In this week’s parashah, we read of the exile and slavery of Bnei Yisrael
and of the very beginning of the redemption. In the Pesach Haggadah we say,
“If G-d had not taken us out of there, then we and our sons and our
descendants would be subjugated to Pharaoh in Egypt.” The question is well
known: Why do we assume that we would still be in Egypt thousands of years
later when, throughout world history, kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall? Who
is to say that we would not have left Egypt in time through natural means?
Furthermore, what is the purpose of speculating; didn’t G-d promise Avraham
that we would be redeemed?
R’ Yitzchak Yerucham Borodiansky shlita (Yeshivat Kol Torah in Yerushalayim)
explains: We find that Yaakov was afraid as he prepared to meet Esav,
notwithstanding G-d’s promise to protect him. Our Sages explain that his
fear of Esav was due to his fear that he might have sinned and lost G-d’s
protection. This teaches that no promise can be relied upon to counteract a
sin, which is a rebellion against G-d. Similarly, once Bnei Yisrael sinned
[either the brothers against Yosef, or their descendants by practicing
idolatry in Egypt], G-d’s promise was at risk of being voided.
Nevertheless, perhaps we might have been freed as history progressed? To
answer this we need to understand that it was not a chance of history that
Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Pharaoh. It was a manifestation of a Heavenly
decree. Commenting on the verse (Devarim 4:34), “Has any god ever
miraculously come to take for himself a nation from amidst a nation?” our
Sages say, “Like a shepherd births a lamb from a ewe.” This indicates how
Bnei Yisrael were tied to Egypt by the decree of Heaven, and no historical
event could have broken that bond if G-d had not brought about the Exodus.
(Siach Yitzchak: Geulat Mitzrayim p.18)
“And these are the names of the children of Yisrael who were coming to
Egypt; with Yaakov . . .” (Shmot 1:1)
Why does the pasuk begin with “Yisrael” and continue with “Yaakov”? R’ Yoel
Herzog z”l (Paris, France; early 20th century; father of Israeli Chief Rabbi
Yitzchak Halevi Herzog z”l) explains based on the similar wording in the
verse in Parashat Vayigash which describes Yaakov’s descent to Egypt. There
we read (46:8), “Now these are the names of the children of Yisrael who were
coming to Egypt -- Yaakov and his children.” We also read there (verse 2):
“G-d spoke to Yisrael in a night vision and He said, ‘Yaakov, Yaakov’.” Why
the change from Yisrael to Yaakov?
The answer is that “Yisrael,” the name given to our Patriarch after he
defeated Esav’s guardian angel, represents the fulfillment of Yitzchak’s
blessing that his son would rule over the other nations. When
Yisrael/Yaakov was descending to Egypt, where his son was the viceroy to
Pharaoh, our Patriarch and his children thought that he was going as
“Yisrael.” But Hashem appeared to him in a dream and informed him that this
was not the case. Rather, his journey was the beginning of the exile that
had been foretold to Avraham. Therefore, He called the Patriarch “Yaakov.”
Perhaps Yaakov did not immediately tell his children about his dream.
Therefore, they continued to believe that they were going to Egypt as the
“Children of Yisrael.” In reality, though, they went not with Yisrael, but
with Yaakov. (Imrei Yoel)
“Bnei Yisrael were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong--very,
very much so; and the land became filled with them.” (1:7)
R’ Yosef ben Moshe Tirani z”l (Maharit; 1568-1639) writes: No one, not even
Pharaoh, could deny that the growth rate of Bnei Yisrael was miraculous.
Therefore, perhaps the verse (1:9), “He said to his people, ‘Behold! the
people, Bnei Yisrael, are more numerous and stronger mimenu’” [usually
translated “more numerous and stronger than we”] should be translated, “more
numerous and stronger from Him.” If this is the correct translation,
Maharit continues, then the next verse, “Let us outsmart lo” [usually
translated “it,” referring to Bnei Yisrael] perhaps should be translated,
“Let us outsmart Him,” again referring to G-d. Indeed, our Sages say that
Pharaoh said, “Let us outsmart the Redeemer of Bnei Yisrael.” That, of
course, is none other than G-d. (Tzofnat Panei’ach)
“During those many days, it happened that the king of Egypt died, and Bnei
Yisrael groaned because of the work and they cried out. Their outcry
because of the work went up to G-d.” (2:23)
Why did they cry out now that Pharaoh died? R’ Meir ibn Gabbai z”l (15th -
16th centuries) explains that it is common for a newly crowned king to grant
a general amnesty to political prisoners. In this case, however, Pharaoh
died and the new king did not grant amnesty to Bnei Yisrael.
Why did this fact draw Bnei Yisrael closer to G-d? Because the fact that
they were not freed caused them to recognize that their slavery was not a
natural phenomenon but rather a Divine decree. (Avodat Ha’kodesh Ch.34)
“It was on the way, in the lodging, that Hashem encountered him [Moshe] and
sought to kill him.” (4:24)
Rashi z”l explains: Because he had not circumcised his son Eliezer. The
sage Rabbi Yossi said: “G-d forbid that this was so. Moshe was not remiss
in this duty; rather, he thought, ‘If I circumcise him and immediately
proceed on the journey, the child’s life will be in danger for three days.
