Mrs. Smiles - Vaeira: Existential Exodus Experience 5771/2010

The compilers of the Passover Haggadah expend much effort in discussing the plagues Hashem brought upon Mitzraim/Egypt, as is only appropriate in celebrating the exodus. At one point, they focus on two terms, the Egyptians declaration that the plague of lice is “the finger of God” and the contrasting perception Bnei Yisroel declare at the Reed Sea as “the mighty hand of God.”

Rav Belsky in Einei Yisroel graphically explains the difference between using a finger and using a hand. When one is trying to teach a lesson, one points things out with one’s finger. In contrast, when one wants to strike or punish, one uses one’s hand. The plagues in Egypt, continues Rav Belsky, were meant to teach the Egyptians that Hashem is the only Omnipotent One, while the drowning in the sea was meant to finally punish and destroy them.

Rav Soroskin in Habinah Vehabracha builds on this idea by explaining that the lessons of the plagues were meant even more for Bnei Yisroel than for the Egyptians, and the Egyptians were the vehicles through which these lessons would become manifest. Rav Soroskin lists the three principles of our faith, implicit in Shema Yisroel Hashem- Elokeinu - Hashem Echad that the plagues are meant to teach us: Hashem – God exists, and He is Master of the universe; Elokeinu – He is our God, with a special relationship to Bnei Yisroel; Hashem Echad – He is One Force, no matter what aspect of His presence we perceive.

The first three plagues represent Hashem’s mastery over the world, as Hashem transformed water into blood and blood back into water. The second group of three plagues represents Hashem’s special relationship with Bnei Yisroel, for although these plagues, such as the wild animals, tormented the Egyptians, they held no sway over Bnei Yisroel. In the third set, Hashem proclaimed the Unity of His Being, for example by raining hail with a center composed of fire upon Egypt.

The perception of God as two separate aspects of one Entity can be inferred from the mateh, the staff with which Moshe performed the miracles. The staff was both the instrument of punishment that brought the plagues on Egypt and the instrument of Israel’s salvation, yet it is still the one and the same staff. It is both a tree of life and a poisonous snake, depending on who uses it. Rabbi Tatz discusses this idea in depth in Living Inspired. This staff, when held aloft in the hands of a righteous man, symbolizes the spirituality derived from heaven. However, when thrown to the ground it becomes a part of the base, mundane, earthly world, the world of the ensnaring snake. It is the same staff, but both possibilities are contained within it.

Rabbi Tatz uses an allegory to clarify this idea. When one walks along a straight path, he explains, one can always check back to see his point of origin. However, if the road bends or one takes a fork in the road, one can no longer see his point of origin. One can only know this point by remembering it. The upper realms, continues Rabbi Tatz, are straight and infinite, and the angelic beings inhabiting these spheres never lose sight of their origin. However, when our finite world was created, we became limited in our view, unable to see Infinity. This world, therefore, is distorted, with bends and forks. One can perceive the Origin only through memory, through the times Hashem has opened windows for us. So we are enjoined to remember creation, the exodus, our stand at Sinai, lest we forget the spiritual Source of all. These bends in the world create the possibility of choice and free will, for we can choose to believe in the Creator of all or to deny His existence, for we can see neither with clarity. We must hold the staff aloft, keep it straight. If we throw it down, it becomes the distorted snake, perverting and poisoning everything.

The Egyptians themselves were evil incarnate. They could take the straight staffs and transform them into snakes as Aharon had done. But only Aharon and Moshe, the Levites, could remain firm, and retain the straightness of the staff. In that straight form, in the line of truth, it would devour the other staffs and their evil distortions. Pharaoh refused to see God’s hand in this miracle, choosing instead the distortions of evil and sorcery.

Our purpose on earth is to retain the firmness of Moshe and Aharon against the distortions of evil, to reject the fatal venom the snake is trying to inject into us in small doses that will eventually poison our whole being and blind us to Hashem’s presence.

In Chikrei Lev, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heiman also uses the image of the staff but focuses on the one who holds that staff. Pharaoh represents the yetzer horo (evil inclination) in all of us. Just as Pharaoh enslaved us slowly, enticing us with a false sense of belonging and accomplishment until we came completely under his control, so does the yetzer horo begin with us as children with simple wants and desires, hoping that as we mature we will not let truth enlighten us. He hopes to keep us forever in his clutches, until we are fully addicted to him. Only by being a Levite in the struggle, like Aharon or Moshe, and picking up the snake by its tail can we again gain mastery over it.

