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Vaera 5768

By: Rav David Milston



The Enemy Within


Immediately following God’s explanation to Moshe[1], we are told that Moshe returned to the disillusioned masses with a renewed message of redemption, only to be spurned by the people:


“And Moshe spoke so to the children of Israel: but they did not listen to Moshe because they were short in spirit, and overburdened with work.” (Shemot, 6:9)


Nonetheless, God commands Moshe to proceed as planned, approach Pharaoh a second time, and demand freedom for Am Yisrael. The dialogue between Moshe and Hashem continues:


“And Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying, Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me, how then shall Pharaoh hear me, and I am of uncircumcised lips?

And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon and gave them a charge regarding the children of Israel, and Pharaoh King of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt.”(Ibid, -13.)


Moshe now has a new difficulty regarding his planned audience with Pharaoh. He cannot see why Pharaoh should be supportive of a plan to liberate a people if the people themselves are not committed to the idea! There he is, alone in front of the mighty king, expected to make extreme demands in the name of a people who aren’t cooperating in the slightest! God replies that Moshe should speak to both the people and to Pharaoh respectively, commanding them to fulfill His command.


Here, for the first time in our history, we meet the phenomenon of the ‘complacent exilic Jew;’ the Jew who sees no real reason to leave exile, even when his predicament is so dire. The Netziv[2] makes an insightful comment in support of this understanding:


“I will redeem you with an outstretched arm”… Sometimes the verse speaks of ‘a strong hand,’ yet on other occasions we refer to ‘an outstretched arm.’ Here, the verse refers to ‘an outstretched arm,’ and it is not by coincidence.


Let us firstly relate to a Beraita[3] in the Mechilta[4] to Parashat Shelach referring to the verse “and God saved Yisrael on that day from the hand of the Egyptians” (Shemot ): ‘like a man holding a bird in his hand, if he so wishes he can choke the bird…’


The explanation to that midrash is that besides the stronghold Egypt had over Israel at that time, there were two additional problems:


Firstly, the entire Jewish people were in one place, thus handing Pharaoh the option to destroy the entire people in ‘one blow’ if he felt that defeat at the hands of Hashem was imminent… in the same way a man holding a bird in his hand can strangle that bird at any given moment. In order to prevent such action, Pharaoh was given no time to reorganize; he was smitten time and again, even between the plagues so he would have no opportunity to kill off the people. This is the meaning of ‘an outstretched arm.’


But the second problem had nothing to do with Pharaoh. Even if one succeeds in stopping the person holding the bird from harming it; even if one succeeds in loosening his grip on the bird so the bird can escape, all of our efforts are invalid if the bird does not wish to escape! Hence the need for ‘a strong hand’ in order to ensure the bird flies away when offered the opportunity of freedom.”


Moshe is in a quandary. He will look rather foolish if Pharaoh suddenly agrees to his request, only to discover that the people are content to remain where they are. Therefore, before approaching Pharaoh for the second time, God tells Moshe to inform the people that redemption is not an option, but a command.  They are to leave Egypt whether they like it or not! Perhaps we can paraphrase Achad Ha’am’s[5] famous statement about Shabbat and say it may be easy to take the Jews out of exile, but it is much more of a challenge to take the exile out of the Jews![6]

Using the Netziv, we can understand verses 12 and 13. However, we are then puzzled by the next verses, in which the narrative seems to stop in order to give us a brief account of the family tree of the first three Tribes of Israel[7]. Why are we are given the detailed genealogy of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, whilst discussing how Moshe should approach the people on the one hand and Pharaoh on the other?  


The Meshech Chochmah[8] gives us a very perceptive but shocking explanation, both to the verses we explained above, and to the ensuing verses as well:


“It is quite possible that there were prominent Jews in Egypt who enslaved their Jewish brethren. I would like to suggest that these people emanated from the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi. From midrashic sources, we know Levi was not enslaved in Egypt and thus did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel.[9] We also know Reuven only had land on the east side of the Jordan, and Shimon were scattered within the inherited land of Yehudah.[10]


Hence, we can conclude that if these three tribes were not slaves, some of their members may have taken advantage of the situation and enslaved their own people.


