Parashas Va’eira (5778)
When One Observes and Also Perceives
This week, the Torah begins the narrative of the ten plagues that brought Mitzrayim to its knees. It is significant to note how the Torah describes the behavior of Pharaoh regarding these plagues and his reaction to the destruction of his subjects.
Pharaoh was utterly unimpressed with the plague of ‘dam’ (blood) as the pasuk (Shemos 7:22-23) tells us that ”ויעשו כן חרטמי מצרים ולא שמע אלהם וכו’ ויפן פרעה ויבא אל ביתו ולא שת לבו גם לזאת” – “the sorcerers of Egypt were also capable of transforming water into blood, and Pharaoh’s heart became hardened and he did not listen to them etc., Pharaoh turned away and went to his home and also did not pay attention to this.”
The commentaries ask, what does the Torah refer to when it says “and he also did not pay attention to this?”
The previous verse already stated that Pharaoh did pay heed to Moshe and Aaron’s arguments.
The plague of blood is actually the only plague in which the Torah alludes to Pharaoh’s total apathy regarding the sufferings of his nation. The succeeding plagues at least provoked some response by Pharaoh. Why was he so dismissive of the plague of blood?
The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 9:10) says that when the Egyptians paid the Jews for water, the water they purchased did not turn to blood. Additionally, Chazal teach us that Pharaoh’s household was not personally afflicted by the plague of blood(See Medrash Mishnas Reb Eliezer Chapter 19 and Shemos Rabbah 9:11, and the explanation of the Mahrzu – R’ Zev Wolf Einhorn of Horodna) .
The Meshach Chochma (Reb Meir Simcha of Dvinsk – 1843-1926) explains that the reason Pharaoh was not personally smote with this plague was because Moshe had been raised in his home and all expenses incurred on behalf of Moshe were considered as payment, in advance, for the water that Pharaoh was using at this later time.
With this preface, the Meshach Chochma elaborates that the Torah is telling us that since Pharaoh did not experience suffering personally, he was unmoved by the anguish of his people caused by the plague. So he did not seek out any ways he could ease their pain. Because he did not experience the pain himself, this plague was where his complete lack of sympathy for his people was most pronounced.
To expound on further, this let us examine the stark contrast of Pharaoh’s merciless aloofness to the reaction of Moshe towards the agony of the Jewish people.
Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, separate from his kin and not subject to their tormented slavery. Nonetheless, he went out to his brethren, observed their travails, and empathized with them in their pain.
The pasuk (Shemos 2:11) that describes Moshe’s tremendous concern for his people is preceded by the words, ויגדל משה – “and Moshe matured.” However, this does not mean that he ripened chronologically, for the previous pasuk “the child grew” already stated that. Thus, the commentaries explain that it denotes his growth in spirituality, and the manifestation of that greatness was his concern for his brothers. This leaves us to question why the trait of empathy in particular represents ‘gadlus’ (greatness).
When Moshe was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep he happened upon the burning bush. The pasuk (Shemos 3:2) says וירא מלאך ה’ אליו בלבת אש מתוך הסנה וירא והנה הסנה בער באש והסנה אינו אכל – “an angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush; he saw and beheld the bush was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed.” The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 2:5) says that the words “to him” imply that he was not alone but that he had other shepherds with him. Yet, these other shepherds didn’t notice anything amiss. Only Moshe was privy to see this wondrous sight and to comment upon its peculiarity. It can be understood that the shepherds were physically capable of seeing, however, they were preoccupied with their own necessities and did not even realize something was out of the ordinary. Moshe, on the other hand, saw a miraculous occurrence and made the effort to better understand what exactly was happening. This is a demonstration of greatness — to be able to perceive and realize what transpires around you and then to get personally involved.
Pharaoh went to his palace, which was unscathed by the plague, where he was comfortable, and therefore he did not care about the struggles of his nation. He was so self-absorbed that he did not ponder the reason why only he, out of all Egypt, was spared from the plague. Had he reflected upon it, he might have come to the conclusion that it was only because of his support of Moshe years ago that he was unharmed. He might have therefore felt some remorse regarding his behavior towards the Jews . This lack of concern for his own people led to his ultimate downfall.
When reading about the following plague, Frogs, we find that Pharaoh’s lack of insight was shared by his Egyptian subjects. Rashi (Shemos 8:2) quotes the opinion of the Gemarah (Tractate Sanhedrin 67B) that the plague of ‘tzfardea’ (frogs) was really “the plague of one single frog.” One large frog came out of the Nile River into Egypt. And, when struck with a rod the frog divided into two frogs. When these were hit they formed two new frogs, with each frog subsequently becoming two when hit. The plague spread exponentially in this fashion until the entire land was full of frogs.
Why did the Egyptians continue to strike the frogs? Could they not see that each time they struck the frogs it caused them to multiply? Why keep hitting them? The answer is that they were so preoccupied with trying to rid themselves of these monstrous frogs that they lost all rationality. They did not realize that their very actions were causing them more suffering. They, like their leader Pharaoh, failed to see what was actually transpiring.
The leader of every people sets the tone for the entire nation. Mitzrayim had Pharaoh at its helm. He showed complete indifference to the trials of his nation due to his egoism and selfishness. He had no insight into what was happening, because he was uninterested in the plight of his people. Bnei Yisroel was blessed with Moshe as our leader, our caring shepherd.
We ourselves ought to internalize this lesson. We should contemplate local and global events affecting our people, and involve ourselves in aiding our brothers in need.