Moving Out and Up
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
There are two kinds of reality, G-d's and man's. G-d's reality is large "R"
reality, and man's is small "r" reality. G-d's version of reality is
absolute, a perfection expression of His plan for creation, whereas man's
version of reality, developed from the moment he is born, is temporary,
always changing, and often mistaken. The point of life is for the
individual to try to make his vision of reality match G-d's, after which he
will be able to see creation and all aspects of it from G-d's point of
view, so-to-speak. This is the goal of learning Torah; sin, any sin, is the
result of a mistaken perspective, as the Talmud states:
No person sins until a spirit of insanity enters him. (Sota 3a)
Insanity here means out of touch with reality-G-d's reality.
Paroah and all of Egypt lived an illusion. When Moshe came to see Paroah
and demand the freedom of the Jewish people, Paroah probably said:
"Moshe, you have to be kidding. Look around you. Don't you see who's in
control here? Don't you see who commands the largest, most powerful army in
the world? Don't you find it strange to come in here, and from a position
of weakness demand the undemandable ... to free your people, our slaves?
You're lucky I don't kill you on the spot for even suggesting the
At that point, when Paroah asked, "Who is G-d that I should free this
nation?" he felt on top of the world. Everything had, up until then, gone
his way. He was a success. He was the leader of the superpower of that
time. As far as Paroah was concerned, you couldn't be any freer than he
was, and any less free than the nation Moshe was now championing.
The ten plagues, and the miracles they presented was none other than the
imposition of G-d's reality onto Paroah's. That's all a miracle ever is:
G-d's revelation about what He thinks about history and its players. And as
Large R reality made itself ever more perceivable, the master-slave
situation flip-flopped. In the end, it was Paroah who went out in the
middle of the night (in his pajamas no less ... how humiliating!) in search
of Moshe to beg him and the Jewish nation to leave Egypt. In the end,
Paroah's version of reality yielded to G-d's version of reality, as Moshe
had predicted it would.
But make no mistake about it-all of us have a little of Paroah inside. It
is the side of us that tends to dream a bit, and give us the impression
that what we do is exactly what G-d wants, and exactly the way He wants it
done. The daily cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of one's life) suggested by
the Mesillos Yesharim was designed to check this and keep us with at least
one foot in G-d's reality.
Therefore, Paroah's question is our question at our worse moments. And
G-d's answer back to Paroah is also His answer back to us, to some degree,
except that, unlike Paroah, most of us have the chance to do tshuva
(repent). Tshuva means realigning our version of reality with G-d's. This
is what it really means to be free, for nothing can be more enslaving than
living a lie; nothing can be more debilitating than pretending a false
dream is in fact reality. And though we may get away with it for now,
eventually G-d's reality wins out. It always does.
It is no coincidence that the ten plagues are divided into two groups, one
of seven and one of three. According to the Pri Tzaddik, this corresponds
to the seven lower sefiros (from the bottom up: Malchus, Yesod, Hod,
Netzach, Tifferes, Gevurah, and Chesed; in English: Kingship, Foundation,
Glory, Eternity, Beauty, Strength, and Kindness). The last three plagues
correspond to the top three sefiros, (from the top down: Keser, Chochmah,
and Binah; English: Crown, Wisdom, and Understanding).
Why the correlation? Because, as in the case with everything in history,
there are two sides to the story that work in tandem with each other, one
visible to the eye, and one hidden from the eye. We take for granted that
G-d interfaces with history, "jumping in" and out at will. However, G-d
Himself is not physical in the least, and the physical world as we know it
is barely spiritual. Therefore, there must be some kind of mechanism that
translates G-d's entirely spiritual will into some form of physical
manifestation that we can recognize, such as the ten plagues.
The ten sefiros act this way. They are a spiritual medium that get
increasingly more physical as they move "away" from G-d, acting as a chain
of sorts to allow the will of G-d to result in some form of physical
existence. What we see and experience is the end of a very long and
remarkable process that begins in a totally sublime and esoteric world, and
ends up in the mundane world of everyday existence.
As the plagues began, the Jewish people had been on the forty-ninth level
of spiritual impurity after being in Egypt for 209 years. Preparing them to
leave Egypt meant elevating them from the depths of defilement to at least
some kind of spiritual neutral ground. The first seven plagues began that
process because they correspond to the seven days of physical creation, and
therefore are more "physically" oriented.
However, after having done this, the Jewish people were in a better
position to go beyond the physical world, and into the realm of the upper
three sefiros. This is why it is within this parsha of these three plagues
that the Jewish people finally received mitzvos to fulfill. Having
completed the first process of spiritual purification, they were better
prepared to receive the light of mitzvos, and to be elevated by it.
