On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Torah Thought: Parsha Va’eira

This weeks Torah portion describes the first 7 of the 10 plagues that G-d inflicts upon the Egyptians to help persuade Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from their slavery so that they could worship G-d without restriction.

Throughout the first several plagues, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh strengthened his heart and would not let the Jews leave. As a reaction to this, G-d slowly increased the severity of the plagues as a punishment to Pharaoh. After the 6th plague, we see something changes. The Torah tells us in Chapter 9, verse 12 that “G-d strengthened the heart of Pharaoh” and he did not free the Jewish people.

This leads us to the question of why does G-d continue to punish Pharaoh if G-d is interfering with Pharaoh’s free choice to do the right thing? One could argue that Pharaoh and the Egyptians deserved to be punished for their treatment of the Jewish people in the past and their current choice to prolong the slavery has nothing to do with their punishments. That seems logical at first, but still doesn’t answer why G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If he deserved to be punished for previous transgressions, then G-d could have punished him no matter what choices he makes now.

Rabbi Schneur Zalmon tells us that if a righteous person works on themselves and prays enough, it’s possible that they can receive divine assistance to eliminate their desires to do evil. Even on a smaller scale, it seems that when people set out to do good, G-d grants them assistance. We’re taught in the Ethics of our Fathers that one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. I had a similar experience when I first started dating my wife. She had moved into a new apartment in Philadelphia. Everything was fine until she quickly realized that whenever she left her building, at night, the neighbor’s motion detector set off an automatic light. This was helpful during the week, but posed a concern for Shabbas and holidays. We discussed all different options about what she could do… stay in her home every Friday night and early Saturday evening… stay at someone else’s home every Shabbas. Neither one was so convenient, but what options did she have to be able to live a normal life and still keep the Shabbas. We were racking our brains out when one night she discovered that if she walked a certain patter against the wall, she could get into and out of her apartment without setting off the light. It seemed as clear proof that G-d helps those that want to do good. *

If G-d helps people make the right choices and do mitzvahs when they want to, then presumable the opposite is also correct. As I observed many times, in my non religious days, when people set out to do things that aren’t holy, they seem to have no trouble finding it. If someone wants to go out and get into a fight, they’ll find someone to fight with. If someone wants to go out and have improper relations, they’ll also find a partner.

It would seem that the L-rd helps people accomplish whatever they set out to do. If someone sets out to do a mitzvah, G-d will give them an opportunity and even give them the strength to accomplish it. If someone sets out to do evil, G-d forbid, then the L-rd will present them with opportunities to get into trouble and remove any inspiration to do otherwise. The Rabbis tell us that ancient Egypt was the height of moral depravity. As it’s leader, we assume that Pharaoh was the worst one of them all. Since G-d created the world in 6 days, the number 6 represents the physical world. After Pharaoh hardened his own hear 6 times, it created a lasting effect, and G-d helped Pharaoh stay true to his own wicked intentions.

* I’ve said in many times on BThandbook.com that my goal is not to tell you what the Jewish laws are, but to help people incorporate them into their lives. I later learned that even if my wife (then girlfriend) didn’t find a way to enter and leave without setting off the exterior light, it may have been permissible to enter and leave anyway. The laws are complex so if you find yourself in a similar situation, please consult a competent orthodox Rabbi.


  1. "We were racking our brains out when one night she discovered that if she walked a certain patter against the wall, she could get into and out of her apartment without setting off the light. It seemed as clear proof that G-d helps those that want to do good. *"

    I can't believe you just suggested that finding a "blind spot" in the motion sensor was proof of some kind of Hashgacha Pratit. And, if a thief found the same spot, it would be G-d helping the evil person rob you, because they deserve help in harming you too...

    Why can't it be just a blind spot and nothing unique to your situation. Sometimes motion censors have blind spots, or can be fooled by deliberate slow steps.

    FYI, you could have asked the question. See:
    Reb Elyashiv's opinion at the bottom
    Rev Ovadia Yoseph's opinion

    Or, you could have sued the neighbor like these folks in the UK: link

    (Many Rishonim held that specific divine intervention only applied to the extremely good and the extremely bad. I know Chasidic leaders took a different approach. But when you extend it to deriving irrational conclusions from everyday occurrences, it drives people like me nuts.)

    On a slightly related note, you probably can't walk a block in center city without being filmed by a traffic cam and/or security camera.

    1. AHG,

      Im glad to see that you're feeling better.

      One could look at anything that happens as meaningless statistics or an act of G-d.

      I have a relative that was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given 6 months to live. It's been roughly 25 years and other than signs of old age, the original illness, while still there, is under control. One could easily say... If someone has a 99% chance of dyeing, one person has to live to make the statistic. That maybe true, but when one diagnosed, they pray with all of their might to be in that 1%.

      There are plenty of sources that say the G-d can and does openly interact with this world.

      FYI She only rented so couldn't sue.

    2. Ari - Thanks, doing much better.

      I'm not arguing with what you said above. However, what I was trying to suggest was that your initial post is analogous to claiming that finding your misplaced keys in the morning is proof of G-ds existence in your life. Even if you're convinced G-d helped you find them, and didn't make you late to work, you're not likely to convince anyone else that it's proof of the divine in our lives. Most people would say that if you know the keys came home with you the night before, then they're there, seek and ye shall find :-)

      On the other hand, being in the 1% for 25 years is remarkable by anyone's standard. For this you can say G-d performed a personal miracle for that person. (It may be "nistar" but for that person, their prayers were answered in the affirmative. )

  2. AHG,

    By your logic, G-d only interacts with this world on the big stuff and lets the small things run on it's own.

    When I first started learning to pray, I found it very hard to pray for personal requests of a non critical nature and confined by prayers to the life and death. I learned later that by doing so, I'm somehow saying that G-d is too busy to deal with getting me a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich for lunch or the like. I would imagine that getting me a decent lunch takes just as much effort as splitting the red sea.

    G-d leaves room for us to explain everything scientifically or to see it has his involvement. It's up to us to choose how we see things. I do know that G-d gives us more of what we choose to see. For those of us who want to see the hand of G-d in our day to day life, we will. For those that want to see nothing, we'll see nothing. If we seek oppertunities to fulfill G-d's will, we'll find it. If we seek to find sin, unfortuantly, we can find that too.

  3. "By your logic, G-d only interacts with this world on the big stuff and lets the small things run on it's own."

    But it's not my logic.

    RAMBAN (Deuteronomy 11:13)
    "Thus, whereas the fate of the Jews as a nation is guided by providence, individuals do not enjoy the same providential relationship with the Almighty. Only the righteous and the wicked can expect providential treatment. The fate of more “average” individuals is primarily guided by natural law "

    You may choose to gravitate to a different view of providence but the view I presented is not my own, and is well grounded in our tradition.

    It's one thing to state a belief that finding a path that didn't activate a motion detector was divinely aided, it's a totally different matter to say that by virtue of finding that path you have PROOF of divine aid in your life.

  4. The Tanya teaches us that rightous and wicked are not permanent titles. Our status changes as we either do teshuva or sin.

    At this mornings Mishneh Berura class, we were discussing laws of Shabbas and specifically writing and erasing. The topic was whether it's permissable to write over blank ink with red ink and whether that constitues erasing. Before we turned the page, someone got a nosebleed and made their book a little red.

    One could easily say that since some people occasionaly get nose bleeds and some people study Mishneh Berura, it was just a coincidence. I don't know the statistics, but it would seem like the chances of that happening naturally are pretty slim.