A DUTY-FREE EXISTENCE
Rabbi Yaakov Bogart
We are all awestruck by the unprecedented display of destruction brought upon Egypt beginning in this week's Torah portion. The episode of the ten plagues affords us a glimpse into the power of divine judgment and punishment.
We are all awestruck by the unprecedented display of destruction brought upon Egypt beginning in this week's Torah portion. The episode of the ten plagues affords us a glimpse into the power of divine judgment and punishment. But there is much more. The ten plagues also begin a long process which leads to the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and culminates with the giving of the Torah. At Mt. Sinai, the entire Jewish nation proclaimed, "na'aseh v'nishma - we will do and [then] we will listen" (Exodus 24:7). What is the significance of this phrase? Was it an outgrowth of a learning experience that began in Egypt?
Interestingly, but seemingly unrelated, we are taught in Ethics of Our Fathers (3:11), "Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa says: Anyone whose fear of sin takes priority over his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom takes priority over his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure." How does fear of sin preserve Torah knowledge?
An examination of the plagues can offer insight into their own meaning and help us explain both the "na'aseh v'nishma" phrase that the Jewish nation proclaimed at Mt. Sinai and the saying of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa in Ethics of Our Fathers. Aside from being punitive in nature, the plagues also taught a profound lesson. Accompanying every plague is a statement to Pharaoh that this divine intervention attests to Hashem's very existence. The Kli Yakar, a popular 16th century commentary on the Torah, develops this concept and explains that essentially Pharaoh was being taught three fundamental principles of faith: 1) Hashem exists, 2) Hashem is aware of and involved with earthly matters, and 3) Hashem can and does intervene even in ways not consistent with the laws of nature. The plagues emerge as more than a punishment, but a lesson to Pharaoh and Mankind in general about Hashem.
Was Pharaoh such a sluggish student? Would the visual effects of one or two lessons not have been enough? Also, it is interesting to note that tradition teaches us that Pharaoh represents the evil inclination of Mankind. In this context, what can we learn about ourselves from Pharaoh's behavior?
Perhaps the events in Egypt not only lay down the foundations for belief in Hashem, as was mentioned above, but also demonstrate the ability of Man to deny the truth when the truth hurts. Pharaoh was the ultimate coward who needed ten terrible lessons before accepting Hashem's rule. Mentally, Pharaoh may have been a worthy student, but he was stubborn; his heart was hardened. His obsession with his own role as king of Egypt removed his ability to see the reality of Hashem as ruler of the universe.
Although Pharaoh's stubbornness was highly concentrated, a diluted form of his shortcoming exists within all of us. We naturally push off or ignore that which obligates us. Almost instinctively, we avoid something difficult or that which requires sacrifice. We opt for duty-free comfort. The search for a duty-free existence can sometimes cause us to deny reality. We don't accept the worthiness of an idea unless it first passes a subconscious "comfort test". Sometimes we even find ourselves resenting that which challenges us. Perhaps this explains why we are not disturbed by religious behavior on the part of non-Jews, yet at times we may feel discomfort in the presence of a Jew more devoted than ourselves.
Delaying, denying, and even resenting that which challenges us are human flaws that exist, to some degree, within everyone. Left untreated, this diluted form of Pharaoh's stubbornness can misguide even the most brilliant and blind the greatest visionary.
Is there a remedy? When the Jewish people called out in unison, "na'aseh v'nishma - we will do and [then] we will listen", we had undergone a learning experience that began with the plagues. At Mt. Sinai we had mastered the remedy to Pharaoh's shortcoming. Our readiness to serve Hashem was not dependent upon first hearing the Torah which Hashem was soon to teach us. That would have been spiritual suicide with the result being, as it was with Pharaoh, a sluggish and difficult learning process. Our minds would have been tainted by the desire to overlook and deny that which required sacrifice.
Instead, the Jewish nation courageously rose to the challenge and unconditionally vowed their service to Hashem. Our acceptance of the Torah was prior to and independent of what we were committing to. Torah study was no longer accompanied with fear of change or sacrifice. The learning experience became enjoyable and uninhibited. The Jewish people became driven to seek out Hashem's truth wherever it lead to, for we had already made our commitment to follow the Torah.
On an individual level, the "na'aseh v'nishma" teaches us how to free ourselves from the shackles of our own stubbornness. The secret to success is to accept whole-heartedly the challenges and, yes, the so-called "burdens" of the truth, even without yet knowing fully what the truth is. Our personal Torah study will transform into something enjoyable and uninhibited because we no longer have anything to lose. On the contrary - we only have what to gain. We can begin learning our Creator's Torah objectively. We can begin to focus on Hashem's wishes for us, rather than our wishes for Him.
With this in mind, we can understand what Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said in Ethics of Our Fathers. He teaches us that if fear of sin precedes Torah knowledge, then the knowledge itself will be preserved and cherished within us. Our hearts will not seek to overlook, to forget, or to deny. Yet, if fear of sin does not precede Torah, then, necessarily, the Pharaoh within our hearts will choose to ignore, to forget, and to eventually delete parts of our knowledge so that we can maintain the lifestyle we desire.
The Jewish people can be proud that we possess the courage of "na'aseh v'nishma - we will do and [then] we will listen," always placing Hashem's service above all other considerations. We are, thereby, afforded the privilege of seeing the world with untainted vision.
Rabbi Yaakov Bogart, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying in the Beth Medrash Gavohah Kollel of Lakewood, New Jersey.
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