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Parshas Vaera

Shabbat: Source of Faith

We read near the beginning of our parashah that Moshe spoke Hashem’s words to Bnei Yisrael, “but they did not heed Moshe, because of shortness of breath and hard work.” R’ Tzaddok Hakohen Rabinowitz z”l (1823-1900; chassidic rebbe in Lublin, Poland) explains this verse in light of the Midrash Rabbah, which records that, while the young Moshe lived in Pharaoh’s palace, he convinced Pharaoh that slaves work more efficiently when they are given one day of rest each week. Pharaoh instructed Moshe to implement this idea, and Moshe arranged for Bnei Yisrael to have Shabbat as a day off. Later, at the end of last week’s parashah, we read that Pharaoh decreed (5:9), “Let the work be heavier upon the men and let them engage in it; and let them not pay attention to false words,” i.e., he took away their day of rest so they would have no time to think about redemption. R’ Tzaddok writes: Shabbat itself is a source of emunah / faith. Thus, when Shabbat was taken away from Bnei Yisrael, their emunah was lost as well.

This requires explanation, however, for Moshe Rabbeinu himself attributed the initial failure of his mission to his speech impediment (“aral sefatayim”). R’ Tzaddok explains that here, Moshe is not referring to the same speech impediment mentioned in last week’s parashah (“kevad peh”), for Hashem had already promised to heal that condition. Rather, Moshe meant that, as Bnei Yisrael’s leader, his ability to speak effectively to Pharaoh was proportional to the level of Bnei Yisrael’s emumah. That, as noted, was tied to their Shabbat observance. (Pri Tzaddik: Va’era 7)

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    “Therefore, say to Bnei Yisrael, ‘I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments; I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you . . .” (6:6-7)

R’ Yitzchak Nissenbaum z”l (1869-1942; rabbi in Warsaw and early leader of the Mizrachi movement) writes: The Zohar notes that these verses appear to be backwards, for taking Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt would seem to be the end of the redemption, not the first step. However, the correct understanding, based on the Zohar, is as follows:

First, says Hashem, *I shall take you out* of Egypt. Lest you fear that Pharaoh will chase you (as he did, in fact) and enslave you again, *I shall rescue you* such that you will never be enslaved by Pharaoh again. Still, you might worry that you will feel indebted to Pharaoh for releasing you, such that you will always have an emotional tie to him. No! says Hashem. *I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm,* i.e., with such a show of power that there will be no doubt that Pharaoh deserves no gratitude. Lastly, the redemption will not be complete if it is only a physical redemption. Therefore, *I shall take you* to Me as a people and give you the Torah.

These, continues R’ Nissenbaum, are the elements of a complete redemption. However, the full realization of this redemption is not possible without Eretz Yisrael. Thus, states the next verse, “I shall bring you to the Land about which I raised My hand [i.e., ‘I swore’] to give it to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and I shall give it to you as a heritage.” Alternatively, R’ Nissenbaum writes, each of the four expressions of redemption in our verses addresses the needs of a different segment of Bnei Yisrael, as follows:

“I shall take you out *from under the burdens of Egypt*,” refers to a type of oppression that imposed a special burden--forcing men to do women’s work and vice versa. This also includes forcing people to perform tasks for which they were overqualified, for there is nothing more frustrating for a highly-skilled person than to have to perform menial tasks that do not utilize his skills and training.

“I shall rescue you *from their service*” refers to the frustration of having to use one’s skills solely for the benefit of another nation (“their service”) and not in the service of one’s own people.

“I shall redeem you” is addressed to those of Bnei Yisrael who were bothered more by the attempts to subjugate their spirits rather than by physical oppression. For them, it was irrelevant whether the servitude was back-breaking or not, since any form of subjugation to a foreign power was unacceptable.

Lastly, “I shall *take you* to Me as a nation” refers to those who thought that they didn’t need to be redeemed, so long as they could to serve G-d right there in the diaspora. They needed to be taught: No! There is no future for the nation without being “taken” from our present circumstances. (Kinyanei Kedem)

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    “Behold, I shall strike the waters that are in the River with the staff that is in my hand, and they shall change to blood’.” (7:23)
In the Pesach Haggadah, we say that Moshe’s staff performed “otot” / “signs.” Also, we refer to the plagues as “moftim” / “wonders.” What do these terms mean? R’ Yitzchak Isaac Chaver z”l (1789-1852; rabbi of Suvalk, Lithuania) explains:

The miracles that Hashem has performed for Yisrael fall into two categories. The first is called, “otot” / “signs,” which describes miracles intended to foretell or even bring about a future event. For example, in Melachim II (13:15-19), the prophet Elisha tells King Yo’ash to shoot arrows toward the Kingdom of Aram as a sign that Yo’ash would defeat Aram. When Yo’ash obeys only partially, the prophet tells him that he will weaken, but not destroy, Aram.