When Moshe Rabbeinu told the Almighty his own people would not listen to him, this was the dilemma he faced! Moshe was referring to these Jews who had persecuted their own people. Moshe turns to Hashem: ‘If our own people are doing this, how can I ask Pharaoh to act any differently?’ Hence, Hashem commands Moshe to order both the Jews and the Egyptians to release their slaves.


This would explain why the narrative breaks to give us the details of these three specific tribes. They were the ones that needed to be commanded to free ‘their’ slaves.


If we accept this explanation, we can understand the comments of the Yerushalmi in Rosh Hashana, 3:5, when referring to our verse in Shemot 6:13, that Hashem instructed Moshe to teach the Children of Israel the laws relating to the freeing of slaves.


There is perhaps one possible reason why the Almighty arranged matters so that these three tribes would not be enslaved in Egypt. They were the only brothers that Ya’akov rebuked before blessing them on his deathbed.[11] They needed extra protection, because if they had been enslaved, they were more likely to assimilate than their brothers. Hence, the Almighty made sure that their experience in Egypt involved minimal suffering.”


These remarkable comments not only explain verses 13-14; they also explain the strange genealogical insertion at this premature stage of the proceedings. The Meshech Chochmah also gives us a very sad but true picture of our reality in exile.


We have discussed the inner strengths of Am Yisrael in our earlier sichot, but here – through the Netziv and the Meshech Chochmah – we have unveiled some rather ugly aspects of our people, and of human nature in general.


The words of the Netziv remind us that “Exile is a station and not a destination.” The Meshech Chochmah himself wrote extensively on this subject in his commentary to Parashat Bechukotai,[12] where he describes his astonishment at certain German Jews who seem to think that “Berlin is Jerusalem.”


For thousands of years, it was almost physically impossible to live in Eretz Yisrael, but our Rabbis and teachers never lost their yearning for redemption. We were always “strangers in a strange land;” not only because our hosts wanted it that way, but because we also wanted it that way. We were never ‘Polish Jews,’ but rather ‘the Jews in Poland.’


This distinction may at first seem tedious, but I believe it to be crucial. We must never permanently settle in a land only meant to be a temporary ‘pit stop.’ If we find ourselves in exile today – for whatever reason – it is our underlying duty to remind ourselves that wherever we may be, however friendly and accommodating our hosts may be, we are not at home. We only have one home.


Furthermore, we are certainly in no position to stand in judgment, Heaven forbid, when reviewing history. When our Rabbis tell us we should not judge a fellow man until we are in his position (Pirkei Avot 2:5,) I believe them to be informing us that we can never judge our fellow man – period, because we will never be in the exact same predicament! However, we can and must review events of the past in order to learn more about ourselves. By studying human nature and human responses to history, we can learn about ourselves and work on our own improvement.


Our real strength of character is judged not by our behavior in times of success, when all is going well, but rather by how we handle ourselves when ‘the chips are down.’ How will we react when we are under threat? When we are severely challenged? When other Jews are in trouble? Will we choose to suffer with them, or will we ‘sell our souls to the devil,’ siding with the enemy; at best to ensure our own physical survival, or at worst to materially profit from our brothers’ misfortune?


Whether the reality described by the Meshech Chochmah was exactly as he explained is not our issue; we already know of Datan and Aviram and their manipulations of the community,[13] in the same way we know of Jewish leaders who purposely took responsibility when Am Yisrael did not reach their quotas of work on any given day.[14] And Holocaust parallels are too close for comfort.


Both commentators seem to agree we were never really under threat from the Egyptians. Our chief enemy came – and still comes – from within.


Sometimes, our enemy comes in the form of a shortsighted inability to look towards redemption, towards a more spiritually fulfilling life outside of an exilic reality. At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches that a ‘rich’ individual is one who is “content with his portion.” Ben Zoma is referring to material contentment as opposed to spiritual achievement. Spiritually, we must never be happy with our portion; we must always be searching to go further, to move closer to reality.


Who in their right mind would want to settle for a second-best exilic Judaism, when he could, with a little more effort, experience an altogether more spiritual existence in the Land of Israel? Ironically, we are often happy to adopt Ben Zoma’s advice concerning our spiritual affairs, but in matters of material wealth, the sky is the limit! 


