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20 Teves 5760 - December 29, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Power of Resolution: A Shmuess for Parshas Shemos

By HaRav Sholom Schwadron zt'l

The Seeds of Redemption

"And these are the names of bnei Yisroel who came to Egypt . . . " (Shemos 1:1). Rashi explains that although the sons of Yaakov have already been enumerated in parshas Vayigash with events that took place in their lifetimes, the posuk enumerates them again here with events that took place after they had died, to make known how deeply Hashem cherished them. What needs to be understood though, is why the names of Yaakov's sons are mentioned here, at the very beginning of the enslavement.

The answer to this is that while in parshas Vayigash, the Torah describes how the Egyptian exile began, here we learn about the beginning of the enslavement, the hardship of which brought about the redemption. Bnei Yisroel were to have been in Egypt for four hundred years but the afflictions to which the Egyptians subjected them resulted in their leaving after only two hundred and ten years. [Because of the role of this suffering in hastening their departure, this is a fitting place to show Hashem's love for the sons of Yaakov by mentioning their names again.] Let us consider the harshness of the enslavement and the redemption which followed.

The Way it Happened

"And Yosef and his brothers and all of that generation died, and bnei Yisroel had offspring and swarmed . . . and the land became filled with them" (Shemos 1:6- 7) -- Rashi explains that mothers gave birth to six children at once. As a result of their expansion in both numbers and quality, bnei Yisroel spilled over into Egypt proper. Hitherto they had been confined to Goshen, which Pharaoh had given as a gift to Soroh Imeinu. They had lived there in holiness and purity, within their own separate community.

Once they multiplied, however, "the land became filled with them." They settled in Egypt and took part in the country's government and general life. Bnei Yisroel thought that by so doing, they would be considered full citizens, since they were no longer living separately, but were taking an active role in the country's welfare.

In the end, however, the exact opposite took place. "And a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef" (Shemos 1:8). Rashi, quoting Chazal, tells us that Rav and Shmuel disagree over whether this Pharaoh was actually a new king or whether he was the same person, merely issuing new decrees. According to the second opinion, this Pharaoh himself said to Yosef, "There is no man with greater wisdom and understanding than you," (Bereishis 41:39) and now, when bnei Yisroel were beginning to fraternize with the Egyptians, he changed his approach and "did not know Yosef -- he acted as though he did not know Yosef." This was a sign from Heaven: Beis Yisroel is unlike all the nations! This is when the decrees began!

The Turnabout

According to the second opinion -- that we are dealing with the same Pharaoh -- there is an additional difficulty. How, humanly speaking, could he undergo such a change in attitude? How did he make the transition from telling Yosef that none are wiser or cleverer than he and granting him status that was only subordinate to his own ("Only in [my sitting on] the throne shall I be greater than you" Bereishis 41:40,) to such estrangement and callousness towards Yosef's descendants?

In the medrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:8), Chazal tell us that when the Egyptians first came to Pharaoh to complain about the growing numbers and strength of bnei Yisroel, he did not want to accept their arguments. He remembered how Yosef had saved Egypt and he opposed harming them.

Chazal tell us that they then deposed Pharaoh for three months during which time he was put to the test, to see whether he would agree in order to be reinstated. After three months, he could not hold out. He underwent a transformation and became a worse enemy of bnei Yisroel than the other Egyptians. What caused this change? How could it happen to a person that had exhibited ordinary, decent human gratitude to someone who had helped him and his country? It's baffling!

We find however, that when Pharaoh told Yosef, "There is nobody wiser or more understanding than you" and "only in the throne shall I be greater than you," what he was communicating to him was that he would give up everything for Yosef, with the exception of his throne. Nothing would induce him to descend from his position as king of Egypt. With this we can understand why, when his subjects deposed him for three months, he could not hold out.

