To enter the White House, you need permission from your member of Congress and an appointment several months in advance to get the security clearance required. Even in our own shuls nowadays, there’s often a security guard and code-locked doors due to increased anti-Semitic attacks. In Eretz Yisrael, all holy sites, bus stations and malls have both metal detectors and security guards present in order to enter.
The parsha of Shemos closes with Moshe and Aharon entering Pharaoh’s palace without getting stopped and then continuing to enter and exit the palace in Vaera, but how was this possible? The Midrash tells us there were lions and wild animals guarding the entrance. Fierce guards were everywhere. Yet Moshe and Aharon just repeatedly strolled in and out without an appointment!
The Midrash describes the amazing scene. When Moshe and Aharon approached, the armed guards were terrified of them and just stepped aside. Meanwhile, the ferocious lions followed Moshe and Aharon into the palace like little puppies. This was an open miracle! Our simple understanding would lead us to think that the great spiritual levels of Moshe and Aharon led to this miracle. However, the Alter from Kelm says the words in the pasuk indicate otherwise. When Moshe returned to Egypt, he came to the elders and told them Hashem has remembered the Jews and is going to take them out. “Vaya’amein ha’am”—the nation believed (Shemos 4:31). It then says v’achar ba’u—only after the nation believed Hashem’s promise, were Moshe and Aharon able to enter the palace. Accordingly, it was the merit of emunah (faith) of the Bnei Yisrael that allowed Moshe and Aharon to enter the palace so easily.
Indeed, emunah in Hashem was the critical merit the Bnei Yisrael needed in order to be redeemed. We see this emunah tested when Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and asked him to let Bnei Yisrael go. The response was not what they hoped for: Pharaoh declared that the Jews were lazy and he decreed they would now have to gather their own straw and still keep the same quota of 300 bricks each day. Moshe felt awful; he had made things worse!
Why was there the need to increase the workload and oppression before Hashem redeemed klal Yisrael?
Rav Chaim Friedlander explains, based on the words of the Alter from Kelm: To merit the full redemption from Egypt, the Bnei Yisrael needed a deep level of emunah in Hashem. Therefore, Hashem tested them by increasing their slavery and oppression. Would their emunah stay strong despite the seemingly horrible turn of events?
The Sforno explains that the four terminologies of redemption mentioned in the Torah—v’hotzeisi, v’hitzalti, v’ga’alti, and v’lakachti—are different levels of redemption, ranging from physical bondage to totally leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. Each level of redemption was achieved by a higher level of emunah attained by the Bnei Yisrael.
That is why Hashem said to Moshe after Pharaoh increased his oppression of Bnei Yisrael, “Now you will see….” Because now the greatly increased burden on Bnei Yisrael served as the needed catalyst to strengthen their emunah and thereby merit full redemption.
We all see a similar pattern in our own lives, where things can go well and then suddenly nosedive. We wonder why Hashem is doing this to us. In fact, all events are precisely calculated by Hashem to strengthen our emunah. To gain the zechus (merit) to be taken out of these challenges, we need to be tested and prove our faith in Hashem. The Zohar says that we will face a great challenge to our emunah in the generation before the coming of Moshiach.
This message of redemption is further illustrated by the enigmatic transformation of a stick to a serpent and back. What’s the significance of Aharon’s stick, after turning into a snake, turning back into a staff before consuming the staffs of Pharaoh (which had also turned into snakes and then back to staffs)?
The Chasam Sofer and Baal Haturim explain that Pharaoh referred to himself as the big snake of the Nile. (See haftorah, Yechezkel 29.) Specifically, Pharaoh called himself a tanim—which Rav Hirsch defines as a big sea creature. Hashem was telling Pharaoh that while He was currently using Pharaoh as an instrument to challenge the emunah of Bnei Yisrael, Hashem would eventually destroy him.
Today, we live in a time when it looks like the forces of evil have the power to make bad things happen. Jewish institutions are taking needed preventative measures and increasing security. Still, we need to remind ourselves that while we need to take necessary precautions, it’s Hashem Who grants the ultimate security and orchestrates all events in the world.
