Friday, January 22, 2010

Parshat Bo - פרשת בא

"וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ - And Hashem said to Moshe: 'Come to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, so that I may place these, My signs, in his midst."
(שמות י:א)

I'd like to share two Divrei Torah with you this week. The first is derived from the opening words of the Parsha, quoted above. The words of this verse don't seem to be particularly difficult to understand, but there is (at least) one thing worthy of noting: Hashem's instruction to Moshe is "בא אל-פּרעה/come to Pharaoh." The word בא, meaning "come," is an interesting term given that the natural expression employed in such a circumstance would most likely be "לך - go," so that the command would be for Moshe to "go to Pharaoh."

Why is the word בא used, then? It is told that, in the time of Rabbi Yisrael Yitzhak Kalish of Warka, a decree was issued by the government that all editions of the Shulchan Aruch, a text that outlines Jewish law. The reasoning was that there was a standard law in place for all subjects and it was intolerable for Polish Jews to have a parallel law system of their own. If the Jews were following their own laws and living their lives according to its laws, then they were traitors to Polish law. As such, all copies of Jewish law-books were to be burned.

One of Rabbi Kalish's followers was known to have connections with well-placed people in the Polish government. As such, the Rabbi invited this man to try to talk the governor into changing his mind. Unfortunately, there was a hitch. Apparently the governor who executed this decree was a well-known and outspoken anti-Semite who went so far as to make clear that anyone who would approach him to talk him out of this decree would not only fail, but would die for his efforts.

The Rabbi's follower made clear that he would do whatever the Rabbi wanted him to do, but asked how he could possibly approach such a man. The Rabbi's response was that there was nothing to fear, and referred his follower to the verse above, pointing out that the opening words are "ויאמר יהוה אל-משה, בא אל-פּרעה - And Hashem said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh.'"

The Rabbi explained to his devotee that Hashem used the word "come" in this verse for a reason. Moshe had been asked by Hashem to go to Pharaoh, but he was concerned by what this notoriously evil ruler might do to him. He too was willing to do whatever was asked of him, but was in a predicament.

Though the words לך and בא, go and come, are similar in meaning, there is a subtle, yet crucial, difference between the two. To be told "Go," is to be instructed, whereas to be told "Come," is to something different. It is warmer and implies a sense of togetherness.

So Hashem said to Moshe that he should "come to Pharaoh." By using the term that has connotations of being together, Hashem indicated that He would accompany Moshe on his visit to Pharaoh and that there would be nothing to fear.

The story of the anti-Semitic governor, as you might imagine, has a happy ending. The Rabbi's follower obeyed and approached the governor, who, against the odds, decided that it would be wise to undo his decree, and a potentially tragic episode was thus averted.


***
The second D'var Torah I'd like to share with you made me smile; I hope you find it funny, too!

"וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה - And so that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son's son, that I have amused myself with Egypt, and My signs, which I have placed among them; that you may know that I am the Hashem."
(שמות י:ב)

The verse above appears in this week's Parsha, Parsat Bo, immediately before Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh to inform him that the eighth plague, the plague of locusts would strike Egypyt imminently. In Rashi's commentary on this verse, we learn the meaning of the unusual word הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי, translated above as, "amused myself." Rashi explains that this word doesn't refer to "פועל ומעללים," (doing or actions,) but rather is to be understood as a synonym for "שחקתי," which may be translated as "I have made sport of," in English.

The Salanter Rebbe explains this in a number of ways. One reason in which we may understand Hashem's 'toying' with the Egyptians is by looking at the sequence of events leading up to this plague.

Before this plague was the plague of the hailstones. These hailstones were unlike any other in the history of the world. We learn that they were huge in size, and were fiery, despite the fact that hailstones are formed of ice. In any case, the hailstones wrought massive desctruction on the land. The Egyptians had to hide away while the hailstones came crashing down to the ground.

The Salanter Rebbe explains that after this terrifying precipitation had subsided, they went outside to check their fields. To their dismay, much of the produce had been destroyed. This bad feeling was tempered, though, by their discovery that small amounts of food had not be damaged and that there would be at least some food upon which they could subsist.

But Hashem was merely tricking the Egyptians. And they deserved it, too, having deceived Am Yisrael previously when Pharaoh initiated their slavery. At first he offered to pay them for each brick that they built, and then after they had worked feverishly to produce a maximum quantity of bricks (far beyond their regular capacity), he recorded every man's quota and ordered them to build that number of bricks daily - without remuneration.

Here, Hashem takes revenge for Am Yisrael by bringing the plague of hailstones upon Egypt. He almost entirely wipes out their food stores, but the Egyptians have cause to rejoice when they find minute quantities that have made it through the plague unscathed. But Hashem "amuses himself" and gets the last word in, as he ushers in the next plague - that of the locust. They cover the ground entirely and completely clean out Egypt's food stocks.

The word "amused" can be understood another way, too. If we continue reading until we reach the point when the plague ends, we read the verse: "וַיַּהֲפֹךְ יְהוָה רוּחַ-יָם, חָזָק מְאֹד, וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת-הָאַרְבֶּה, וַיִּתְקָעֵהוּ יָמָּה סּוּף: לֹא נִשְׁאַר אַרְבֶּה אֶחָד, בְּכֹל גְּבוּל מִצְרָיִם - And Hashem turned an exceedingly strong west wind, and it took up the locusts, and drove them into the Red Sea; there remained not one locust in all the border of Egypt." (שמות ב:יט)

On this verse, too, Rashi sees something worthy of comment. Although the locusts had been the cause of massive destruction, laying waste to whatever remnants of food have been left untouched from the previous plagues, Rashi points out that the Egyptians had a certain benefit from this plague - they salted some of the locusts so that they could be eaten.

But at the time that this westerly wind blew, it took up the locusts, says Rashi, even the locusts that had been salted, prepared and stored for consumption later on.

Rav Shmuel Hominer writes in his work, 'Eved Hamelech,' that here we see how Hashem amused himself with the Egyptians. In the second plague, that of the frogs, masses of frogs appeared in Egypt, but at the end of the plague they did not disappear. They simply died where they were, causing the Egyptians further problems. The land was covered with dead frogs, a phenomenon that, we may imagine, did not smell particularly aromatic.

The Egyptians, understandably assuming that the locusts would simply die at the end of the plague, tried to make the best of a bad situation by grabbing what they could so that they could at least benefit from the plague in some way. But no! Hashem has the last laugh, and all their hard work in preparing the locusts to be eaten was undone when all the locusts in the land were whisked away at the end of the plague. Rav Hominer writes that this caused no end of amusement to the Jews, who took the opportunity to take a well-deserved dig at the irritated Egyptians by asking them slyly, "How much locust have you had today?"

Wishing you a happy and peaceful Shabbat Shalom!

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