042 Torah Portion of the week – Bo – Destruction and Redemption – Arrogance and Doing What You Want – A Powerful Parable about Cooking for the Public – A Great Story about Rav Isser Zalmen Meltzer and Peace in Your Home – The Wisdom of Women – The Ultimate Torah Podcast
The Torah Podcast Transcript
042 Destruction and Redemption – Arrogance and Doing What You Want
Torah Portion of the Week – Bo – Destruction and Redemption
The first verse in this week’s Parsha reads like this. “And God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, in order to place my signs in his midst.” Rav Miller from Gateshead has a couple of questions on this verse. First of all, why is God telling Moshe to go now to Pharaoh, that his heart is hardened? Is this the right time for him to go to Pharaoh? Second of all, Rashi explains that Moses was sent to warn Pharaoh, but the warning’s not going to help, because right now Pharaoh’s heart is hard. And the third question is a general question, how could it be that Pharaoh gets punished if God hardened his heart? It’s like he took away his free will.
In order to answer these questions, we first bring the Shemos Rabba. There’s a possuk in Mishlei that says, “He shall mock the mockers but to the humble he shall give grace.” The Midrash says, “God Himself will mock the mockers. Warning after warning is given to the wicked. Repeated opportunities for repenting, but there comes a stage where if a man refuses to listen to the warning, God then locks his heart up for the possibility of repenting. And he reaps retribution for his long persistence in evil.” This was the case of Pharaoh. God warned him five times and he paid no attention. So, God said, “Since you have made yourself stiff necked and hard hearted, I too will add to your corruption. I have hardened his heart.” We see that if a person continues in his stubborn and arrogant ways, God will lock him in and he won’t be able to turn away from them. That is point number one.
Point number two comes from a Gemara in Chagigah which says, “Acher who was the Rav of Rabbi Meir, after he went off the derech, he went off the way, and he stopped following the Torah. He asked Rabbi Meir his student, ‘What is the meaning of the verse, God made qualities to correspond one to the other?’ Rabbi Meir replied, ‘Everything that God has created has an opposing creation corresponding to it. He created both mountains and valleys, seas and rivers.’ Then Acher said to him, “Yes, but Rabbi Akiva taught like this. He created both the righteous and the wicked; heaven and hell. Each person has two portions prepared for him, one in heaven and one in hell. If one person is doomed to hell, his unused portion in heaven will go to the righteous friend, while he will inherit his friend’s unused portion in hell.’” This is unbelievable. He says, “Every person has a portion in heaven, and also God-forbid, a portion in Gehinnom, hell. What happens if a person doesn’t follow in the right way? His portion from heaven goes to his friend. That means that the people that are doing the right things, they’re gaining double and triple. The people who are doing the wrong things are going to lose their portion.” Rav Miller also wants to explain that good and evil correspond to each other, depending on the time in history. For example, when there’s tremendous evil in the world, there is also tremendous potential for good, so that when people are corrupt and they’re all doing the wrong things, the people that are doing the right thing could gain the benefit, all the goodness of that holiness and spirituality. It’s like a seesaw effect.
This answers the first question – why was it right for Moshe to go to Pharaoh exactly at the time where he was hardening his heart? Because since Pharaoh was descending, he was going down and down, more stubborn, more arrogant, he was reaching the lowest level of evil and he was cutting himself off from any voice of consciousness or any idea of justice. He didn’t want to listen to what God was saying. So, at that point, God cut off his retreat. He couldn’t come back at that point, and that was exactly the point where Moshe was supposed to show up where the geula, the redemption was about to happen. Because as Pharaoh, the leader of the Egyptian people was descending, at that point the Jews were going to go up and they were going to be redeemed – because as the evil increased, so did the goodness increase. The corruption and the evil that the Egyptians created set the environment for the redemption of the Jewish people, because evil and good work together hand in hand. So, now we answered the first question, why was that the proper time to come – exactly at that point, that’s going to bring the redemption. Go to Pharaoh now.