Let us respond to challenging current events by strengthening our emunah in Hashem, and with that we will merit the ultimate redemption!
In this week’s parsha, regarding the makka of Barad (hail), it says something very interesting. Like many of the makkas, the makka of Barad had a condition within the makka. The condition was that anyone who came indoors or entered his livestock indoors was unaffected by the plague. Anything in the field would be destroyed, but if the Egyptians would heed the word of Moshe and enter themselves indoors, they would be saved.
The psukim then recount what actually happened during the plague. It says, “those who feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and livestock into the houses. And whoever was ‘Lo Sam Libo (did not place the words of HaShem on his heart), he left his servants out in the field.”
On the surface, these verses are hard to understand. In the first verse, it says that those who feared HaShem would enter their possessions indoors. Along these lines, the pasuk should have continued “and those who didn’t fear the word of HaShem left their possessions outside…” However, the pasuk doesn’t say this. Instead of saying “those who didn’t fear HaShem”, the pasuk says “those who didn’t place HaShem on their hearts…” What’s the meaning if this? Why not just say, “those who didn’t fear HaShem?
I heard one answer once from Rav Doniel Kalish (the menahel of Waterbury Yeshiva) which I would like to elaborate on. He said that an explanation in the pasuk is that the idea of not fearing HaShem doesn’t really exist. Deep down, there doesn’t exist a person who doesn’t have a little inkling of heavenly fear. Even the greatest atheists of our day have a fear of HaShem. The only difference is that they don’t place their hearts on that fear; they’re not in touch with it.
To illustrate this, there’s a famous parable which Rav Yisroel Salanter used to relate. (The following is not the exact mashal, but it’s similar). Picture the following scenario: One day, the Coca Cola company publicizes a serious mistake made at one of its manufacturing outlets. Approximately 200 cans of Coke had accidentally mixed with a small amount of a different liquid which would cause a minor stomachache if drunk. How many people would stop buying Coke that day? Even for that one day, how drastically would the sales of Coke drop? The company would go out of business! No one would buy it! But why? Do you know what the chances are of getting affected by those cans of Coke? On average, the Coca Cola company produces 100,000 cans of Coke in the UK alone! That’s millions of Coke worldwide! The chance of getting one of those 200 cans of coke are microscopic! And even if you do, all it would cause is a minor stomachache! How many people would stop drinking Coke, even though the chances of getting that can are so small?
Says R’ Yisrael, it’s the same thing with fearing HaShem. Even if a person hasn’t been studying in Yeshiva to know how we know all the truths of HaShem and the idea of reward and punishment, likely, on the tiny percent chance that all those Jewish Rabbis dating back to Mount Sinai know what they’re talking about, wouldn’t a person feel compelled to fear?
The reality is that everyone has this fear. It’s innate. The only thing is that people try so hard to not believe. They try hard not to see HaShem. Many modern-day scientists aren’t looking for truth; they’re looking for ways to have an excuse for not believing in G-d. Rav Kalish said over a story with one of the other rebbeim at his Yeshiva. The Rebbe had just experienced the birth of his first child, and in his extremely emotional state, he couldn’t help but look at the secular Israeli doctor and say, “did you see that?! How could you not be religious after seeing something like that!?!” To which the doctor replied to him, “I know. It’s really hard”. The doctor had a hard time not believing in HaShem, but because of his convictions, he was able to not place HaShem on his heart, thereby ignoring Him.
I think we see from here a very powerful idea. The idea of not fearing HaShem isn’t simply not feeling the fear; it’s not thinking about it. It’s removing the self from that emotion, by numbing yourself to it. That’s the way a person removes HaShem from his life. Yet we see from here another point. That just as a person combats fear of Heaven by not thinking about it, the only thing a person needs to do in order to acquire it is to actively think about it. One should think of HaShem wherever life takes him. And when he thinks of HaShem, when he brings down HaShem’s presence into his life, then he’ll undoubtedly acquire this trait of “fear of Heaven.”