Moshe’s staff was a “sign” because the names of all of the plagues were carved on it, thus foretelling what would occur. Also, the staff was a sign of Hashem’s desire to fulfill the will of tzadikim, because the staff represented a king’s scepter, and its being in Moshe’s hand foretold that Hashem would turn over a certain amount of control over the world to Moshe and Bnei Yisrael, i.e., that the world’s future would depend on the quality of Bnei Yisrael’s deeds.

“Moftim,” on the other hand, are miracles that Hashem performs directly without a “sign” preceding them and without any participation by tzaddikim on earth. These are not meant to prove anything, but serve other purposes. The plagues in Egypt, concludes R’ Chaver, were both otot and moftim. They were “signs” because they were meant to prove a point, namely that G-d gives control of the world to deserving tzaddikim--information that would encourage Bnei Yisrael to receive and observe the Torah. They also were moftim, miracles that were designed to punish the Egyptians. (Haggadah Shel Pesach Yad Mitzrayim)

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Elsewhere in the Torah . . .

    “You graciously endow man with wisdom . . .” (Beginning of the fourth berachah of Shemoneh Esrei)

R’ Aharon Bakst z”l Hy”d (1869-1941; rabbi in Suvalk, Lithuania; killed in the Holocaust) notes that each of the blessings in the middle section of Shemoneh Esrei begins with a request, except for this one, which begins with praise and only then states a request. Why?

He explains: By preceding our request for wisdom with the declaration, “You graciously endow man with wisdom,” we acknowledge that wisdom is not a one-time gift. Rather, G-d *constantly* endows man with wisdom, and were He to stop for an instant, man would be left a fool.

This was evident, for example, in World War I, R’ Bakst continues. At that time, Russia was an agricultural economy, while Germany was an industrial power. Russia could have been the bread-basket for all of Europe, and logic would have dictated that Germany and Russia form an alliance. In fact, as we know, that is not what happened, which can only be because G-d interrupted the flow of wisdom to the seemingly brilliant leaders of those countries. (Lev Aharon)

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Letters from Our Sages

    This is an excerpt from a letter written by R’ Yitzchak Hutner z”l (1906-1980), rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the letter, dated 24 Tevet 5723 [1963] and printed in Pachad Yitzchak: Igrot no. 38, he discusses, among other things, the mitzvah to judge another person favorably. He writes:

All of this refers to an act committed by a person about whom there are arguments to judge his act as lacking merit and arguments to judge it as having merit; then, the mitzvah (Vayikra 19:15), “With righteousness you shall judge your fellow,” obligates us to weigh the side of merit more heavily based on the quality of the person himself [i.e., one does not have to judge favorably a person known to be wicked]. However, once we know that a clearly bad deed has been done, then we are under no obligation to judge favorably and to assume that the damage has been repaired. This rule has an exception, which is that if the person in question qualifies as a Torah scholar, then we have a halachah (Berachot 19a), “If you saw a Torah scholar sin in the night-time, do not think anything of him the next day, for he has certainly repented.” This is a novelty with respect to the usual application of the mitzvah of “With righteousness you shall judge your fellow,” i.e., that even after the bad deed has been done, there is an obligation to judge favorably and assume that there has been repentance. This obligation to weigh the side of merit more heavily in this situation applies only to [judging] a Torah scholar. No amount of righteousness creates such an obligation. This means that, though the general obligation to judge a person favorably depends on the righteousness of the person being judged, as explained above, nevertheless, that is only before we know that he did a bad deed. . . But after the bad deed was done, no amount of righteousness that a person has requires us to presume he has repented. Only the fact that there is Torah within him obligates us to judge him favorably.

This is one of the attributes that Torah [study] has over other mitzvot, for being righteous [with regard to mitzvot in general] does not create a presumption of repentance. This may be inferred from the words of Rabbeinu Yonah, who writes [in Sha’arei Teshuvah I 3], “Delaying repentance is found only among amei ha’aretz / people lacking Torah knowledge.” He did not write that delaying repentance is found among wicked people or among simpletons or among impetuous people. Certainly, the doors of repentance are open to all, but a certainty that repentance has been done exists only vis-a-vis Torah scholars.


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