The second question was, since Rashi said it was a warning, what was it going to help that Moshe went to Pharaoh? It could just be the opposite. The fact that Moshe warned him that signed, sealed and delivered the deliverance of the Jewish people because at that point, Pharaoh went completely off. He didn’t listen to the warning, and that was the end of him. And the third question was, how could Pharaoh have responsibility if God closed off his heart? The answer is, he was the cause for God to close off his heart. Since he didn’t listen so many times at a certain point, Hashem cut him off. But what comes out of this is a very scary concept. The concept is that God gave us free will to do whatever we want. We could spend our entire lives doing the wrong thing, if we want to. I’ve said this before, al pi Kabbalah the world is shaped like a hey. A hey is open on the bottom – in other words, gehinnom, evil is open. You can do whatever you want and God will let you do whatever you want. But if you continue in your evil ways, He’ll lock you in that path and you won’t be able to come back. For most people, that’s not true. Everybody can be chozer beteshuvah, everybody can change themselves. We have to assume we can change ourselves. But in potential, a person can go so far off they won’t be able to come back. There are no rules; it’s an open field. You could do whatever you want with your life, and God’s not going to stop you. We see it today, everywhere. Things are worse and worse, people are doing whatever they want. There’s no one to stop them. Nobody stops anybody. But at the same time, since we’re living in a generation where things have become so degraded, so disgusting, that the people who are going in the direction of holiness can go higher and higher. So, if a person chooses to do good, he has all that goodness, that potential goodness that the evil people gave away, he could pick up on it. It’s an unbelievable idea. But the scary idea is that people could do evil in this world, they do the wrong thing and they don’t get punished. Sometimes you see somebody doing something wrong, a kid or somebody doing something wrong, and you just wish, why doesn’t God show them? The answer is, God’s not going to show them, if they don’t want to listen. If they harden their heart and they don’t listen once, twice, three times, they can go on their way.
So you say, “Where’s the justice?” The justice is not in this world. The justice is in the next world. The justice will come at the time of the geula, when Hashem shows the world what’s right and what’s wrong, when the redemption comes. But in the meantime, people could do whatever they want. Your kids could do whatever they want, and your spouse could do whatever they want. You’re not going to see the punishment, because God created this world with free will to allow people to do whatever they want. It has to come from the goodness of our hearts and our intellects and our understanding of hakores hatov, of appreciating the good that God gives us so we want to do the right thing. But if we don’t have that, it’s an open game.
I’ll add to that, another thing – God doesn’t need us. We need God, God doesn’t need us. God is a king, with us or without us. When we do good, the good is for us. It’s our good. We’re gaining from Him. When we do bad we get punished. God doesn’t care. He made the world, we have free will. Choose – go the way you want to go, derech adam rotze lalechet malichno oto, the way that a man wants to go, God helps him. God helps the thief, God helps the murderer. Who gives power to the sinner while he sins? Who gives life to the sinner while he sins? And people use it as a proof that there is no God. When they see who sins, you don’t get punished when you do these things, it must be there’s no God. But really, it’s just the opposite. It shows the greatness of God. It shows the patience of God. That’s what the whole sefer Tomer Devorah is about – that a person can sin and God will continue to do good for him, and give him another chance and another chance. It doesn’t mean there’s no God. It means that God is great. It means that God has patience. It means that God’s giving them another chance, and it’s all for you, you’re not doing God any favors.
So, in this week’s parsha we also have Pesach, the going out of Mitzrayim, Egypt. There’s a possuk that we read in the Haggadah which says, “And when your son will ask you tomorrow saying, ‘What is this?’, and you will answer him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that Hashem took us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.’” Rashi points out there on that possuk, that in four different places the Torah mentions these sons’ questions, which is the four sons and the Pesach Haggadah – the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask. Rav Wolbe points out that the wicked son asks the question also, but he changes the language which is what? “What is this service for you,” which would make the idea, the inference for you but not for me, and that’s what makes him wicked. He says, “Lo aleynu, many of us are guilty of this. We learn Torah but we do not necessarily allow its lessons to impact our personal lives. God-forbid, like Pharaoh.” He says, “A person who does not derive mussar, if he doesn’t learn anything ethical from what he learns, no matter how great his stature he is considered by Chazal to be wicked in this respect”. A person who doesn’t gain from his learning, he learns Torah, he learns mussar, he learns ethics but it doesn’t change him, he’s considered wicked, lo aleynu. The problem is, his learning does not impact how they act. He says, “The true study of mussar involves taking one line of Mesillas Yesharim, the Path of the Just, measuring what it says against our own personality, and in the event where the two do not match up, we have to change ourselves to fit the Torah. And if not, God-forbid we’re like Pharaoh. God is telling Pharaoh one thing, and he’s not listening. He doesn’t want to fit in, he doesn’t care.
