These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: #1147 Hashgacha Pratis – Divine Providence – Does It Apply To Everyone? Good Shabbos!
Darkness: A Symbolic Message Rather Than a Punishment
Parshas Bo contains the end of the Makos—the Ten Plagues—the ninth of which was Makas Choshech, the Plague of Darkness. I saw an interesting observation in the sefer Milchamos Yehuda from Rav Yehuda Lubart, z”l. He points out an anomaly that exists with this plague. With virtually all the other makkos, Moshe first warned the Egyptians and then the plague started. However, there was no warning prior to the Plague of Darkness. Why did Makas Choshech break the pattern?
The Milchamos Yehuda suggests a fundamental difference between Makas Choshech and all the other plagues. The other nine plagues from Dam (#1 – Blood) through Makas Bechoros (#10 – Death of the Firstborn) were punishments. These were Divine “slaps” to break the will of Pharaoh. When punishing, there is a well-established principle: Punishments are not administered without prior warning (Yoma 81a; Sanhedrin 56b; Zevachim 107a). Even before punishing our children, we first warn them: “If you do this one more time, you are going to suffer the consequences!”
Makas Choshech was not the punishment. It was the warning! The warning was, “Pharaoh, you are blind! You cannot see what is happening before your very eyes. You should wake up and open your eyes and see what is happening to you and your people.” The Plague of Darkness, unlike the other plagues, was a symbolic message. There are none so blind as those who will not see. How does the Almighty convey this symbolic message to the King of Egypt? He does so by making Choshech. That was the warning for what was coming next – Makas Bechoros. Makas Choshech did not need any warning of its own. It was the warning.
With this idea, Rav Lubart provides new insight into two Medrashim.
The pasuk in Tehillim [105:28] says, “He sent darkness and made it dark and they did not defy his words.” The Medrash comments on this pasuk as follows. The Almighty asked the Angels: Are the Egyptians deserving to be smitten by Darkness? There was no objection from any of the Angels to such a punishment. They all agreed that it would be appropriate.
What is the pshat in this Medrash? Why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu need to ask the Angels in the first place whether they agreed with Him regarding this plague? The answer is that we know this is the custom of the Almighty “to consult with His Heavenly Court” before taking dramatic action. Apparently, by the other plagues there was a difference of opinion in the Heavenly Court. Some argued that certain punishments were too harsh; the Egyptians are not deserving of such. There was at least a discussion in the “Palmalya shel Ma’alah” about the matter. The pasuk in Tehillim takes note of the fact that regarding Makas Choshech, there was no rebuttal whatsoever from any of the Angels in the Heavenly Court.
Why not? Why were there suddenly no “defense attorneys” arguing for the Egyptians in the Heavenly Court? The answer is that this was not going to be a punishment, it was only a warning. If it was not a punishment, there was no justification for weighing the issue of whether it was or was not a fair punishment.
Then Rav Lubart interprets another Medrash, using a homiletic, but very beautiful drush. The Medrash states that the Darkness of the Ninth Plague was as thick as a dinar (a certain kind of coin). But what does this comparison indicate? Darkness is not “thick” – it is the absence of light. If we turn off the lights in a room, it will simply be dark. There is nothing to feel. So what does the Medrash mean?
Rav Lubart explains that the Medrash is alluding to the fact that a dinar (money) can also cause blindness. People do crazy things – not only for money per se, but for all types of materialistic matters. People are blinded by the tremendous ambition to make money and accumulate wealth, possessions, or any physical pleasure. We always hear about executives that somewhere along the line get burned out. They have been spending 18 hours a day at the office for decades and then suddenly, at some point in their sixties, they suddenly regret how they have spent their years. They resign from their position and say, “I want to spend more time with my family.” What family? They grew up without you and moved on during those 40+ years when you were blinded by your ambitions and busy accumulating dinars.
Just like Pharaoh was blinded, and the Almighty tried to show him that he was blinded, so too are we also blinded by our drive to accumulate more and more material possessions and physical pleasures. Maybe we are not as obtuse as Pharaoh, but we are also blinded – blinded by the dinar.
What’s the Big Simcha of a Pidyon HaBen?
I have quoted the following thought many times on the occasion of a Pidyon HaBen.
The end of Parshas Bo contains the mitzvah of the Redemption of the First Born. The Sforno on this mitzvah says an incredible idea: the Sforno defines the mitzvah as one which enables the child to engage in “secular work” (Avodas Chol). According to him, until the Pidyon HaBen ceremony is completed, the child is holy (kadosh). Just like we may not work with a first-born kosher animal because it is the property of the Kohen, so too, a human first-born child may not work.
Now if truth be told, when a child is four weeks old, there is not much work that he can do. It is the other way around—he forces his parents to do the work for him! But, theoretically, the Sforno seems to be saying that if a child was, for whatever reason, never redeemed when he was thirty days old, he would retain the status of Kedushas Bechor (first born sanctity), and would be forbidden to do any non-sacred work. It is apparently a wild Sforno!
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky asks a simple question. It is not that common to have a Pidyon HaBen today. There are many situations which rule out such a scenario. First of all, it only applies to a son. That knocks off 50% of the population. Then, it only applies to a first-born, so there is a maximum of one first born per mother. Furthermore, it only applies to natural deliveries and not to Caesarian deliveries. If a woman has a miscarriage prior to giving birth to her first live child, again there is no Pidyon HaBen. On top of that, if either the father is a Kohen or Levi or the maternal grandfather is a Kohen or Levi, again, there is no Pidyon HaBen.
