Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El
Dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai
At the opening of this week's Torah portion, God says to Moshe: "Come to Pharaoh, because I have hardened his heart so that I can multiply My miracles in his midst." Question: Why does God not simply say, "Go to Pharaoh?" or "Speak to Pharaoh"? To gain an insight into the answer to this question, we must first understand the predicament of the nation and its leader Moshe at this juncture.
Until now, the start of Parshat Bo, Pharaoh and his nation had already experienced seven major plagues, but had refused to give in and free the Jews. In this situation, many Jews had likely resigned themselves to the status quo, feeling that there was no point in really trying to convince Pharaoh to permit them to leave; it's possible that these doubts even trickled down to Moshe Rabeinu. In response, Hashem had to deliver words of encouragement, a statement that would clarify for them that all of the hardships blocking their immediate redemption were part of a Divine plan, that there was nothing to fear from Pharaoh. "Come before him - showing self-confidence, not as if you've been sent, forced to speak with him, but like someone who has come to fulfill his mission..."
WHY THE PLAGUES?
At first glance, it seems that the plagues that befell the Egyptians constituted a punishment for their refusal to release the Children of Israel from bondage. Our sages tell us, however, that there was another reason for the Egyptian suffering: "The Egyptians were evil," say the rabbis, "as it says, 'I (Pharaoh) and my nation are wicked people.' What caused them to suffer each successive plague? They were firmly convinced of the power of their idolatrous gods to save them. So what did God do? He smote their gods along with them."
On the surface of things - from a purely human perspective - it is possible to offer various "political" explanations for the numerous wars that have erupted between Israel and the other nations throughout history. Just as one may understand the conflict with Egypt as a purely economic conflict (i.e. that Egypt did not want to lose all of its free, efficient manpower, its Israelite slaves.) there are those who would argue that our conflicts with other nations stem from economics, security, territory, and the like.
And yet our sages teach that such is not the case. The deeper roots of the war between Israel and the nations is not political or economic, but spiritual. The Jewish servitude in Egypt was merely a manifestation of the spiritual opposition that Egypt posed to everything that the nation of Israel represents. Therefore, it was not Egypt's desire to hold onto Israel that invited the plagues, but the Egyptians' certainty, their faith in their idolatry, that sparked their suffering.
In our day, too, the nations that rise up against Israel are, in practice, not trying to harm Israel per se, but, rather, so to speak- to harm the God of Israel. The Jewish national renaissance of the last 100 years contradicts the conviction that the Jews should have faded into insignificance, the dustbins of history. According to this view, God has "traded the Jews in" for another nation; He has rejected Israel and chosen others. Thus, our true struggle with other nations is a spiritual one. In response to their efforts to stand in the way of our fulfillment of our duty, we must be sure to raise our voices even more and call in the name of Hashem; we must, through our deeds, continue to prove our complete dedication to Him, and our devotion to the task of sanctifying God's name in the world. By following this plan, we will surely succeed in squelching our enemies: "They rely on their chariots and horses, and we shall call in the name of our God..."
UNRAVELING A MISHNA
The mishna in Tractate Berachot states:
"We recite [in the blessings for the Shma prayer] the passage dealing with the redemption from Egypt [even] at night. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria said: I am nearly 70 years old, and I never understood why the passage of the redemption of Egypt is recited at night; that is, until Ben Zomah arrived and explained the verse, "...so that you should remember the exodus from Egypt all of the days of your life." If it were only to have said, "the days of your life," I would have learned that the exodus need be recited in the daytime hours only. But the Torah says "All the days of your life." From this, I understand that the relevant passage should be recited during the entire 24 hour period of each day. The sages [disagreed] and said: "[If it had said,] 'the days of your life,' [I would have recited the exodus during] the present period in history. [Now that it says] 'all the days', [I understand that] the exodus will even be recited in Messianic times".
Rabbi Yechezkel Segal Landau points out that the above-quoted verse does not explicitly command us to recite verses dealing with the exodus; rather, it refers to the mitzvah as if it is was well-known, and then defines when it should be performed!
If so, Rabbi Landau asks, is the source in the Torah for the specific obligation to mention the exodus? In his answer, Rabbi Landau explains that there is no need for a special mitzvah (commandment) to teach us that God wants us to mention the exodus, since the main theme of numerous mitzvot is to remind us of the redemption from Egypt. Once we were commanded to adhere to these mitzvot, it is obvious that God wishes us to recount the exodus! This is also the possible reason for the fact that Maimonedes - Rambam - does not enumerate the mitzvah of mentioning the exodus as a separate commandment in his "Sefer Hamitzvot." ("Book of the Commandments")
Recalling the exodus from Egypt is more than just a private commandment; it is in fact related to the entire Torah, and all of the Torah's mitzvot. The exodus from Egypt was the first and most overwhelming manifestation of the chosenness of the Jewish people, of the fact that we are a nation treasured by the Creator of the World. This act of "choosing" us was unilateral, a Divinely-ordained reality that transcends the parameters of a particular mitzvah act. We are bidden to live this truth every waking moment. Thus, the fact that there is no separate mitzvah to recount the exodus, not only does not testify to the fact that there is no value to recounting the exodus, but is rather a testimony to the fact that the obligation to do so transcends the parameters of regular mitzvot.
