This week’s Torah portion of Vaera, we begin to go through most of the ten plagues. The first plague was one of blood. Upon warning Pharaoh about the first plague, the Medrish Rabba in this parsha (9:8) relates that Hashem told Moshe, “‘Go to Pharaoh in the morning, he will be coming out of the water.’ Pharaoh only went down to the water in the mornings because this wicked person declared and lauded himself as a deity who didn’t need to use the facilities; therefore he only went in the morning, when the need was too overwhelming. And the staff that turned into a snake [Hashem told Moshe] you should take with you in order to instill fear of you inside him.” The Maharz”u quoting a different version of the medrish found in the Yalkut Shimone says that Hashem told Moshe that because he declared himself a god, he should inform him that he is only human; so Moshe grabbed him. Pharaoh said, let me go so I can do what I need to do. Moshe said back, is there a god that needs to use the facilities? That is why Hashem told Moshe to get up early in the morning.
Why did Hashem tell Moshe to take his staff in order to instill fear into Pharaoh? The Maharz”u says to look at the previous medrish, which said that what it means that Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs, Rebbe Eliezer says, is that a miracle within a miracle happened. The staff turned back into the original staff [after it had turned into a snake] and then swallowed all the other ones. When Pharaoh saw this, he was bewildered and said ‘What if he tells the staff to swallow Pharaoh and his throne, it will now swallow him…’ We see from here that the staff was brought that morning in order to haunt Pharaoh and remind him of the threat that he could be swallowed up by the staff.
The Eshed Hanachalim has an interesting twist on why the staff was brought to instill fear into Pharaoh. “Maybe he will have a change of heart for the better. Because Hashem doesn’t want to take revenge like human beings. Rather He is warning him and instilling fear into him perhaps he will repent.” The Eshel Hanachalim goes on to prove that that is what Hashem was trying to do. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
But why did Pharaoh have to be haunted by this staff in order for him to possibly repent? Wasn’t it obvious that he was wrong? He was caught in an act of being mortal by his arch nemesis; there was nothing he could deny, intellectually! Besides the fact that emotionally, even in the back of his mind, he had the memory of the staff fresh in his mind! So why the need to bring it just to haunt him and make a greater impression upon him to change?
We see from here how hard it is for a person to change his character and way of life. Even though Pharaoh couldn’t deny to Moshe that he was only human, as well as the fact that the threat of being swallowed up by the staff was fresh on his mind, still, in all, it wasn’t enough for him to admit his flaws and repent. The Eshed Hanachalim also says that even after he was haunted by the staff, then perhaps, maybe he would repent. Instilling fresh fear while being caught in the act of not acting godly still wasn’t able to ensure his repentance; and in fact he didn’t. Things got much worse for his entire country with the ten plagues and the eventual annihilation of his entire army when they drowned in the Red Sea.
However, the Yalkut Shimone in Yona (550), quoting a Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (chapter 43), relates that Pharaoh was the only Egyptian who survived the drowning at the Red Sea because he was rewarded foe exclaiming before he would have drowned, “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Hashem” (Shemos 15:11)! At that point, broken and humiliated, he in fact repented and ran off to Nineveh. Hashem granted him the chance to live for hundreds of years longer, and he was the king of Nineveh in the book of Yonah the prophet. When Yonah finally came to Nineveh and told the people in the great metropolis to repent from their evil ways, the king, who was Pharaoh, told everyone to not take Yonah’s word lightly because his G-D means business and is being very serious. Millions of people went through a penitent process that lasted only 40 days, but we clearly see that Pharaoh finally got the point and acknowledged who is Boss. (Click here for Hebrew text)
Ultimately it can only take oneself to choose to change his or her own life. No one can force them to do it. There can be pressure, a lot of pressure, but it’s still only up to one’s own self to change.
In the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vaera, Moshe was instructed by Hashem to give encouragement to the Jewish people upon the upcoming redemption out of servitude and bondage and inheritance of the Land of Canaan. “God spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned. And also, I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant.’ Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord’ ” (Shemos 6:2-8).
