SALT - Parashat Vaera 5781 / 2021
The Torah in Parashat Vaeira tells of God’s command to Moshe and Aharon to again approach Pharaoh and reiterate His demand to release Benei Yisrael. In preparing Moshe and Aharon for this meeting, God anticipated that Pharaoh would ask them, “Tenu lakhem mofeit” – to perform some miracle to prove that God had sent them. Moshe and Aharon were then to cast their staffs onto the ground, whereupon they would turn into serpents (7:9).
Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, in Noam Elimelekh, finds significance in the fact that God foresaw Pharaoh requesting, “Tenu lakhem mofeit” – “Provide for yourselves a wonder.” Quite obviously, Pharaoh was asking that a miracle be performed for him, so he would be convinced that Moshe and Aharon were truly God’s messengers. Yet, he requested that the miracle be performed “lakhem” (“for you”), as though it would serve Moshe and Aharon. Rav Elimelekh explained that Pharaoh demanded that Moshe and Aharon perform a miracle which would impress not only him, but also themselves, because this would prove that the miracle was truly miraculous. If a magician performs a trick, he is enthusiastic about it the first time, but afterward, even though it will excite his audience, it will not excite him. If, however, God performs a miracle for somebody, then he is enthusiastic each and every time, even if it repeats itself. The very fact that God has directly intervened in his life and performed a miracle arouses excitement, no matter how many times it happens. And thus Pharaoh wanted Moshe and Aharon to perform a miracle which would be “wondrous” even for them, as this would prove that the miracle was brought about by God, and was not just a trick.
Each morning, in the shacharit prayer service, we recite a special blessing praising God for “renewing in His goodness each day, always, the act of creation,” referring to the daily recurrence of sunrise. We are to perceive the morning dawn not as a routine event, but rather as a “renewal of the act of creation,” a miracle performed for us by the Almighty. This perspective, as Rav Elimelekh teaches, can help us avoid the monotony and restlessness that often results from following a daily routine. When we view everything we have as an expression of God’s grace and kindness, we can experience joy and satisfaction even as we conduct our normal, day-to-day affairs. Often, we feel discontented with our lives because we feel a craving for something new and out of the ordinary. We can avoid this restlessness by appreciating every moment, every possession and every opportunity in our lives as a new, precious gift from God, one which should elicit enthusiasm and gratitude each and every day.
In describing the onset of the second plague that befell Egypt – the plague of frogs – the Torah in Parashat Vaiera (8:2) tells, “Va-ta’al ha-tzefardei’a” – “The frog ascended” and spread throughout Egypt. The Torah’s use of the singular form “tzefardei’a” (“frog,” as opposed to “tzefarde’im” – “frogs”) in this verse sparked an intriguing debate among the Tanna’im, as the Gemara brings in Masekhet Sanhedrin (67b). Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya both understood from the word “tzefardei’a” that the plague of frogs began with just a single frog, but they disagree as to how the process unfolded. Rabbi Akiva maintained that this frog rapidly reproduced until frogs filled the country. Rabbi Elazar sharply disputed this claim, retorting, “Akiva, what are you doing dealing with haggadah [homiletics]?! Stop your talking and go deal with Negaim and Ohalot.” He regarded Rabbi Akiva’s understanding as so untenable that he felt Rabbi Akiva should leave the field of Biblical interpretation and direct his attention solely to halakhic subjects. In Rabbi Elazar’s opinion, the initial frog did not reproduce, but rather “whistled” to the other frogs which then joined it and overran the country.
What might be the deeper significance of this debate? What underlies the different perspectives on the way the plague of frogs unfolded?
Symbolically, perhaps, this discussion might revolve around the question of influence – how one person is able to have an impact upon his surroundings. The process whereby the presence of just a single frog resulted in frogs swarming throughout Egypt represents the more subtle phenomenon of one person exerting influence which spreads far and wide. Rabbi Akiva describes frogs simply emerging from the original frog, on their own – perhaps expressing the bold view that a person is able to influence his surroundings organically, without any proactive effort. We have an impact simply by conducting ourselves the way we do, as our words and actions naturally influence other people in one direction or another, and to one extent or another. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya sharply dismissed this notion, arguing that it is impossible for one individual’s influence to spread throughout an area, like the frogs spread throughout Egypt, without having the skill and making the effort to “whistle,” to motivate others and attract a following. According to Rabbi Elazar, we have an impact only by going out to spread our message – like the frog summoning the other frogs to join him. We might speculate that Rabbi Elazar reacted so strongly to Rabbi Akiva’s position because he feared that a passive approach would be woefully ineffective in disseminating Torah values and knowledge, that relying on the natural effects of our behavior would discourage us from proactively seeking to teach, influence and inspire.
