Peninim On The Torah – Parshas Shemos


torahBy Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first one was Shifrah and the name of the second was Puah. (1:15)

Shifrah was actually Yocheved, and Puah was her daughter, Miriam. The alternate names were given to them as a tribute to their work. Shifrah denotes the fact that Yocheved beautified the infant. Puah calls to mind the manner in which Miriam cooed, speaking to the child in a soothing manner. These are surely important and necessary qualities for a midwife to possess, but Yocheved and Miriam were the two most prominent women of that generation. Is that the best way that the Torah can characterize them? Yocheved was one of the original seventy souls to have arrived in Egypt together with Yaakov Avinu. She was certainly a distinguished woman. Miriam was a neviah, prophetess. Hence, the Torah should have referred to them by their birth names, names of prominence. Furthermore, these names are simple names which identify how they interacted with the infants. These names certainly do not lend distinction to Yocheved and Miriam. It is as if the Torah is describing two ordinary midwives. What about their courage; their heroism; their self-sacrifice; their fear of Heaven? Is that all secondary to their ability to coo and beautify the baby’s skin?

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that, indeed, it is these seemingly mundane acts that bespeak the true eminence that characterized Yocheved and Miriam. Let us begin with an analogy. A seriously ill young child is brought into the emergency room of a hospital. The child is surrounded by doctors and nurses, all working feverishly to ensure that his young life continues unhampered. Nothing takes precedence when a child’s life is in danger. If a spectator were to enter the ER and notice a woman talking soothingly to the child, even singing a sweet melody, he would know for certain that this is the child’s mother. The other people surrounding the child are too concerned with the child’s immediate health to worry about his emotional well-being, the fear he must be harboring in a strange place, inundated with people and machines. Only a mother’s love focuses also on the little things, because that is what a mother does. Her love is all-encompassing and all inclusive.

The fact that Yocheved and Miriam were prepared to risk their lives for the Jewish infants was not adequate indication that they were worthy of achieving “mother” status. They were not yet to be rewarded with “batim,” houses, of monarchy, Kehunah and Leviah. Only after they demonstrated that extra bit of motherly care and love amid the terror of death that permeated the Jewish community at the time – when they showed that they also cared about the “little” things, such as smoothing the infant’s skin, beautifying it, cooing and talking softly – did they become eligible for this lofty reward.

I have always wondered why Rachel Imeinu was the one who was buried on the side of the road, so that Jews being exiled from the Holy Land would go by her grave and pray to catalyze hope. Why is Rachel the one who is the great intercessor for Klal Yisrael? Moreover, why does the pasuk refer to Klal Yisrael as baneha, her children? Rachel gave birth only to Yosef and Binyamin. If anything, Leah should receive greater Matriarchal status. She gave birth to more children.

Perhaps the answer lies specifically in the fact that Klal Yisrael is referred to as baneha. Rachel views all of the Jewish People as her children. She acts towards us as a mother and, therefore, has earned the title. The maternal instinct was an intrinsic part of her nature. She became the Matriarch to whom all the Jewish “children” turn for solace, hope and prayer.

Horav Shlomo Heyman, zl, was Rosh Yeshivah in Vilna and later in Mesivta Torah Vodaath. He was a brilliant Torah scholar who was dedicated to Torah dissemination, training students who later went on to become Torah leaders themselves. Every great man has a partner: his wife. Rebbetzin Heyman was just as busy as her husband, with her constant involvement in all areas of chesed, acts of loving-kindness. She was especially devoted to marrying off orphan girls. Those who had no one knew that they had Rebbetzin Heyman.

Once, the Rosh Yeshivah and his wife were preparing to go to a wedding which she had completely arranged. She had outfitted the bride and was even seeing to it that the expenses for the wedding were covered. As they were walking out the door, Rav Shlomo turned to his wife and asked, “Did you order a corsage for the kallah, bride?” The Rebbetzin replied, “I assumed that I did not have to go that far. I took care of everything else. The corsage was not something I felt was necessary – especially since the funds were all provided from tzedakah, charity.” Rav Shlomo disagreed, asserting, “No, no, it is not right. You must immediately go and purchase a corsage for the girl. She must have it – just like everybody else.”

Rav Pincus feels that the Rosh Yeshivah was intimating to his wife that a mother would not overlook her daughter’s corsage, and his wife was in the role of mother, since this girl was an orphan. If his Rebbetzin was going to carry out an act of chesed, she should do it the right way. In order for Yocheved and Miriam to be worthy of the “houses” of royalty, Kehunah and Leviah, they had to act like mothers.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that when he was sitting shivah, observing the seven-day mourning period for his mother, he was visited by the present day Ozrover Rebbe, Shlita, who quoted the following Torah thought from his grandfather, the Eish Dos, Horav Moshe Yechiel HaLevi Epstein, zl. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about Sarah Imeinu and the birth of Yitzchak. The Haftorah relates the story of Chanah and the birth of Shmuel HaNavi. It is only on the second day of Rosh Hashanah that we read about Avraham Avinu’s dedication at the Akeidah of Yitzchak Avinu. Why do we mention the merit of the Imahos, Matriarchs, prior to that of the Avos, Patriarchs?