The next pasuk says that Moshe related what Hashem told him to the Jewish people, but they did not accept what he said. “Moshe spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moshe because of shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor” (Shemos 6:9).
Why didn’t the Jewish people accept such encouraging words? The pasuk states two reasons: because of shortness of breath, which the Ralbag attributes to Moshe, as will be explained shortly, and because of their hard labor, which the Mesillas Yesharim in chapter 2 explains, “In truth, this is one of the cunning strategies of the evil inclination, to relentlessly burden people’s hearts with his service so as to leave them no room to reflect and consider which road they are taking. For he knows that if they were to put their ways to heart even the slightest bit, certainly they would immediately begin to feel regret for their deeds. The remorse would go and intensify within them until they would abandon the sin completely. This is similar to the wicked Pharaoh’s advice saying, “intensify the men’s labor…” (Ex. 5:9). His intention was to leave them no time whatsoever to oppose him or plot against him. He strove to confound their hearts of all reflection by means of the constant, incessant labor.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Jewish people were working so hard that they did not have the time or brainpower to think about and digest what Moshe was telling them. However, the Ralbag adds that if not for Moshe’s “shortness of breath” then they would have accepted what Moshe had told them. What does this mean? The lesson the Ralbag learns from pasuk 9 is that when a person wants to express something to other people, he should formulate his words with the purpose of convincing the person of what he desires of them, using fine and flowery speech so that he will be pleasing to listen to. Without this, it is possible one will not get what he requests, even if it is something which would benefit them (the listeners). We see this from the fact that Hashem commanded Moshe to tell the Jews all that He told him, and most of it was for their own good. Indeed, it was convincing enough that they should have trusted his words, but still the Jews did not listen to Moshe because of the “shortness of breath” of Moshe that he didn’t put in the effort to place his words in an orderly and complete fashion so that they would sound pleasing and believable. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Ralbag, in his verse-by-verse commentary, adds that Moshe had spoken directly to the Jews without Aharon as intermediary as indicated in pasuk 6, “Therefore, say to the children of Israel.” Then Hashem told Moshe to speak to Pharaoh without Aharon as intermediary, “But Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of impeded lips?’” What Moshe meant by “impeded lips” was that his speech was closed, meaning that the gates of speech were closed in front of him like a person sentenced to be speechless. Therefore, in the next pasuk it writes, “So the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon,” all that He commanded to say to the Jews and Pharaoh. The point being that Hashem spoke to Moshe to in turn speak to Aharon, and Aharon would be the intermediary for the messenger of Hashem to speak on his behalf. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into perspective what transpired. It is well known that Moshe had some form of verbal handicap, received when he burned his lips on hot coals at the age of 3 when Pharaoh tested him to see if he could be trusted in the palace (Shemos Rabba 1:26). From that day Moshe had a speech impediment. Moshe originally objected to accepting leadership over the Jewish people when he spoke to Hashem at the burning bush, with one of his excuses being that he had a speech impediment and Hashem told Moshe that Aharon would speak for him. Hashem evidently still insisted in the beginning that Moshe would speak to both the Jews and Pharaoh. Moshe tried with the Jews, it didn’t work, and before going to Pharaoh he told Hashem ‘I can’t do this,’ and Hashem acquiesced and brought Aharon in as an intermediary.
Obviously, Moshe had the potential to speak eloquently and get the message clearly across; if not, Hashem would not have wasted His time. So what went wrong? It is actually a bit shocking, if one thinks about it! Moshe had the playbook right in front of him. Hashem told him exactly what to tell the Jewish people. He was like a teleprompter of sorts for Moshe. Moshe of course had the care and desire to tell the Jewish people that they would be seeing salvation soon, don’t worry this terrible exile, servitude will end very soon, and you will be redeemed in exemplary fashion. He cared so much for his people and only wanted the best for them, so why couldn’t he muster up the ability to give over the message with all its flowery detail, excitement, and luster that would energize them to believe in and accept their exciting fate?
