The Power of Holiness Needs To Be Balanced by the Power of Impurity
The pasuk says, “And the magicians of Egypt did the same with their magic…” (Shemos 7:22). The Ribono shel Olam told Moshe Rabbeinu to go before Pharaoh and to impress upon him the fact that he was the Agent of Hashem. “Take you staff and throw it onto the ground and it will turn into a serpent.” (Shemos 4:3) When Pharaoh challenged his sorcerers to match that “trick,” they were able to match it, just like that. The Zohar adds that not only were the Egyptian sorcerers able to do this “trick,” but Pharaoh even called their wives, and the sorcerers’ wives were also able to do this same “trick.” He then called in their children and the children of the magicians, who performed the same “trick” as well. The point of the Zohar is that this act of turning a staff into a serpent was not a particularly impressive sign that Moshe was an Agent of Hashem. It was something even a kindergarten kid could do.
We see this concept by at least some of the other plagues as well—that the Chartumei Mitzrayim were able to replicate them. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky in his Emes L’Yaakov provides a very important explanation about what happened to this power of magic in the world. In other words, we see that this “kishuf ” was a reality in the ancient world, not just “magic” based on sleight of the hand. This was the real thing! Rav Yaakov addresses the issue: How come this stopped? Likewise, in many places the Talmud discusses the power of Shaydim. Closer to our times, there apparently was a reality called a Dybbuk. A Dybbuk was a spirit that entered a body and took it over, controlling the person until he was treated by someone who knew how to exorcise the Dybbuk. What happened to all these things? Why do we not seem to experience (real) magic, Shaydim, or Dybbuks today?
Rav Yaakov says (and this is well known, but the application is very important) that there is a concept in hashkafa that is based on the pasuk in Koheles “…zeh l’umas zeh asa Elokim…” (7:14) (G-d has made the one as well as the other). To put it in layman’s terms, HaKadosh Baruch Hu creates a level playing field. If the true prophets (e.g., Moshe Rabbeinu) were given the power to do these kinds of tricks—to turn a piece of wood into a snake or other types of miracles like that—then it would be nearly impossible to deny the truth of Hashem’s message. Everyone would need to be an observant Jew who keeps the Torah. That would require a mass conversion of the entire planet, because no person or nation could deny the reality of the words of the true prophet. This in effect would take away the phenomenon of free choice.
A person receives reward for choosing the right path in this world when he has the ability to choose the wrong path. If the deck is stacked or the playing field is not level, and only the prophets of Hashem can perform supernatural miracles, theological decisions would become meaningless. There would not be freedom of choice, and there could be no reward and punishment.
Therefore, as long as this tremendous koach hakedusha (power of holiness) existed and a tzadik or navi was gifted with the ability to change nature, there had to be, by virtue of the principle of zeh-l’umas-zeh-asa-Elokim, corresponding powers in the nations of the world as well.
Rav Kamenetsky cites in this regard the comment of the Ramban in Parshas Beshalach, that at Krias Yam Suf there was a “Ruach Kadim Aza kol haLaylah” (strong east wind blowing all night). Why was that necessary? The Ramban explains that this enabled Pharaoh to say to himself: “You know why the sea split? It was a natural event, like a tsunami or an earthquake, that caused it to split. Therefore, I can enter the dry land between the parted waters myself.” The Ribono shel Olam had to allow him to deceive himself and claim “This was just nature, the result of a strong wind. It was not the Yad Hashem.”
For this reason, as long as we had the power of kedusha (holiness) on our side in the personage of Neviim and tzadikim, the nations of the world had to have parallel forces through the koach hatumah (forces of impurity). We all know the teaching of Chazal regarding Moshe’s role as the greatest of the prophets. Chazal expound: “There never again arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe…” (Devorim 34:10) – In Israel there never arose such a prophet, but amongst the nations of the world there was such a prophet—Bilaam son of Beor. Bilaam was a degenerate, but he was a prophet. Why? It would not be fair. The nations could claim that if they had a prophet like Moshe, they would have been different. So Hashem gave them such a prophet, but he led them further astray!
This is the point emphasized by the Emes L’Yaakov: As long as there was any power of kedusha in the world, there had to exist a corresponding power of Tumah in order to make it even. Once the era of prophecy ceased in Yisroel, such powers of tumah stopped in the world at large as well.
With this principle, the Emes L’Yaakov attempts to answer a very difficult Rambam. The Rambam writes in his Mishna Commentary on Tractate Avodah Zarah that Shaydim have no power whatsoever and the entire belief in them is false. The Vilna Gaon in Shulchan Aruch uses strong language against this opinion of the Rambam, which on the face of it is contradicted by many Talmudic and Medrashic sources.
Rav Yaakov explains that in the era of the Tanaim and Amoraim mentioned in the Gemara, when there were in the Jewish world many personalities who were miracle workers, there also existed Shaydim which were powers of impurity that existed in the world to counter-act the power of kedusha given to certain righteous miracle workers who existed in Klal Yisrael. When the Rambam said there are no such things as Shaydim and the like, he was referring to his day and age, when conceivably they no longer existed, just as there no longer existed miracle workers amongst Klal Yisrael.