The Eish Dos explains that when a child falls, his father picks him up and makes sure that he is able to stand up on his own two feet. His mother, however, is the one who is concerned that the child not fall in the first place. She protects. That is what mothers do, and, for this reason, our prayer to Hashem in the z’chus, merit, of the Imahos precedes that of the Avos.

Many “mother” stories portray the singular devotion that the Jewish mother manifests to her children. The following episode might be a bit unusual, but it certainly bespeaks a mother’s devotion. In a small Egyptian village lives a young man who, for all intents and purposes, appears to be an Arab. The features are all present. Surprisingly, on the inside of his hand is a tattoo of a Magen David, a Jewish star! Arabs do not make it a practice to have Jewish stars tattooed into their skin – at least not if they want to have a normal lifespan. After investigation, it was discovered that this young man is accompanied by an incredible story. He is Jewish, born to a Jewish mother, who – together with a number of Jewish girls – were kidnapped and forced to marry Muslims. His mother, albeit not observant, knew that her son was Jewish and that Jews do not intermarry. To protect her son, she made an indelible mark on his hand that would be a constant reminder of his holy pedigree. Until this very day he lives in danger, never exposing the inside of his hand, for fear of being discovered. His mother risked everything – even her son’s life – so that he would not intermarry. That is a Jewish mother. She may not have been observant, but she was acutely aware of the kedushah, holiness, which is part of every Jew’s DNA.

His sister stationed herself at a distance to know what would be done with him. (2:4)

One who studies the Torah must accept the following premise: The righteous individuals portrayed in the Torah believed in Hashem with total conviction. They understood that regardless of how bleak a situation might appear, Hashem could alter its course at any given moment. In contrast, the reshaim, wicked, who are mentioned in the Torah, were individuals who had an acute knowledge of the Almighty. He was not some abstract entity. He was real to them. They simply did not care. They conducted their lives ignoring Hashem and His awesome power. In other words, the good and evil in the Torah represent two extremes, each totally the opposite of the other. In the Torah, evil is abominable, and good is peerless. Let us see how this idea is reflected in the following two characters: the righteousness of Miriam HaNeviah, in contrast to the evil of Pharaoh and his advisors.

Miriam represents bitachon, trust in the Almighty, at its zenith. At the young age of six, she contended with her parents, who were the leaders of the generation, concerning deferring to Pharaoh’s evil decree to kill Jewish children. As a result of the decree, Amram, her father, decided that the men should separate from their wives. Miriam argued against this. Due to her indomitable bitachon, she was able to convince her father to rescind the protective decree. Live normal lives and trust in Hashem. What will be, will be. Afterwards, Moshe Rabbeinu was born, and it was obvious that he was no ordinary child. Once again, Miriam’s bitachon rose to the fore. When the critical moment arrived that her mother could no longer hide him, she placed the infant Moshe in a basket in the water. Miriam stood and watched, believing with a deep conviction that her brother’s life was in G-d’s Hands. If He wanted him to live, he would live. Nothing stands in the way of Hashem’s plan. Miriam represented the “good” of the Torah. Her belief in Hashem was real.

In contrast, we find Pharaoh and his advisors who were bent on destroying every Jewish child. The royal astrologers had seen that the Jewish savior would be born in Egypt and that his ultimate failure would be associated with water. Therefore, they decreed that all Jewish children should be drowned. Later, we find that Shevet Levi, was the lone tribe not to be enslaved. Why was this? The commentators explain that the Egyptians wanted to demonstrate that they did not denigrate all of the Jewish people – just most of them. Indeed, they felt that there were “good” Jews and “bad” Jews. The tribe of Levi represented the good Jews; they would be free to go as they pleased.

Horav Yonassan Eybeshutz, zl, gives an explanation that goes to the root of the Egyptian psyche, revealing their evil, despite their acute awareness of the Almighty. They postulated that a redeemer must be one who himself had endured the trials and tribulations associated with slavery. Only one who had himself suffered could be sensitive to the needs of others who were in pain. Therefore, they did not enslave Shevet Levi, because they had “seen” that the Jewish People’s savior would descend from the tribe of Levi. Therefore, if he was not a slave, he wouldn’t be able to become a leader. Moshe, however, joined ranks with his brothers, because that was the kind of person he was.

