Thursday, December 26, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch/ASHAR


          The conditions in the Warsaw ghetto were deplorable. As more and more Jews were forced in from neighboring towns and villages, conditions became increasingly desperate. In addition to starvation, a typhoid epic, caused by the poor sanitary conditions, broke out. By April 1941 the mortality rate in the ghetto was a staggering six thousand people per month. Funeral carts would come and collect bodies every morning, between 4-5 A.M.
The squalid conditions notwithstanding, Torah and mitzvos continued to be observed clandestinely, despite the risks involved in doing so. The faithful were encouraged by the herculean faith of the great Torah leaders in the ghetto, such as Rabbis Kalunimus Shapiro, the Piaseczner Rebbe, and Menachem Ziemba zt’l hy’d.
The Alexander Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Menachem Mendel Danykcer zt’l hy’d, was one of the righteous Torah leaders who was a bastion of faith in the ghetto. After being deported, he died in Treblinka in 1943.
During one of the discourses that he delivered in the ghetto he related the following thought: In Tehillim, Chapter 92, ‘Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbos - A Psalm for the Sabbath Day’, King David describes the connection one must always maintain with G-d. “It is good to thank G-d and to sing to Your Supreme Name. To tell of Your kindness in the morning and Your faith at night.” The commentators explain that morning is a reference to times that are pleasant and smooth, when G-d’s divinity is clear and revealed. Night on the other hand, symbolizes the ominous junctures of life when G-d’s Presence is hidden and unclear.
To speak of G-d’s kindness during good times is logical and befitting. But what does it mean to speak of G-d’s Faith during trying times? The verse does not say, “To tell of Your kindness in the morning and our faith at night”, but of “Your faith at night”. That we strive to have faith in G-d is understood, but who does G-d have faith in? Does He need to believe in Himself?
The Rebbe explained that we are referring to G-d’s faith in us! During challenging situations and in difficult times we must know that G-d has faith in our ability to rise to the challenge and to transcend our adversities.
We often lack faith in ourselves which leads us to think that we cannot survive the pain we are suffering. But the mere knowledge that G-d in Heaven believes in him and knows his capacities far better than he himself does, is enough to strengthen one’s resolve. Ghetto life was miserable and subhuman. But G-d had faith in them, and His faith is stronger than a humans!

“G-d said to Moshe and Aharon saying, ‘When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide a wonder for yourselves,’ you will say to Aharon, “Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh - it will be a snake’!” …Pharaoh, too, summoned his wise men and sorcerers, and they too – the necromancers of Egypt – did so with their incantations. Each one cast down his staff and they became snakes; and the staff of Aharon swallowed their staffs.”[1] 
The vernacular of the verse, “When Pharaoh will…say, ‘Give for yourself a sign” seems strange. If anything, Pharaoh would demand a sign to prove to himself and the Egyptians the veracity of Moshe’s claim. Why would Pharaoh demand that Moshe give a proof to himself?
Also, why specifically the transformation of a stick into a snake? If G-d wanted to impress Pharaoh, there are other outlandish miracles that would be more impressive, especially because Pharaoh was not the least bit excited by the “stick-snake” transformation? Rashi notes that after all of the snakes had become staffs again Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs. Still, G-d could have performed greater miracles to impress Pharaoh?
Rabbi Meir Shapiro zt’l[2] explained that when Moshe originally appeared before Pharaoh and declared that Klal Yisroel is G-d’s Nation and he must therefore release them from bondage, Pharaoh mocked him. “How can you say that the lowly Jews are a divine people? They are idolaters just like their captors. Why should I free a group of idolatrous peasants?”
The response to that claim of Pharaoh was symbolized by the staff-snake transformation. “Give for yourself a sign”, i.e. a sign that reflected why the Jews are elite and worthy of redemption; a sign that symbolized the Jews own uniqueness and greatness.
The staff of Aharon bore an engraving of G-d’s ineffable Name, and was therefore holy. Moshe instructed Aharon to take that staff - which in his hand represented sanctity and purity - and cast it onto the floor of the palace in front of the feet of Pharaoh. Almost immediately it transformed into a snake, the symbol of evil and godlessness, a representation of the primordial serpent who introduced sin to mankind.
The message to Pharaoh was that while it’s true that currently the Jews appear to be as depraved and lowly as the Egyptians, that is because they are forced to wallow in the impurity of Egypt. Even a holy stick can become a slithering snake on the floor of Egypt. But then, when Aharon reached out and grasped the snake by the tail, it immediately reverted back to its original form, as a holy staff. So too, despite how the Jews appear presently, if they would be hoisted from the noxious Egyptian environment and would be granted the opportunity to ascend from the exile, they would immediately transform into a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”
Despite the potent message, the verse continues, “The heart of Pharaoh was strong and he did not heed them, as G-d had spoken.” Though his skepticism was refuted he obstinately refused to accede to the truth, a trait that would ultimately cause the destruction and downfall of his kingdom.

It is well-known that success and motivation is contingent on one’s self-esteem. If a person believes in himself and his abilities, and feels that he is a worthy and deserving person, he will have the impetus and drive to succeed. But if one feels undeserving or unable - all of his potential and strengths not withstanding - his ability to accomplish will be stymied.
G-d told Moshe that Pharaoh would demand that Moshe give a sign for himself! Moshe and Klal Yisroel needed to themselves believe in the potential that they possessed. As long as they saw themselves as a lowly nation of battered slaves Pharaoh was indeed correct; they were no better than their idolatrous captors.
Then verse (6:9) states that when Moshe announced that the redemption was imminent, “They did not listen to Moshe because of shortness of breath and hard work”.  The words “מקוצר רוח” can also mean “a dearth of spirit”. As long as the nation lacked hope and spirit, the redemption could not commence because it would have been purposeless.
It was only when they realized their roots and their innate dormant potential that they could believe that they were truly destined for greatness. In a sense, it was only when their belief in themselves paralleled G-d’s belief in them that the process of redemption was able to begin.

“To tell of Your kindness in the morning and Your faith at night”
“Give for yourself a sign”

[1] Shemos 7:8-13
[2] Immrei Da’as


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