanded them… And Moshe was eighty years old, and Aharon was eighty-three years old when they spoke with Pharaoh. (7:6,7)
Hashem describes the entire scenario which would occur when Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohen were to present their case to Pharaoh. Everything in the pesukim seems to fit together except the last pasuk, which notifies us about the ages of Moshe and Aharon when they stood before Pharaoh. This bit of information seems out of place in the context of the sequence of pesukim. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, suggests the following solution to this problem. When we consider the timing of Aharon’s birth, we realize that it coincides with the general time frame in which Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male infants should be killed at birth. Moshe was born three years later, when Pharaoh’s decree to have Jewish infants thrown into the Nile River was in effect. Indeed, the root of Aharon’s name is harah, which means conception. This might be interpreted as a special thanks to Hashem for allowing this infant to see the light of day, at a time when most other Jewish infants were being put to death.
Keeping the above in mind, we see that Moshe and Aharon were projecting a powerful message to Pharaoh: his decrees were meaningless against Hashem. They were living and breathing examples of the futility of his machinations against the Jews. He decreed that all infant Jewish males be killed. They were “survivors” of his decrees, and they were destined to be the ones who would lead the Jewish people from his country. Pharaoh could not contend with Hashem.
A number of lessons can be derived from here. First, man is not in control. He is nothing but a pawn in the hands of Hashem. Second, situations are not what they seem. The Jews in Egypt must have thought that it was all over; their chances of salvation were slim to nil, at best. Yet, Hashem turned the tables on Pharaoh, and the Jews were liberated. One should never give in to despair, for during man’s bleakest hour, a ray of hope can spring forth that can illuminate the darkest situations. Last, it is the individual who is least expected to succeed who can emerge as tomorrow’s leader. Moshe and Aharon should have succumbed to Pharaoh’s decree. Yet, not only did Moshe live, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace under the watchful eye of Pharaoh’s own daughter! Appearances are deceiving, especially when they contradict Hashem’s Divine Plan.
Hashem carried out the word of Moshe. (8:9)
Moshe Rabbeinu petitioned Hashem to remove the frogs from Egypt, and Hashem responded positively to his plea. This is consistent with the Rabbinic dictum, Tzadik gozeir v’Hakadosh Boruch Hu mekayeim, “The righteous person decrees, and Hashem fulfills his request.” While there is no dearth of stories confirming this adage, I recently saw one which I feel is quite inspirational. A number of years ago, in the city of Petach Tikvah, a recent oleh, immigrant, to the Holy Land, was called up to the Torah. He began to recite the brachah, blessing. Suddenly, he broke down in bitter weeping. He could not continue, and he had to sit down, whereupon he continued his uncontrolled sobbing for some time.
After the davening was concluded, the man told his story: “Today is my birthday. I was born eighty-three years ago. The last time I had an aliyah to the Torah was on my bar mitzvah, seventy years ago. The event took place in Vilna, in the shul of the gadol ha’dor, pre-eminent leader of the generation, Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl. After my aliyah, Rav Chaim Ozer called my father over and queried him concerning my school. My father responded that I went to the local gymnasium, a secular school.
“At that moment, Rav Chaim Ozer grabbed my father by the lapel of his suit and said, ‘You should know, that if your son continues his education in a secular school and does not receive a Torah education, he will assimilate, and seventy years will pass before he will again be called up to the Torah.’ Regrettably, my father ignored the sage’s warning, and exactly seventy years have gone by since my last aliyah. This is why I broke down.” Interestingly, the street in Petach Tikvah on which the shul was located was Rechov Chaim Ozer. One does not ignore the admonition of a tzadik. Hashem does not; we certainly should not either.
Pharaoh sent and summoned Moshe and Aharon and said to them, “This time I have sinned; Hashem is the Righteous One, and I and my People are the wicked ones.” (9:27)
Pharaoh’s paradoxical reactions to the plagues never cease to amaze the reader. He stubbornly endured six devastating plagues, never once conceding that he was wrong, that he was a sinner, a despot who had enslaved an entire nation for no reason. He suffered and subjected his nation to suffering, but at no time was he going to admit that he was evil and that Hashem was righteous. Then along came the seventh plague. The plague of hail did something to his resolve. “This time I have sinned; G-d is the righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones.” Something about this particular plague catalyzed Pharaoh’s about-face. What was it?
The Daas Zekeinim m’Baalei Tosfos explain that prior to the plague of hail, Hashem had Moshe Rabbeinu warn Pharaoh and the Egyptians concerning the devastating nature of this plague. “And now send, gather in your livestock and everything that you have in the field; all the people and animals that are found in the field that are not gathered in the house, the hail shall descend upon them and they shall die” (ibid. 9:19). Pharaoh acknowledged Hashem’s righteousness for offering sufficient warning to the people and the cattle. The Egyptians, for the most part, were wicked and ignored the warning, thus allowing their cattle to be killed.
This commentary begs elucidation. It is not as if Moshe had not warned Pharaoh prior to the other plagues, but Pharaoh had ignored his warnings. What was there about this warning that produced such a positive reaction from Pharaoh? The warning seems to have been the same as the previous ones.
Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, explains that this warning was different than the others. This warning demonstrated Hashem’s altruism, His profound sense of chesed, kindness, His boundless compassion. True, before the previous plagues, Hashem had warned Pharaoh that they were going to be seriously affected by the upcoming plague. Hashem always told Pharaoh that it all could be averted if he would release the Jews. This time, Hashem went one step further. He told Pharaoh to take in the cattle. Why should they suffer? Why should they be subjugated to gruesome, painful deaths? They had done nothing. Pharaoh may be perverse, but the cattle need not be victims of his obstinacy. Pharaoh not only recognized Hashem’s righteousness in caring for the innocent animals, but he also underscored Hashem’s righteousness, despite the fact that he and his entire nation had disregarded the previous warnings. The idea that they were beneficiaries of a genuinely selfless act of kindness made an incredible impression on Pharaoh, to the point that he was compelled to concede his guilt.