In truth, both these perspectives have value and a great deal of truth to them. Certainly, we must make an active effort to “reproduce,” to spread our beliefs through the various channels of education and dissemination. At the same time, however, we must not discount the more subtle impact that we have by the way we conduct ourselves on a day-to-day basis, even without seeking to exert influence. Simply by living in accordance with our values, principles and traditions, we have an effect on our surroundings. Our success in contributing to and positively impacting the world depends upon both our devoted work to have such an impact, as well as our ensuring to speak and act in a way which naturally invites respect and brings out the best in the people around us.
The Torah in Parashat Vaeira (7:23) relates that after the first plague which God brought upon Egypt, the plague of blood, “Pharaoh turned away and went home, and he did not pay any attention” (7:23). At first glance, it appears that the Torah mentions that Pharaoh “went home” to emphasize his indifference to this plague, telling that the king simply continued his normal state of affairs, as usual, unfazed by the miraculous transformation of his country’s water resources into blood.
However, Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohein of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma, offers a creative reading of the verse to find a connection between Pharaoh’s going home and his indifference to this plague. Rav Meir Simcha references the Midrash’s comment (Shemot Rabba 9:10) that during the plague of blood, the Egyptians purchased water from Benei Yisrael, who were excluded from the plague and thus had copious amounts of fresh drinking water. Benei Yisrael ended up becoming quite wealthy as a result. On the basis of the Midrash’s comment, Rav Meir Simcha boldly suggests that Pharaoh was spared from the plague of blood – because he had already paid his share, so-to-speak. Pharaoh had raised Moshe in his palace after his daughter had found Moshe in the river and adopted him as her son. The expenses Pharaoh incurred in raising Moshe, Rav Meir Simcha writes, absolved him of the costs that the other Egyptians needed to pay for water during the plague of blood, and so the water in his home did not turn into blood. The Torah thus writes that Pharaoh went to his home, where he had water, and so he was unaffected by the plague.
Rav Meir Simcha here teaches of the inherent value and worth of one’s good deeds irrespective of his misdeeds. Pharaoh received his due reward for raising Moshe despite the cruelty for which he was severely punished. Our mistakes and failures do not undermine the value of the good things we do. We must be able to recognize, admire and respect people’s virtues and accomplishments even if they are far from perfect, and, by the same token, we must acknowledge our own virtues and accomplishments even as we take note of our deficiencies and work to improve.
Before telling of the ten plagues that befell Egypt, the Torah in Parashat Vaeira briefly digresses to present the genealogy of the first three tribes of Israel – Reuven, Shimon and Levi, providing some details about the family of Moshe and Aharon. We learn that Aharon had four sons, the third of whom, Elazar, married “one of the daughters of Putiel” (6:25). This marriage produced Pinchas, who became famous later in the Torah (Bamidbar 25) for killing two public violators and thereby ending the plague which God had unleased because of the sin of Ba’al Pe’or.
Rashi, based on the Gemara (Sota 43a), comments that the name of Elazar’s father-in-law – “Putiel” – actually alludes to two prominent ancestors of Elazar’s wife: Yosef, and Yitro. Yosef is given this name, the Gemara explains, because “pitpeit be-yitzro” – he disregarded his evil inclination. This refers to his resisting the advances made by his master’s wife when he was a slave in Egypt, when he overcame temptation and refused to commit the adulterous act which she desired. As for Yitro, the Gemara states that he was given the name “Putiel” because “piteim agalim la-avoda zara” – “he fattened young calves for idolatry.” Yitro was once a pagan priest, who invested a great deal in the performance of pagan rites, but he later arrived at the truth of monotheism.
What might be the connection between these two righteous figures, and why does the Gemara make a point of noting that they were ancestors of Pinchas?
Rav Menachem Bentzion Sacks, in his Menachem Tziyon, explains that the stories of Yosef’s resisting temptation, and of Yitro’s theological evolution, represent the two primary kinds of spiritual challenges that we face. Yosef’s ordeal was the classic struggle against our physical negative instincts, the need to restrain our bodily impulses in humble submission to God. Yitro’s journey, by contrast, represents the courage to champion unpopular ideas. Rashi (Shemot 2:16-17) cites from the Midrash that Yitro suffered terribly as a result of his rejection of paganism, and found himself ostracized by his townspeople, to the point where his daughters were denied rights to the town’s water for their herds. Yitro renounced his pagan beliefs knowing that he would pay an enormous personal price. Whereas Yosef triumphed over his physical impulses, Yitro triumphed over the pressure to embrace popular beliefs and ideas.
