Bo – “I Don’t Know”

In this week’s Torah portion of Bo, Moshe warns about the plague of the firstborn which is set to strike at midnight. “Moshe said, ‘So said Hashem, at about midnight I shall go out in the midst of Egypt’” (Shemos 11:4).
The Gemara in Brachos 4a relates that Moshe knew exactly what time chatzos, midnight was so why did he say “about midnight”? “Rabbi Zeirasaid: Moshe certainly knew when it was midnight… since Moshe knew the precise moment of midnight, why did he say: About midnight, instead of: At midnight? Moshe did so because he maintained: Lest Pharaoh’s astrologers err and believe midnight to be earlier. Since no disaster would have occurred, they would say: Moshe is a liar. Moshe spoke in accordance with the principle articulated by the Master (Derech Eretz Zuta chapter 3): Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.” Rashi adds that one will be drawn by and stumble in his words. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Moshe knew exactly when midnight was, but he didn’t want to say it with confidence, and rather just said at about midnight the last plague will strike Egypt in order to not be branded a liar by the Egyptian astrologers who didn’t know how to calculate when midnight was, exactly. Therefore, it is better to say something which is in essence an “I don’t know but…” in order to not get swept up in accusations of dishonesty or insincerity.

However, Tosfos (the 4th on daf 3b) in this gemara wonders, “Why couldn’t Moshe say ‘at midnight’ as they told him from Heaven, for it was the truth what they told him?” Tosfos answers something very profound, “One can answer, that he did not want to tell them something that he could not rule on and prove himself if they would ask him to.”
We should truly analyze and contemplate Tosfos’ question, so that we can really appreciate what he is asking. It says in the beginning of Orchos Tzadikim, Gate of Truth, “The soul is created from the place of the Holy Spirit, as it is said, “And breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). And it is hewn out from a place of purity, and it is created from the supernal radiance, from the Throne of Glory. And in the realm above, in the place of the Holy of Holies, there is no falsehood. There everything is truth, as it is said, ‘”But the Hashem G-d is the true G-d” (Jer. 10:10). I have found written, ‘I am that I am’ ** Hebrew: Eheyeh asher Eheyeh. (Ex. 3:14). And it is also written, ‘And the Hashem G-d is the true (Hebrew: emes.) G-d, He is the living G-d and everlasting King” (Jer. 10:10). And now it is important to make it known to you that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is the G-d of Truth. For you will find twenty-one times the word EHEYEH which is, by computation of letters, the numerical equivalent of Emes (Truth). And you will also note that EHEYEH (the Name of the Eternal) is by computation of letters, also twenty-one (the numerical value of Emes being 441 or 21 times21). G-d made man to be upright (see Eccl. 7:29), and the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is Truth (Shabbath 55a and see Sanh. 1:5). And it is written, “He that speak falsehood shall not be established before my eyes” (Ps. 101:7). When a man occupies himself with falsehood, then the falsehood does not cleave to the truth. And where there is Truth is as though one were able to describe it as the place of His dwelling in the Heavens and directed towards mankind, for where there is Truth among mankind, then everyone concedes that He made heaven and earth and the sea and all they contain.” If the Truth is Divine, and if Moshe received the truth from Heaven, even by angels, then it is obviously correct; so who cares if the Egyptian astrologers might make a mistake and think it was a lie? Yet the truth is truth and is so special and godly it should not be denied and expressed differently other than in its pure form! (Click here for Hebrew text.)
However, based on Tofos’ answer, it must be that the standards of speaking the truth are different in this world, on earth, than in Heaven. We see from here that because we live in a finite, physical world, obstructed from the pure truth, then if we aren’t muchrach, which means that if we can’t prove and defend what we know to be the truth, then there is something lacking by us speaking about what we know, ourselves, to be the truth. Therefore it is better to say I don’t know, or the like. For if you can’t prove it then you will ultimately come to make up something and be snared in what will turn into a lie, since you don’t know with conviction what you hold as truth and what is in fact truth.

The lesson to be learned from this is that by saying “I don’t know” or in this case “about midnight” is in fact the truth since Moshe in this case knew he could not prove what he knew to be true.

Bo – Like the Commitment of a Servant to His Master

This week’s Torah portion of Bo takes us through the final 3 plagues and what led up to the exodus from Egypt. This includes the first Pesach and the laws that relate to Pesach and the seder.

The medrish Pesiksa Rabasi of Rav Kahana expounds on one of his interpretations of a pasuk found in Tehillim (119:62), “At midnight I arise to thank You for Your righteous ordinances.” “In another interpretation “Your righteous ordinances” refers to the ordinances (judgements) that You brought on the Egyptians in Egypt and the righteousness You did with our forefathers in Egypt. For they only had two mitzvos, the blood of the Pesach and the blood of bris milah, therefore it says in Yechezkel (16:7) – ‘And I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood and I said to you, through your blood you shall gain life, through your blood you shall gain life.’ This refers to the blood of the Pesach offering and the blood of bris milah.”