It would seem, on some level, though he believed completely in Hashem, accepted his leadership role, and was completely faithful and caring for the Jewish people, but because of the handicap he had, on some miniscule level it effected his confidence in formulating what he was supposed to say in an eloquent and orderly fashion to the degree that he felt hindered and speechless. That is why he told Hashem that he had “impeded lips” and in fact Moshe was “short of breath” when speaking to the Jews. Hashem gave Moshe the chance to overcome his handicap on his own, but Moshe felt he was not ready to, and without any qualms Hashem gave Aharon the job of being Moshe’s mouthpiece.
Still in all, Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader of all time and the first Medrish Rabba at the beginning of Devarim says that through learning and teaching Torah his speech impediment was eventually healed. This is the power of Torah!
Hashem gave Moshe three signs to show that he was sent by Hashem to free the Jewish people: (1) the staff turning into a snake, (2) Moshe’s hand getting leprosy and then turning back to normal, and (3) turning water into blood. He showed these signs to the Jewish people as we saw towards the end of last week’s Torah portion of Shemos. But in this week’s portion of Vaera he only shows Pharaoh the wonder of turning the staff into a snake (or crocodile).
The Torah refers to what Moshe showed the Jews as signs, but what he showed Pharaoh as a wonder. The Sforno says that “a wonder comes to demonstrate the greatness of the sender, that it is proper to hearken to His voice. A sign, however, testifies to the authenticity of the messenger. That is why Moshe performed ‘signs’ in the presence of the Jews, who did not doubt the greatness and ability of the Sender but questioned whether the messenger was authentic. Pharaoh, however, had doubts regarding the Sender, and even denied His existence, as he said, ‘I know not Hashem’ (Shemos 5:2). That is why he asks for a ‘wonder’ to authenticate the greatness of the Sender, in a manner which will demonstrate that He is worthy to be listened to. It is not unprecedented for the same object to be used as a sign and a wonder for different people” (Sforno on Shemos 7:9).
The Torah had said right before Moshe’s first confrontation with Pharaoh, “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying, “When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide a sign for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aharon, ‘Take your staff, [and] cast [it] before Pharaoh; it will become a serpent (crocodile)’ ” (Shemos 7:8, 9). The Chizkuni observes that “this portion was already mentioned in Shemos, ‘see all the signs that I have placed in your hand and perform them before Pharaoh,’ (Shemos 4:21). It was repeated here because of the new thing that happened. What new thing happened? He only performed the staff turning into a serpent (crocodile) before Pharaoh.”
The Chizkuni, explains what a “wonder” is by quoting Rashi saying, “a sign to make [it] known that there is power in the One who is sending you;” meaning, He has ability and control. This message was sent to Pharaoh, as the Chizkuni says, because “Pharaoh was haughty in his own eyes and called himself a crocodile, as it says, ‘O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile’ (Yechezkel 29:3). Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh, just as this staff turned into a crocodile and swallowed up staffs, and in the end turned back into a dried piece of wood, so to you swallowed up 12 staffs of the tribes of Israel and your end will be like a dry piece of wood, dead.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Ibn Ezra in facts points out that Moshe’s staff turned into a snake for the Jews but a crocodile for Pharaoh in order to get this very message across to him. It would seem, according to the Chizkuni, that Hashem originally intended to show the 3 signs to Pharaoh as well, but something changed, a specific message had to be sent to Pharaoh, so only one sign was needed. What changed and why not give all 3 signs anyway; if one doesn’t work then maybe another one will get the message across? As the saying goes, “throw everything at him, including the kitchen sink, and maybe something will stick?!”
We must say that Hashem originally intended to give all three signs to Pharaoh through Moshe, as he did to the Jews in order to prove the authenticity of the messenger, Moshe. Although Pharaoh fancied himself as a god, and called himself the Great Crocodile of the Nile, the entire time he had the potential to reverse his opinion and acknowledge the supremacy of the Almighty Blessed Be He. Hashem gave Pharaoh a chance to the very end, right before Moshe confronted Pharaoh, to choose out of his own free choice to make that acknowledgement. But once Hashem saw Pharaoh was not going to realize this of his own free will, He told Moshe to show Pharaoh one wonder which had a specific message.