"And he said to the people, Let us become wise regarding them, lest they multiply . . ." (Shemos 1:10). Though bnei Yisroel thought that things would go well for them if they drew close to the Egyptians, the opposite happened, as we have explained. In the same way, when Pharaoh heard from his astrologers that the savior of bnei Yisroel would be born and decreed that every male child be cast into the river, his very own daughter brought Moshe Rabbenu, who was the one that would save them, into Pharaoh's house.

The Secret of Survival

"And the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives . . . when you assist the Hebrew women in giving birth . . . if it is a `boy'(Shemos 1:15). It's an amazing thing! How could two delicate women defy a cruel dictator like Pharaoh?

The Torah explains, however, "And the midwives feared Hashem and they did not do as the king of Egypt had told them." Nor was that all. "And they revived the children," which Rashi explains as meaning that they kept the children supplied with food and water. All this was a result of their yiras Shomayim -- "And they feared."

Everything stems from yiras Shomayim, the simple knowledge that one has to fear only the King of kings, and no creature of flesh and blood, even if he is as powerful as Pharaoh. The power of mortals is temporal, for ultimately they will be reduced to worms and maggots. Such has been Klal Yisroel's history. We have withstood tremendous suffering and have maintained ourselves with yiras Shomayim, and with faith and trust in Hashem.

One of our neighbors in Yerushalayim's Sha'arei Chesed neighborhood was the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Dovid Baharan zt'l. Reb Dovid had a very fine son who was known as Reb Nochum MiShefaya, as he lived on the settlement of Shefaya. Reb Nochum was murdered by the Arabs -- I think it happened as long ago as 5693 (1933). Reb Dovid's murdered son was brought to Yerushalayim for burial and blood was dripping R'l, from the bier. At the levaya, Reb Dovid, the murdered man's father, went around gathering his own and other people's handkerchiefs because he held that the blood that dripped from the body had to be buried as well. Nobody realized that it was the father of the niftar who was wiping up the dripping blood in order to bury it. Reb Dovid did this for fear of transgressing the halocho that the blood must be buried.

Then, at the end of the levaya, Reb Dovid went over to Reb Nochum's sons -- his own grandsons -- and told them to make the blessing hatov vehameitiv after saying the blessing dayan ho'emes, because their father had left an inheritance, according to Torah law.

Reb Dovid used to daven shacharis kevosikin. Some time afterwards, during Succos, a certain talmid chochom noticed that Reb Dovid was crying. When he asked him why, Reb Dovid told him that while making the blessing al netilas lulov, he feared that his hadasim had fallen to the ground, from the woven pouches where they were placed. He was afraid that the hadasim had not been in his hand when he made the brocho, rendering it a brocho levatoloh. This was why he was crying. His questioner pointed out that according to one opinion, it is possible to fulfill the mitzvah of arba minim by taking the different minim one after the other, so even if he had picked up his hadasim after the brocho, he would have done a valid netiloh and the brocho would have been kosher. Reb Dovid acknowledged this to be the case but responded that the halocho did not follow that opinion.

This behavior demonstrates true yiras Shomayim. At his son's levaya, he was not thrown into confusion by his personal tragedy and he concerned himself with adhering to halocho. And when taking lulov, he wept from the fear of having made a brocho levatoloh. This is yiras Shomayim! It is fearful and awesome!

It is also related that when Reb Yosef Zundel of Salant zt'l, had his teeth removed in his old age, he wept when the last tooth came out. When asked why he was crying, he responded by asking how he would eat a kezayis of matzo without teeth?

And so it has been with all of Klal Yisroel. In our exile we have gone through seas of blood and tears. Where did we find the spiritual strength to withstand it all? It is only yiras Shomayim that has enabled us to survive all the decrees that have been passed over us, may Hashem save us. This is how the Hebrew midwives were able to stand up to Pharaoh -- only in the merit of yiras Shomayim. "And the midwives feared Hashem . . ."

