Pharaoh continued his stiff-necked response to the plagues and refused to emancipate the Jewish people. His advisors told him it was a lost cause and Egypt would perish, but Pharaoh refused to heed their warnings. This week’s Parsha opens with the following verse:
The Lord said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst.” (Exodus 10:1)
Rashi explains: “The Lord said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh: and warn him.” But what is the point in warning Pharaoh if God had hardened his heart? If Pharaoh had lost his free-will what impact would the warning have? Is this not an exercise in futility?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) provides an incredible insight:
“It is brought down in Tanya that even those for whom teshuva (repentance) is impossible, if such a person pushes forward and does in fact repent, his teshuva is accepted. So too here, although God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, he still had the opportunity to strengthen himself to repent and return. This is why Moshe was sent to “warn” Pharaoh. This warning reinforced the idea that Pharaoh still had the ability to change and turn things around. A warning is only significant if the individual has the capacity to change. Had Pharaoh done teshuva, it would have been accepted by God.” (Likutei Sichos)
At first glance, the Rebbe’s words seem incomprehensible and even contradictory, but upon further reflection we learn that man never completely loses his free-will. There may be times when free-will is compromised and other times when aspects of free-will might even be taken away – but it is never totally gone. Even Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by God Himself, had the ability to change. There is always a choice. God sends Moshe to warn Pharaoh to teach him that he can change these circumstances if he so chooses.
There are times in life when we feel a lack choices. We feel like the walls are closing in and we have no options or possibilities. Some experience these feelings in difficult and strained relationships which have been tenuous for so long that we don’t see a way to repair them. Some of us experience this in our careers when after doing something for a prolonged period of time, we feel limited in our ability to find additional meaning or to transition to something else. And then some of us experience this in how we view ourselves. “I’ve been a certain way for so long that I don’t think I have the ability or capacity to change.” Pharaoh comes along and teaches us that we always have a choice. You may not be able to choose many of your life circumstances but even in those situations which have been foisted upon you, there is always a choice to be made. As Victor Frankl wrote, “The last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” We are never without choices. At times I can choose my situation and path in life. Other times the path has been set for me, but I still get to choose what I do with this path.
There are many layers of tragedy in the slavery naarative. There is the tragedy of an oppressed people, there is the tragedy of murder and bloodshed and there is a tragedy of a Pharaoh who could have prevented so much pain had he realized that he still had a choice. There is always a choice to be made, may we find the courage to make it.
“So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days.” (Exodus 10:22)
Choshech (darkness), the ninth plague had descended upon Egypt. The plagues were not happenstance and random. Each plague had a purpose and message. What was the purpose inchoshech?
“…. The Israelites searched [the Egyptians’ dwellings during the darkness] and saw their [own] belongings. When they were leaving [Egypt] and asked [for some of their things], and they [the Egyptians] said, “We have nothing,” he [the Israelite] would say to him, “I saw it in your house, and it is in such and such a place.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) makes a fascinating observation. Every stage of our salvation and emancipation was miraculous. From the plagues to the splitting of the sea. No part of this redemption was rooted in the natural order. Yet, the Jews had to “ask” the Egyptians for gold, silver and clothing. If God was already orchestrating supernatural salvation, why not just have the Egyptians give the wealth to the Jews? Furthermore, this wealth was back pay and reparations for 210 years of barbaric mistreatment. Why did the Jewish nation have to spend the days of choshech searching for the Egyptian wealth?
The Talmud states (Megillah 6b):
ואמר ר’ יצחק אם יאמר לך אדם יגעתי ולא מצאתי אל תאמן לא יגעתי ומצאתי אל תאמן יגעתי ומצאתי תאמן
Rabbi Yitzḥak said: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored, and I have found success, believe him.
Where there is effort there is success. Where there is no effort there can be no enduring success. God was teaching us this all-important lesson. If you want the gold, silver and accomplishments of life you must be willing to search and work. Nothing meaningful will ever just show up at your doorstep.
The Jewish nation was about to take the final step in transitioning from a slave to a free nation. A slave is beholden to his master, a free man is responsible to himself. The slave lacks control over many elements of his existence, the free man must own the nature and direction of his life. Each of us desire things in life but all too often we don’t want to put in the work. We want the successes, but we want to minimize the effort. To reap the true blessings of life, one must be willing to search out opportunities even in the darkness. To experience success in this world requires an incredible amount of effort. We have dreams, aspirations and goals but we must realize that no one else will make them happen for us. No one else will roll up their sleeves to make our dreams come true. Too often, we live with a sense of life entitlement. We think our parents owe us, our spouse owes us, our children owe us and of course, God owes us. The most empowering way to live is to rid oneself of this sense of entitlement. No one owes you anything. If we want something from life, we need to make it happen. We must search out the successesand be willing to work hard and exert ourselves. Navigate the darkness, follow your own light and IYH life success will follow.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
In this week’s Parsha we are given the first national Mitzvah, “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim, This month will be for you the first of all months.” (Shemos 12:2). God gave Moshe the instructions for establishing the lunar calendar. After “disappearing” towards the end of the month, the moon reappears and signals the beginning of a new month. The Talmud explains that after receiving the testimony of those who saw the new moon, the Jewish court proceeded to declare the new month and dispatched messengers to inform the greater Jewish community.
