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Home » Passover, Vaeirah

Vaeira: Helpful Reminders

Submitted by on December 24, 2006 – 7:09 amNo Comment | 981 views

Bad Habits

I was in a rush the other day and in my haste made a mess of practically everything I touched. Yet I couldn’t relax. I commented to my wife that rushing never speeds up the process, but I would probably keep rushing anyway till I either hurt myself or broke something expensive. Ridiculous, I know. But then again, that’s human nature. We repeat our mistakes till disaster strikes and forces us to take stock.

The Purpose

Our purpose in life is to serve G-d and to be a positive influence on those around us. To succeed in our mission it is necessary to have a home, food, clothing and other creature comforts. It is important to earn a livelihood, pay our expenses and enjoy the amenities of life that enable us to fulfill our mission.

Yet we often turn the tables on G-d. Rather than emphasizing our purpose of existence we emphasize the amenities of life. We leave our soul to wither and starve while we indulge in money, comfort, pride and prestige.

When we fail to remember our mission, it falls to G-d to remind us. What kind of reminders does G-d send?

The Stipend

A young man was sent away from home to university. His parents gave him a regular stipend so that he would have no financial concerns and would be free to concentrate on his studies. The lad enjoyed his newfound freedom and devoted most of his time to wild celebration.

He had no financial concerns, that was true, but he didn’t utilize his freedom for the purpose it was given him. He turned the freedom into an end rather than a means. What did his parents do?

They cut off the spigot and told him to pay his own way. The young man was now forced to find work to cover his expenses. He quickly realized that his purpose at university was to seek an education so that he could earn a livelihood and, furthermore, impact others. Without an education he would be doomed to back-breaking labor, low wages and little opportunity to make a difference.

Hardships

As long as things are going our way we rarely pause to reflect. We don’t set aside time to ask ourselves whether we are fulfilling our purpose in life. So from time to time G-d shakes up our little world and prompts us to stop in our tracks. He removes something valuable from us and gives us pause.

Our first reaction is often consternation. “G-d, how could you do this to me?” But then comes reflection. “Why do I ask how G-d could do this to me, when I should be asking, what G-d owes me? I provide for my physical needs and fulfill my materialistic cravings, but I leave my soul utterly uncared for. The real question is not how could G-d do this to me, but how could I do this to G-d?”

In responding this way we perceive that hardship is not intended as a punishment, but as a reminder. It is not a rebuke, but a call to redirect. When we respond and redirect, we fulfill the purpose of the hardship and give G-d reason to remove it.

Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart

When Pharaoh considered liberating the Jewish people from Egypt, G-d first hardened Pharaoh’s heart against the idea and then punished him for enslaving the Jews. Astounding! G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, denied him free will and then punished him? (1)

Many commentators posit that Pharaoh was never fully denied his free will. Pharaoh was only prevented from releasing the Jews for the sake of avoiding further hardship. But he was never prevented from releasing the Jews for the sake of repenting and obeying G-d’s instruction. Pharaoh freely chose to defy G-d’s will and was justly punished. (2)

Reminders and Punishments

Our sages noted that G-d didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart till after the sixth plague. After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. (3) Why did G-d leave the decision to Pharaoh during the first five plagues?

I would suggest that the first five plagues were not punishments, they were reminders. They were not intended to inflict hardship. Their purpose was to remind Pharaoh that slavery was cruel and that he must heed the divine instruction to release the Jews. They were helpful direction finders, intended to impress upon Pharaoh that all was not right in Egypt.

Had Pharaoh heeded this call during the first five plagues, even if his motive were to avoid further hardship, the plagues would have fulfilled their purpose and would have ceased.

However, in counter purpose to the plagues ‘ objective Pharaoh hardened his heart. Rather than turning him toward G-d, the plagues turned him from G-d; filling him with resolve and resentment. The reminders failed to remind. The direction finders failed to redirect. The ineffective reminders rendered further reminders, utterly useless. It was now time for punishment.

The second set pf plagues were not reminders, they were punishments. (4) Here it is important to note that divine punishment is a form of atonement, not vengeance. (5)

Moral transgressions and religious sins sully the pristine quality of our soul. There are two ways to correct the damage and remove the stain. One is repentance the other is punishment. Repentance repairs the damage. Punishment, like a cleansing agent, washes away the spiritual grime caused by sin.

Pharaoh had to remove the blight on his soul caused by his cruel treatment of the Jews. It could either be removed by repentance or cleansed through punishment. When he refused to repent during the first set of “reminder plagues,” his sins were cleansed through the second set of “punishment plagues.”

G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart during these punishments to ensure that Pharaoh not release the Jews before his punishment was complete. If he were to release the Jews before the plagues ran their course, his atonement and cleansing would not be complete. (6)

However, even then, the path to repentance remained opened. If Pharaoh were to repent and liberate the Jews during the second set of plagues, the plagues would have immediately stopped. The repentance would have cleansed him and there would be no reason for further punishment.

Reflection

This discussion demonstrates the need to draw closer to G-d in times of hardship. In fact, we need not wait for times of hardship. We could draw closer to G-d in times of comfort and thus obviate the entire need for hardship.

May we in fact be blessed with eternal peace and with lives free of hardship.

Footnotes

  1. Exodus 7: 3. See also Exodus 9: 12 and 35. Exodus 10; 20 and 27.
  2. See Nachmanidies ( R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) and Seforno (R. Ovadia Seforno, Italy, 1470-1550) on Exodus 7: 3.
  3. Shemos Rabba 13: 3. See Rashi’s (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105) commentary to Exodus 7: 3 See Exodus 7: 13 and 22. Exodus 8: 15 and 28. Exodus 9: 7.
  4. See Seforno on Exodus 7: 3. This is also evidenced by the divine exhortations in advance of the second set of plagues that their purpose was to impress G-d’s power upon the Egypt. Such exhortations were rare if not non existent during the first set of plagues. See Exodus 9; 14, 20-21 and 30. See also Exodus 10; 1 and 11; 7.
  5. See Epistle of Repentance Chapters 1 and 2. (R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813.)
  6. It should be noted that according to the first opinion cited by Nachmanidies (further amplified by Ksav Sofer (R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, Pressburg, 1815-1879) on Exodus 34: 9), Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Jews after G-d hardened his heart was not of his choosing; he was powerless to liberate them once G-d had hardened his heart. These plagues were not in punishment of his continued refusal, but of his previous refusals.
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