Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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In her book, "Life Is A Test", Rebbitzin Esther Jungreis relates the following story about “an eminent rabbi from Bnei Brak”:

“During the Communist regime in Russia, he was imprisoned in Siberia. Every morning he and the others in his unit would be marched off to backbreaking slave labor. When they returned at nightfall, they would collapse from sheer exhaustion. Days and nights merged and there was no relief from their dismal existence. Among the prisoners in the rabbi's unit was a distinguished-looking gentile gentleman, who somehow managed to retain his dignity, even in that purgatory.

“One night, while all were asleep, some movement awakened the rabbi. He saw this prisoner arise, and from under the mattress, remove a packet with what appeared to be medals. He then took out a mirror, studied himself, whispered a few words, saluted, removed the medals and returned them to the package, and went back to sleep.

“The befuddled rabbi waited to see if the bizarre ritual would be repeated the following night. Sure enough, it was.

“At a loss to comprehend this strange behavior, the rabbi decided to ask the man for an explanation. The man turned ashen; he was terribly agitated at having been detected.

“"Please don't be frightened," the rabbi assured him, "I would never betray you - I just want to understand what you were doing."

“The man confided that, prior to his arrest, he had been a general in the Polish army. ”But here in this dehumanizing pit called Siberia, it's easy to lose sight of who you really are," he explained, "so I made myself a promise. Every night, I would put on my medals, look in the mirror, and remind myself who I really am."

“The rabbi wept and said, "Surely, this is a message to me. If this man goes to such lengths to remember that he was a general in the Polish army, what must I do to remind myself that I stood at Sinai, that I heard the voice of G-d, and that I belong to the nation that sealed His covenant, that I am part of Mamleches Kohanim, a priestly kingdom; Goy Kadosh, a holy nation."”

As Klal Yisroel began to prepare for their imminent exodus from Egypt, G-d instructed Moshe to relate to the people a most unique command: "Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels.2" When the Jews fulfilled this commandment they became extremely wealthy, and they left Egypt with most of the country’s wealth.

The command was a fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Avraham "Afterwards3 they will leave with great wealth4". In fact, the Talmud makes the point that G-d had to "request" of Moshe that he "please speak in the ears of the people" so that it not be said that the years of slavery were endured but the promise of great wealth was not fulfilled.

If one stops to think about what took place it is simply mind-boggling. The Jews had been incarcerated in a relentlessly oppressive and unbearable servitude for generations. For over two centuries they had been born and died with a slave mentality, knowing nothing other than servility and degradation. We can well imagine that they possessed a deeply ingrained fear of their former oppressors. Now they were instructed to knock on their former master's doors and emphatically declare that they wanted them to give over all of their most prized possessions.

Why did they have to receive the wealth of Egypt in this manner? Why did G-d instruct us to receive everything by "borrowing" it and not returning it?

The exodus was far more than a means to physical liberation. The burgeoning nation understood that they were destined for the ultimate greatness, which they achieved a mere seven weeks after the exodus when they stood at Sinai and received the Torah.

The Torah could not be given to a group of ‘liberated slaves’. Those who would accept the Torah and represent all future generations had to have a strong sense of pride and uncompromised dignity. They had to be people of august stature and regal bearing who had the ability to appreciate their inherent greatness, as well as the profundity of what they were receiving.

An ex-con who was incarcerated for decades, doesn’t walk out of jail and become president of the country two months later. But essentially Klal Yisroel had to do just that!

If the Jews had merely received compensation in a miraculous manner after centuries of oppression and bitter enslavement, it would not have given them back the self-esteem that was depleted during the years of brutal slavery. It did not suffice to merely leave Egypt with their money; they had to leave with their pride as well. For that it was necessary for them to overcome their intense fear and knock on the doors of their former masters and to demand all of their wealth. It was for that reason that G-d commanded them to request the wealth as a loan. They had to ask for it with the same confidence as one who asks his trusted friend for a loan.

