There are so many lessons to take from this week’s parsha (Torah portion), it’s overwhelming. Some say this is possibly the most important parsha in the Torah; I find this claim interesting, since this week’s parsha is named after a very important yet not a very well-known character in the Torah. Yitro was Moshe’s father-in-law, and a Midianite priest. He had seven daughters, one of whom became Moshe’s wife Tzipporah. He gave Moshe some great leadership advice. According to a midrash on Tractate Sotah 11a, Yitro was also one of Pharaoh’s advisors during the time they were trying to figure out what to do with the Jews. One of the advisors suggested the “final solution,” the second said nothing, and Yitro advised them to live in peace with them. We all know which advisor Pharaoh listened to, and that is when Yitro fled to Midian.
After the miraculous exodus from Egypt, Moshe is reunited with his family, who has been brought by his father-in-law Yitro. Moshe greets his father-in-law with honor, proceeds to relate everything that has befallen the people of Israel, and enumerates all the kindnesses that Hashem has performed for them. Rejoicing over the news of the rescue and salvation of the Jews, Yitro exclaims: “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods, for in the very matter in which [the Egyptians] had conspired against them…” (Exodus 18:11). As Rashi explains, Yitro had experienced every manner of idolatry and therefore could definitively declare that Hashem is greater than all other gods. After seeing the manner in which the Egyptians were punished, Yitro recognized that our G-d is greater than all others.
The first chapter in this portion tells of Yitro, the high priest of Midian and Moshe’s father-in-law, joining the Children of Israel in the Wilderness and converting to Judaism. The first verse states, “Now Yitro . . . heard all that G-d had done for Israel His people [and even that He] had brought Israel out of Egypt.” Rashi and Ezor Eliyahu ask what, besides the Exodus from Egypt, Yitro had heard about. Rashi questions the lack of detail in the phrase “all that G-d had done.” Ezor Eliyahu wonders what Yitro would need to hear about, besides for the fact that G-d took the Jews out of Egypt. Whatever else happened pales by comparison with the great miracle of redemption.
“Come to Pharaoh.”
As of last week’s parsha (Torah portion), G-d had already stricken Egypt with seven plagues. Now, Pharaoh follows the same routine. He promises to heed G-d’s word when undergoing the punishment; but when his suffering ends, he reverts to his stubborn refusal to listen. Here, G-d prepares to strike a further blow: swarms of locusts to blight the land of Egypt and devour the vegetation the previous plague, hail, didn’t destroy.
Now this week’s parsha begins with G-d’s command. “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I could inflict these, my signs, in their midst.” (Shemot 10:1).
This verse lends itself to further analysis. Why does G-d tell Moshe to “come” to Pharaoh, בא, instead of “go” to Pharaoh, לך?
Of all the questions surrounding the ten plagues in Egypt, none have captured the interest of commentators throughout the ages as much as the question of how G-d can disrupt Pharaoh’s decision-making process and then hold him accountable for it. This question fascinates believers because it has direct application to their lives in terms of the purpose and the value of their actions.
In a classic system of reward and punishment, evildoers are punished and the righteous are rewarded–– but what if our understanding of righteous and evildoers is wrong? What if all is directed by G-d for His own needs and purposes? If G-d can manipulate Pharaoh’s decisions in order to show His great might, how do I know that when I make a certain decision it is mine only, and not part of a sophisticated Divine plan? This is the pressing question of theodicy, Divine Justice. When a terrorist decides to slam his truck into innocent pedestrians, when a driver decides to text while driving, or when a corrupt CEO presents false data regarding the airbags in his vehicles, how should we view all the people killed on the roads because of these actions? Are they victims of the decisions of those three individuals, stemming from hatred, carelessness, and greed, or were they destined to die and G-d guided the actions of others to carry out His plans?
Last Shabbat was Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. We read the Torah story of the Jewish people crossing the Red Sea when they were escaping from slavery. They must have been so scared to see Pharoh and his army chasing them! But a miracle happened, and the water split so that the Jewish people could walk through, to freedom. They were so happy and free, so they sang.
There is a special custom to feed the birds before Shabbat Shira, but why? One reason is that we want to thank them for teaching us how beautiful it is to sing. When we hear birds singing, we feel grateful for life and for creation. Doesn’t singing make you feel happy, grateful and free?
As the Book of Shemot opens, Yosef and his brothers have all died, a new Pharaoh has emerged in Egypt and enslaved Bnei Yisrael, and the Jews have gone through tremendous population growth. The subject of Shemot, Vayeira, Bo and Beshalach is the process of freeing this large group from Pharaoh’s control. While we read these opening chapters, the editorial board of Kol HaBirah is giving birth to a new newspaper for the Greater Washington area’s Jewish community.
According to Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, King David was the first to use the term HaBirah, to describe the Beit HaMikdash. Prior to the time-period of the Purim story, there is no other mention of “birah” in Tanach. To a Jew in the time of Esther, “Kol HaBirah” would mean a lot more than the voice of Washington, DC, the capital–– it would mean the voice of Hashem, from the central focal point of Judaism. Referring to the capital city of Shushan as “HaBirah” in the Megillah is a sarcastic condemnation of the failure of the people of that generation to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Mishkan.
Introduction: Reliving the Parsha
The Stropkover Rebbe, on a recent visit to Kemp Mill, Maryland, stressed the importance of reliving the events of the Torah portions that we read each week. In particular, he pointed out that the concepts in the Torah portions of Bo through Ki Tisa, a series which we begin this Shabbos, all echo the holidays in order. Bo discusses leaving Egypt and thereby evokes first days of Pesach; Beshalach has the Splitting of the Sea and represents the last days of Pesach; and so on through the weeks until Parshat Ki Tisa, whose shekalim reminds us of the coins collected in the month Adar and the pieces of silver Haman bid on our destruction in the story of Purim.
Kollel Scholar and Director of Special Projects for the Greater Washington Community Kollel
The Mishna in Pesachim (116b) relates that in every generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated, “And you should tell your son on that day, ‘Because of this, G-d did this to me when I left Egypt’” (13:8). The Mishna is apparently interpreting this verse to be speaking not only to the generation that left Egypt, but to every generation. If that is the case, how can one honestly say to his or her child that he or she left Egypt? It seems to be blatantly false! In fact, in the Pesach Haggada we take this even further when we say, “Not only did he redeem our fathers but he also redeemed us.” How can we make such a statement?