At the end of Rav Yaakov’s discussion on this topic, he shares something very interesting. There is a famous story whereby the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) exorcised a Dybbuk from a person. The Chofetz Chaim was not associated with bubbe meises (old wives’ tales) and apocryphal stories. Rav Yaakov writes that at the time of this incident, Rav Elchanon Wasserman commented that this will most likely be the last Dybbuk to ever enter a human body. He elaborated that when there is someone on the level of the Chofetz Chaim, who possesses within himself at least a remnant of the kedushah that once existed in Klal Yisrael, then there can be a Dybbuk. But once the likes of the Chofetz Chaim left the world, there will probably never again be a story with a Dybbuk—unless there would is also a Jewish community with such pure holiness and emunah that their power of kedusha necessitated the presence of a corresponding power of tumah in their midst.
As a rule, however, our level of sanctity is so low and so weak that there is no need for a corresponding force that grants this level of supernatural abilities to the power of tumah.
The Urgency of Removing the Frogs
The sefer Darash Mordechai asks, why did Moshe need to cry out to Hashem to remove the frogs (Shemos 8:8)? Pharaoh deserved every plague he received. He deserved the full duration of Hashem’s intended punishment. It seems that here Moshe intervened. He left the palace and cried out to Hashem to remove the frogs that He had placed upon Pharaoh. Why not let Pharaoh suffer a little longer? Why did Moshe seemingly preemptively stop this plague?
The Darash Mordechai offers several answers to this question.
First, he cites an answer in the name of the Imrei Emes (Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter, the fourth Gerer Rebbe). We see that Hashem was very particular about kavod malchus (preserving the honor of the monarchy). Despite the fact that Pharaoh was wicked, he was a king. There is a concept that a king must be given honor. In order to display kavod malchus, Moshe Rabbeinu acquiesced to Pharaoh’s request that the frogs be removed.
The Darash Mordechai then quotes an answer from the Rebbe, Rav Bunim of P’Shische. He says the purpose of the plagues was to establish Emunah (Belief in G-d) in the world. The Ramban speaks about this. After the Exodus, no one could doubt that there was a Ribono shel Olam who controls the world. Part of Emunah is that there is a thing called koach hatefillah. A person needs to believe in the power of prayer. Moshe wanted to demonstrate that prayer has the power even – as it were – to override a decree of the Almighty. Therefore, that is why Moshe prayed for the maka to cease, and that is why the plague of frogs was truncated, so to speak.
Finally, the Darash Mordechai cites an answer from the Chiddushei HaRim (Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe). Moshe Rabbeinu did not merely daven over here. The Torah has many words to express prayer. Here the Torah uses the words “VaYitz’ak Moshe el Hashem” (Moshe cried out to Hashem), which indicates one of the highest and most intense forms of Tefilla. In fact, the pasuk in Parshas Shemos says “Behold the tzeaka (crying out) of Bnei Yisrael has reached Me…” (Shemos 3:9). The Zohar says that tzeaka goes straight to the Ribono shel Olam, bypassing any intermediaries. Sometimes someone needs a malach to boost his prayers and to take them in to the Ribono shel Olam, so to speak. Tzeaka literally is a primal scream. That scream is so powerful that it goes straight to the Ribono shel Olam.
This really intensifies the question. It does not say “Vayispalel Moshe el Hashem” (which would indicate a more conventional word for prayer) but “Va’Yitzak“. Moshe was so concerned that the frogs should cease that he resorted to the most powerful form of Tefilla that exists – namely, Tze’aka! Why?
In Tefilas Geshem (recited on Shemini Atzeres to pray for rain of blessing for the coming winter season) we invoke the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and then Moshe. The paragraph regarding Moshe mentions how he provided water for the people. We conclude with the words “Upon the Rock he struck and waters came forth.” Many commentaries ask, this would seem like an inappropriate time to bring up “Al ha’Selah hach, va’yetzoo mayim“? The hitting of the Rock is what caused Moshe Rabbeinu to not be able to go into Eretz Yisrael. So why bring that up? We talk about the merits of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. It would seem that we should mention Moshe’s merits as well, and steer clear of his actions that may have been problematic.
The Chiddushei HaRim makes a magnificent observation. Moshe Rabbeinu knew what he was doing when he hit the rock. It was not a mistake. Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to save Klal Yisrael from Divine criticism. He reasoned: Here I talk to them repeatedly and still they do not do the right thing. If I go to a stone and say to the stone “Give forth your water” and just like that, it gives forth its water, how would that reflect on the Jewish people? Moshe could talk until he was blue in the face to the Jewish people, who benefited from G-d’s kindness, and they might not listen. And yet the stone obeys instantly! What a poor reflection that would be on Klal Yisrael!
