Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Beware to Compare
Toward the end of Parshas Shemos, Moshe's mission to rescue the
Jews from the hands of their Egyptian oppressors seems to take a
decided turn for the worse when Pharaoh, instead of acceding to
Moshe and Aaron's request for freedom, reacts by heaping additional
labor upon the Jews' weary shoulders. In frustration, Moshe
complains bitterly to Hashem. Parshas Va'eira begins with Hashem
reassuring Moshe that everything is going ahead as planned (indeed,
Moshe had been forewarned about Pharaoh's stubborn refusal to
heed Hashem's word). Hashem instructs Moshe to once again appear
before Pharaoh, and demand the release of the Jews. Moshe
expresses his concern (6:12):
"Behold! Even the Jews are not listening to me, so how
do You expect Pharaoh to listen to me; and I have sealed
(lit: uncircumcised) lips."
Rashi points out that this is one of the few places that the Torah itself
makes use of a kal ve-chomer (a fortiori) argument, normally
something used by the Sages to interpret the Torah.
Mefarshim (commentaries), however, point out that there seems to
be a difficulty with this kal ve-chomer. The Torah itself explains that
the reason the Jews refused to listen to Moshe's promises was, "due
to the shortness of their breath, and the difficulty of their work. (6:9)"
This does not necessarily prove, however, that Pharaoh, who
(obviously) was not a slave, would not heed Hashem's word. (Of
course, there were many other reasons to believe that Pharaoh would
not listen to Moshe, not the least of which is that Hashem Himself
has already promised He would "harden Pharaoh's heart." At any rate,
though, the kal ve-chomer seems questionable.)
Because of this difficulty, the first Bobover Rebbe zt"l, Rabbi Shlomo
Halberstam (cited in Ateres Shlomo), approaches this pasuk from a
completely different angle.
The Haftorah of parshas Toldos begins with the opening words of
the book of Malachi (1:1-3):
"Massah d'var Hashem/The prophetic burden of the
word of Hashem, through Malachi. 'I loved you,' said
Hashem. And you said, 'Why do You love us.' 'Was not
Eisav a brother to Yaakov? Yet I loved Yaakov, and I
Why do Malachi's words begin with the introduction "Massah d'var
Hashem/The prophetic burden of the word of Hashem?" Chazal,
our Sages, teach (Yalkut Shimoni, Lech, 76) that of all of the Ten
Expressions of Prophecy, the most foreboding is "Massah,"
foretelling a burdensome and difficult prophecy. Yet if we examine
the Navi's words, they seem to be an expression of Hashem's
undying love for Israel.
Every parent/teacher has invariably experienced the following
scenario, or something close to it: Two children come home late.
One comes home half-an-hour late, the other, an hour. Both are
punished. The one who was "only" a half-hour late is indignant!
After all, in comparison to child #2, he was all but on time! Do
they expect, perhaps, an award of honour?
There are two ways, says Rabbi Shimon Oddeberger zt"l, in which
the beauty of our nation can manifest itself. When Jews conduct
themselves according to the ethical and moral code of the Torah,
their beauty is intrinsic and essential. When, however, our conduct
is less than stellar, our beauty and worth are diminished. In such
times, Hashem, so to speak, finds favour in us by comparing us to
the nations of the world. Needless to say, when viewed in this light,
our countenance takes on a considerably more favourable
appearance. Ultimately, though, if the only way we look good is by
standing us next to our even-uglier cousins, then we're no more
beautiful than the ugly kallah (bride) who, with enough makeup
and mascara, can be made to seem beautiful for a night!
This, he says, is why Malachi's seemingly encouraging prophecy is
in fact a burden. While it begins with Hashem expressing His love
for us, it soon becomes apparent that this love for us is not an
essential love, but rather a bitter expression of the fact that we are,
at least, better than the rest: "And you said, 'Why do You love us?'
'Was not Eisav a brother to Yaakov? Yet I loved Yaakov, and I
Let us now return to our parsha. Moshe is concerned that Israel's
refusal to heed Hashem's word would cause them to lose favour in
Hashem's eyes. After all, it's not every day G-d comes to take them
out of slavery, yet they have spurned His word. On the other hand,
their apparent lack of interest in Moshe's flowery descriptions of
freedom is not surprising. Trying to win over the heart of a nation
collapsing beneath the burden of oppressive slavery by selling them
pie-in-the-sky promises of emancipation, while failing to produce
even the smallest measure of success (au contraire - things had
only gotten worse since Moshe arrived!), was fighting an uphill
battle. It was not out of lack of faith and arrogance that they were
balking at Moshe's promises, it was out of fear and intimidation.
Pharaoh, on the other hand, brazenly scorns Hashem's word: "Who
is Hashem, that I should heed His call. I know not Hashem, and I
will not release the Jews! (5:2)" Compared to Pharaoh's chutzpah,
the Jews' rejection seems meek and insignificant! And, says the
Bobover Rebbe, it was precisely this point that Moshe was stressing
to Hashem: True, the Jewish nation heeds not my word - yet, as
attested to by the Torah itself, they do so not out of disrespect, but
"because of their shortness of breath, and the difficulty of their
work." Yet how will Pharaoh (not!) listen to me - let us contrast
their non-acceptance with Pharaoh's: Their refusal stems from a
broken heart and sprit, while Pharaoh's comes from a heart full of
arrogance and brazenness!
Alas, Moshe concludes, I am of sealed lips - with regard to this
comparison, for if the only good I can find to express about the
Jews is that "they're still better than Pharaoh," then things don't
look too good.
A sage once remarked: When I recite each morning the blessing,
"Blessed are you, Hashemž that You did not make me a
gentile," I don't think only about the alcoholics and the drug-
addicts. I think about the most respected, famous, and influential
gentile I can: Being a "light unto the nations" should mean glowing
with the light of a torch among candles, not turning on a pen-light
in a pitch-black room. While at times we succumb to the easy pat-
on-the-back we can give ourselves for being "better than them," his
words remind us that there's more to being a Jew that not being a
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication has been sponsored in
memory of Harav Meir Tzvi Yitzchak ben Harav Chaim Yoel
Dohany, by his son.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.