Same thing, lo aleynu by us. We read Torah, we learn Torah, we know it’s right, and we don’t change. We don’t try to fit ourselves into the Torah. We don’t try to be the Torah personality, to bring ourselves towards the Torah. The Torah doesn’t have to fit us. God is not in our pocket. We have to fit towards the Torah, we have to come towards God. We have to read and learn what it means to be righteous, to do the right thing, to act properly. Then we have to try to live up to those standards, not the opposite – not to bring the standards down to us, to make the Torah fit us. If not, we’re like Pharaoh. The question is now, how do we change ourselves? How do we become more flexible, and not be stubborn and arrogant the way Pharaoh was? If not, we’re just going to continue in our headstrong way, and after 120 years we’re going to be surprised – not in a good way.
I want to bring out one potential aspect that can help us to change and to grow, which I learned from Rabbeinu Bachye in this week’s Parsha. Rabbeinu Bachye says on this exact verse, “God said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants.” Rabbeinu Bachye explains, “What does it mean, go to Pharaoh?” He says, “Whenever God instructed Moses to go to Pharaoh, the meaning was to go to the palace – Pharaoh’s palace.”
He says, “The reason why Pharaoh was so arrogant was because he was in his palace. He demonstrated his pride in his palace, feeling that this was not the place where anyone could dare threaten him. He felt inside of his house. The Torah wanted to show Pharaoh’s arrogance. Also by Nebuchadnezzar, he also boasted about his palace.” There’s a possuk in Daniel that said, “I, Nebuchadnezzar was tranquil and vigorous in my house.” He felt safe inside of his house. One thing we can do to help take away our arrogance is to realize how unstable our reality really is. In other words, in the house you feel comfortable, right? I have a nice house, I have a nice couch. But the reality is that’s nonsense. The whole world is floating in space. We have to conceptualize what’s the reality. The reality is, God-forbid, there could be a tsunami. There could be a hurricane. There could be an earthquake, lo aleynu. What stability? We don’t have stability.
I saw a nice quote it said, “Relax, everything is out of control.” That’s our reality – everything is out of our control. God’s the one who’s in control, not us. So, by not putting so much emphasis on the externals, on our safe house and our couch and our television, everything’s great – and understanding the reality which is the instability of our metzios, of our situation. We know that a person has to have faith and stability that everything’s going to be okay, everything’s going to be all right. But a yiras shemayim, a person who fears God, understands that stability is only coming by the grace of God. And if not, God-forbid we will be arrogant. Why should we change? Why should we grow? Why should we do anything? Everything’s fine. I don’t have to listen to God, and I have free will. I could do whatever I want, right? But that’s arrogant. That’s not seeing the chessed that God is doing to us – the kindness that He gives us air, and water, and food, and everything works. And the blood pumps and the chemicals in our body work, and the vitamins and the minerals, and there’s oxygen in the air, and it’s the right temperature outside. If the temperature would change by 100 degrees, everything’s gone. We get so used to it by living in our comfortable houses that we forget about God. That’s what Rabbeinu Bachye said.