So, it is a rare occurrence, but it is a beautiful Simcha. At a Bris, everyone is worried. The mother is still in pain from the delivery, the child is certainly in pain from the circumcision, and the father is nervous. Everyone is uptight. A Pidyon HaBen is a wonderfully joyous occasion. There is time to plan, it is not rushed. It is a beautiful thing. They bring in the baby on a silver platter with the sugar and with the garlic. Beautiful!
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky asks – what is this big Simcha all about? Why are we not mourning? The child changes from being holy (kadosh) to being profaned (chullin). Yesterday he was holy; now he becomes just another baby boy! Furthermore, Rav Yaakov asks, the text recited at a Pidyon HaBen is “…Let this son enter a good life, one of Torah and Fear of Heaven. May it be Thy Will that just as he entered the Pidyon (redemption), so too may he enter to Torah, Chuppah (wedding canopy), and Ma’asim Tovim (good deeds). Now we are familiar with this last phrase, which is also said at a Bris Milah. But what about the first part of this Tefillah: Let this son enter a good life, one of Torah and Fear of Heaven. Where does that come from? Why don’t we say that by a Bris?
Rav Yaakov formulates a principle he repeats many times in his sefer. There is a fundamental difference between Judaism and other religions (especially the Christian religion). Christianity has a dichotomy between the holy and the mundane. There is a perpetual conflict between body and soul. They believe that man has both body and soul but they feel that “never the twain shall meet.” They feel it is impossible to have a blend of holiness and the mundane. This is part of the reason that their priests are celibate. They have to live a life that has nothing to do with the physicality, which marriage entails.
By Judaism, it is just the opposite. The highest level of spirituality—the reason a person was put on this earth—is to blend body and soul. The goal is not that the body and soul should negate one another, but that the soul should influence the body and make us into holy beings. “Men of holiness shall you be for Me.” [Shemos 22:30]. Human holiness is the name of the game. That is our purpose.
Ideally, a person should reach the level where his eating is for the Sake of Heaven and his sleeping is for the Sake of Heaven, and all his other physical activities are for the Sake of Heaven as well. This is the power of the soul, to rule over the body. It is a challenge. It is difficult.
This is why the only korban a non-Jew can bring is the Olah sacrifice, which is entirely burnt on the Mizbayach. Neither the Kohanim nor the person who brings the offering eat any part of it. It is entirely for G-d. A Jew, on the other hand, can bring a Korban Shlomim (“Peace Offering”). This is a sacrifice, but the person who brings it sits down and eats the steak from this animal. We eat the lamb chops! The lamb chops have a status of kodshim (holy sacrificial meat), but this consumption becomes a mitzvah because there is no contradiction between being engaged in holy and elevated spiritual activities and the body experiencing physical pleasure.
The highest spiritual goal in life for the Jew is not to rid himself of physicality but to sanctify the physicality in his life, to infuse it with holiness.
This is the simcha of the Pidyon HaBen. This child was holy until now. But remaining holy is no trick. The challenge now is to redeem the child, make him into chullin, and now challenge him to sanctify this non-sacred entity he has become. Despite the fact that he was holy before and now he is not, the game is not over. Life is just beginning for him.
With this idea, Rav Yaakov interprets the above cited text of the Pidyon HaBen prayer. To achieve this goal in life requires a lot of Yiras Shamayim (fear of Heaven). For a person to confront and engage in activities of physicality and elevate them requires Yiras Shamayim – a focus that I want to be a Servant of G-d (Eved HaShem). Therefore, this prayer invokes the hope that this young child should enter into a life of Torah and Yiras Shamayim. Only through Torah and Yiras Shamayim can a person elevate physicality and make it into holiness.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected].org
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Bo is provided below:
- # 040 Amirah L’Akum: The “Shabbos Goy”
- # 083 The Burning Issue of Smoking
- # 131 Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic Pronunciation Is There a Correct Way?
- # 178 Tefillin and Long Hair
- # 224 Kiddush Levanah
- # 268 The Consequence of Dropping Tefillin or a Sefer Torah
- # 314 Chumros in Halacha
- # 358 Mezzuzah-What Is a Door?
- # 402 Doing Work on Rosh Chodesh
- # 446 The Dog In Halacha
- # 490 The Lefty and Tefilin
- # 534 Rashi & Rabbeinu Ta’am’s Tefillin
- # 578 Tefilin on Chol Hamoed
- # 622 Ya’ale V’Yovo
- # 666 Dishwashers on Shabbos
- # 710 Checking Teffilin by Computer
- # 754 Cholent on Pesach – Why Not?
- # 798 Kiddush Lavanah – Moonshine on Purim
- # 842 What Should It Be? Hello or Shalom?
- # 886 Women and Kiddush Lavana
- # 930 Eating Matzo An Entire Pesach – A Mitzvah?
- # 973 Yaaleh Ve’yavoh
- #1017 Kiddush Levana on a Cloudy Night
- #1061 Rosh Chodesh Bentching (Bircas Ha’chodesh)
- #1104 How Long Must You Wear Your Tefillin?
- #1147 Hashgacha Pratis – Divine Providence – Does It Apply To Everyone?
- #1190 Kiddush Levana Issues
- #1234 Can Your Wife Put Your Tefilin on You?
- #1278 Oy Vey! My Tephillin Have Been Pasul Since My Bar Mitzvah
- #1322 Chodesh Issues: Women and Kiddush Levana; Getting Married in Last Half of Chodesh?
- #1366 I Don’t Open Bottle Caps on Shabbos, You Do. Can I Ask You to Open My Bottle?
- #1410 Saying U’Le’Chaporas Pesha In Musaf Rosh Chodesh In a Leap Year
- #1454 Why Don’t We Wear Tephillin at Mincha?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.