A number of lessons can be derived herein. I will focus on one: selfless devotion, genuine concern, wholehearted kindness. They all describe the same trait. Many of us act kindly towards others, but how many are genuine? How often do we have a self-serving, underlying motive for our actions? While the most important thing is the result, the motive plays a critical role in how an act of kindness is presented, and how willing we are to repeat it. We all seek ways to make a good and lasting impression on others, whether it be in business, education or simply in social relationships. Who is not trying to make friends and influence people? Pharaoh, the evil oppressor of the Jews, was moved by Hashem’s sincere kindness to the animals. This speaks volumes about acts of loving-kindness, especially when they are sincere. It is not only the good that we do that is important, but the accompanying attitude also makes a world of difference.
Horav Avraham Pam, zl, was a Rosh Yeshivah par excellence. He was also an individual who set the standard for the Torah world in terms of chesed, acts of loving-kindness. His sensitivity to all people was legendary and continues to inspire people until this very day. In his book, “Stories From the Heart,” Rabbi Binyamin Pruzansky relates an inspiring story concerning Rav Pam which emphasizes the principle of acting with sincerity.
An elderly Jew was laying critically ill in a hospital which was situated in an area of Brooklyn which one goes to only if he has reason to be in the hospital. The patient’s son, a distinguished rav and student of Rav Pam, was sitting with his father, keeping him company, attempting to soothe the pain with his words of comfort and encouragement. His father dozed for a short while. When he awoke, he made an unusual request of his son, “I want you to go and ask your rebbe, Rav Pam, to come to the hospital and give me a brachah, blessing, to leave this hospital a healthy man.” This was a highly unusual request. One does not just ask a distinguished Rosh Yeshivah, whose every moment is either spent learning, teaching, or in the service of Klal Yisrael, to take off part of a day to visit someone in the hospital. The patient’s son was actually hoping that his father would forget about his request. He wasn’t prepared to impose on Rav Pam. He had no such luck. The very next day his father asked him, “Nu, did you speak to the Rosh Yeshivah? What did he say?” Clearly, his father really wanted this, and his request was not going away. His father truly yearned for Rav Pam’s brachah.
Kibud Av is a powerful motivational force, and the son went to his rebbe. “My father is a patient in the hospital. He asked if there was any way the Rosh Yeshivah could visit him and give him a brachah,” the son meekly asked Rav Pam.
The Rosh Yeshivah replied, “I would love to visit your father, but there is one problem: I am a Kohen, and, therefore, do not go to hospitals, but let me think. Maybe there is a way that we can work something out.” The Rosh Yeshivah thought for a moment and asked, “Is there a window in your father’s room? Can your father get over to the window?”
“I think so,” replied the son.
“Then, I have a plan. At 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, bring your father over to the window. I will stand on the street and wave up to him. When I see him, I will give him my brachah for a speedy recovery.”
That is exactly what happened. Rav Pam’s sincere love of chesed, his genuine desire to help lift the spirits of another Jew, made a difference in the patient’s recuperation. He could have easily denied the request. Not only did he not refuse, he sought every possibility to make it happen.
Chesed is not always about visiting the sick, bringing food to the shut-in, or giving sustenance to the poverty-stricken. It is about smiling at those who need it, listening to the problems – even if they might be imaginary – of those who need a listening ear, and just being there for those who are alone. Listening to those who have a need to be heard is an incredible act of kindness. Oftentimes, one must listen to boring, mundane – even foolish – complaints, anecdotes and personal stories; but, that is exactly what the other person needs: someone who will listen.
Chacham Yaakov Ades, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of Porat Yosef was an individual whose sensitive heart complemented his brilliant mind. The Rosh Yeshivah’s shiur was scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes. One would expect that he would be in his office engrossed in his preparation. His son went to walk with him to the bais hamedrash. His father was sitting in his office, listening to an elderly woman drone on about her family, her children, their babysitters, the schools that her grandchildren attended, etc. R’ Ades’s son could not understand how his father could waste such precious time talking to this woman. Furthermore, his father talked with her as if he did not have a care in the world.
“Father, the shiur is in ten minutes,” the son called in.
“Oh my,” the woman gasped. “I am sorry, R’ Ades. I have taken up so much of your time.”
“No, no,” the Rosh Yeshivah countered. “I enjoyed your visit. Please feel free to come whenever you want.”
His father’s words kept on reverberating in his ears. “I enjoyed your visit.” He even welcomed her to return whenever she wanted. His father had no free time. He remained in the yeshivah until ten o’clock at night, returning home to respond to the request of petitioners and to bless them. He finally retired for a few hours. At 2:00 A.M., he delivered a shiur, lecture, to a group of working men who had no other time to learn. This continued until sunrise, when he would daven. Then his regular daily routine began once again. When would he have time for this woman?
Finally, he asked his father, “You always taught me concerning the value of time. Why, then, do you allow that woman to tell you stories that have no meaning? All she does is repeat them over and over again. She has been here three times this month. Is that not a waste of time?”
R’ Ades replied, “My son, that woman is a widow. She needs someone to talk to, someone who will listen, someone who will make her feel important. The Torah admonishes us to take great care concerning the feelings of a widow. I am prepared to listen to her stories over and over again. Chesed is defined by the needs of the beneficiary – not by the ability of the benefactor.”