The Maharz”u on this medrish, quoting a Medrish Rabba in Rus, explains that they didn’t have any mitzvos in hand to be involved with so that they could be redeemed. Therefore, in order to be redeemed, Hashem gave them 2 mitzvos, which were the blood of the Pascal lamb and the blood of circumcision… (click here for Hebrew text.)

This pasuk in Yechezkel is mentioned every year in the Haggadah, “’And numerous,’ as it is said: ‘I caused you to thrive like the plants of the field, and you increased and grew… I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your bloods, and I said to you `By your blood you shall live,’ and I said to you `By your blood you shall live!’ (Yechezkel 16:6,7). The Ritva commenting on the Haggadah references a Mechilta which says in the name of Rebbe Masia ben Cheresh that Hashem was saying “And I passed over you and saw you” and behold the beloved time had come when Hashem had sworn to Avraham Avinu that He would redeem his children, but they did not have any mitzvos to be involved in so that they can be redeemed… so Hashem gave them two, the mitzvah of Pesach and the mitzvah of milah so that they can be involved in them in order to be redeemed… So to the Rambam wrote that circumcision took place in Egypt, as it says “Any uncircumcised cannot eat from it.” Moshe Rabbeinu circumcised every one of them except for the tribe of Levi for they kept bris milah as it says “And your bris they observed.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

It would seem from the Maharz”u on the Pesiksa Rabasi and the Ritva on the Haggadah that a prerequisite to being redeemed was that the Jews had to be actively involved in performing mitzvos, which is why  Hashem gave them circumcision and the Pascal Lamb as commandments to fulfill. However, the Ritva himself mentioned that they were already performing mitzvos, earlier in the Haggada, on the line, “’And he became there a nation’ this teaches that Israel was distinctive there.” The Ritva says this was them dressing in a distinct way, differently than the Egyptians, by wearing tzitzis. In fact, the Yalkut Shimone (172) mentions other mitzvos they were careful to fulfill, such as distancing from promiscuity, not speaking lashon hara, and not changing their Hebrew names. Indeed, the gemara in Yoma 28b says that during their entire stay in Egypt there was always a yeshiva open, learning the teachings their forefathers had taught going back generation to generation from Avraham Avinu.  Furthermore, the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer, end of chapter 48, said that for 3 things the Jewish people deserved to be redeemed from Egypt: for not changing their language from Biblical Hebrew, not speaking lashon hara, and for believing in the uniqueness of Hashem (Yichud Hashem). If this is the case, then what does it mean that Hashem had to give them 2 mitzvos in order to redeem them? Is there a contradiction here in the Ritva and are the midrashim arguing with each other?

Of course, there is no contradiction in the Ritva and it would seem that the midrashim don’t have to be arguing. It is one thing to be performing mitzvos because it is a nice thing to do, or even the proper thing to do, things that might even have been a tradition from one’s ancestors. This steady performance might be even the ultimate cause of redemption. However, they were not commanded to perform those mitzvos. Bris milah and the Korban Pesach were the first mitzvos that Hashem had commanded the Jewish people to perform. It would seem that only because they observed what they were commanded to do were they able to go through with the redemption. It would not have been possible to redeem them without their observance of what was commanded of them. In fact, it would seem from the Pesiksa Rabasi that ideally, they should have first received the Torah so that they could observe all of the mitzvos, but out of Hashem’s righteousness He took them out after observing only two commandments.

Observing something that you feel obligated to do is a whole different level than performing a mitzvah because you just feel like it, or because you are in the mood, or it makes sense to you, or you just like it. The reason being is because it shows commitment and true respect to Hashem that you are observing it because He commanded you to do it, whereas a person who fulfills mitzvos just because, and when he feels like it, shows that he is committed to himself and his desires, not to Hashem. Therefore it makes sense, as a cause and effect, that the only way the Jews could have been redeemed by Hashem out of Egypt and taken under His wing, is if they showed they were willing to commit themselves to Him and follow whatever He commanded them to do.

This seems to be a rule by redemption in general, not specific to the redemption from Egypt. In order for us to be able to be redeemed from our current exile we have to have a strong commitment towards not only believing in Hashem but towards observing his mitzvos, His commandments, that will be the means of actually being redeemed once we deserve it. This should bring a whole new meaning for ourselves when we recite the first paragraph of Shema and accept the Yoke of Heaven and then the second paragraph of Shema when we accept the Yoke of Mitzvos observance.

Bo – Character Traits Effecting Proper Manners

There is an apropos saying for a Ralbag in this week’s Torah portion of Bo: “What came first the chicken or the egg?”

When the Jewish people had their first Pesach seder right before they left Egypt, Hashem told them exactly how to eat at the seder, “And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord” (Shemos 12:11).