We see from here that when trying to get through to someone to teach them a lesson the best way is to pinpoint the exact issue and focus in on that, hitting the nail on the head, and hopefully the message will come across loud and clear. That’s better than throwing everything at him and hoping that something will stick.
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The Torah tells us in this week’s Torah portion of Vaera: “Moshe and Aharon did as Hashem commanded them, so they did. Moshe was 80 years old and Aharon was 83 years old when they spoke to Pharaoh” (Shemos 6, 7:7). The Torah isn’t just a historical book teaching us facts about the Jewish leaders’ timelines and ages. There must be a reason why the Torah gave the ages of Moshe and Aharon at this junction. In fact, the Ibn Ezra observes that the pasuk mentions their ages, and we don’t find anywhere else in Scripture where it mentions that prophets gave prophesy at such an old age.
The Sforno learns from this pasuk that, with all their elderliness, Moshe and Aharon still woke up early and acted with speed and alacrity (b’zrizus) to do the will of their Creator. For normally one who has reached the age of 80 had, even in those days, already surpassed “old age” and reached “the age of strength,” as Moshe testified in his prayer when he said: “The days of our years are 70 years, or even by reason of strength, 80 years” (Tehillim 90:10). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Sforno is telling us that the lesson we learn from this pasuk is that even at an old age one can act b’zrizus; with enthusiasm, alacrity and zeal, and in a manner which is quick and with much ease, in order to serve Hashem and fulfill His will.
This is something totally expected of Moshe and Aharon, such great tzadikim, righteous to the highest caliber, in touch with Hashem directly. Why would we think anything less of them, that the Torah has to point out their ages as if to applaud them for acting in a manner which was above and beyond what they were expected to do?
We see from here that even for such holy and righteous people like Moshe and Aharon, they also felt the effects of age, and it must not have been easy for them to act with such energy, like they had in their youth, to go with such speed to fulfill Hashem’s will. Yet they overcame the natural lethargies of age, and acted b’zrizus to do Hashem’s bidding, which deserved special mentioning.
But we have to put into context what exactly this means. Although it says at the end of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life: “Moshe was 120 years old when he died; his eyes had not dimmed, and his vigor had not vanished” (Devarim 34:7), and Moshe also carried down the Tablets and erected the Mishkan single handedly, we must say that Moshe was only rejuvenated by Hashem with “the fountain of youth” when he was up on Har Sinai upon receiving the Torah. Until then he was aging normally as anyone else would. In fact, the chapter in Tehillim that the Sforno quoted was written by Moshe Rabbeinu: “A prayer by Moshe, the man of Hashem…” (Tehillim 90:1) and the Ibn Ezra mentions there that Moshe might have written this Psalm when he was 80, before he had prophesy, when his “hands were becoming heavy.” So he really was naturally slowing down at that point; yet when he was charged by Hashem to free the Jewish people he acted in a manner not befitting his age, with such enthusiasm and speed that it was worth lauding him and Aharon in the Torah, which is not known to write anything extra, not even a letter.
This is something which should not be taken so lightly, the Mishna in Pirkay Avos, which the Sforno in fact alludes to, says: “At seventy fullness of years; at eighty the age of ‘strength’” (Avos 5:21). Rashi there says that at 70 you are considered completely old, when most of your hair whitens, and it is a big thing to live to the age of 80, and if one lives longer than 80 it is with “the power” of Hashem which keeps him alive, not because of his own strength, for from now on one doesn’t have as much strength to eat and drink.
We see from all this that aging is a natural tendency within all of us and that it is normal for us to slow down based on the laws of nature. But, even barring a miracle, one has the ability to move above and beyond nature, if he puts his or her mind to it and is excited to act with speed and alacrity, b’zrizus, especially when performing Hashem’s will.
The Orchos Tzadikim in the chapter on Zrizus opens by saying: “Zeal for the Torah and the commandments is a great quality, and so is zeal that aims to make a better world. And it is a quality of the righteous in the service of the Creator, may He be Blessed. Our Sages, of blessed memory, said : “The zealous are early to perform their religious duties” (Pesahim 4a).” Everyone, no matter what age or circumstance has the potential to be righteous and is able to tap in and use this incredible attribute for good.