An additional reason can be offered to why this mitzvah is missing from the Torah is that we are ecstatic to be the nation which God chose from among the other nations, and He imposed upon us to be the carriers of Hashem's ideas in this world. We announce: "Happy our we, how good is our portion, and how pleasant is our lot." We are not in need of a specific commandment that imposes upon us to remember the exodus. It is a pleasant obligation for us that obviates the need for a commandment.
According to Rabbi Yosef Babad, the author of the renowned "Minchat Chinuch," there is an important difference between the obligation to recall the exodus from Egypt during the daytime, and the obligation to recall it at night. In his view, since the mitzvah to recite it at night stems from a rabbinic "drasha" (derivation) and is not learned from the plain meaning of the Torah text., the obligation to recite it at night is not as serious as reciting it during the daytime. This point has great implications for a person who takes an oath not to recite the verse of the exodus from Egypt. Regarding all of the mitzvot of the Torah - there is a rule that a person cannot take an oath to refrain from performing a mitzvah, since he has already "been sworn in" at Mt. Sinai to fulfill all of the mitzvot, "and one oath cannot overwrite another." However, this is only true with respect to mitzvot explicitly mentioned in the Torah, but this is not true regarding mitzvot derived indirectly from the Torah - regarding which we were not specifically sworn in on Mt. Sinai. Therefore, when a person takes an oath that he will not recite the exodus verses during the daytime, his oath is invalid. In contrast, someone who takes an oath not to recite the exodus from Egypt at night, his oath is valid, and he must fulfil it.
At first blush, it seems as if that is the night-time recitation of the verses relating to the exodus should be considered the main mitzvah, since the night is when the miracles of the redemption took place. The author of the Passover Haggadah says: "And you should tell your son, saying...it is because of this [that God redeemed me from Egypt - at a time when matzah and bitter herbs are placed before you.] i.e. night." The Mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt -with all of the graphic symbols of the servitude and redemption - must be at a time when the exodus actually took place - at midnight. If so, why is it that, as far as recalling the exodus daily, the prime mitzvah is in the daytime.
A TWO-FOLD DUTY
To understand this paradox, we should remember that two obligations exist: the duty to tell the story of the exodus and the mitzvah of recalling the exodus. Telling the story involves the publicizing of the great miracles that God performed for Israel back then. The purpose of publicizing the miracles is two-fold: 1) To praise and bring splendor to God for his miracles and wonders; 2) To warn the other nations of the world who may be planning to rise up against Israel: Observe what happened to the first nation that tried to do so!
The exact time of the main redemptive miracles was midnight. Our sages ask: Why did Moshe say, in the name of God, that "around midnight, I will 'come out' in the midst of Egypt" - instead of being more specific and saying - "at midnight"? To this query, the rabbis answer: "Perhaps Pharoah's magicians would say: "Moshe is just making this all up." If the magicians' calculation of midnight came out differently than the calculation made by Moshe, God's name would be desecrated. If Moshe were to have said that God would smite the firstborn boys - and at "midnight" according to the magicians, the plague had not yet occurred, the world would have experienced a "Chilul Hashem" - a desecration of God's name.
Some of you may ask: Why should we care if the Egyptian sorcerers err? At most, a minute later, the plague of the first born would begin, and all of the first born Egyptian boys would have nevertheless been killed. If so, why the insistence on saying "about midnight"? We can, however, deduce one central theme from this discussion : God wants to ensure that there is no room for misunderstanding, even for a second regarding His power and the complete truth of his promise to redeem Israel.
Until midnight, the night is at its peak, and, mystically, the attribute of God's strict justice is operative. From midnight and onwards, the strength of the night begins to dissipate, and the Divine attribute of mercy begins to shine on earth. Exact midnight represents the moment of synthesis of judgement and compassion: God's judgement of the nations of the world, and His compassion for the nation of Israel. Herein lies both a hint and a warning to Israel’s enemies in future generations who seek to delay the redemption of our people: The moment of Israel’s redemption is a time of compassion for the Jewish people and of strict judgement for those that try to bring the redemption to a halt! In light of the above, the main obligation of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is at night.
The recitation of the verses relating to the exodus, however, relates to the recognition of God’s having chosen the Jewish nation to be the carrier of the Divine idea in the world - and the Jewish separateness enables our nation to fulfill its role. This recognition must totally fill the being of every Jewish person. With all of his power, each Jew is called upon to recognize the unique part he must play as a member of the treasured nation. This mitzvah is therefore fittingly placed - when people can best internalize it - at the height of the day, when everyone is up, around, and fully conscious.