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Divrei Torah on the weekly portions

Shemot: Va'Eira

Gradual Growth

The Gemara (Shabbat 55a) states: "God's signature is truth". This is illustrated in the Hebrew word for truth - "EMeT" , because God says "I am the first and the last" (Isaiah 44:6), and EMeT comprises the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet surrounded by the first and the last. How are we therefore able to fathom God asking Pharaoh " let the people go for three days in the desert to worship God " (Shemot 5:3) when it is clear from our Sidra that God really intended for the Israelites to leave Egypt permanently?

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky explains that when God said "three days" he meant it, but Pharaoh rejected that proposal. God then removed the offer of three days from the negotiating table and was only willing to discuss the new proposal of complete freedom. What this implies is that God ideally wanted the Israelites to have a temporary reprieve from Egyptian persecution before the ultimate exodus. But why?

The Torah states: "And Moshe spoke before God saying: 'Even the Israelites did not listen to me, so why would Pharaoh listen to me ?'" (Shemot 6:12) . Rashi teaches that this verse is an example of a Kal VaCHomer (a fortiori). Yet, just three verses earlier, we read: " they did not listen to Moshe due to their weak spirit and hard labour". In other words, the reason the Israelites did not listen was because of their weak spirit and hard labour, but maybe Pharaoh would listen because he did not have a weak spirit and hard labour? So how can this be considered a Kal VaCHomer?

Rabbi Yosef TZvi HaLevi elucidates that the Israelites carried the tradition from Avraham that they would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years (Bereishit 15:13) , but Moshe argued that it was time to leave now after only 210 years for two reasons. Firstly, they were of "weak spirit", meaning that they had sunk to the forty-ninth level of impurity, and if they did not leave Egypt now it could be too late. Secondly, the severity of the "hard labour" compensated for the remaining 190 years. The Israelites rejected these two arguments, hence the verse states: " they did not listen to Moshe due to (his arguments of) their weak spirit and hard labour".

Now we can understand the Kal VaCHomer. If the Israelites, who stood to benefit from believing Moshe, were not willing to accept Moshe's arguments that the time had arrived for them to depart after only 210 years, then Pharaoh was even less likely to accept Moshe's arguments since he stood to lose by believing Moshe.

We can also comprehend why God ideally wanted the Israelites to have a temporary reprieve from Egyptian persecution before the ultimate exodus. The Israelites were not yet ready for the final redemption - they could not cope with the leap from the forty-ninth level of impurity to the forty-ninth level of purity. A temporary exodus would have been beneficial for the Israelites because they needed time to get used to the idea of freedom to serve God. It would similarly have benefited the Egyptians because they needed to adjust to a life without oppressing others.

This explanation teaches us something extremely vital for spiritual living (and is particularly appropriate to mention on Rosh CHodesh which is regarded as a mini-Rosh Hashana when we should examine our Jewish growth). We all want to achieve our maximum spiritual potential, but we sometimes move too fast for growth to last. How many of us leave Yom Kippur thinking we will never gossip again or we will allocate more time for Torah study? We have to learn to help ourselves grow, in a gradual way.

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