The question had bothered me for years, but I finally had an answer that worked for me. I haven’t found it mentioned elsewhere, at least yet. Regardless, it makes an important point.
After the Plague of Darkness was over, finally Pharaoh seemed to admit defeat. Then Moshe made his counter-demand:
“You too shall give sacrifices and burnt offerings into our hands, and we will make them for God our God. And also our cattle will go with us; not a [single] hoof will remain, for we will take from it to worship God our God, and we do not know how [much] we will worship God until we arrive there.” (Shemos 10:25-26)
Then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he said in a dramatic act of arrogance…
“Go away from me! Beware! You shall no longer see my face, for on the day that you see my face, you shall die!” (Shemos 10:28)
…which would have been fine had Moshe not responded with:
“You have spoken correctly; I shall no longer see your face.”
Now comes the question. Didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu see Pharaoh again the night of the death of the firstborn? Didn’t Pharaoh go from house to house looking for Moshe to tell him to leave already and end the plague? And did Moshe not see Pharaoh again at the sea? Or did he just look away each time to fulfill his words?
The answer to this question may be similar to that of a different question. The Talmud asks (Bava Basra 15a) who wrote the last eight verses of the Torah, beginning with the words, “And Moshe died…” If Moshe died already, how did he write the words. If he didn’t, how did he lie? On the other hand, if Moshe did not write the last eight lines, then Yehoshua did. If so, then how is the entire Torah the prophecy of only Moshe?
There are a couple of answers to this, but Kabbalah holds that Moshe Rabbeinu did write them, but they were also not a lie. Kabbalistically, there is no greater death than a spiritual death. As Moshe Rabbeinu said in Parashas Vayailech, his spiritual status had changed. He had given over the reigns of leadership to Yehoshua already, and no longer had the connection to God he once enjoyed. It was as if Moshe Rabbeinu died on some level, and had become only Moshe.
Hence, the Talmud says that evil people are considered dead even while still living. The ten generations between Adam and Noach are barely mentioned in the Torah, as if they had never lived. Likewise, 12,000,000 Jews died in the Plague of Darkness, and there is barely a hint to it! They weren’t on the same page as God, so they ended up not being on any page. And even though we fear physical death a lot more than spiritual death, we should know that it should be the other way around from God’s perspective.
IT WAS SIMILAR with respect to Pharaoh. Moshe wasn’t telling Pharaoh that their eyes would never meet again. He was telling him that the next time they do, Pharaoh will be a changed man.
Pharaoh was already in the process of being broken, which is why God hardened his heart to keep him in the game. But by the end of the tenth plague Pharaoh would break completely. He was forced to go looking for Moshe in the middle of the night while wearing his pajamas. He debased the kingship and humiliated himself, but that’s what desperate despots do with the right amount of pressure.
The ultimate clincher was the drowning of Pharaoh’s remaining army in the sea. The Midrash says that after that happened, he could not go home and instead abdicated his throne and ran off to Nineveh in Mesopotamia. Somehow he eventually became king there as well.
Which brings us to the story of Yonah.
Yonah was the prophet sent to Nineveh, a very large and very corrupt city it seems. God had had enough of their wicked ways and wanted them to change or go the way of Sdom. He sent Yonah to deliver that message, which he did…after first fleeing from before God, being tossed overboard during a deadly storm by terrified sailors, and being swallowed by a large fish and carried to shore. There was no running away from his mission.
Reluctantly, Yonah went to Nineveh and sounded the alarm bells: In thirty days God will destroy the city and everyone in it if they do not change from their sinning ways!
So they did, the first one being the king of Nineveh. Upon hearing the divine threat, he put on sackcloth and ashes, and sat on the floor in mourning. His people followed suit, God was duly impressed, and the decree of destruction was avoided. It’s basically the last we hear of them after that.
Pretty impressive. The people of Nineveh didn’t balk at the warning, as the Jewish people did back home. They didn’t find it funny, as did the sons-in-laws of Lot after being warned to get out while the going was still good. The king did not try and stare God down, as Pharaoh had done in Egypt and at the sea. Who were these people, and how was it that they could be so bad one moment, and become good enough the next?
According to the Midrash, it was because the king of Nineveh had been the king of Egypt, many moons ago. Apparently his memory had yet to fail him, and he knew that God meant business. He had learned his lesson long ago, and made sure that the next time God came calling, if He came calling, He would back down immediately and comply with the divine will.
Or, if the original Pharaoh had already died, he made sure that his descendants learned the lesson and applied it when they were king. Either way, Pharaoh had changed his ways after losing everything at the splitting of the sea. And Moshe, anticipating this, could tell Pharaoh back in Egypt, “You’re right, the next time we meet you will not be the same Pharaoh.”
The thing to remember that many forget is that the battle of Moshe against Pharaoh is also the battle of the yetzer tov against the yetzer hara. That is why Pharaoh was compared to a snake, which is always the symbol of the yetzer hara. So anything we learn about the Moshe-Pharaoh battle has something to teach us about our own internal struggle, and how to win it, or at least stay in the fight. And being Shabbos Shirah as well and almost Tu B’Shevat, we should tie these to the message as well.
WE HAVE POINTED out in the past how the first and most major test of mankind had to do with da’as—knowledge. Since 1990 began the tenth hour of the sixth millennium, which corresponds to the tenth hour of sixth day of Creation, the test of mankind now also has to do with da’as. (You can visit this site for background information on this: http://www.shaarnunproductions.org/tenth-hour.html.)