A Firm Decision

Now we will see this in the case of Pharaoh's daughter also. "And Pharaoh's daughter went down to wash at the river.." (Shemos 2:5). In the medrash Shemos Rabbah 1:23), Chazal explain the words al haye'or, which literally mean that she went to wash "over the river," as alluding to the fact that she went to cleanse herself of the idol worship of her father's house. In other words, she decided to make a break with idolatrous practices.

The posuk also tells us that "her maidservants were going by the river." Chazal tell us that they wanted to stop her from saving the teivoh and they said to Basya, "Mistress, usually, when a king makes a decree, his people do not keep it but his children and household do, whereas you are about to transgress your father's command." Immediately, the medrash tells us, Gavriel came and pounded them on the ground -- in other words, he killed them.

When Pharaoh's daughter saw that her servants had been punished by Heaven, she immediately put her arm out in her great desire to take hold of the vessel. In fact, she was far away from it, but in her eagerness, she still stretched out her arm and Chazal tell us that her arm extended one hundred amos. Here was another miracle which she witnessed. "And she opened, and she saw him, the child . . ." From the superfluous word es hayeled, Chazal learn that she saw the Shechina with Moshe Rabbenu.

Our master and teacher, the gaon HaRav Yehuda Leib Chasman asked, how much time elapsed between Basya's going down to wash and opening the teivoh? Perhaps fifteen minutes? And in such a short time she, who had been involved in idol worship, a sin equated with murder and immorality, and had been mired in its filth, merited a revelation of the Shechina! How did a woman who had clung to avoda zorah merit to climb so quickly to the level of seeing the Shechina?

This teaches us a very important principle about the greatness of a human being. What is the power through which a man, who was made from the earth, can rise to such levels? The power of decision -- bechiroh. If a person resolves, completely and utterly, to break away from idolatry, or from any other kind of uncleanliness that he is tainted with, he can rise in the space of a few moments to the level of a mal'ach, as we see.

The posuk (Bereishis 2:7) says, "And Hashem formed man [out of] soil from the earth" -- man is made out of earthly, physical materials and can thus descend lower and lower by pursuing worldly pleasures. Chazal explain the name Nimrod as "knowing his Master and intentionally rebelling against Him." Our master and teacher HaRav Chasman asked: How, if a person truly recognizes his Master, can he possibly intend to rebel against Him? He answered that there is one type of desire that is harder to overcome than all other types, namely, intentional rebellion; being knowingly defiant even when one recognizes one's Master. That is the extent of the power of the "earth from the ground" that is within a person.

Yet [that is not the only ingredient in man]. "And He breathed into his nostrils, a soul of life," a Divine spark -- through which a person has the power to elevate himself in the space of a few seconds from the level of serving idols, to the level of the mal'ochim, through the power of resolution, rooted in the neshomo.

To Hear Yet Not Understand

There are some people who claim, "I do want to pull myself higher," yet we see that they do not succeed. The reason for this is that in truth, they don't want to. If they were to make a firm decision, they would merit assistance from Heaven to carry it out and would be granted strength to do so which they don't ordinarily possess. The novi Yeshaya says (6:8-10, "And I heard the voice of Hashem saying, `Who shall I send and who will go for us?' and I said, `Here I am, send me.' And He said, `Go and say to this people, "Shimu shomo'ah, you hear [all about the miracles which I perform for you yet] you do not listen!...The heart of this people has grown fat and its ears have grown heavy and its eyes screened..."'"

What novel message does this prophecy contain? Our master and teacher said that it teaches us that a person can be in a situation where they hear -- and they can even be listening very carefully, shimu shomo'ah! -- yet they will not understand because their hearts are fat and heavy. The commentators explain that this is the argument of the yetzer hora. This is the power of the "soil from the earth" from which man was made.

The following parable illustrates the extent to which this aspect of human nature can influence a person. If someone feels chest pains, he can go to the doctor and receive medication that will give him relief. If he chooses to ignore his symptoms and continues to eat fatty foods, which are proscribed for heart patients, he is endangering himself.

