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12 Shevat 5763 - January 15, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Parshas Beshalach: Vayehi -- The Up Side Of Suffering

by Rabbi D. Makover

Let's string a number of questions together to illustrate one of the important facets of the Jews' bondage in Egypt.

One. The beginning of the parsha reads: "It was (Vayehi) when Pharaoh sent the people out, Hashem did not lead them through the land of the Philistines because it was near, because Hashem said, "The people might think twice (Rashi) when they see [themselves faced with] war and go back [via the short route] to Egypt" (Shemos 13:17).

Megilla 10b notes that the word "vayehi" denotes pain. What pain is there "when Pharaoh sent the people out"? Surely since the Jews had finally broken free from their miserable bondage, there should be jubilation not pain?

Moshe's Complaints. Justifiable Or Unjustifiable?

Question two. Perek Five at the end of parshas Shemos tells us how Moshe appealed to Pharaoh to release the Jewish slave population and this provoked a stiffened reaction: Pharaoh ruled that the straw the slaves used to make bricks must no longer be delivered to them. They are required to fetch it themselves and yet produce the same quantity of bricks. This brought the slaves to complain to Moshe and Moshe in turn complained to Hashem, "Why have You done evil to this people?"

Rashi at 6:9 notes Chazal's bitter condemnation of Moshe for complaining. They note that after complaining, Hashem told Moshe, "I showed Myself to the Ovos and they did not ask, `Who are You?' as you did at the bush. And I made them suffer until I fulfilled My promises to them and they did not complain. Yet you complain!"

However, Chazal's and Hashem's condemnation does not seem at all justified since any complaining by the Ovos would have been about themselves and their lot. For example, as Rashi writes, if Avrohom were to complain to Hashem, the complaint would have been, "Why do I have to pay so much for a grave for my wife?" And Yitzchok's complaint would have been: "How long will it be till vandals stop coming and blocking up the water wells I dig?" And so on.

But Moshe's questions, "What is Your Name?" and "Why do you make the Jews suffer?" were not personal complaints but a plea of a manhig, appointed by Hashem Himself on behalf of His people. Why do Chazal measure Moshe's complaining against the sufferance of the Ovos?

Third Question. Back to Egypt?

Three. Again, the verse states, "Hashem did not lead them through the land of the Philistines because it was near, because Hashem said, `The people might think twice (Rashi) when they see [themselves faced with] war and go back [via the short route] to Egypt.' "

But why should the Jews want to go back to Egypt? This surely would have been out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The Link In Suffering

The answer to the first question is that, as we shall explain referring to the Ohr Hachaim and the Medrash, the suffering of the Jews was the direct cause of their leaving Egypt and this is the meaning of the verse: "It was because of their suffering that the people went out."

The answer to the second question also turns on this theme of suffering, but goes further. Through suffering the Jews left Egypt. This is a fact. But the suffering as the reason for their leaving is also to be appreciated and valued. The Ohr Hachaim (below) shall explain to us that the Jews' suffering served a grand purpose: 1) the redemption of the Jews and 2) it contributed towards the rectification of the Sin of Odom Horishon. This is why Hashem was angry with Moshe. Moshe challenged the positive aspect of the Jews' suffering.

The answer to the third question is similar to that of the second question in that Vayehi raises a criticism, although not of Moshe but of Klal Yisroel. Vayehi -- there was pain, pain over the fact that the Jews had such weak faith after all the fabulous miracles Hashem had performed for them, such weak faith that they were likely to give up on the path towards spiritual freedom with the first difficulty (war with the Philistines).

Explanation. Medrash and Ohr Hachaim.

To explain. The Medrash notes that the term of 400 hundred years of bondage decreed in the Bris Bein Habesorim was reduced to 210 because Hashem concentrated the amount of suffering they had to endure into a shorter period, meaning their pain was almost double. Here we see then that pain led to the slaves' release. We also see that the worse the suffering the closer the yeshu'o from suffering. This is something Moshe (Rashi, Shemos 6:9, see above) should have appreciated and indeed we too should appreciate that if a problem thrust upon us seems to get worse rather than better, this may well be a sign that the problem will before long come to an end.

