Friday, January 23, 2009

Moshe Rabbeinu and Pharaoh - Va'era

Parshas Vaeira describes in great detail the first seven of the ten plagues that brought Mitzrayim to its knees.  A major feature of the Plagues is the behavior of Pharaoh in reaction to the destruction of his nation.  When Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron bring about the first plague of blood, the passuk tells us that Pharaoh was not impressed because his sorcerers could also turn water into blood: ..And Pharaoh hardened his heart and he did not listen to them..  The next verse states that, Pharaoh turned and went to his home, and also did not pay attention to this.[1]  The commentaries ask, what does the Torah refer to when it says that he did not pay attention to this - the previous verse already stated that  Pharaoh did not listen to the arguments of Moshe and Aaron.  One of the later Torah commentators, the Netsiv ztl explains that the second verse is telling us that Pharaoh was also unmoved by the pain that his people were suffering through the plague, and did not seek out any ways in which he could ease their pain. 


The plague of blood was the only plague in which the Torah alludes to Pharaohs indifference to the suffering of his people - why is this the case?  The Medrash HaGadol provides the key to answering this question: The wicked Pharaoh was not afflicted by the plague of blood.[2]  The plague of blood was the only one which did not harm Pharaoh.  It was in this plague where he was most immune to the suffering that it caused his people because he did not experience the pain himself and so it was this plague where his apathy to the pain of his people was most pronounced.


We see a stark contrast to Pharaohs cruel indifference in the reaction of Moshe Rabbeinu to the pain of the Jewish people.  Moshe grew up in the home of Pharaoh, separate from his people and unaffected but he slavery.  Nonetheless, he went out and looked at the suffering of his brothers and empathized with their pain[3] - he even persuaded Pharaoh to give them a day of rest[4]. 


The verses that describe Moshes tremendous concern for his people are  preceded by the words, vayigdal Moshe.  This does not mean that he grew up because an earlier verse already stated that.  Thus, the commentaries explain that it refers to becoming a great person - and the indicator of that greatness was his concern for others[5].  Why does the trait of empathy in particular represent gadlus’ (greatness)?   One of the great Rabbis in the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Shimon Shkop ztl explains that a Gadol is a person who expands his definition of self to include others - he is not considered a mere individual, rather part of a larger whole, and consequently he himself becomes a bigger person[6].  Pharaoh, in contrast, is described by the Gemara as being a very small person[7].   The commentaries there explain that this refers to his spiritual standing - he was on a very low level[8]. Perhaps one aspect of his lowliness was his apathy to the pain of his own people, he only cared about himself, and therefore he did not expand his self-definition beyond his own self and remained a small person.


How can a person avoid the apathy of Pharaoh and emulate the concern of Moshe Rabbeinu - it is particularly difficult to empathize with people who are in a situation that does not effect us.  When the verse says the Moshe saw the suffering of his people, Rashi elaborates; he focused his eyes and heart to feel pain for them.[9]  My Rebbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits Shlita explains that first he looked at their faces to see the pain that they were in.  He then focused his heart by trying to relate to their pain, to feel what they were feeling.  So too when we hear of a person in difficulty we should first try to notice their facial expressions in order to make real the pain that they are in.  Secondly, we should try to feel what it must be like to be in such pain.  In a similar vein, for example, that when we hear of a terrorist attack in which people are killed, we should take out a few moments to imagine what the victims and their families must be going through.  It is not enough to merely sigh and move on - we must strive to avoid becoming immune to other peoples pain.


Such empathy is not restricted to Jews who share the same lifestyle and outlook as us:  Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein[10] ztl taught this lesson in his talks in Ponevitz throughout the Six Day War.  As the way began he told his talmidim, in a time of war we must feel the danger of our soldiers.  The loss of one Jewish soldier, even when measured against the destruction of thousands of our enemies, is incalculable.  And for every soldier who arrives home from battle alive our joy must be unbounded.  After the victory he exhorted his talmidim to identify with the people who lost family in the conflict:  Hand-in-hand with our victory another reality was created; thousands of Jewish lives have been lost.  How many thousands of families are bereft with a pain that is so great that it cannot now be consoled?  How many dear ones have been killed?  How much this must weigh upon every Jewish soul.  How much must we feel their pain - actually feel it as our own.  More than our rejoicing over our enemies we must feel the pain of our grieving brothers and sisters.[11]


It is also instructive to make some kind of gesture to show that the suffering of our fellow Jew truly concerns us even if we cannot directly help them.  During the Holocaust the Steipler Gaon[12] ztl undertook to give up smoking as a small token to show that the tremendous suffering of his brethren meant something to him.  Whilst Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik[13] ztl was Rabbi of Brisk half the city was burnt down leaving hundreds of Jews homeless.  Rav Chaim promptly moved out of his home and slept on a bench in a beis medrash.  When asked why he was doing so he exclaimed, how can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof covering them?![14]


This message is most apt at a time when the Jewish people find themselves engulfed in conflict, with enemies striving to destroy our  lives.  Many of us are fortunate to be out of range of the missiles that rain down on Israel, but we can still do our utmost to feel the pain of our fellow Jews who are in such danger.


[1]   Va’eira, 6:22-23.

[2]   Medrash HaGadol, Shemos, 7:29.

[3]   Shemos, 2:11.

[4]   Shemos Rabbah, 1:27. This comparison of Moshe to Pharaoh was heard from Rav Moshe Zeldman Shlita, senoir lecturer for Aish HaTorah, Yerushalayim.

[5]   Shaarei Simcha; also heard from Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita.

[6]   Hakdama to Shaar Yosher.

[7]   Moed Katan, 18a.

[8]   Iyun Yaakov, ibid.

[9]   Shemos, 2:11.

[10] The Mashgiach (spiritual leader) of two of the great Yeshivos, Meer and Ponovech.

[11] Kasnett, ‘Reb Chatzkel’, p.344.

[12] One of the ‘Gedolim’ in the second half of the 20th Century.

[13] One of the ‘Gedolim’ in the first half of the 20th Century.

[14]  Heard from Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita.

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