Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Bo -The Cost Of Stubbornness

In Parshat Bo, the makkot (plagues) continue and Pharaoh remains stubborn, refusing to let the Bnei Yisrael leave, despite the devastating blows and destruction all around him. Why was Pharaoh so stubborn? Why wouldn’t he relent?

The Torah reveals to us the reason. As Hashem told Moshe, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and therefore Pharaoh will refuse. The Rishonim are very troubled by Hashem apparently removing Pharaoh’s free will (bechira.) Every man is given free will by Hashem so he can choose to do right or wrong. How could Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart and remove his ability to make the correct choice?

The Sforno explains that Hashem did not remove Pharaoh’s ability to choose. In fact, it was the opposite. Since the makkot were so powerful and overwhelming, it would be objectively impossible to deny Hashem’s request. Therefore, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart to make him capable of making a free choice.

The Rambam disagrees and says Hashem did indeed remove Pharaoh’s free will because of his wickedness against the Jews. Pharaoh needed to be punished. He would feel the full force of all the makkot before letting the Jews go.

Rashi tells us that in the first makkah, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. After he continued his obstinate behavior, however, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart and did not allow him to free the Jews, so Hashem could perform great miracles and demonstrate His power to klal Yisrael.

When I lived in Eretz Yisrael, I used to attend a weekly class with Rav Reuven Leuchter, a very popular mashgiach among both Americans and Israelis. He once spoke on a person’s ability to choose right from wrong. The sefer Mesilat Yesharim, the fundamental work on self-development, tells us that Hashem created man with the ability to choose. All self-development is based on knowing our positive qualities and deficiencies and training ourselves to make the correct decision. From this I realized that my stubborn behavior as a child was something I could overcome. I learned that stubbornness could actually prevent me from attaining many things I want.

However, a person may have a behavior characteristic which prevents him from making the right choice on his own. Whether it’s inherent or developed, mussar is not enough; he needs professional help.

The prime example is addiction. Whether it’s about a substance or behavior, an addict does not have the ability to make a choice. His urges are so strong that he must have outside help in order to conquer those urges. The same is true with certain mental health conditions. Such a person is driven to behave, act or respond in a certain way and professional help is needed.

According to the Rambam, Pharaoh lost his bechira—his ability to choose. He could no longer make a balanced decision on his own. Hashem made Pharaoh addicted to power. Even before the Almighty, he would not give up.

Sometimes, our ability to choose is hampered, but we can recover on our own…with effort. Let’s look at the Egyptian behavior in the makkah of tzefardea—frogs. Rashi quotes the midrash that the makkah started with one large frog that emerged from the Nile. Upon seeing this large scary frog, an Egyptian gave it a powerful hit. This resulted in a stream of frogs shooting out of the frog’s mouth. The Egyptian hit the frog again, sending out another stream of frogs. More Egyptians joined in. Why didn’t they get it? The more they hit the frogs, the more they multiplied!

Rav Wolbe explains this is the reality of anger. A person in a fit of anger loses his sense of reasoning. When someone gets angry, their response is not logical—it’s instinctive. The anger of the Egyptians caused them to believe they just needed more force—hit the frogs harder! They didn’t realize that they were only exacerbating the problem. In a fit of rage, a person loses his ability to make rational decisions. The solution is simple: stay far away from anger.

In areas of addiction—substances, eating disorders, lusts, gambling and other areas—professional help must be found. In areas of self-development, however, we must focus on our own strengths and weaknesses to exercise our choice to act properly. In this case, it’s within our reach. We can improve, change and maybe…get hot dogs for supper!

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Va’era – Spiritual Refinement Through Challenges

When I was learning in yeshiva I was looking for a healthy physical and emotional outlet. Some of the boys had joined a local gym with hours for men. I was skinny and not very strong. I thought the way to build muscle mass was to lift extremely heavy weights. The gym trainer clarified how it works. I needed to lift weights within my ability and then push a little more, until it hurt somewhat. Do this every time, he said. The pain was muscle fiber stretching, allowing me to really develop myself. Yes, no pain…no gain! The trainer created a workout program for me, added some protein foods, and within a couple of months, I was amazed at the results. My body was energized, and my mind was at rest.

As we learn about the miracles of the Ten Plagues—the Makkos—and how Hashem majestically took us out of Egypt, there’s a burning question: While it was great that Hashem took klal Yisrael out of Egypt, why did He put us in exile in the first place?

The answer is revealed by the Torah’s reference to Mitzrayim: “Hashem took you (klal Yisrael) out from the kur habarzel (forging pit) from Egypt in order to be a nation to Hashem.” A forging pit is used to heat up iron or metal and rid it of all its impurities. For us, as a nation, our road to purity included a long and bitter enslavement. Mitzrayim was our forging pit. Still, what was unique about Egypt compared to all the other countries?

The Maharal explains that the process of developing and refining one’s inner positive qualities is accomplished by having experiences that are contrary to those qualities. Experiencing an opposite environment will bring out the true positive nature of the person.

The Egyptians were highly immoral and led a very licentious lifestyle. Klal Yisrael was holy, pure and guarded in the area of morality. We were the polar opposites of the Egyptians. The conflict of the two opposing lifestyles was already exhibited when the wife of Potiphar attempted to seduce Yosef. Yosef withstood this temptation and risked suffering tough consequences for his refusing Potiphar’s wife. Taking this moral stand in fact led to his imprisonment in a dungeon for 10 years!

We therefore see that Hashem placed klal Yisrael specifically in Mitzrayim—a place of extremely immoral character—to refine the kedusha (sanctity) in klal Yisrael. Indeed, the purity they maintained in Mitzrayim was of such a high standard that when the Torah mentions the names of each family in each shevet (tribe), it is spelled with the letter “heh” as a prefix and the letter “yud” as a suffix. For example, the family of Chanoch is listed as Hachanochi. The letters yud and heh spell Hashem’s name. Hashem was thereby attesting that each family in each tribe had remained pure and faithful to Hashem, surrounded by Him, throughout their exile in Egypt.

Rav Dessler makes a similar observation. When a person is placed in an environment where people lead a different lifestyle, it can have one of two effects: either the person becomes attracted to and influenced by the new lifestyle, or it serves as a driving force to propel him in the opposite direction. We see this with Avraham who was raised in the home of Terach, one of the biggest idol worshipers, yet Avraham chose to follow Hashem.

Rav Wolbe often quoted his rebbe, Reb Yerucham Levovitz, who said that Hashem does not challenge us in our area of our weaknesses—only in the area of our strengths. Hashem is the ultimate trainer/coach, always presenting us with a challenge to help develop our spiritual muscles.

With the start of Sefer Shemos, we begin the period of shovavim (an acronym for the parshios of Shemos through Mishpatim), a period that is designed to work on areas of family purity.

We live in a generation and society with many decadent behaviors. We might feel we are vulnerable in this area and the challenge is overwhelming. In truth, it’s the opposite, for we are inherently kadosh (holy). We are placed in this environment to help us shine. In our generation, a person has access to see the most immoral behaviors with the click of a button. Yet, so many people choose to guard themselves against this choice, to maintain their purity, even installing filters on their phones and computers to prevent access to immoral websites. This is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is a sign of strength by making an active choice to ensure sanctity.

Let us keep refining our quality of family purity and use our society as an instrument to help us refine our own sanctity. Like our time in the gym, the results may not be seen immediately, but after a few months, we’ll be amazed at our spiritual growth.