Now, let us step back and consider the type of people Pharaoh and his henchmen represented. They knew about Hashem, but they tried to “outsmart” Him. How utterly foolish they were! Nonetheless, we see that their evil was not simple mischief. They were thoroughly wicked, in full knowledge of what they were doing and against Whom they were reacting. They did not care. They were conscious of the idea that a successful leader rises up through the ranks, fully aware of the needs and wants of the average citizen. The leader of Klal Yisrael was no different. They predicted that Hashem would designate a scion of the Tribe of Levi who had been enslaved. To “prevent” this, they removed the yoke of slavery from Levi. In this way they could circumvent the rise of the Jewish leader.

How absurd! Not only was the Jewish leader from the Tribe of Levi; but Pharaoh’s daughter raised him in the royal palace, right under Pharaoh’s nose! They knew just what they were doing; their evil was real. It was so malevolent that it caused them to make the foolish mistake of thinking that they could contend with the One Who created them. This has been the story throughout history, as one despot after another thought that he was ultimately in charge. We are still here; they are not.

She (Pharaoh’s daughter) sent her maidservant/arm and she took it. (2:5)

Not only does every “little bit” count, but it only takes a “little bit” to make a difference, to start the ball rolling towards successful achievement. This is a theme throughout the parsha. According to Chazal, Bisyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, reached out her arm to grasp the basket in which the infant Moshe was lying, and, miraculously, her arm elongated far beyond its normal reach. The commentators derive from here a lesson in avodas Hashem, service of the Almighty. One must make his own effort; the rest is up to Hashem. Pharaoh’s daughter was much too far from Moshe’s floating basket. Yet, she made the attempt. She did her part. Hashem did the rest.

Moshe Rabbeinu was walking in the desert when he saw a burning bush. His curiosity was piqued, and he turned around. That is all. The rest of the revelation came from Hashem. Moshe did not turn very far out of his way – only a few steps, but that made the difference. He took the initiative. This is what Hashem asks of us: the first step, our initiative, an indication that we are interested. He will do the rest.

When Moshe told Hashem that the Jews would ask for Hashem’s Name, Hashem replied, Eheyeh asher Aheyeh, “I shall be as I shall be” (Shemos 3:14). Ramban posits that Moshe was explaining to Hashem that once the Jews had accepted him as Hashem’s emissary, they would want to know which of G-d’s Attributes He would manifest in the process of redeeming them from Egypt. Hashem’s reply was Eheyeh, “I shall be.” Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, cites the commentators who posit that Eheyeh is a name which denotes teshuvah, repentance/return. He cites the Maor v’Shemesh in his commentary to Parashas Korach who asserts this idea, since the baal teshuvah, one who is returning, should always say, Eheyeh, “I shall be” an oveid Hashem, serve the Almighty. Eheyeh stimulates the person; it motivates him to go on, to go further, to continue pushing, elevating himself so that he does not fall prey to the disease of complacency. In Yiddish, it is “Ich vel zein”; it is an assertion that, although now I am far from there, one day I will make it.

This, explains Rav Schorr, is the secret of geulas Mitzrayim, the redemption from Egypt. A nation that had sunken to such a spiritual nadir as the forty-ninth level of tumah, spiritual impurity, was suddenly taken from the dreadful abyss of spiritual extinction and granted ultimate salvation. Why? How? What did they do to deserve such spiritual and physical largesse? It was because they would accept the Torah. Their “present” was defined by their “future”. Accepting the Torah was an experience that transformed the Jewish People. The “I shall be” attitude that pervaded the Jewish psyche in Egypt was the merit through which they were granted redemption. Hashem knew the Jews’ potential. Their true capabilities would soon be manifest. Eheyeh, “I shall be!” made the difference.

It was a small step, a singular stride forward and upward, but it was all that was necessary. Their attitude signified a readiness and enthusiasm for change and was the initial catalyst needed to engender their redemption. All Hashem asks of us is to “turn a little,” make that first move, and He will do the rest.

I think we can go a bit further. Everyone has his ups and downs, his moments of inspiration and instances of disenchantment. There are times when we decide to begin a process that will culminate in change, and we remain with the “decision”, we go no further. The yetzer hora, evil-inclination, immediately mounts its offensive to prevent us from succeeding.

