Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Every Throes Has Its Thorn
There is much discussion with regards to the "new king" of Egypt
who comes to power at the beginning of parshas Shemos - was he
a new king, or the same old Pharaoh with new laws and decrees
designed to break the Jewish nation? Regardless of whether we take
his "newness" literally or figuratively, writes Rashi, one thing is for
sure: By subjugating the Jewish people, he made the conscious
decision to ignore Yosef and the tremendous contribution he had
made to Egyptian society. As the Torah writes (1:8), "A new king
arose in Egypt, who did not know of Joseph."
Without getting into the calculations, the initiation of the Jews into
slavery did not begin for at least 23 years after Yosef's death - until
Levi, the most long-living of all the tribes, died. Even then, they were
not instantly plunged into full-fledged slavery; the subjugation began
moderately and slowly developed into the bondage and back-breaking
labour that we commemorate on the night of the Pesach Seder.
Considering that slavery in those times was not treated with the same
disdain that it is today, how long would we have expected the
Egyptians to give the Jews "the royal treatment" based on the fact
that many years ago, Yosef saved the day? If someone's grandfather
saved your grandfather's life many years ago, would we expect your
family to give their family preferential treatment for the rest of time?
So what does the Torah mean when it expresses that the new king
"forgot about Yosef?"
Hashem appears to Moshe from a burning bush. Why a bush?
Chazal, our Sages, say that Hashem suffers together with the Jews
(Shemos Rabbah 2:5). When we're in pain - Hashem's in pain. And
when we're in exile - Hashem, so to speak, goes into exile with us.
Hashem appeared to Moshe from the lowly thornbush, burning in a
raging fire, as if to say: I, too, am lowered by the Egyptian
subordination; I, too, am seething with pain.
Suppose a father were to punish his son, giving him the one-over
with the proverbial belt. We all know the, "this hurts me more than it
hurts you - son" cliche. Well, suppose the father were to actually give
himself one smack with the belt for each one he gave his son. In
what way would this soothe the son's pain? Or what if he did so
privately - out of his son's view - and later claimed to his son that, by
the way, he too had received lashes. What comfort would this offer
We believe Hashem suffers with us. Yet it is not something most of
us see, or even feel. So what's the point of Hashem "joining us in our
suffering," if it fails to console us or lessen the pain?
Perhaps Hashem's suffering with us is not meant as a means of
consolation or solace, but rather as an opportunity for prayer so
powerful it can not be rejected. It is known that prayer is a key
element of redemption. "For I have heard the cries of the Jewish
nation (6:5)." "And their cries ascended to G-d from their labour
(2:23)." While prayer is always a powerful tool, when praying not for
oneself but for another, it becomes potent.
"Anyone who prays for his fellow, even though he himself is in need,
he will receive his own salvation first (Bava Kamma 92a)." Sefarim
write that this concept can also be applied to our prayers for
redemption. If, instead of bemoaning our own troubles and tzures, we
cry out over the fact that Hashem - the Almighty Himself - suffers
silently along with us, then our prayers are far more powerful and
likely to be answered. Hashem's placing Himself in exile together with
us is thus a tremendous kindness, as it guarantees us the opportunity
to bring about redemption through our prayers - which, when focused
on the needs of "Another," are guaranteed success.
Based on this concept, Noam Elimelech has a novel understanding
of the verse quoted above, "And their cries ascended to G-d from
their labour." Simply, the Torah means that the cries they cried out
from their labour and subjugation ascended to Hashem. Yet why
does the Torah bother telling us that their cries were "from their
labour?" We all know why they were crying!
The Jews of Egypt knew this secret: If you pray for yourselves,
perhaps your prayers will be answered, and perhaps they won't. But
if your prayers are focused on the suffering of "Another" - Hashem,
Who suffers along with us in exile - then you are guaranteed to be
answered. Their cries ascended to G-d - i.e. the focus of their prayers
was, to the extent we can express it, on Hashem's suffering; from
their labour - far more than they were focused on their own labour
The Gemara (Gittin 7a) says, "Anyone who takes away the livelihood
of another [by stealing his customers, etc.], the One Who dwells in
the thornbush will take up his case." This is the only time in Shas that
Chazal refer to Hashem as "the One Who dwells in the thornbush."
Why here? When Hashem suffers with us, He is metaphorically
compared to One Who dwells in a thornbush. If you cause another
Jew pain, by stealing his means of earning a living, you are causing
Hashem to suffer too. Hashem, Who dwelled in a bush while the
Jews suffered in Egypt, will come to his rescue. [Be'er Moshe]
In parshas Ve'zos Ha-bracha, the last parsha of the Torah, when
Moshe offers his final blessings for the Jewish nation, he blesses
Yosef saying, "Blessed by Hashem is his land... with the bounty of the
land and its fullness, and by the favour of He Who rested upon the
thornbush (Devarim 33:13-16)." Yosef suffered more than all his
brothers, yet his redemption and ultimate rise to greatness also
outdid them all. Because he suffered, he merited the favour of He
Who rested upon the thornbush, and suffered silently along with him.
Yosef's redemption and ascent to greatness, say Chazal, is a
microcosm of the ultimate redemption and ascent of our nation.
What occurred to Yosef as an individual, later happened on a national
scale with their redemption from Egypt, and will again take place with
the coming of Mashiach and the Final Redemption.
Perhaps this was what Pharaoh forgot: A new king arose in Egypt
who did not know of Yosef - he forgot that Yosef represents "the
favour of He Who dwells in the thornbush," and that by subjugating
the Jews, he was, so to speak, subjugating the Almighty as well. "For
so says Hashem, Master of Legions: After [the] glory [temporarily
granted the nations], He will send me to the nations who rob you; for
whoever touches you, touches the pupil of His own eye (Zechariah
2:12)." By forgetting Yosef, and what he represents, Pharaoh had
sealed his own fate.
Prayer is called "labour of the heart (Ta'anis 2a)." To cry out for one's
own needs and distress is not laborious - it is in fact a natural
reaction. However, to forsake our own needs, and focus instead on
the suffering of Hashem, is truly a "labour of love." While difficult, it
is the only prayer which is guaranteed success.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored in memory of
R' Moshe Yehudah ben R' Shlomo Zalman, who passed
away 25 Teves, 5739. And in memory of Pinia bas R'
Eliezer. By their son, R' Shlomo Eliezer Isaac, who is
presently in the 12-month period of mourning after his
mother. May their souls be bound up in the bonds of
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.