This enemy has to be overcome; the bird must learn to fly when given the opportunity to do so. We are the people of Avraham, who left his father’s home in the Diaspora for a greater destiny.


Nevertheless, there is no worth in having delusions of nationalistic grandeur in our own homeland if we cannot internalize the oneness of our people. If we are prepared to sell our brothers to the ‘enemy’ for some short-term gain, we have missed the point. Whenever Jews sell their brothers, we always eventually find ourselves in exile.


We cannot have nationalistic visions of independence if those very same visions involve dismantling and alienating other segments of our people. The number of Israeli political parties and the incessant rhetoric of political debate are good evidence for my case.


The Jews of Israel could teach the Jews of the Diaspora a lesson regarding our first problem, while the Jews of the Diaspora could teach us a lesson in Israel regarding the second. We know what the problems are. We even have the solutions. The time has surely come for the Jewish people to come together and remove the enemy from within, so we can finally merit our long-awaited destiny!

[1] As discussed in the previous sicha.

[2] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893, Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva and author of the Torah commentary, HaEmek Davar. This excerpt can be found in Shemot, 6:6.

[3] Although the Mishna encapsulates the entire Oral Law, many variant versions, additional explanations, clarifications and rulings were not included. These were later compiled in works called Beraitot (plural of Beraita) by Rabbi Chiya, Rabbi Oshia and others. The word beraita means “outside” of the six Mishnaic orders. Its authority is somewhat less than the authority of Mishnaic rulings.

[4] Mechilta (or Mechilta of Rabbi Yishma'el) is one of four Halachic Midrashim. The Halachic Midrashim are anthologies of Rabbinic comments on the legal sections of the Torah. As a result, the Mechilta -- the Halachic Midrash on the Book of Shemot-- begins with Shemot, 12:1, the first legal section, which details the laws of Pesach. However, like the other Halachic Midrashim, the Mechilta focuses on the narrative (i.e. non-legal) portions of the Torah text as well.

[5] Asher Ginsburg, 1856-1927, an ardent Russian Zionist who was the founder of cultural or moral Zionism. Achad Ha’am, his pen name, means ‘one of the people.’ He is claimed to have said: "More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."

[6] In today’s climate, I find this theme more than appropriate. If we were to study the Aliyah statistics of the last 60 years, I am convinced we would discover that the vast majority of Jews have chosen to return to Israel because their home countries rejected them and their civilian rights to live as free people. Many of us see Israel not as home, but rather as a ‘city of refuge;’ somewhere to go if all else fails.


Each year, as we conclude our students’ Poland trip at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw (where the Jews had to assemble to board the trains which transported them to the death camp at Treblinka,) I remind them that Israel is not a place to go in order to avoid another Holocaust. No, the terrible events of World War Two should never be used as a springboard support for living in Israel. The Holocaust should be studied and restudied for its own sake, in honor of our brethren and in order to sanctify the memories of those holy six million.


I have never believed in the notion of ‘negative Zionism.’ Even if we live in the most idyllic of countries, amongst the most liberal and pluralistic of human beings, assimilation is not an option. We are commanded to return home. Hence, Moshe is instructed to remind the people that we are the children of Avraham Avinu, who left his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home, because God told him to do so. This instruction was not given because things were bad, but because Israel is the home of the Jewish people. For a believing Jew, is there any another option?


[7] See Shemot, -30.

[8] Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926. This is not a literal translation; see his comments on Shemot, for the full version.

[9] From here, we can see that there seems to be a correlation between inheriting the land and slavery in Egypt.

[10] If the correlation referred to is correct, then the Meshech Chochmah seems to be implying that just as Levi received no portion in the land because he did not suffer slavery, so Reuven and Shimon received secondary portions because they too did not suffer in Egypt.

[11] Reuven was criticized for the events involving Bilha after Rachel’s death, whilst Shimon and Levi were both castigated for their actions in Shechem.

[12] Vayikra, 26:44.

[13] See Shemot, -14 and Rashi there; also see Bamidbar, 16, the events of Korach – certainly from the midrashic literature referred to by Rashi we can see that Datan and Aviram were aggressive manipulators from the days in Egypt until their deaths. See also Tanchuma (10) on Parashat Shemot.


[14] See Rashi, Shemot,


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