The lesson the Ralbag learns from here is that it’s not right for travelers to prolong their meal and sit comfortably at it. Rather they should eat like travelers so that they can finish their journey with speed and alacrity (zrizus). This is learned from the way Hashem commanded that the Passover sacrifice shall be eaten; meaning, with their loins girded, shoes on their feet, staff in their hand, and that they should eat with haste so that they will appear like travelers. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

One would think that at this moment in time when the Jewish people were ready to place their complete trust and faith in Hashem for taking them out of Egypt, they would have their last meal, which was dedicated to their freedom and redemption in a manner which would show tranquility, liberty, and calm. They anyway weren’t leaving for a few hours until the morning. Besides that, at any meal, how is it proper manners to eat “half out of your seat,” with your traveling shoes on your feet and backpack on your back, eating in a rush? Isn’t it better at any meal, at any time, to sit in your chair with both hands and feet in front of you, eating over the table calmly and attentively? Also, what does zrizus, speed and alacrity, have to do with eating a meal? If you eat too fast you might choke!

It would seem that there are two standards of proper manners when it comes to eating a meal. One is at home or at a location where the meal is conducted with an aura of calm and collection. It would be inappropriate to eat in haste, half out of your seat. There are manners which dictate how to properly eat at a table.

However, when you are in transit, the proper manners are to eat quickly and to keep on going in order to reach your destination as swiftly as possible. Now, zrizus isn’t just speed, it is also alacrity, doing something in an efficient manner but not dawdling. It would seem that eating in the normal calm manner as one would do at his house, or any other normal meal would be a sign of laziness and serenity which one should not have when traveling since there is a destination to reach. Therefore, proper etiquette of how to eat a meal is different.

So, on the contrary by following the way Hashem told them to eat which was teaching them a lesson and preparing them for their journey which they would start in a few hours, that in fact showed the ultimate belief and trust in Hashem.

Bo – Yearning For The Protection

Seder night on Pesach there are many who have the custom to leave their doors unlocked. This is based on a halacha brought in the Rema: “All the laws that apply to the first night should also be followed on the second night. And there is a custom to only read the first paragraph of Shema on one’s bed before going to sleep, but not the other paragraphs which one is accustomed to do on all other nights, for protection, since this night is a night of protection from dangers” (Mishna Berura 481:2). This halacha is based on a pasuk in this week’s Torah portion of Bo: “It is a night of anticipation for Hashem, to take them out of the land of Egypt; this night is Hashem’s, guarding all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Shemos 12:42).
The Rashbam, who is known to explain the pesukim in its simplicity, says: “’It is a night of anticipation for Hashem’ from the days of their forefathers The Holy One Blessed Be He was yearning for this night to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt just as he promised them. And for the Jews it is a night of anticipation for all generations, for they yearn for this night to celebrate the holiday of Pesach with all its laws. The word שִׁמֻּרִ֛ים means waiting (or anticipating) just as it says by [Yaakov about Yosef’s dream] ‘but his father awaited the matter’ (Breishis 37:11).”(Click here for Hebrew text.)
According to the Rashbam, both times when the pasuk uses the term שִׁמֻּרִ֛ים are referring to anticipation (or yearning), by Hashem; anticipating the Jewish people’s redemption and the Jewish people anticipating or yearning for the Holiday of Pesach every year throughout the generations. But there seems to be a stark difference, which challenges what seems to be expected of us each year, between our yearning and anticipation of Hashem’s yearning, of redeeming us from Egypt, or even to Yaakov’s yearning and anticipation to see what would be of Yosef’s dreams. For Hashem was yearning for the day to come when, in natural time, His children would be redeemed and saved from the nasty exile and slavery destined for them in order to receive Hashem’s gift of the Torah, transforming them into a nation, the Light unto all the other nations. This is something obviously worth anticipating, and it is in anticipation of what will happen in the future, which has not yet happened. Certainly by Yaakov Avinu, who did not know the future and what would become of Yosef’s dreams; it definitely warrants yearning and anticipation, an excitement which he probably could not wait to see play out! But us Jews go through the same each Pesach, with the same laws every year, year in and year out. We were already redeemed, the excitement already happened, it is a thing of the past. How can we be expected to yearn and anticipate each and every year, it is the same thing that has happened every year;doesn’t it lose its pizazz and excitement after a while?

It would seem that it is built into every Jew to be excited about celebrating our freedom on Pesach, with all the laws that pertain to it. However there is a logical step to assume that in order to keep that excitement alive each year it is incumbent upon us to find something new to do, to get us excited for the coming Pesach, be it a new insight into the Story of Pesach or a new recipe for the meal, or even new guests to share Pesach with, something within the parameters of Jewish Law to keep the holiday exciting in order to look forward to it as it gets close and when it comes.