Parshas Shemos

Moshe is shepherding Yisro’s sheep and, as he follows one of the sheep, he sees a burning bush that is not getting consumed by its fire. It is in that context that Hashem commands Moshe to return to Egypt for the purpose of freeing the Jews from slavery. Moshe replies with a series of questions which make it seem that Moshe somehow doubts Hashem. He asks: who am I to go on this mission to Paroh? Who am I to free Klal-Yisroel from oppression? Hashem answers him: I will be with you, and when you leave Egypt Klal-Yisroel will serve Me on this mountain.

Moshe seems to be content with this answer, but then continues to ask: what is Your name that I should tell them, what divinity appeared to me and is going to emancipate them? Hashem gives him the exact prescription as to how he should refer to His Omnipotence, and again Moshe seems to be content with Hashem’s answer. Hashem then continues to instruct Moshe further as to how he should go about this emancipation process. Moshe then once again asks, but why should they believe me? Hashem at this point then instructs Moshe to perform acts that will prove him to indeed be an emissary of God. This whole dialogue seems rather puzzling, God appears to Moshe and Moshe begins to debate every word which Hashem tells him. More puzzling is that Hashem merely continues to answer each new question.

Just when this whole debate seems to have come to an end, Moshe Rabeinu comes up with yet another argument to get out of the assignment. He says to Hashem: why not use your regular emissary (Aharon) for this mission for I have had a speech impediment since infancy. This time, instead of Hashem merely answering him, the Torah tells us that Hashem was ‘angered’, and that Hashem rebuked him saying: who gave the power of speech to man, and who has given all capabilities to man? Is it not Me Hashem?

What changed? Why was Hashem willing to countenance all the initial questions, why the sudden anger at this last one?

The commentaries (see Rashi and Eben-Ezra) note that Hashem’s anger towards Moshe differs from Hashem’s usual anger. Typically, Hashem’s wrath results in death to, or at least severe damage to the object of His anger. Here, however, there are no such consequences for Moshe. What then was the purpose of Hashem’s anger? Why is Hashem’s anger towards Moshe different from all other instances of Hashem’s anger?

In English there is a saying: “youth is wasted on the young”. I heard many a time from my Rebbe HaRav Yisroel Belsky Shlita that this saying is a sorry mistake. Rabbi Belsky says “they got it all backwards, the whole beauty of being young is that one has youth; youth is for the young to utilize to try and experiment and to learn while they still can before they‘re thrown into situations where they can no longer risk erring.”. My Rebbe taught me that in life the only way to progress is by taking the initiative, by doing. Sometimes you may have a bit of a doubt as to how initiative will end up, but without trying you can’t achieve anything.

Perhaps if we look at the whole predicament in which Moshe Rabeinu found himself, not just at the ‘debate’, at the back-and-forth with Hashem as an isolated incident, we can answer our questions.

Moshe’s interest in Klal-Yisroel’s well being was clearly evident when he risked his own life and heroically killed the Egyptian who was persecuting a Jew. That act, rather than furthering his involvement in Klal-Yisroel’s wellbeing, distanced him from it. Paroh found out that Moshe had murdered an Egyptian slave driver and ordered that Moshe be killed. Moshe then fled to Midyan where he found refuge in Yisro’s home and ultimately married his daughter Tzipora. Moshe’s years as a shepherd with Yisro allowed him much time in solitude to reflect upon Hashem and his creations, to delve deep in Torah.

Perhaps Moshe had come to terms with the idea that maybe Hashem didn’t want him to be a leader for Klal-Yisroel in an active sense, but rather that it was Divine Will for him to spend time learning Hashem’s Torah. In the midst of his coming to terms with what Moshe now understood to be his true mission Hashem appears to him and tells him No! Your position is otherwise, you are indeed meant to be the leader of the Jewish Nation. Moshe is baffled.  He thought he had finally figured out his calling, and now realizes that he got it all wrong. Hashem therefore had no problem explaining to Moshe where he went wrong, or reassuring him that leadership is indeed his destiny (and that everything else was somehow preparation for this position, see Tanchuma). However, when Moshe actually started hesitating, even suggesting that perhaps Hashem should send Aharon, the entire matter took quite a different turn. So long as questions are for the sake of understanding they have a place and deserve an appropriate answer. When, however, they are merely an excuse for hesitation they become worthy of Hashem’s wrath.

Hesitation cripples our ability to attain success, and ultimately cripples our ability to fulfill Retzon Hashem. Hashem’s wrath is only evoked when something stands in the way Of Hashem’s Will. Thus usually the object of Hashem’s anger must be destroyed or at least severely damaged. In our instance, however, Hashem’s anger was due to Moshe Rabeinu’s reluctance to comply with Divine Will. Thus the purpose of Hashem’s anger was only there to counter Moshe’s hesitation; hence no damage or destruction was necessary.

