Insights into Exodus
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
(February 7, 1998)
I once asked a rabbi whom I studied under--a very
important person in my life--why he thought there was such widespread depression in our
time; surely no past generation has ever been so emotionally troubled as ours, the Prozac
I thought he would respond by echoing one of the familiar explanations generally offered:
the unprecedented material luxury of Western life, and the empty consumerism that goes
with it; the widespread loss of religious faith and a sense of meaning in life; the
pervasive influence of a media pumping images of death and destruction into our brains
round-the- clock...and so on. All pretty reasonable.
But no, he mentioned none of these. A man of great shrewdness and independence of thought
(not to mention vast Jewish knowledge, and wisdom gleaned from life experience), he
suggested something I myself would never have thought of. One reason people are not as
happy today as they were in the past, he explained, is because they fail to utilize one of
opportunities for satisfaction in life: contemplating the downfall of the wicked! We
should rejoice, as righteous people have done throughout the ages, when we see evil
overturned--in local life, as well as in the larger arena of global affairs. Life is
difficult, but THAT, at least, should make us happy.
Sounded implausible to me at first. The more I turned
it over in my mind, though, the more truth I saw in it. We DON'T really rejoice in the
downfall of the wicked (except in the movies). Because it happens so rarely in real
life, you'll say? I don't think that's it. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that we don't
have such strong feelings about good and bad in the first place nowadays; the laws and
standards of the Torah, and even of common decency, are not so strongly imprinted on the
hearts of my pleasure-seeking generation as they were on those of our elders. So how can
we rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, if we're not even so convinced that they are
wicked...or that there is even such a thing, objectively, as "wicked" at all?
In any case, this week's parsha definitely provides the best opportunity in the whole
Chumash to rejoice at the downfall of the wicked--the truly wicked. It recounts the story
of the Egyptians pursuing the Jews with deadly intent, overtaking them by the bank of the
Sea of Reeds, watching them enter the Sea on dry land, and following after them only to
have the previously parted waters crash back down on their heads...and bring them, as a
poet might say, to a watery grave.
An incredible spectacle, choreographed by the Master Director Himself so that "...I
will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am
Hashem." (14, 4; Artscroll Chumash, p. 369) G-d is, indeed,
"long-suffering, and great in kindness," as we say every day in our prayers.
However, when the evildoers strengthen themselves constantly in their wicked course (as
with Pharaoh and his countrymen), ignoring every "wake- up call" sent to bring
them to their senses, then He can get pretty tough.
The truth is that you need to study the parsha with commentaries to appreciate just how
perfectly Hashem metes out justice to the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, measure for
measure. Here are a few highlights from Rashi, just to whet your appetite.
Quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains that Hashem caused the pillar of fire and pillar of
cloud (which led the Jews in the desert during the night and the day, respectively) to
descend and turn the floor of the sea into molten clay. This burned the wheels of the
Egyptians' chariots, "...and they were dragged along, while the people sitting in
them reeled and their limbs were disjointed." Hashem didn't just drown the
Egyptians all at once (how boring!); He stirred them around in the Sea "like someone
who stirs up a pot, turning what is on top to the bottom and what's on bottom to the
top...and the Holy One, Blessed be He, put life into themto [be able to] receive the
suffering." Not everyone perished at the same time: "the wicked were like straw
tossed about, going up and down; the average ones were like a stone; and the best sank
like lead, coming to rest immediately." So it goes. (Rashi translation based on the
linear edition, by the Rabbis Sharfman, S.S.& R. Publishing, Brooklyn.)
Now let's not get the wrong idea. We Jews are not murderers or sadists, by and large, nor
have we ever been. As you may remember, we remove a drop of wine from our cups on Seder
night when we mention each of the plagues. Why? Because we can't have full goblets while
discussing the pain and suffering of other people. The Midrash, in fact, says that G-d
silenced the angels in Heaven who wished to sing praises as the Egyptians were being
punished in the sea: "My creatures are drowning, and you wish to sing?!"
Closer to our own time, l'havdil, we may remember what
Prime Minister Golda Meir said to an Arab leader: "We can forgive you for killing our
sons, but we can never forgive you for turning our sons into killers." It's just not
in our blood...or in our Torah. Quite a contrast to our enemies: a friend told me about a
chilling photograph (or newsclip) he once saw of a busload of Arab women, smiling and
cheering as they passed the site of a deadly terrorist attack against Israelis.
We're not a violent people. But when the wicked pursue us, bent on destruction, and Hashem
foils their plans and turns the water back on them, so to speak, then there IS cause for
rejoicing. Our pleasure, however, is not at the death of the wicked, but, rather, at the
open display of Divine Justice and Divine Providence: as Moshe says in the beautiful Song
of the Sea in this parsha, "The strength and retribution of our Lord was a salvation
for me." (15, 2) We don't want, nor does the Almighty want, Saddam Hussein to
die; we want him to repent, and cease from his evil ways. If he doesn't,though, then
should we not rejoice at his downfall-- may it be soon in coming!
Similarly, should we not rejoice at the downfall of Haman, and his like? That joy is the
very essence of Purim itself, of course. No, we are not happy that human beings, created
in the image of G-d, have to die. We are happy when the evil they perpetrate is
overthrown, and G-d's name is thereby glorified in the world.
Think about it this Shabbos; it is the very best day of
the week for such reflection. King David writes the following words in Psalm 92, which we
say every Shabbos:
"When the wicked bloom like grass,/ and all the evildoers
blossom--/it is so that they may be destroyed forever./ But you will remain on high
forever, Hashem./ For behold, Your enemies, Hashem;/ For behold, Your enemies shall
perish;/ dispersed shall be all evildoers." (Verses 8-10; translation of the Metsudah
Tehillim, p. 188)
Many have commented that there is no specific mention of the Sabbath in this chapter of
Psalms; why then is it called, "a psalm for the Sabbath day?" Judging from the
lines quoted above, we might suggest that the greatest joy of Shabbos, and its essential
one, is not the challah, or the wine, or the lovely family atmosphere; it is, rather, the
cosmic perspective we can attain of the Divine hashgacha (Providence) at work in history.
The joy of perceiving that, however bad things may seem at times, G-d is in control, and
we are assured of a happy ending in the long run: "For behold, Your enemies shall
perish; dispersed shall be all evildoers." Only on the day of rest, freed from our
mundane weekly concerns--and confusions--can we reach this clarity of vision.
Now, I would never claim that the joy of seeing the wicked defeated will lift a clinical
depression; consult your specialist for that. But it can help lift our spirits and
strengthen our faith in Hashem when we see His guiding (and, sometimes, punishing) Hand in
Divre Torah from Parshiyot in Genesis
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah
Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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