Parshat Va’eira: Charging Through Life?
This week’s parsha teaches us that there are certain special mitzvot that enable us to gain a broader perspective of life. Picture the scene: the cavalries of two armies charging towards one another, with long spears and swords they charge at each other on horseback. Think about it: what’s in it for the horse? Why is he charging ahead? The horse on his right is charging and so is the one on his left; so he charges on. Everybody is charging toward destruction. The riders have made a conscious decision to fight in the army, but why are the horses doing this?
CHIEF RABBI WARREN GOLDSTEIN
Parshat Va’eira: Charging Through Life?
Picture the scene: the cavalries of two armies charging towards one another, with long spears and swords they charge at each other on horseback. Think about it: what’s in it for the horse? Why is he charging ahead? The horse on his right is charging and so is the one on his left; so he charges on. Everybody is charging toward destruction. The riders have made a conscious decision to fight in the army, but why are the horses doing this?
In Jeremiah chapter 8 verse 6, the prophet Jeremiah describes how sometimes people live life like horses in a cavalry charge, going through the motions and doing what they think they have to because everybody around them is doing the same thing. We are just charging on, not really thinking. To use a modern-day example, it is like horses in a race. The rider – so he hopes – is getting fame and fortune, but what does the horse gain? He is just charging ahead, with his blinkers on.
Many of us live life charging forward without thinking. How do we avoid this?
Stopping to think
The Mesilat Yesharim, one of our classic philosophical – and practical – works written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as the Ramchal, of Italy in the 1700s, quotes this passage from the prophet Jeremiah and says the only way out is to stop and think. We need to stop for a moment and think about where we are headed, what life is about and what our purpose is.
In last week’s parsha, Shemot, we read about the enslavement of the Jewish people and how Moses arrives on the scene to begin the process of redemption. This week’s parsha, Va’eria, continues with the events of the Exodus, though the people are still very much enslaved. We read at the end of last week’s parsha about how the people initially welcomed Moshe with open arms; but after Moshe’s first encounter with Pharaoh, Pharaoh responded by making things worse for the people. He said (Shemot 5:9) Tichbad ha’avoda at ha’anashim…ve’al yish’u bedivrey sheker, “make the work harder for them and let them not turn to false ideas.” Pharaoh saw the people were starting to feel a sense freedom and he was worried about it, so his tactic was to make them too busy to think.
The Mesilat Yesharim says Pharaoh knew that the way to prevent the people from thinking about freedom and the important things in life was to make them so busy they could not pause to think. And that, says the Mesilat Yesharim, is really when the yetzer hara – the evil inclination – thrives, when we are so busy we can’t even stop to think. We become enslaved to the wrong path in life; we can’t even get our priorities straight and we can’t even lift our heads up to see the bigger picture. Thus, we live life like the horses in the cavalry charge.
Pharaoh’s strategy worked: we read at the beginning of this week’s portion that by this stage, after Pharaoh had made the work harder for them, Velo sham’u el Moshe mikotzer ruach ume’avoda kasha, “they did not listen to Moshe because of shortness of spirit and because of hard work.” Their spirits were low, they couldn’t see the big picture anymore because things were too hard and they couldn’t stop to think. It wasn’t just the hard work because the work was difficult even before Moshe had come. But when Moses first arrived they still had some breathing space and that meant they could welcome Moses and his message of redemption. Now, they could no longer do it because they couldn’t even stop to think.
Finding the space to foster our faith
The lesson that Rabbi Luzzatto gleans from this is that the only way to real freedom from the enslavement of our day-to-day lives is to be able to have the time to stop and to think. Stopping to think is not just about stopping and thinking but about doing something positive. It’s about finding faith and making a connection to Hashem, despite the difficulties and challenges that we may be facing; to be able to say, I believe in Hashem and I will find my inspiration in Him. That is the beginning of the process of stepping out of the cavalry charge and seeing the broader picture.
Let us look at what Pharaoh was trying to stop them from doing, and then learn from that what we can do to make that positive connection with Hashem. Pharaoh said ve’al yish’u bedivrey sheker “let them not turn to false ideas.” Various commentaries explain that bedivrey sheker means “words of emptiness.” To what does this refer?