As well, the rabbis point out that the ten plagues correspond to the ten
statements with which G-d created the world, except in reverse (i.e., the
first plague corresponds to the tenth statement, the second plague to the
ninth statement of creation, and so on).
Confusing? Perhaps, but one point becomes clear: what we see in the
physical world is not the beginning of the story, but the end of it. Just
like a physical illness is indicative of some kind of health breakdown
within the body, invisible to the naked eye, so too are the physical
symptoms of history just an outer manifestation of what has occurred, is
occurring, and will occur in the spiritual realm.
In other words, for all we know, as I write this paper and you read it,
Moshiach may be sitting in some Bais Medrash in Israel learning Torah, just
waiting for the call from Heaven to get the final redemption into full
swing! According to the rabbis, redemption, when it finally appears, comes
at the wink of an eye because the preparation for it has been occurring
behind the scenes for generations, closed off to all but the trained eye.
It is something to think about when looking out the window of one's
skyscraper office window down upon the overly-active and
spiritually-distanced world below, or in the quiet space of one's private
This too is a very important message of redemption from Egypt, and the
Seeing that the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh appears first in this week's
parsha, and that this week was Rosh Chodesh Shevat, it seems only fitting
to speak a bit about Rosh Chodesh itself.
In the Shulchan Aruch, Rosh Chodesh is not simply the first day of the new
Jewish month. There is a mitzvah to eat special meals, and many dress
somewhat nicer than on a regular weekday. Many women are strict to observe
Rosh Chodesh as a mini-holiday, abstaining from some household chores for
the day (or two when Rosh Chodesh is two days long).
Last year I mentioned how Rosh Chodesh is one mitzvah that really defines
Jewish responsibility, which is why it was the first mitzvah to be given to
us in Egypt. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so too are the
Jewish people to reflect the light of G-d to the world around them. This is
the deeper meaning of being a "light unto the nations." It was to fulfill
this mission that G-d turned history upside down to free us from the
oppression of the Egyptians.
However, as one would expect, there is more to this mitzvah than meets the
eye. After all, it is a holiday given over to the women because they didn't
participate in the sin of the golden calf. What connection is there between
the day of Rosh Chodesh and the golden calf?
First of all, as the rabbis point out, the word "chodesh" means new (the
word for year, "shannah" means "change"). There is a renewal that is
supposed to take place every month; a feeling of tshuva is supposed to
sweep the nation. That is why the day before Rosh Chodesh, traditionally,
we have observed what is appropriately called "Yom Kippur Katan" (a small
Yom Kippur) to prepare for this heightened spiritual atmosphere.
What was the concept behind the golden calf? The calf represented
youthfulness, the period of life during which we are free of responsibility
and without need to change (or at least we feel that way). Maturation is
the process by which we take more responsibility for our own lives, and
accept the need to be (positively) critized for the sake of changing for
the better. Gold represents eternity, so the golden calf represented the
desire to forever stay changeless-the opposite of Rosh Chodesh.
When the women didn't participate in the sin of the golden calf, it was out
of protest for what it stood for (aside from the fact that it was idol
worship). The woman of that generation understood and appreciated the need
to constantly grow spiritually, and rejected the subtle trappings of the
calf. For this they were rewarded with the holiday of Rosh Chodesh, which
defines our nation's mission and underlying commitment to forever work on
With Parashas Shemos, we entered a period called "Shov'vim," a word made up
of six letters corresponding to the first letters of the first six parshios
of Shemos: Shemos, VaAirah, Bo, BeShallach, Yisro, and Mishpatim (shin,
vav, bais, bais, yud, mem). It actually spells a word that means "wayward
ones," and alludes to a special opportunity to do tshuva at this time of
Why now and not at Rosh Hashanah?
The difference between this period and the period of Rosh Hashanah/Yom
Kippur is that at that time, the nation repents out of fear (specifically
because of the fear of punishment since it is a time of strict judgment).
However, from the parsha of Shemos onward, corresponding to this time of
year, G-d increasingly emanates His holy light onto creation, which tends
to fill the world with a heightened awareness of His existence and love for
us. This process will reach a climax on Tu B'Shevat (which we will discuss
next week, G-d willing), an even higher one on Purim, and the highest
climax of all on Seder Night.
The result of this light is supposed to be a yearning in the heart of the
spiritually-sensitive Jew to do tshuva out of love, not fear, a higher form
of tshuva. This is why we read the book, "Shir HaShirim" (Song of Songs) on
Pesach, which is a metaphor for the intense love-relationship between G-d
and the Jewish people.
We should merit to become fitting "vessels" for this special light, and the
personal and national freedom that it brings. We should merit to forever
grow spiritually, which will transform us into the "light unto the nations"
we were redeemed to become, and witness the final redemption in our day.