Even when Pharaoh finally seems to be acknowledging Hashem, it is all a subterfuge. After the plague of hail, Pharaoh admits to being wrong “this time” without admitting to the total picture. He seems to be making the ultimate admission “Hashem is the righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones.” But the Belzer Rebbe, the Shvilei Pinchas points out, Pharaoh is interjecting himself, his ego, into the name of Hashem. The acronym formed by the first letters of the first two words and last two words of Pharaoh’s confession, spell out YKVK in Hebrew (YKVK Hatzadik veani Veami Horshoim.) However, once we insert our egos the ani, into our acknowledgement of Hashem, we create and maintain a schism between the Ribbonoh shel Olam and ourselves.

In the simple reading of this continuing interchange between Pharaoh and Moshe, Pharaoh seems to relent. He tells Moshe to go and serve Hashem. But when Pharaoh asks Moshe who will be going, Pharaoh reneges. Pharaoh would allow the men to go, but not the women and children. Similarly, he understood that if he keeps the children away from this service, they will be strangers to the service of Hashem and adopt the culture of Egypt. This condition was unacceptable to Moshe, for the essence of Bnei Yisroel lies in our continuity through the education of our children in the ways of Hashem, and to shield them, at least as young children, from the depraved influence of pop culture.

The Bnei Yissaschar takes this schism that Pharaoh wishes to create to yet another level. Pharaoh will admit that there is a Hashem in heaven, but he wants to keep Hashem uninvolved in the earth. Pharaoh himself wants to rule here; he still demands that the ani and his people do as they wish. The Bnei Yissaschar suggests another acronym for Hashem’s name, an acronym that is not divided by ego, by ani: Yismichu Hashomayim Vetagel Haaretz. Pharaoh agreed that the heavens could be happy in Hashem’s presence, but he refused to accept that the earth should also rejoice with Hashem. The heavens, always aware of Hashem’s presence, will forever rejoice, but the earth will not rejoice as long as Bnei Yisroel is in exile, for His Name will not be manifest and recognized throughout the earth until Bnei Yisroel is free to spread His Name.

But we ourselves, Bnei Yisroel, may continue to be tightly bound up with the same problem of ego as Pharaoh. We may daven and do mitzvoth, but we may leave Hashem in the synagogue, forgetting (or even refusing, ch”v) to acknowledge His role in our everyday lives, from business successes to failures, from health to illness, and even to finding a parking spot. Accepting Hashem may remain a strictly intellectual pursuit without ever penetrating the consciousness of our daily lives. This disconnect is alluded to in the name Mitzraim. In Hebrew, the “M” has two forms, an open form at the beginning or middle of the word, and a closed form, without any openings, at the end of a word. The closed form symbolizes the intellect, for it lets nothing out of its enclosed space to interact with the world. The open form represents action which goes out of itself and does interact with the world. Between these two forms at the beginning and end of the name of Mytzraim, says the Bnei Yissaschar, lies the yetzer, man’s ego, the same ego that tries to keep our interaction with Hashem purely cerebral without impacting our daily lives.

The Netivot Shalom exhorts us to free ourselves from the shackles of ego and from the influences of foreign culture. Remain like Levi unenslaved and true to the Yiddishe neshamas within us. If we do not hold firm to our pure neshamas and let the neshama go, a “ruach shtus” will take its place, and a spirit of foolishness will enter us and cause us to sin.

If, like Bnei Yisroel in Mitzraim, we are not yet ready to free ourselves totally, let us use Shabbos and Yom Tov as our spiritual vehicles. Let us begin with a three day journey. As Rav Belsky explains, we need to prepare for these spiritual experiences of Shabbos and Yom Tov and anticipate their arrival. We can say “Lekovod Shabbos Kodesh,” when wiping down the candlesticks immediately after Shabbos so they will be ready for next week. Or we can buy our special Shabbos delicacies with that expression on our lips. We can dress in Shabbos finery and adorn ourselves in gold and silver as our ancestors did in anticipation of their redemption from Egypt.

We can strive to reach the heights of a spiritual existence by freeing ourselves from ego and purely materialistic considerations. We must control the staff of life in our hands, remember our holy origins, and keep focused on the mission of our people to unite heaven and earth with the knowledge and the joy of Hashem’s presence not only in heaven but also on earth.

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