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In this week’s Sedra, Hashem tells Moshe Rabeinu to act as a messenger to Paroh on behalf of Klal-Yisroel in order for them to eventually be redeemed. Hashem describes the sequence of events that will unfold from when Moshe attempts to free Klal-Yisroel all the way through their actual emancipation from slavery and eventual redemption from Mitzrayim. As Hashem’s summary comes to a close, He tells Moshe that the women of Klal-Yisroel will ask the Egyptian women for their fine clothing and that Klal-Yisroel will leave Mitzrayim with tremendous wealth.

Many of the points Hashem mentions to Moshe needed to be told, as Moshe was the one who would lead Klal-Yisroel into freedom. However, it seems a bit superfluous to mention that the women would ask the Egyptian women for clothing. Why did Hashem feel it necessary to tell Moshe Rabeinu this extra detail?

My Rebbe, Hagaon Rav Yisroel Belsky Shlita, once provided the following Mashal to illustrate a point that I think may offer an answer to our question:

My Rebbe told the story of a boy that was obviously musically talented, with a phenomenal ear for music. His mother decided to hire a private piano teacher to teach him the art of musical instruments. However, after only a few lessons the boy expressed his wishes to terminate the instruction. Although he loved the symphony of sounds that formed a complete piece of music, the boy felt frustrated by the fact that he was reduced to learning how to merely position fingers in order to tap out the simplest of notes.

The boy’s mother was at a loss as to what to do. She decided that she would take her son to a famous pianist’s concert. Immediately after the concert the boy told his mother that he had changed his mind and he would like to continue learning how to play the piano. The mother was delighted to hear of her son’s change of heart, but was curious to know what led to this decision. The son explained that once he saw the pianist in his full glory he understood that with patience and diligence, he too could one day be a first-rate musician.

My Rebbe explained that in order to excel one needs to have a goal in sight to guide one’s progress. Without this vision, the required efforts seem tedious and slow, which in turn causes them to appear fruitless. It may take much time to reach a goal, but being aware as to what can actually be achieved makes it possible to attain that objective. To work without knowing the outcome is a most discouraging task, but the seemingly impossible suddenly becomes possible when one is conscious of the greatness that he can achieve.

Perhaps this is the reason for which Hashem found it necessary to tell Moshe of the glory that would come to Klal-Yisroel upon leaving Mitzrayim. Hashem was telling Moshe of the glorious outcome of the situation in order to entice Moshe Rabeinu to carry out this tremendous act.

Sometimes it seems as if we are getting nowhere. However, if we keep our goals in mind and envision the glorious outcome that we can attain through our effort, we would perhaps be able to endure, if not even enjoy the process of reaching our goals.

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This week marks the start of both a new Sedra and a new Sefer. The introduction to the Sedra, indeed what also becomes the name of the Sefer, is the reiteration of the names of the Bnei Yaakov who went down to Egypt. This idea of repeating names henceforth becomes a recurring theme in Chumash. Although there are lists of names earlier — sometimes even for non-Bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov – there is here a fundamental difference. This is the first time that the Torah merely repeats a list of names that it had already previously recorded. Rashi touches upon this point and explains: “Even though the Torah counted them while alive the Torah is repeating the list in order to show us its affection for them (the Shivtei Kah); just as they are compared to the stars that are also counted on their way in (to the night sky) and again on their way out (of the night sky)”.

Rashi seems a bit cryptic: why does counting them after their deaths show affection? Furthermore, whatever the reason for wishing to count the stars both on their way in and on their way out, it is not at all clear what our possible affection for them might have to do with it. What is Rashi trying to draw or prove from such an analogy?

I recall marveling as a child over how friends of mine who were only eight years old could manage to know the names of hundreds (or, as it appeared to me at the time, thousands) of various sport players who often had neither great records nor fame. Not only did they know their names, but they also knew their batting average and all sorts of other random facts. At the same time, I would marvel as to how my Grandmother Zichrona Livracha would recall the names of various Rabbonim who did not necessarily leave a claim to fame, reaching back hundreds of years. The common denominator is obvious: people recall in detail what they cherish. Things that people cherish stand out and consequently ‘stick’ in their minds.

The stars are celestial bodies that are bright and noticeable, but they need to be cherished in order to be noticed. Those things that we cherish can be compared to stars because it is owing to our affinity, our affection for them that we notice them and appreciate their every detail.

It is that point that Rashi is coming to illustrate. It is when we value and cherish our fellow Jews that they become important to us and that we can count and recount them – because if we value and cherish Jews they are then important to us and we can count and recount them because we care for them, and we know them. They are important to us and we make note of their every detail.

It is when we value our fellow Jews that we realize they are worthy of mention again even after their death. This is true for all Jews. It is even more strongly so with regard to Anshei Shem such as the Shvatim and their children.