I just want to bring down one other practical solution to help a person to change, which is to change the environment – in other words, a lot of life is just a question of the situation that you’re in. If a person doesn’t live in a religious neighborhood, he’s far away from a shul, synagogue, he’s not going to be too religious. If a person is in a bad environment, he has the wrong friends, he has to get himself away from those friends, and get himself in the right crowd because a person is affected by his neighbors, his environment. He’s measuring everything based on his neighbors, based on his society and his culture. If he’s in a bad culture, he thinks he’s a tsaddik, a righteous person. He’s a little better than the next guy, but if you put him in a different culture, put him into a religious world, he will see that he’s not even up to par. So, that’s just a practical solution but that’s a whole mussar schmooze in itself. But the bottom line is that we have to do cheshbon hanefesh. We have to do a spiritual accounting, to make sure we’re on the right path and going in the right direction, and not continuing God-forbid, arrogantly and stubbornly on the wrong road.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid Mi Dubno brings a possuk in this week’s Parsha and it says, “And so that you may relate in the ears of your sons and grandsons how we made a mockery out of the Egyptians.” He brings a moshul, a parable like this. If a person has to cook or bake food for his family, he cooks the exact amount that he needs for his family and he cooks what he knows they like. On the other hand, if he has to cook food for the public, he has to cook a large variety of food to make sure each person gets a different thing that he likes. And he has to cook a lot more, so that everybody gets enough. So too with the makkos, the 10 plagues. Really, God could have made just one plague – He could have made just dam, blood, and done it 10 times, or frogs and done it 10 times, and everybody would have been scared. They would have let the Jews go, but that wasn’t the primary objective just to let the Jews go. The Possuk says that, “You should relate it in the ears of your sons and your grandsons that it should continue for generations.” Therefore God made 10 makkos, because later in generations, some people are going to really be affected by hearing that there was dam; others will be affected by hearing there were frogs; others by wild animals; each one will hear a different thing that will move them. He says, “We want this idea to continue for generations, how He made a mockery of the Egyptians and He wanted to have emotional impact. Therefore He made 10 different plagues which will affect different kinds of people.”
Great Stories about Great Rabbis – Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer
The verse says, “V’kol machmeses lo techeilu,” you should not eat any type of leavening. One time in Poland, the question arose – there was this grain alcohol that they used to use to cook with, as fuel. What happened? They used to put poison in it to take the food tax away, that it was not considered a drink but it was used for fuel. The question was, is a Jew allowed to use that during Pesach or not?
The problem was, the non-Jews used to take that fuel and they were able to extract the poison from it in order to drink it. So the question was, was it considered food or not considered food? Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, he said it was prohibited. Why? Because since you see that you could take the poison out, it’s considered a food. But on the other hand, the Rav from Slutzk said, “It’s permitted.” Why? Because right now it’s poison. Rav Isser Zalman sent his question to Rav Eliyahu Chaim Meisel, the Rav of Lodz. Everybody accepts his opinion so he says, “If I send this question to him, whatever his psak, opinion, everybody’s going to accept that.” He had the question back and the answer was that it was ossur, which is like Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer – forbidden. What happened was, by mistake the mailman delivered that letter to Rav Yosef mi Slutzk, the other Rav who permitted it. So, instead of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer having to tell him that Rav Meisel agrees with me, the letter was sent directly to the other Rav, Rav Yosef. What did Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer say about this? He said, “Heaven protected the honor of this Rabbi. It would not be proper for him to hear from somebody who is arguing with him that the final ruling was against him. Instead, God set up a situation where he was able to hear directly from Rav Meisel, and then he could just claim he changed his mind.”
Peace in Your Home
Rav Nachman Diament speaks this week on the wisdom of women. He says, “You can’t change another adult. And you can’t change your wife.” But he says, “On the other hand, woe to the man who doesn’t change his wife, and woe to the wife who doesn’t change their husband.” There’s a contradiction. If you can’t change an adult, how do you change them?
The Vilna Gaon explains the difference between a dictator and a king. A dictator is someone who dominates, and he uses his strength and the other person is weak; where a king is the opposite. The king, everybody loves the king and they want to do what the king says. It’s not a power struggle. It comes from inner nobility. He said, “The house, the Jewish home, is not a government. It’s supposed to be a palace where there’s a king and a queen, which means you don’t boss the other person around. You just live up to your own inner nobility, and the other person wants to follow in your direction.”