According to the Midrash, the people at that time had inspiring writings that they used to read on Shabbos. Of course, Shabbos had not yet been given to them as a mitzvah but they did have off on Shabbos – that is, until Pharaoh increased their workload to the point where they could not rest – and they used to read inspiring writings. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, opines that this inspirational reading was from Psalms. We know that the Psalms were authored by King David, except for eleven chapters which, according to the Gemara, were authored by Moses – from psalm 90 through psalm 101. Every Shabbos we say psalm 92 in the davening – Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat, the psalm for the day of Shabbos. But if we look through that psalm we find no reference to Shabbos. The introductory words say, “this is the psalm for the day of Shabbos” but the rest of the psalm doesn’t actually talk about Shabbos. It talks about the problem of the flourishing of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. It says, don’t be disturbed by the flourishing of the wicked, because they flourish like grass which comes and goes quickly. But the righteous are like the cedar trees; they take a long time to flourish but they are there forever – not only in this world, but in the next world as well.
We have to look at things with a long-term perspective. If we were to plant two seeds in the ground, a grass seed and a cedar tree, the grass would start growing much quicker. So too the wicked sometimes flourish and the righteous person takes a long time to thrive; but we have to look at the full perspective, not only of this world but of the next world as well.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky says that it was during this time, when the people were enslaved and suffering in Egypt and were looking to Moshe for inspiration, that he penned the words of this psalm to uplift their spirits.
Taking time out for prayer
This relates to prayer as well. According to the Ba’al HaTurim, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages whose specialty in his commentary on Chumash is finding where else in Tanach we find the same words or expressions, says this word yish’u in Pharaoh’s words ve’al yish’u bedivrey sheker, “let them not turn to false ideas,” appears only in one other place in the whole of Tanach and in that context (Shmuel II 22:42) it is talking about the people praying to G-d and not getting answered. The Ba’al HaTurim connects the two contexts where this word yish’u appears and says this is to teach us that when one prays to G-d one has to be honest. The key to prayer is that it must come from the heart; it has to be sincere, not just going through the motions and the externalities – having a Siddur open in front of us though our mind is in many different places. It means having a spiritual and emotional connection to Hashem.
Of course, we pray to G-d and sometimes he grants our request and sometimes He does not. He hears our prayers even though things may not turn out the way we would like, just as parents sometimes do not give a child what the child asks for because it isn’t good for the child.
Even though the request was no granted, the child is still secure in the knowledge that there is a loving parent who is listening and taking note of the request. Real prayer should have the power to uplift and transform us, to give us a chance to see life from a different perspective, outside the cavalry charge. We pray three times a day, Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv; at each stage in the day we have the opportunity to step out of life and connect with Hashem. This is why, when we step into the Amidah prayer, we take three steps back and then three steps forward: symbolically, we are taking three steps back out of our lives, and then three steps forward into the presence of Hashem. These moments give us the opportunity to have the clarity, peace and tranquillity that come with knowing that G-d is in charge and no matter what happens in the end, He is a loving father and we can connect with Him. Prayer thus gives us a broader perspective.
Taking time out for Torah learning
The third aspect of yish’u is Torah learning. The Midrash connects the word yish’u in the verse discussed above with the word sha’ashu’im found in the verse in psalm 119, where King David writes luley toratcha sha’ashu’ai az avadeti b’onyi, “were it not for Your Torah which is my delight, I would have been lost in my affliction.” As we know, King David had a very hard life. He had many enemies – King Saul who didn’t want him to take over the kingship, his son Absalom who rebelled against him; he suffered family tragedies as well. King David is saying in this verse that what got him through the challenges and difficulties, what gave him a sense of perspective, joy and inspiration, was learning Torah. That, too, enables us to take a step back. Each person on his or her level can find something to learn, to get out of that cavalry charge of life and see the broader perspective and get a sense of inner peace and tranquillity. In prayer we talk to Hashem; when we learn Torah, He talks to us.
Pharaoh was saying, I do not want them praying or learning. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh comments that Pharaoh said they must not turn to “words of emptiness,” because Pharaoh is coming from an anti-Torah, anti-Hashem position. Pharaoh was saying, this is nothing, this is empty and therefore do not let them turn to such nonsense. But we know that prayer and Torah study are real and can uplift and transform our lives.
G-d gave the Torah for all times and it is indeed relevant in all generations. But in today’s day and age especially, the Torah and its message seem even more relevant. The way that people are rushed and pressured, the cavalry charge is all the more apparent. The Torah provides the formula to enable us to step back from life and see a much bigger picture.
Through faith, prayer and learning Torah we can see things from a much broader perspective. We can step out of the rush of life and get a sense of inner tranquillity. More importantly, we can ensure that we are on the right path, that we are not just charging aimlessly but are actually leading a life of purpose, according to G-d’s will.
Finding faith in the hippo
This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?
Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.
With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!
I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.
