Servitude had begun. Our Egyptian hosts turned into our oppressors, bondage and slavery had replaced civility and coexistence. Pharaoh decreed, “Kol ha’beyn ha’yilod ha’yiorah tashlichu’hu (Cast every baby boy into the river).” Yocheved hid her infant son for as long as she could. After three months she could hide him no longer, and on that fateful day she fashioned a basket and set him afloat in the Nile, saying goodbye to her son forever. Then something amazing occurred.
“Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe, to the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it.” (Exodus 2:5)
Rashi explains the phrase “she sent her maidservant” can also be interpreted to mean “she outstretched her arm.” The Talmud explains that the daughter of Pharaoh extended her arm to grab the basket, a miracle occurred, and her arm extended beyond its normal reach.
The great Chassidic master, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) is perplexed by this Talmudic passage. Why would Pharaoh’s daughter stretch out her arm to grab something which was clearly out of reach? A person can easily gauge what is within their reach and it appears that the basket was a significant distance away (as evidenced by the fact that a miracle was needed). Why even try to grab it? The answer is quite profound. Sometimes in life you just have to try. You just have to extend your hand and attempt to grab your goals, dreams and aspirations. There are many things in life which look “too far away.” There are many initiatives, ideas, finish lines which look out of reach. This is where our relationship with God comes in. God whispers in our ear, “Stretch out your hand, put in the effort, push yourself as hard as you can and just when you think your reach has ended, I will extend your grasp a bit more. Where your human limitations begin is where I will partner with you and extend your reach.” The daughter of Pharaoh did not know how she would reach the basket, but she knew she had to try.
Too many times in life we look at an aspiration or goal and tell ourselves, “it’s too far, it’s out of my reach, no way I can accomplish this feat, it simply looks impossible.” The truth is anything that is comfortably within reach, is usually not worth having. The very things you have to stretch and exert for are the things which infuse meaning into life. Our life mandate and mission is to dream beautiful dreams and stretch as far as we can to bring them to fruition. If the dream is truly holy and important then God will extend our reach and help us actualize our aspirations.
It all changed so dramatically. What began as an idyllic existence (albeit in a foreign land) soured over time. Pharaoh created national hysteria by telling his people that the Hebrews would overrun the Egyptian population and take over the culture and country. The Egyptians, scared by this prospect, gave Pharaoh the license to “take care of the problem.” Jews were conscripted for national service which ultimately turned into slavery. Free men became beasts of burden and Jewish children were thrown into the Nile. What had begun as a safe, secure and prosperous existence evolved into a life of oppression, tragedy, difficulty and despair. For years the Children of Israel cried out to God. They looked to the Heavens for answers and salvation. But God was silent. Then, one day something changed.
“Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor. God heard their cry, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25).
Why did God hear the tortured cries of people now when He had not “heard” them before? What was it about these above-mentioned cries that triggered the start of the redemptive process?
The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270) explains that although the people did not possess the requisite merit for redemption; their prayers were so heartfelt that God had no choice but to hear their voices and ameliorate their plight. We learn from this episode that the most effective prayer is one that emanates from a broken heart. When a person is suffering and turns to God (recognizing that God is the only one who can help lighten their load) their prayer carries with it an incredible energy and ability to effect change.
The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Hayyim Ibn Atar, 1696-1743) takes a different approach. Unlike the Ramban who understands the “cries” of the people as prayer, the Ohr HaChaim explains that they did not pray at all. “They did not cry to God to save them, rather, they cried as a person cries out from physical pain. The verse teaches us, that their cry (of pain) came before God.”
But if they did not pray to God, why did their cries of physical pain move God to such a great degree? If indeed God felt saddened by their pain, why was He not moved to action earlier?
The Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, 1820-1892) explains that when a person must contend with suffering and tragic loss, one becomes so focused on survival that they lose the full awareness of how much has been lost. He gives an example of a man who was once wealthy and becomes impoverished. At first, he laments the loss of his wealth. He yearns for the trappings of his lavish lifestyle and constantly compares his previous standing with his current one. However, as time goes on he gets used to his new life situation and begins to forget the full extent of his previous life. Over time he begins to see himself as a pauper and not as someone who once possessed great wealth. His focus on his present begins to obscure the true nature of the past. He must devote his energies to surviving and does not have the luxury of mourning for what has been lost. He stops thinking of the wealth of his past and begins to solely focus on survival in the present.
This is what happened to our ancestors. As the years of servitude progressed, the Jewish slave began to forget that he was ever free. He began to forget that he was Reuven, Shimon and Levi...; he began to forget that we were once a reflection of all that was beautiful and holy; he began to forget that he possessed Abraham’s kindness, Isaac’s strong will and Jacob’s fortitude. Over time our ancestors began to lose their sense of self and connection to their identity.
This is the meaning of the Ohr HaChaim. Amid their agony and pain, they did not pray. Prayer is the dialogical connection to God and to our inner self. Prayer reminds us that we are spiritual beings. Our ancestors lost their connection to their inner spiritual self. They forgot how to pray. When you forget who you are and what you are, the only thing you can do is cry out in visceral pain.