On the other hand, if I circumcise him and wait three days, the Holy One,
blessed be He, has commanded me--Go return to Egypt!’ Consequently, he
obeyed His command, intending to circumcise the child as soon as the
opportunity presented itself. Why, then, was he threatened with punishment?
Because he busied himself with the affairs of the lodging place first.”
During his visit to the United States in 1924, R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen
Kook z”l (1865-1935; Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael) spoke at a
brit milah and said as follows: There is a dispute among halachic
authorities whether one should delay performing a mitzvah in order to
beautify it (called “hiddur mitzvah”) or whether one should perform the
mitzvah at the first opportunity (called “zerizim makdimim”) even though it
will be less beautiful. [For example, if one has a minimally kosher etrog
now but can obtain a beautiful etrog in the afternoon, should he say the
blessing immediately or delay until later?] When Hashem told Moshe to be
His agent to go to Pharaoh and bring about the Ten Plagues, Moshe refused.
Why? Because Aharon was already in Egypt, and the Exodus would take place
that much faster if Aharon led Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt! Hashem considered
it a hiddur / beautification of the Exodus to have Moshe Rabbeinu as His
agent, but Moshe argued that zerizim makdimim / performing the deed sooner
However, when Moshe arrived at the hotel and took time organizing his
affairs before circumcising his son, he acted contrary to his earlier
argument. For this, he deserved to be punished. This is why his wife
Zipporah performed the circumcision using a sharp stone, the first object
that came to hand. She did not even take the time to obtain a knife,
because she wished to give the principle of zerizim makdimim / hurrying to
perform the mitzvah precedence over hiddur mitzvah / beautifying the
mitzvah. (Quoted in Brito L’hodi’am p.65)
“Moshe returned to Hashem and said, ‘My Master, why have You done evil to
this people, why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak
in Your Name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your
people’.” (Shmot 5:22-23)
R’ Shlomo Eliasoff z”l (a leading kabbalist in the early 20th century;
grandfather of the contemporary halachic authority, R’ Yosef Shalom
Elyashiv) explains this verse as follows: Moshe’s objection to becoming
Hashem’s emissary was based on his belief that Bnei Yisrael were not capable
or worthy of receiving the great “light” that Hashem was planning to reveal.
Moshe feared that they would first have to be purified through suffering,
and he did not wish to be the emissary to bring about that suffering. In
our verse, Moshe essentially argues that his fears have been confirmed.
(Quoted in Haggadah Shel Pesach R’ Elyashiv p.90)
Letters from Our Sages
The letter below was written by R’ Yechezkel Levenstein z”l (1895-1974).
Reb Chatzkel, as he is popularly known, was mashgiach ruchani of the Mir
yeshiva in pre-war Poland and in Shanghai, China during World War II. After
the Holocaust, he lived briefly in New York and then settled in
Yerushalayim. In later years, he served as mashgiach ruchani of the
Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. This letter is printed in Ohr Yechezkel -
Michtavim, no. 7. Reb Chatzel was particularly renowned for mining the
story of the Exodus for lessons in emunah / faith, as this letter demonstrates.
With the help of G-d, Sunday of Va’era, 5698 , in Mir, Much blessing
and peace to my dear friend . . . After inquiring of your welfare with love,
I received your valued letters in a timely fashion. Thank you for your
efforts [regarding some unspecified matter]. “He will pay a person his
deeds”--this really means that the deed itself is the reward, for, in truth,
a person makes his own Olam Haba. The perfection that a person achieves
[through good deeds] is Olam Haba, for the soul is a piece of the Divine,
and the closer one brings himself to Hashem and the more one attaches
himself to Him, so will his portion be greater. Every good deed that a
person does naturally brings him closer to Him to bask in the light of His
Shechinah. It follows, therefore, that a person makes his own reward when
he does good deeds for others, which is emulating His ways [and thereby
coming closer to Him]. Nevertheless, the recipient of the good deed must
recognize what he has received and not be ungrateful.
In my opinion, a person can gain a great deal during these weeks, for with
just a little bit of study of Parashat Shmot, one can increase his emunah so
We read (1:7), “Bnei Yisrael were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became
strong--very, very much so; and the land became filled with them.” Every
expression here testifies that G-d acted toward us in a supernatural way.
We read (verse 9), “He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold! the people,
Bnei Yisrael, are more numerous and stronger than we’.” Has one ever heard
of such a thing--in less than a century, a village of 70 people grows into a
huge nation that the most powerful kingdom of ancient times fears? Pharaoh
did not say that Bnei Yisrael were Egypt’s equals; rather, they “are more
numerous and stronger than we”! [Ed. note: See page 2]
We then read (verse 12), “But as much as they would afflict it [the Jewish
nation], so it would increase and so it would spread out.” This is G-d’s
revenge against Pharaoh, as is the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was raised by
Pharaoh himself. Moreover, he had to pay Moshe’s natural mother to nurse
her own son. . . How great should our joy be to see such things.
My Hashem give you much pleasure and peace, and may we hear good tidings
from you soon. Your friend, Yechezkel.
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