The Alter, zl, m’Kelm, asserts that even if we do not succeed in following through our intention, the mere fact that we initiated a “beginning,” that we decided upon a course of change, that alone, elevates us from our present state and catalyzes within us a spiritual metamorphosis. He substantiates this with the law concerning the meisis, one who entices others to go astray. The halachah states that once the p’sak din, final judgment, against him has been rendered, it is not rescinded, even if we find some merit to save him. The reason is stated in the Torah: (Devarim 13:11), “For he sought to make you stray from near Hashem.” That’s it! The mere desire to cause another Jew to stray from Hashem is reason to abrogate any compassion – none, whatsoever. We know that Hashem’s reward is five-hundred times his punishment. Therefore, if this is punishment for one who simply makes a move to turn us away from Hashem, we can imagine what a desire to bring an individual – especially oneself – closer to Hashem can engender. The mere inspiration, the thought, the idea, any of these stimuli is the beginning of our journey. It is our decision whether to follow up or not. Regardless of our desire to continue, Hashem saves the inspiration and counts it for us when it is most needed.

He (Moshe) went out the next day and behold! two Hebrew men were fighting. (2:13)

Rashi identifies the two men who were fighting as Dasan and Aviram, our leader’s nemeses from the very beginning. These two men were evil, and they sought every opportunity to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership. Their involvement in almost every mutiny is recorded throughout the Chumash. It is, therefore, surprising that in indentifying the two men, Rashi adds that they were the individuals who left over manna, after being told explicitly not to leave any over. These two miscreants had a detailed resume of evil deeds against Hashem and Moshe. What prompted Rashi to choose the leaving over of the manna as their defining evil activity? They were the ones who partnered with Korach in the greatest insurgency against Moshe. Why not mention that? They were the ones who had clamored for a new leader to return the Jewish nation to Egypt. Surely, that is good reason for censure; yet, Rashi picked the manna. Why?

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, explains that the fact that Dasan and Aviram left manna over was a clear indication that everything that they were doing was nothing more than self-serving evil. They were interested only in themselves – nothing else. Rashi is teaching us that Dasan and Aviram can be characterized by the act of leaving over the manna. When we have analyzed the various acts of evil perpetrated these two scoundrels, we see one common denominator weaving itself throughout their actions: self-righteous ideology. When Moshe challenged one of them for striking the other, his immediate response was: “Who appointed you as our leader? Who are you to voice your opinion concerning our actions?” Then he so subtly added, “Are you going to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” Was that necessary to add? He was intimating that he wanted peace to prevail in the camp, and Moshe had obstructed peace by killing the Egyptian and mixing into their affairs. This ideological perversion of the meaning of peace was the underlying catchphrase which revealed itself throughout their dissent against Moshe. It was always their desire to promote peace and welfare. That is why they complained about the food, the water, the leadership, etc.

When Dasan and Aviram left over the manna, they revealed their true essence They were interested in furthering their own agenda. They did not care about Klal Yisrael. It was themselves about whom they cared. Everything else was excuses to cover up their true intentions. It was leadership which they sought. They wanted to be in charge, to give the orders – in place of Moshe.

Every community has such individuals. They are never there when help is needed. They rear their ugly heads at every opportunity in which a controversy can be stirred. Whenever the community’s leadership does something for the community, they are the ones who must undermine the noble efforts of the leadership. If everyone says, “right,” they must say “left,” because this is how they get attention. They talk and complain, postulate and suggest, but never “do.” When Moshe saw his brethren laboring for the Egyptian taskmasters, he immediately joined with them. He really cared. Dasan and Aviram talked and complained, but never lifted a hand to help.

I do not want to end this dvar Torah with total censure of Dasan and Aviram. They mere fact that they are mentioned in the Torah bespeaks a status far beyond anything we are able to grasp. In addition, as evil as they were, they did not perish during the three days of darkness – when all those Jews who would rather remain in Egypt than travel into the unknown wilderness – died. Why were Dasan and Aviram not included in this “august” group? Furthermore, they merited to be part of the 600,000 who witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea and who received the Torah. They must have some redeeming qualities.

The Maharil Diskin, zl, explains that Dasan and Aviram were among the shotrim, Jewish foremen, who were in charge of the Jewish labor force in Egypt. It was Pharaoh’s diabolical plan to have Jew mistreat Jew. He was unsuccessful, as these foremen actually sacrificed themselves to protect their brethren. Dasan and Aviram sustained more than one “klop,” beating, on behalf of their Jewish brothers. In addition, these beatings created infections that gave off a noxious odor from their bodies, which added insult to injury. All of this was on behalf of the Jewish people. Such sacrifice does not go unrequited by Hashem. The Maharil concludes with the following statement: “A person who suffers pain for another Jew, neither the Malach Ha’Maves, Angel of Death, nor the Red Sea can do him harm.”

Now that we have discovered the redeeming quality for which these two despots merited to be a part of the greatest generation in Jewish history, we wonder where they went wrong. I think the answer lies specifically in their good deed. It went to their heads. They assumed that since they had been performing such acts of kindness on behalf of their brethren, they were above reproach. They erred. There are good deeds and bad deeds. The good does not overshadow the bad. Certainly, it is not license to act in a manner unbecoming a Jew.

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