Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )
Moshe Rabbeinu and Pharaoh
This week’s Torah portion describes in great detail the first seven of the ten plagues that brought Egypt to its knees. A major feature of the plagues is the behavior of Pharaoh in reaction to the destruction of his nation. When Moses and Aaron bring about the first plague of blood, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh was not impressed because his sorcerers could also turn water into blood: “And Pharaoh hardened his heart and he did not listen to them…” The next verse states that “Pharaoh turned and went to his home, and also did not pay attention to this.” (1) The commentaries ask, what does the Torah refer to when it says that ‘he did not pay attention to this’; the previous verse already stated that Pharaoh did not listen to the arguments of Moshe and Aaron?
The Netsiv explains that the second verse is telling us that Pharaoh was also unmoved by the pain that his people were suffering through the plague, and did not seek out any ways in which he could ease their pain.
The plague of blood was the only plague in which the Torah alludes to Pharaoh’s indifference to the suffering of his own people. Why is this the case? The Medrash, HaGadol provides the key to answering this question: “The wicked Pharaoh was not afflicted by the plague of blood.” (2) The plague of blood was the only one which did not harm Pharaoh. Since he did not experience the pain himself, it was this plague where his apathy to the pain of his people was most pronounced.
We see a stark contrast to Pharaoh’s cruel indifference in the reaction of Moshe to the pain of the Jewish people. Moshe grew up in the home of Pharaoh, separate from his people and unaffected by the slavery. Nonetheless, he went out and looked at the suffering of his brothers and empathized with their pain(3) – he even persuaded Pharaoh to give them a day of rest.(4)
The verses in the Torah that describe Moshe’s tremendous concern for his people are preceded by the words, “vayigdal Moshe.” This would normally be translated as, “and Moses grew up”, however this cannot be the case because an earlier verse already stated that. The commentaries explain that it refers to becoming a great person – and the indicator of that greatness was his concern for others.(5)
Why does the trat of empathy in particular represent greatness? Rav Shimon Shkop explains that a ‘Gadol‘ – a great person – is one who expands his definition of self to include others. He is not considered a mere individual, rather part of a larger whole, and consequently he himself becomes a ‘bigger’ person.(6)Pharaoh, in contrast, is described by the Talmud as being a very small person.(7) The commentaries explain that this refers to his spiritual standing – he was on a very low level.(8) Perhaps one aspect of his lowliness was his apathy to the pain of his own people. Since he only cared about himself, he did not expand his self-definition and remained a ‘small’ person.
How can a person avoid the apathy of Pharaoh and emulate the empathy of Moses? It is particularly difficult to empathize with people who are in a situation that does not affect us. When the verse says that Moses saw the suffering of his people, Rashi elaborates; “he focused his eyes and heart to feel pain for them.” (9) My Rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits explains that first he looked at their faces to see the pain that they were in. He then ‘focused his heart’ by trying to relate to their pain, to feel what they were feeling. So too, when we hear of a person in difficulty we should first try to notice their facial expressions in order to make real the pain that they are in. Secondly, we should try to feel what it must be like to be in such pain. In a similar vein, Rav Noach Orlowek suggests that when we hear of a terrorist attack in which people are killed, we should take out a few moments to imagine what the victims and their families must be going through. It is not enough to merely sigh and move on; we must strive to avoid becoming immune to other people’s pain.
It is also instructive to make some kind of gesture to show that the suffering of our fellow Jew truly concerns us even if we cannot directly help them. When Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was the Rabbi of Brisk, half the city was burnt down, leaving hundreds of Jews homeless. Rav Chaim promptly moved out of his home and slept on a bench in the study hall. When asked why he was doing so he exclaimed, “How can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof covering them?!” (10)
We also learn from Moshe that it is not enough to merely feel bad for those in pain. The Medrash says that Moshe “would pitch in and help each of them, ignoring his rank, he would lighten their burdens while pretending to be helping Pharaoh.” (11) Similarly we must strive to help those in difficulty in any way that we can. Rav Yissachar Frand suggests that the next time we hear that our friend is in a difficult situation we should see if there is any feasible way in which we can help him. If, for example, he lost his job, we can think if we know any contacts that may help him find new employment, or if he is looking for a marriage partner then think of any possible matches for him.
Even if we cannot actively solve the person’s problem we can do a great kindness by being there for him and showing him that he is not alone in his pain.
Moshe and Pharaoh show us how greatness is defined by caring about others and smallness is a reflection of selfishness. May we all strive to emulate Moshe.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
1. Va’eira, 6:22-23.
2. Medrash HaGadol, Shemos, 7:29.
3. Shemos, 2:11.
4. Shemos Rabbah, 1:27. This comparison of Moshe to Pharaoh was heard from Rav Moshe Zeldman Shlita, senoir lecturer for Aish HaTorah, Yerushalayim.
5. Shaarei Simcha; also heard from Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita.
6. Hakdama to Shaar Yosher.
7. Moed Katan, 18a.
8. Iyun Yaakov, ibid.
9. Shemos, 2:11.
10. Heard from Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita.
11. Shemos Rabbah, 1:27.
Reprinted with permission
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