Pinchas’ act of zealotry, Rav Zaks explains, involved standing up for both these struggles which Torah life requires us to wage. The sin of Ba’al Pe’or consisted of both unrestrained sexual relations with the women of Moav, and the worship of the Moavites’ god. Pinchas arose to reaffirm the nation’s fealty to the heroic struggles of his two illustrious ancestors, Yosef and Pinchas. He set out to assert the importance of appropriate boundaries and restraint in the pursuit of physical pleasure, and of having the strength, conviction and resolve to oppose false beliefs. Pinchas stood up for the dual battle that we must constantly wage as Torah Jews – the battle to resist our inner sinful impulses, and the battle to resist foreign beliefs and values.
Parashat Vaeira tells of the first seven of the ten plagues that God brought upon Egypt in order to force Pharaoh to allow Benei Yisrael to leave. These plagues afflicted the Egyptians in different ways, either bodily or economically.
Intriguingly, two of the plagues struck not only the Egyptians themselves, but also their animals. The Torah writes that both the Egyptians and their animals suffered from the plague of lice (“va-tehi ha-kinam ba-adam u-va-beheima” – 8:13), and the boils likewise surfaced on the skin of even the Egyptians’ animals (“porei’ach ba-adam u-va-beheima” – 9:10). Rav Yehuda Henkin (Mahalkhim Ba-mikra) noted that this feature is unique to these two plagues. True, the plague of pestilence killed the Egyptians’ cattle (9:1-6), and the hail killed both the people and animals that remained outdoors (9:25). (Additionally, the plague of blood killed the fish in the Nile River – 7:21.) However, these plagues killed the Egyptians’ animals – a vitally important commodity – as a punishment for the Egyptians themselves, impoverishing them. The plagues of lice and boils, by contrast, did not kill any animals, but rather caused them extreme discomfort, just as it caused the Egyptians themselves.
The question thus arises as to the purpose behind this aspect of these plagues. How did the discomfort caused to the animals affect the Egyptians? Why did God find it necessary for these plagues to cause suffering even to the animals?
Rav Henkin suggests that the purpose of including the animals in these plagues was not to afflict the animals, but rather to humble the Egyptians, showing them that they were as vulnerable as animals. By unleashing plagues against both the people and the animals, God sought to break the Egyptians’ hubris and sense of invincibility. They saw themselves as a higher class of people, empowered to enslave and oppress those considered lower and less important. In response, God showed the Egyptians that they were, in truth, no stronger than the animals, that in relation to His power, they were as helpless as their cattle. He therefore sent two plagues which afflicted man and beast alike, to demonstrate that all creatures on earth are governed by, and completely dependent upon, the Almighty, to whom we are all equally subservient.
Parashat Vaeira continues the story of the process of the Exodus from Egypt, after Pharaoh had responded to Moshe’s initial demand that he release Benei Yisrael by increasing the people’s workload. God commanded Moshe to return to Pharaoh and reiterate his demand, and Moshe asked God why he should expect Pharaoh to obey. The Torah says that God replied by speaking to Moshe and Aharon and “commanding them upon the Israelites and upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt” (6:13).
Rashi, commenting on the phrase, “and upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt,” cites a startling interpretation from the Midrash Tanchuma, explaining that God here commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak to Pharaoh respectfully: “Tzivam…la-chalok lo kavod bi-dvarim” – “He commanded them to extend him honor with their words.” Although Moshe and Aharon were coming to Pharaoh to denounce his evil oppression of Benei Yisrael, and to warn of the devastation that he and his nation would suffer if he refused, they were nevertheless to speak in a respectful, dignified manner, as appropriate when addressing a king.
On one level, this Midrash teaches us of the need to retain our dignity and manners even when rightfully confronting and opposing evil. Often, people who denounce wrongful behavior feel they can – or even must – free themselves from the limits of civil discourse, and speak with unrestrained vitriol and contempt. They feel that the importance of their campaign necessitates venomous rhetoric, as otherwise the message would not be communicated effectively. The Midrash teaches us that even as we oppose real evil, such as a cruel and ruthless tyrant like Pharaoh, we must maintain our dignity, and conduct and express ourselves respectfully. All the more so, when we find ourselves in an ordinary argument or quarrel, we are expected to voice our position with courtesy and dignity, regardless of how certain we are of the correctness of our stance.