One would imagine that a great deal of Divine thought went into choosing the first mitzvah to be given to the fledgling Jewish nation. This first mitzvah would set the tone and serve as the foundation for our national consciousness. If we are honest – we find ourselves a bit surprised by God’s decision. There are so many dramatic, meaningful, covenantal mitzvos that help to shape our relationship with God and with one another. Mitzvos like Bris Mila (circumcision), Shabbos, Tzedaka (charity) and Emunah (belief in God). Yet, despite the numerous options, the first mitzvah God gives to us is something that most people are not even directly involved in. Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctification of the new moon) is a technical, calendrical necessity that does not appear to carry incredible meaning for the common man. Why did God choose this mitzvah as our first?
In order to answer this question, we must examine the juxtaposition of the plague of darkness (choshech) to the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctification of the new moon). In describing the plague of darkness the Torah states, “They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days, but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” (Shemos 10:23) The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach, 13th century) points out that the word “dwellings” teaches us that wherever the Jews went they had light. Wherever they established their “dwelling” the light followed. During the earlier plagues if the Jew wanted to escape the Divine wrath he had to remain in Goshen. If he ventured out into Egypt proper, he ran the risk of being harmed by the plagues. However, when it came to darkness, the Jew had light wherever he traveled. Why was the plague of darkness different than the previous plagues? The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Hayyim b”r Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) explains that the plague of darkness was an external manifestation of an internal state of disrepair. The Egyptians were so overcome by anger, animosity, rage and hatred that darkness filled their souls. And this inner darkness became so intense that it flowed out and darkened the world around them. When a person is filled with bitter darkness, it prevents them from seeing any light in the world. Yet, in the very moment when the Egyptians were blanketed by their internal darkness,”u’lchol Bnai Yisroel haya ohr b’moshvosom, the Jewish people had light in all of their dwellings.”
Life was far from idyllic; the Jewish nation still bore the emotional and physical scars of barbaric slavery – but they made a decision to focus on the light. Our ancestors made a decision to focus on the good. They decided to gird themselves with optimism, dreams and hope. There were many obstacles both present and future. They knew not what awaited them but they knew that God loved them and would take care of them. They knew that their leaders Moshe and Aharon would lay down their lives for them. They knew that they were the children of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and as such were heirs to a great spiritual destiny. The nation of Israel suffered loss, humiliation and defeat. They would have been within their right to become bitter and filled with resentment. But they didn’t. They made a decision to focus on the positive. By maintaining an optimistic disposition, they decided to create luminescent light. The truly amazing reality is that when you decide to create your personal light, it follows you wherever you go and illuminates even the darkest of paths.
Rashi (12:2) explains that Moshe had difficulty seeing the new moon even as God, Himself pointed it out. The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabba 3:2) explains that no matter how much Moshe strained himself, he saw nothing but darkness. God turned to Moshe and He said, “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem, this month is for you; if you want light – lachem, you must create it yourself.” Moshe was waiting for God to illuminate the dark night; God reminded Moshe, you must create your own light.
This is the deeper meaning of Kiddush HaChodesh. God gives us time, God gives us opportunities, but God doesn’t give us the light, we must produce it ourselves. At the beginning of each new month we walk outside, we look heavenward and it is dark. We look up and it is difficult to see the light. We walk into the darkness and we pledge to ourselves to do our best to create new and beautiful light. We vow to be like our ancestors in Egypt who illuminated the dark night with their internal, luminescent optimism and hope. Life is difficult, life is challenging, life is often an uphill struggle but we have the ability to create light within the darkness. If we focus on the positive, if we maintain an unconquerable sense of optimism and if we choose to see the good in our world, in ourselves and in one another, we can illuminate even the darkest of circumstances. Too often we wait for others to provide us with happiness, fulfillment and light. If we want to dispel the darkness – the power is in our hands.
“HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim, This month will be for you the first of all months …” is not a technical mitzvah for the measurement of time, it is a mandate for successful living. The world is often dark – find the courage to create your own light.