Therefore, Moshe decided he would not speak to the rock. He would instead hit the rock, thereby lessening the implicit criticism of Klal Yisrael. It is for such self-sacrifice and concern for the welfare of the Jewish people that Moshe is praised in Tefilas Geshem.
The Chiddushei HaRim applies the same line of reasoning with regard to the frogs:
Moshe Rabbeinu had commanded the frogs to ascend from the Nile. The frogs obeyed the command of Hashem. They ascended from their comfortable home in the Nile. They went into the ovens of the Egyptians and died there. They were killed Al Kiddush Hashem. The frogs reflected poorly on the Jewish people. Hashem gave them an order and they followed it to martyrdom, while the Jews had sunk spiritually to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. “These are idolaters and these are also idolaters.”
As long as the frogs were present and jumping into the Egyptian ovens, every minute was another indictment of Klal Yisrael. Therefore, when Moshe had the opportunity to get rid of the frogs, he did so with intensity: Va’Yitzak! “I want to stop them in their tracks and immediately halt this embarrassing comparison between their actions and that of the Jewish people.” He therefore used the highest form of Tefilla.
The HaKaras HaTov of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach
For the first three plagues – Blood, Frogs, and Lice – it was Aharon who hit the water and hit the sand with the Staff of Hashem, thereby bringing on these plagues. Chazal say that Moshe Rabbeinu owed Hakaras HaTov (gratitude) to the water which saved him as an infant, when the basket his mother hid him in floated in the Nile River. Likewise, it was the sand that saved Moshe when he buried therein the Egyptian whom he killed. Moshe “owed” so to speak to the water and the sand and therefore did not want to be the initiator of a plague which came from these entities.
We are all aware that water and sand are inanimate objects who don’t appreciate a ‘Thank-you’ and don’t even know what a ‘Thank-you’ is. And yet, we see that a person needs to have Hakaras HaTov even to inanimate objects. So clearly, Hakaras HaTov is not for the benefit of the person (or object) receiving the Hakaras HaTov. It is for the benefit of the person who gives the Hakaras HaTov. If a person learns to show gratitude even to something like a rock or sand or water, then he will certainly show Hakaras HaTov to a human being.
I recently heard the following story: Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was once in the hospital. He made a point of thanking every doctor and every nurse for the care they provided for him while he was in the hospital. (This is something that someone does not need to be Rav Shlomo Zalman to do. Many people rightly have this practice under similar circumstances.) But then he asked if he could see the woman who went from room to room to water the plants in the hospital rooms. He said that the plants brightened up the room and therefore the woman who poured the water into the plants to make sure that they would stay fresh also needed to be thanked for her efforts.
Most people may thank a doctor or a nurse who was helpful to them. But thinking about the lowly woman that goes from floor to floor and from room to room watering plants? She also should receive Hakaros HaTov, because if even inanimate objects receive Hakaros HaTov, certainly every human being deserves no less.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
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 Va’eyra is provided below:
- # 039 – Shabbos Emergency: Who Do We Call?
- # 082 – Astrology: Is It For Us?
- # 130 – The Issur of Entering a Church
- # 177 – Magic Shows: More Than Meets the Eye
- # 223 – Learning in Kollel: Is It Always Permitted?
- # 267 – Do Secular Names of G-d Have Kedusha?
- # 313 – Converting a Church Into a Shul
- # 357 – Birchas Hamotzi
- # 401 – Kadima B’brachos — Hierarchy of Brochos
- # 445 – Shoveling Snow on Shabbos
- # 489 – Denying Jewishness
- # 533 – Shin Shel Tefillin & Ohr Echad
- # 577 – Davening For Non-Jews
- # 621 – Kosher Cheese Continued – Cottage Cheese and Butter
- # 665 – Checking Out Families for Shidduchim
- # 709 – Kavod Malchus & Secular Kings
- # 753 – Making Hamotzei – Not As Simple As It Seems
- # 797 – Sheva Brachos at the Seder
- # 841 – Serving McDonalds To Your Non-Jewish Employees
- # 885 – Davening Out Loud – A Good Idea?
- # 929 – The Bracha of Al Hamichya
- # 972 – Is Islam Avodah Zarah?
- #1016 – The Magician Who Became a Baal Teshuva
- #1060 – Bentching on a Kos; Making Brochos with Children
- #1103 – Davening In Front of a Tzelem
- #1146 – Polling Place/AA Meeting in a Bais Avodah Zara – A Problem?
- #1189 – Can You Wear Your Tzitzes in the Bathroom?
- #1233 – Mutar To Say Mumbai, Corpus Christi and Even Satmar and Sans? – Why Not?
- #1277 – Snow Shailos
- #1321 – Should You Make A Bracha on Seeing President Donald Trump?
- #1365 – Giving the Benefit of the Doubt – Does it Apply to Everyone?
- #1409 – The Measles Vaccination Controversy
- #1453 – Do You Make A Bracha Achrona After Your Daily Starbucks?
- #1497 – Can One Daven in a Room With a Cross? and Other Cross Shailos
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.