Such is the power of the yetzer hora. "The heart of this people has grown fat!" The yetzer hora makes the heart grow fat and thick so that a person doesn't see the bad traits in his character. He carries on thinking of himself as a tzaddik, as having already achieved perfection. This is how he can listen, carefully even, yet not understand and thus fail to make any resolution about changing. If Pharaoh's daughter could cease to be an idol worshiper in one firm decision, certainly someone who already fulfills Torah and mitzvos has the power to pull himself up ever higher by boldly and firmly resolving to change and sticking to his resolution.

Two Decisions

A great talmid chochom told me that one of the students in his yeshiva became a ba'al teshuvah -- and has since developed into a talmid chochom and yirei Shomayim -- because of the following experience.

This talmid was serving in the Russian Army, in Afghanistan. He was sent with his comrades, who were not Jewish, to the front, in the forests and wastelands of Afghanistan, a place where giant and poisonous snakes abound. This Jewish soldier was fond of snakes and each day, he would feed the snakes, putting food into their mouths. This went on for as long as they were stationed in that location.

When the order came to move on, our ba'al teshuvah went to part from his snakes and to give them food once again. As soon as he put the food down before them, one of the snakes pulled itself right up in front of him, into a very dangerous position. With a snake thus poised, it can be fatal to make a single move. The soldier remained standing where he was, without moving a limb. The snake stayed like that, raised in front of him, for approximately eight hours.

After eight hours had passed, the snake lowered itself and lay on the ground again. The soldier went to rejoin his battalion and found that every one of his friends had been killed R'l in a bombing attack that the enemy had made on their position. He had been saved by a miracle, because he had been detained in feeding the snakes.

When he understood what had happened, he realized that he had experienced Hashem's direct intervention and that this meant that there was a G-d and that he had to try and find out what G-d, having saved him from certain death, wanted from him. He decided to leave the army and go to a rabbi who would teach him how to conduct his life. I think that the rav told him, "The posuk (Tehillim 144:9) tells us, `And His mercy is over all His creatures.' Because you had mercy on the snakes and fed them, Heaven sent that snake to save you." As a result of his decision, this ba'al teshuvah arrived at Yeshivas Or Somayach and today is a great talmid chochom.

I want to tell you what I heard from one of the teachers in Boy's Town, in Yerushalayim, which is a Torah and vocational school. One of the students was an only son. His parents were very distant from any connection to their religion and the way in which he himself had grown close was amazing. As a result, he had come to learn in Boy's Town.

As time passed, he became stronger in his observance but he suffered greatly from the fact that he was unable to eat and feel comfortable as a religious Jew in his parents' home. He eventually succeeded in getting his parents to agree to kasher their utensils, so that it would not be quite so hard for him. However, his parents themselves did not change in one iota -- his father had not set foot inside a shul for over thirty years. One day, two years after he had become observant, the boy was astonished to see his father arrive at Boy's Town on erev Shavuos.

"What are you doing here?" the boy asked his father.

The father replied, "It's over thirty years since I entered a shul and I decided to come and see how Shavuos is celebrated."

The father stayed and joined the students in prayer and at their meal. Afterwards, he stayed awake with the bochurim all night while they learned. Towards morning, they began to say mizmor 119 of Tehillim, posuk by posuk. When they reached the last posuk, "I wandered like a lost sheep; seek out Your servant for I have not forgotten Your mitzvos," the boy's father collapsed in a faint. They hastened to splash cold water on him to revive him and when he came round, he burst out crying and mumbled, "I wandered like a lost sheep, I wandered like a lost sheep . . . May the merciful One save me and steer me to the path of Torah and mitzvos, for I have decided that is the correct one!"

Let us also take upon ourselves, in prayer and with resolutions, to improve our ways bli neder and may Hashem come to our assistance, Omein!

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