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In this week’s Sedra the Torah tells us that at some point during the very long time span of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt Paroh died and that Klal-Yisroel ‘s workload was lessened. This slight respite from the heavy workload caused Klal-Yisroel to scream out from desperation. Hashem heard Klal-Yisroel’s cries, acted upon His promise to our forefathers, and started our emancipation process.

The Torah tells us that Klal-Yisroel ‘cried’. The Torah doesn’t tell us even that Klal-Yisroel ‘cried out to Hashem’, let alone that Klal-Yisroel davened to Hashem. Later on in Chumash Shemos when Klal-yisroel was trapped at the Red Sea, we are told that Klal-Yisroel ‘cried to Hashem’. In both instances the Torah uses the word ויזעקו (literally ‘screamed’). The difference between them is that is that in our Sedra it just says ויזעקו whereas by Krias Yam-Suf the Torah tells us ויזעקו אל ה’ – that they ‘cried to Hashem’. The Targum and Rashi on Krias Yam-Suf explain ויזעקו over there to mean that they davened, whereas both Rashi and the Targum explain ויזעקו over here merely as meaning that Klal-Yisroel screamed.

The difference between here and there is obvious: it lies in the addition of the words ‘El-Hashem’ in the case of Yam Suf.

There are two important lessons that can be learned from these two times that Klal-Yisroel screamed. From here we can learn that when a Jew cries out to Hashem it doesn’t even matter whether there are any particular words – the mere scream is a Tefilla. In our Sedra, however, we have an even more powerful lesson.

Klal-Yisroel was suffering terribly in Mitzraim. Egypt not only oppressed Klal-Yisroel, they even attempted to annihilate the People. Hakadosh Baruch Hu witnessed our suffering but didn’t redeem us. There were people who tried to run away from the oppression, as did part of Shevet Ephraim, but they failed in their attempted escape and were all killed. No matter what Klal-Yisroel did they were destined to suffer. And what had now suddenly changed Hashem’s answer? Klal-Yisroel’s mere crying!

Crying is the language of the heart. When a human being feels too many emotions, or feels so overwhelmed by emotions that he cannot express these emotions in any other comprehensible manner, a human being cries. Crying signifies our lack of full comprehension. Crying is essentially a sign of helplessness. So long as Klal-Yisroel thought it wasn’t helpless, it was relying on its own abilities to cope. The second we gave up, so to speak, we surrendered ourselves to Rachamei Shamayim.

Sometimes all it takes is remembering that we are mere mortals and are in the final analysis always dependent on Hashem’s Rachamim.

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In the passage selected for this week’s Haftorah, Yishayahu prophesies about the final redemption. In this prophesy he makes reference to Galus Mitzrayim (the Exile of Egypt). Yishayahu says that the children of Yaakov who came down to Mitzrayim grew into a multitude and eventually expanded to be all over the world. The Navi then continues and tells us that just as Klal-Yisroel deserved their redemption from Egypt because they had suffered the oppression of Mitzrayim – so too now we will deserve the final redemption after all we have gone through.

The Levush explains that the reason this Haftorah is chosen for this week’s Sedra is that just as our Sedra opens by listing everyone who went down to Egypt, the Haftorah begins by mentioning Bnei-Yaakov who came down to Mitzrayim. As such the Levush maintains that the Haftorah was chosen merely because of this parallel.

While the parallel is there, the connection appears a bit weak as a reason to choose specifically this passage as a Haftorah. Aside from that, why is the Torah’s repeating of the list of Bnei-Yaakov who came to Mitzrayim chosen to be highlighted in the Haftorah?

In fact, why does the Torah open Sefer Shemos by repeating the end of Sefer Bereishis?

When we look at the Haftorah we see that the Navi points out to us something in a very casual way. The Navi tells us that Klal-Yisroel by their suffering oppression in Egypt earned their freedom, and that one day we will earn the Geula in a similar fashion. The Navi is drawing our attention to a cause and effect relationship. The oppression helped to bring about Geula Mitzrayim. In other words it is true that Klal-Yisroel suffered immensely in Mitzrayim, but their suffering was ultimately what facilitated their Geula. The story of slavery in Egypt and Klal-Yisoel’s emancipation is a story that unfolds and is created in Sefer Shemos. Sefer Shemos is really a process. This process is captured in our Haftorah and the Haftorah brings it to life.

The lesson of this week’s Haftorah, and indeed of the entire Sefer Shemos, is that certain developments or events are really catalysts, or even causes, for other, bigger and better things.

We live in an imperfect world. What we all too often don’t realize is that all the imperfections are somehow facilitating the final process of redemption. Individual events or developments cannot be shrugged off as coincidental: they are what purposefully shape our future.