Ohr Hachaim (Shemos 3:8) gives a more detailed answer. He asks why Hashem chose to subdue the will of Pharaoh through a process of ten plagues rather than one. Why, he asks, the turn-wheel of warnings, refusals, plagues, amnesty and again Pharaoh's resistance ten times over? Why drag it out? Why not finish it all quickly?

Here is an adapted translation of his words:

Hashem said to Moshe (Shemos 3:8) that He shall "take the people out of the land of Egypt." Hashem declares here that He will redeem the people precisely at the moment for them to be redeemed which was to be in 12 months and not a moment later. And the reason why Hashem did not redeem them immediately is that the right moment had not arrived. This explains why Hashem spread the plagues over 12 months.

He could of course have shortened the whole process. But Hashem wanted their suffering to continue for a further twelve months. The point is that harsh exile such as the one in Mitzrayim serves a purpose, which is the extraction of the holy sparks (nitzotzos) from the fiftieth level of tumah where they have fallen. This is done through suffering. And the job of extraction in Egypt could not be completed in less than a year.

Hashem's ways are hidden. Man sinned with the sin of Odom Horishon. This brought on the world a general need to release "sparks" from dark places. He has also sinned since then. The rectification for this is suffering.

Seforim tell us that this suffering can be translated into the performance of mitzvos with effort and devotion. However, if it is not through mitzvos with effort and devotion, it is through plain suffering. This was apparently the lot of the Jews in Egypt.

Suffering Beyond Normal Understanding

Once a man sins, he places himself in the hands of forces beyond his normal understanding. Hashem can decide to intensify a man's suffering and shorten the time it takes for him to finish off the amount of suffering decreed upon him, as in Egypt. Or Hashem can decide to prolong the suffering but make it less. Hashem decides and He knows what is best. All that remains is belief and trust.

Once a tzaddik, before dying, promised that when he'll arrive in heaven, he'll send Moshiach. After he died, nothing happened. Jewish suffering continued as usual. Another tzaddik fasted and asked to see the dead tzaddik in a dream. Sure enough, he appeared to him. "Nu?" the dreaming tzaddik asked. "Where's Moshiach?" The dead tzaddik answered "Now that I'm here, I can see there's still time to go."

He saw that Hashem had decided the amount of suffering would be too much for us if He were to hasten Moshiach's arrival.

Time Factor

The tzaddik, the Ohr Hachaim and the Medrash also imply that a decree of suffering ends at a precise moment, exactly when the rectification is complete.

This preciseness must also lead us to respect suffering. In Bava Basra (16), Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself tells us how precise He is: "The hind is cruel to her fawns. When she is due to give birth, she goes up to the top of a mountain so that the newborn should roll down and die. And I [Hashem] precisely at the moment bring along an eagle which catches the fawn in its wings and places it before the hind."

Then the gemora stresses the point even more. Hashem continues: "And if the eagle were to arrive a second before or a second after, the fawn would at once die."

From this alone, we see that Hashem's decrees are subject to a time period.


Incidentally, Ohr Hachaim also asks why the plagues seem to be a drama focused on Pharaoh. As the verse suggests: "It was (Vayehi) when Pharaoh sent the people out." Why not launch one grand plague at the end of the period of suffering against Egypt and take out the Jews then?

The answer is that of course Hashem wanted Pharaoh himself to be the Jews' reluctant redeemer, presumably to demonstrate the fact that no one can resist Hashem.

Last Question

The pain arising from the lack of faith of the Jews which we noted in our third question is of course Hashem's pain, and not ours. Here again, the Jews were taught a lesson. They were led to the bank of the Reed Sea and the Egyptians were in hot pursuit. But our people finally understood. "Amid their dire straits, they shouted out to Hashem," (Tehillim 107:6). At this precise moment, Hashem saved them. It's never too late to pray.

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