The question is, was the fruit (not an apple) with which man failed his test just a side show, or was it also a major part of the test?
Unrelated, what is shirah? It is the song of the soul. What is the soul’s song? Truth, the soul sings about truth. But the song aspect is not the tune, not the niggin itself, because that would never make it to the top of the charts in any part of the world. Shirah is different than regular song, in that its “melody” is its declaration of the truth of God after having experienced it.
And man will say, “Truly, the righteous man has reward; truly there is a God Who judges on earth.” (Tehillim 58:12)
The Hebrew word for reward is pri—fruit. It doesn’t just mean reward in Hebrew, but in English as well, since people talk about the fruits of their labors. The only question is, which labors and which fruits?
In the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life also had fruit, its bark. It wasn’t the most attractive fruit, but it tasted the best and gave immortality. It wasn’t a tree of knowledge of good or bad, but of true and false. It was a direct conduit to the reality of God, which neutralizes the body and allows the soul to sing shirah.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil had delicious looking fruit. It was ready for the picking, but its pleasure was short-lived and led to death. Not only did it not bring man closer to God, it caused him to hide from God. That can only lead to death.
Ultimately, both ideas come together in Eretz Yisroel. The Talmud says that when a Jew lives in the Diaspora, it is as if they have no god (Kesuvos 110b). A Jew can be there for one of two reasons. They may have been exiled there because they disregarded God while living on the land, or they may be there voluntarily because they don’t believe God will take care of them on the land. If they’re not living in Eretz Yisroel for some REAL halachic obligation, then it’s almost as if they live in Eretz Yisroel. Self-honesty is key in that situation.
On the other hand, a person who lives in Eretz Yisroel is destined for the World-to-Come (Pesachim 113a). There’s a lot of Torah behind that statement, and Sefer Tuv HaAretz based upon the Arizal says some remarkable things about it. Suffice it to say that when we celebrate the fruits of Eretz Yisroel on Tu B’Shevat, we celebrate more than just the physical fruits. We celebrate the Tree of Life reality that Eretz Yisroel is, which is why just breathing the air makes a person wise (Bava Basra 158b). This is what inspires the soul to sing shirah to God.
As the verse says:
I am God, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be God to you. (Vayikra 25:38)
Eretz Yisroel is the land of God, where the truth of His reality is best known and most felt. Its physical fruits only allude to its spiritual truth, the World-to-Come. We left Pharaoh and Egypt, the antithesis of all of this, to fully answer the question that perplexed Pharaoh the most:
“Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice…?” (Shemos 5:2).
It was a question Pharaoh had answered when all of his army drowned in the sea. Later as the king of Nineveh, he knew not to ask the same question the next time around. On Tu B’Shevat, we praise God for giving us a land that allows us to live with this level of truth from day-to-day, giving us the opportunity to sing our own personal shirah.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Loose Ends: A Torah Approach to the Loose Ends of Life & History, Chapter One
EVERYONE AGREES THAT the Akeidah was a test for Avraham Avinu, and that he passed it. The question is, what was the test?
Was it to see if Avraham would give up the son for which he waited 100 years, and who was miraculously born? Someone on Avraham’s level would know that it would be futile to say no to God, Who gave Yitzchak to him in the first place.
God gives and God takes, any time He wants to.
Maybe it was to see if Avraham could go through with the Akeidah with a full heart. Of course he would go through with it, but with the same joy he had performing other mitzvos? It would certainly reveal the level of his love of God and trust in His decisions.
Could be. But it is interesting that when God set Moshe Rabbeinu straight about having faith in Him here:
The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Moshe: “Too bad over those who are gone and are no longer found. Several times I revealed Myself to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov as El Shaddai and they did not question My attributes and say to Me, “What is Your name?” I said to Avraham: ‘Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it, for I will give it to you’ (Bereishis 13:17). But when he looked for a place to bury Sarah and did not find one until he purchased it for 400 silver shekels, he did not question My attributes and did not protest that I failed to fulfill My promise to give him the land.” (Sanhedrin 111a)
He didn’t mention the Akeidah. Yes, having to buy land that would eventually belong to him was a test of Avraham’s faith. But having to sacrifice a son that God had promised would be Avraham’s heir was a greater test, no?
Perhaps then the test was about something else alluded to by the last of Rebi Yishmael’s 13 principles for elucidating Torah:
Two verses that contradict each other until a third verse comes and resolves them.
For example, God told Avraham in Parashas Lech Lecha:
God said to Avraham, “Don’t be displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid. Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice, for in Yitzchak will be called your seed.” (Bereishis 21:12)
This was the prophesy that Yitzchak would be born to Avraham and Sarah, and that he was destined to be Avraham’s spiritual heir. Just five chapters and thirty-six years later, God told Avraham:
Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you. (Bereishis 22:2)
Yitzchak had been born as promised. But he had yet to be married or father children. If he died on the altar, how could he fulfill the second part of the prophecy to inherit Avraham? He couldn’t.
Had something changed? Had God decided to do things differently? A prophecy for bad doesn’t have to come true, but a divine promise of good does. It was if Avraham had shifted to a parallel universe in which God did not make the first promise. How else could the contradiction be explained, and the loose ends tied up?