The very process of the plagues helped undermine and destroy the fear that the former slaves had of their former captors. G-d could have easily brought one massive plague to destroy Egypt in one fell swoop, compelling Pharaoh to drive the Jews out immediately5. But G-d purposely did not do so. Throughout the period of the plagues the Jews saw their former tormentors in the most compromising, humiliating, and debased positions and situations, which had a strong effect in mitigating their sense of awe for them. The act of borrowing their money was yet another step in that progression.

Before the final plague struck Egypt, Moshe instructed the nation about the final procedures and commandments to be fulfilled in Egypt. This included all men circumcising themselves, as well as the preparation and offering of the Paschal Lamb.

The lamb was one of the gods of Egypt. The Jews had to select their lamb four days prior to slaughtering it, and then tie it to their bed posts. When the Egyptians heard the lambs inside the Jewish homes they asked about the peculiar scene. The Jews informed them of their intention to slaughter their god. Such a deed was tantamount to a concentration camp inmate burning an effigy of Hitler in full view of his comrades6. It was the ultimate act of treason.

When the Jews finally did slaughter the lambs they were commanded to gather the blood and to ritually smear it along their doorposts. In doing so, the Jews demonstrated their pride that “this is a Jewish home”. What had for years been a sign of degradation and debasement, had now become a symbol of glory. The Jews were only too proud to promulgate the fact that they were members of the Jewish nation. This was the ultimate symbol of the incredible and uncanny transformation that had occurred within the Jewish psyche.

By the time they traversed the physical confines of Egypt at the behest of Pharaoh, Klal Yisroel had already been transformed into a spiritual and psychological nation of free men, who were now ready to commence their ascent to ultimate greatness.

Parshas Bo has many timeless lessons (as does every verse in the Torah), but if we were to search for one lesson that “Bo knows” and teaches us, it is the lesson of Jewish pride. Before the nation could leave Egypt they had to have a strong sense of identity and mission.

Parshas Bo concludes with the commandment of tefillin. “And it shall be for a sign on your arm, and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand G-d removed us from Egypt.” One of the meanings contained in the idea that G-d delivered us with “a Strong Hand” is that He caused the exodus to unfold in a manner which ensured the rebuilding of our dignity. The tefillin which every adult male wears every weekday morning is a testimony to our pride in being members of the Chosen Nation. It is insufficient to be a Jew in action; one must be a Jew intellectually and emotionally as well, utilizing his mind and heart. That is the symbolism of the tefillin.

The holiday of Pesach, as well as our constant mentioning of the exodus, serves as a reminder, not merely of our physical salvation, but of the spiritual/emotional/psychological salvation as well.

At the Pesach Seder we declare that had G-d not redeemed us from Egypt, “we, our sons, and our son’s sons would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” The commentators question the veracity of that statement. Wasn’t it possible that a future benevolent ruler would have freed us from servitude? The answer is that while it is true that we may have been physically freed, but if G-d had not redeemed us utilizing the process He used, on a spiritual level we would still be enslaved. We would not have been able to overcome the slave mentality and we surely could never have been ready to accept the Torah.

At the conclusion of our recitation of Maggid at the Seder we state, “Therefore, it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, extol, exalt, bless and acclaim the One who performed all these miracles for our fathers and us.” It is not only our forefathers who benefited from the exodus. The pride that we feel as Jews who uphold the banner of Torah and mitzvos is directly attributable to the miraculous and schematic unfolding of the exodus.

“Let each man request silver vessels and gold vessels”

“A sign on your arm, and an ornament between your eyes”

1 Based on the pre-mussaf speech I was privileged to deliver at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Bo 5769
2 Shemos 11:2
3 i.e. – after the fulfillment of their allotted enslavement
4 Bereishis 15:14
5 The awesome and tragic earthquake that shook Haiti last week and instantly killed over fifty thousand people is a frightening reminder of this. Had G-d wanted He could have caused an even stronger earthquake to decimate Egypt in seconds.
The Vilna Gaon writes that the intent of the first nine plagues was never to get the Jews out of Egypt but rather to teach the Jews specific lessons of faith, as well as to serve as retribution against Egypt. It was only the final plague that was brought to cause the exodus, which in fact transpired the next morning.
6 In America, perhaps it is tantamount to burning money- the American god. As the saying goes, “In G-d we trust; all others pay cash.”


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