The Tolna Rebbe (as cited by Rav David Moshe Braverman) added further insight into the Midrash’s comment, boldly suggesting that it cautions against the all-too-familiar tendency to judge others in absolute terms. Even when Moshe and Aharon were confronting Pharaoh to warn about the severe punishments that would befall him and his kingdom because of the evil they perpetrated, they were to take note of that which called for respect. Even Pharaoh was not entirely evil. He enacted evil decrees for which he was severely punished, but even he had something worth respecting. A fortiori, when dealing with people whom we feel we have reason to dislike, we must refrain from casting judgment upon their entire character. Even people who act improperly, who are guilty of serious misconduct, must not be dismissed as thoroughly bad people. We must be able to condemn that which deserves condemnation and respect that which deserves respect, with an understanding that most – if not all – people have both elements within their beings. We can and should appreciate the goodness a person performs even while strongly disapproving of his wrongful actions. There is no contradiction whatsoever between denouncing the bad and respecting the good, because people are complex creatures, whose overall behavior cannot be summed up in a single adjective. The Midrash therefore states that Moshe and Aharon were to show Pharaoh respect – to impress upon us the need to respect what is respectable about all people, even as we condemn and disapprove of their misconduct.
The fifth plague which God brought upon Egypt was dever (“pestilence”), which killed the country’s domesticated animals, while leaving intact the animals of Benei Yisrael. When God sent Moshe to warn Pharaoh of the impending plague, He told Moshe to declare that God would strike “your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the cattle and the sheep” (9:3).
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, in Emet La-Yaakov, finds significance in the sequence in which the various kinds of animals are listed. Specifically, Rav Yaakov suggests, the animals are listed in ascending order of halakhic prominence. The final two species mentioned – bakar (“cattle,” referring to cows and bulls) and sheep – are those which are permissible for consumption, and hence considered more important or distinguished. Camels are mentioned just before the kosher species because, although camels are forbidden for consumption, they have one of the two properties of kosher animals. As the Torah discusses in Sefer Vayikra (11:4), the camel chews its cud, like kosher species, but it does not have split hooves, and it is thus forbidden. As camels feature one of these two properties, this species is listed in this verse after horses and donkeys, which have neither of the two properties of kosher animals. Donkeys appear after horses, Rav Yaakov explained, because donkeys are singled out with respect to the law of peter chamor – the special status assigned to firstborn male donkeys, which must be “redeemed,” as the Torah commands later in Sefer Shemot (13:13). Thus, God mentions first the species with no special halakhic distinction (horses), followed by a non-kosher species with a certain distinction (donkeys), and then the species with one property of kosher animals (camels), before finally listing the two kosher species (cows and sheep). Rav Yaakov explained that in the context of pestilence, it is appropriate to begin with the least halakhically prominent species and then progressing towards the most prominent, and this is the reason for the sequence in which the various kinds of animals are listed in this verse.
Rav Yaakov concedes that donkeys seemingly are to be regarded as more prominent than camels, by virtue of their having a certain degree of sanctity, expressed in the law of peter chamor. We would certainly assume that this distinction carries more weight than the camel’s chewing its cud, such that we would have expected donkeys to be mentioned in this verse after camels, not before. Rav Yaakov responds to this argument by noting the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Bekhorot (5b) that the donkeys were singled out for distinction because of the role they served in the Exodus, when they were used to transport the riches of Egypt. It could thus be argued that the donkeys earned this distinction only at the time of the Exodus, and so beforehand, when God warned of the plague of pestilence, donkeys were deemed less prominent than camels. For this reason, the donkeys are mentioned before the camels, which at that time were considered a more prominent species. (The distinction between kosher and non-kosher species, however, was relevant even before the Exodus, as evidenced in the story of Noach, who was told to bring onto the ark seven of every kosher species, and only two of every non-kosher species.)
Interestingly enough, Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein raises the possibility of applying this sequence as a matter of practical Halakha. Conceivably, Rav Zilberstein writes, if one has several different animals that all require feeding at the same time, it might be proper to follow the sequence of importance outlined by Rav Kamenetsky. This would mean feeding kosher species before non-kosher ones, and, among non-kosher species, feeding donkeys before camels, and camels before horses. After the Exodus, the donkeys were endowed with a unique status, and thus although before the plague of dever they are regarded as less important than camels, after the Exodus, they should be given precedence over camels.
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