When God realized that His beloved people were losing their sense of self, He had no choice but to initiate the Redemption process. Without a sense of self, there is no future. A people who forget who they are is a people who will be lost in the sands of time. God heard our prayer-less cries and began the process of salvation.
We all encounter challenges and struggles throughout life. There are situations that are so grueling and demanding that we feel we must use all our life energy just to stay afloat. We must make sure that even in such difficult predicaments we never lose our sense of self. No matter how demanding the circumstances of our existence may be, we must always remember who we were, who we are and who we are destined to become.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
We spend much of our lives trying to provide the very best for ourselves and for our children both physically and spiritually. It is important to be cognizant of the atmosphere that we surround ourselves and our families in and how it influences us. Rabbi Silber shares a powerful insight on holiness from this week’s Parsha.
The cries of an afflicted nation proved too intense to go unanswered. God tells Moshe that he will be the Divine emissary to emancipate the enslaved Jewish nation and allow them to be a free people in their destined land. Moshe took leave of Yisro and began the journey to Egypt with his wife, Tzipporah and their two children. The Torah then records a strange episode. “Now he was on the way, in an inn, that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. So Tzipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son’s foreskin and cast it to his feet, and she said, ‘For you are a bridegroom of blood to me.’ So, He released him. Then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood concerning the circumcision’ (Shemos 4:24-26).” What exactly is occurring in this episode? Just a few verses earlier God insisted that Moshe accept the responsibility of leading the Jewish people and now God stands ready to kill him?
The Talmud (Nedarim 31b) explains that God was upset that Moshe had delayed the bris (circumcision) of his newborn son. The Talmudic sage, Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) explains that had Moshe circumcised the child while still in Midyan, their journey down to Egypt would have been delayed (a child post-circumcision is in a precarious state of health and cannot travel). Therefore, Moshe decided to begin the journey (as he felt this to be the will of God) and perform the bris in closer proximity to Egypt. If so, why was God upset? “Mipney she’nisaseyk b’malon techila, because Moshe took care of their lodging arrangements first (before performing the bris).” Moshe should have first circumcised his son and only afterwards looked for lodging and accommodations. The Divine wrath was not a result of Moshe’s failure to perform the bris in Midyan (God agreed with Moshe’s thought process), it was a result of Moshe’s seemingly misplaced priorities. The bris should have been performed before securing lodging for the family.
But is this such an egregious error that it should have potentially cost Moshe his life? Moshe was not negating the Mitzvah altogether! He stood ready to comply. Moshe was simply a father, a husband looking to find accommodations for his family. Why such severity in the Divine response? This is Moshe Rabbeinu we are talking about. This was a man who is described as the most faithful servant of God. What is the Torah trying to teach us? What is the lesson?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Orach Mishpat 143) explains this entire episode in a novel and dramatic fashion. Why did Moshe take care of his lodging arrangements first? After all this is Moshe Rabbeinu, a man who spoke with God, a man who understood that the future and success of the Jewish nation depended on adherence to the word of God. Why didn’t Moshe immediately take care of the circumcision prior to looking for an inn? Rav Kook explains that Moshe didn’t want to simply perform the Mitzvah; he wanted to perform it with “hiddur, additional beauty.” The concept of hiddur mitzvah, beautification of a commandment, directs us to not simply perform the basic minimum to discharge our religious obligations. Rather, we must strive to perform each mitzvah with all its details, beautifying the physical components to indicate how precious and meaningful each spiritual act truly is. Moshe did not want to perform his son’s bris on the side of the road. He wanted the bris of his youngest son to be a beautiful moment of spiritual growth and elation. He wanted to make a celebratory meal, invite guests, and speak about the meaning of this physical bond between man and his Creator. And so, he delayed the bris to find suitable accommodations – not just to house his family but to provide the appropriate venue for the performance of this important mitzvah. Moshe’s delay was to enhance the glory and beauty of the mitzvah, to amplify the Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name). But God did not agree with this approach. “Mitzvah ha’ba l’yadecha al tachmitzena, if an opportunity for a mitzvah arises do not let it tarry (literally become chametz, leaven);” better to seize an imperfect, present moment than to delay with the expectation of something greater in the unknown future.
This episode carries with it an important message. There are opportunities that cross our life threshold each and every day. Too often we actively allow these opportunities to pass us by because we are “waiting for something better.” Too often, we convince ourselves that if we delay the performance of a particular deed, or we delay the actualization of a life dream, we will be able to do it better or give it more attention. We convince ourselves that we will have more time later and will be able to put more effort into the particular initiative. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that when we delay doing the things we know we must do, they never really get done. When we push off actualizing our dreams until we have more time, there never seems to be enough time. All too often we give up present meaning in the hope of some unknown future. We must find the strength to take advantage of the beautiful life opportunities that present themselves and not waste a lifetime waiting for something better. The old adage is still true, there is no time like the present.