Let’s start talking about Pesach
For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.
It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.
It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.
Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.
The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.
Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.
That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.
There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.
There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.
Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.
Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.
Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.
Is antisemitism good for the Jews?
One of the traditional songs from the Pesach Haggadah which has become hugely popular in recent years is Vehi Sheamdah. An original version composed by Yonatan Razel was turned into a mega hit by Yaakov Shwekey, and was named Song of the Decade in Israel.
The passage in English reads, “And it is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not just one alone [Pharaoh] has risen against us to destroy us, but in each and every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the holy one, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!”
What is meant by the opening words, “vehi” as in “it is this that has stood by us”? What does “this” refer to? The simple meaning seems to be that it follows on the previous paragraph in the Haggadah where we read, “Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel.”
It refers to G-d’s promise to redeem the Children of Israel from Egyptian exile. According to commentary, it also refers to G-d’s ongoing promise to redeem us from all our exile and persecution, including the final redemption at the end of days.
This promise has sustained the Jewish people throughout all the dark and difficult days of our long and tortuous history. We have always believed and trusted in G-d’s promise that, in the end, it would all come right.
That’s the simple meaning. But a few years ago, I had a brain wave of a rather alternative interpretation. Later, I was gratified to see the same idea in the writings of earlier rabbis much more learned than I.
What occurred to me was that the Haggadah may have been giving us another message as well. The very fact that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us” is itself what has stood by us and given us the strength to persevere. Antisemitism, and the fact that in spite of all the existential threats we as a people have suffered, we have survived, all bearing testimony to the Almighty’s watchful eye which continues to guide us through our special providential mission on earth.
Jews and non-Jews alike have marvelled at our miraculous survival. Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked the philosopher, Pascal, to give him proof of the existence of G-d. Pascal famously replied, “Why the Jews, your majesty, the Jews!”
Our tiny nation’s survival while all the greatest empires of the world have come and gone remains powerful confirmation that there is a higher power ensuring our continuity and destiny.
Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest that antisemitism has been good for the Jews. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made that point in his book Anti-Semite & Jew. History records that under regimes that persecuted us, we remained steadfastly Jewish, whereas under more enlightened, liberal forms of government, we became comfortable in our newfound freedom, gradually embracing a welcoming but dominant culture and forfeiting much of our own.
Back in the early 19th century, Napoleon was conquering Europe and promising liberty and equality for all. When he squared up against Russia, many Jewish leaders sided with him, hoping he would finally bring an end to Czarist persecution and extend to Russian Jewry full civil rights. However, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, thought differently. He actively opposed Napoleon, and even had his Chassidim assist in intelligence gathering for the Russian army.
When his colleagues challenged him and questioned his apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his own people, he argued that while Napoleon might be good for the Jews materially, his victory would result in spiritual disaster. Tragically, the record proves him correct. Minus the Little Emperor, Russian Jews remained staunchly Jewish, while French Jewry virtually vanished.
How many Jewish Rothschilds are left in the world? G-d knows we could have used them. Most of French Jewry today hails from North Africa. The originals are few and far between.
And the American experience confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that freedom, democracy, and equal rights, while wonderful blessings for Jews for which we should be eternally grateful, also present a profound challenge to our Jewish identity and way of life. In the melting pot of the United States, Jews have integrated so successfully, they are virtually disappearing!
Back in the 1970s, when I was working with Jewish university students, we were struggling to break through a wall of icy indifference towards Judaism. It was so frustrating, that my colleagues and I even considered going onto campus in the dead of night to paint a few swastikas on the student union building!
Maybe that would jolt them out of their apathy. Of course, we never actually did it, but the fact that the thought crossed our minds demonstrates how external threats have a way of making Jews bristle with pride and righteous indignation.
We see it today as well. Outside many shuls around the world, you will find young men and women who volunteer to do security duty. Many of them are never seen inside the shuls they protect. Going to shul and praying isn’t their thing. But when enemies of Israel threaten Jews, these brave young people respond as loyal, committed Jews.
It appears that as repugnant as antisemitism may be, in a strange, perverse sort of way it may have contributed to the stubborn determination of Jews over many generations to stand up for their convictions and live by the principles of our faith no matter what.
So, when you sing Vehi Sheamdah at your Pesach Seder this year, instead of bemoaning our enemies’ hatred for us, find the positive side. Vehi – this very hostility and the never-ending attempt at our annihilation – has only served to strengthen our resolve to remain steadfastly Jewish. Indeed, it has stood us well!
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul, and the president of the South African Rabbinical Association.
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