He tells a story of his teacher, there’s always this teacher that everybody loves the teacher and everybody wants to do what the teacher wants him to do. It’s not a power struggle they love the teacher because of the nobility of the teacher. If the husband is noble, the wife’s going to want to do what the husband does. And if the woman is noble, so the husband’s going to want to please her.
One time there was a not religious couple that wanted to get married, but the problem was, as the girl was getting married she realized, “I don’t want to be not religious. I want to be more religious. I want to have a house with values in it. I see what’s going on around me. I see what’s going on in the world. I want to raise my kids with Jewish values, good values.” She wanted to be religious. The problem was, the husband was not really interested. But the husband also compromised. He said, “Okay, I’ll keep Shabbos, I’ll do this and I’ll do that.” What happened? After a month or two he says, “Listen, I’m not interested.” The husband was no longer interested in this. The woman was very upset, and she didn’t know what to do. She came to the Rav, crying, “What am I supposed to do? My husband doesn’t want to be religious.” He says to her, “Listen, you are trying to change him. It’s not going to work. But I’ll tell you what you could do, it’s a long haul. This is what you do. Don’t criticize him, not even once. Even your facial expressions shouldn’t criticize him. And even if he drives on Shabbos, don’t say anything to him. Smile to him and say, ‘Bye, have a nice time.’ When he leaves you could cry if you want, on your pillow. When he comes back say, ‘Hi, how are you? You had a nice time?’ and give him a good feeling. You on the other hand, you increase your Yiddishkeit. You keep a better Shabbos, you daven, pray better. Become a kinder person, a nicer person, more caring. You become more noble and little by little he’ll be drawn after you. It’s going to take a long time, but it will work.”
He says that after a long time passed, a couple came knocking at his door. The man had a hat and a beard, and the woman had her hair covered. They said, “Do you remember us?” He said, “No,” he didn’t recognize them. Then they explained who they were, and he said, “My wife explained that her behavior was not really coming from herself. It was all coming from the advice of the Rav, so I wanted to come and thank the Rav for his expert advice.” That’s what he meant at the beginning, “Woe to the woman who doesn’t change her husband.” And you can’t change your husband, but you can change yourself. And if you change yourself, automatically you’re going to change your spouse and everybody around you. If you make your wife the queen, she’ll make you the king. And if she makes you the king, you’ll make her the queen.
There’s the famous story of Rabbi Akiva who married Rochel, the daughter of Kalba Savuah. Kalba Savuah was the wealthiest man in Yerushalayim, he could have had the best guy for his daughter. Instead, Rabbi Akiva who was a poor shepherd who came from converts and he was an am haaretz, he didn’t even learn anything, he didn’t know anything. But somehow, Rochel saw in him – he used to be the shepherd for her father, and Rochel saw in him tremendous potential. She said to him, “If you agree to study Torah, I’ll marry you.” He agreed. What happened as time went by? It’s time now to go and learn. He says, “I’m embarrassed, I can’t go. People are going to make fun of me.”
What happened? She didn’t respond with her emotions. She used the wisdom of women, and she didn’t say anything. What did she do? She went to the shuk, the market. She looked for a donkey that had a straight back, and then she bought this donkey. She put a lot of dirt on its back, and then she started to grow tomatoes or whatever, on the donkey’s back. After they grew she says to her husband, “Let’s go to the shuk now.” She goes to the shuk and she takes the donkey and her husband, and she puts the donkey over there next to the shuk. Everybody walks by and they started laughing, “Look at that donkey. He’s got tomatoes growing on his back.” That was day one.
After day two, the same thing; they brought the donkey there, everybody was laughing at the donkey and making fun of the donkey. Day three, less people were laughing. Already by day four, one guy comes and says, “Hey, look at that donkey,” and nobody pays attention. She said to her husband, “Same thing will happen by you. It’s true you’re going to be embarrassed. You’re going to show up there, you’re an older man already. You don’t know anything, you show up to cheder, school with the little kids. And people will be making fun of you. But they’ll make fun of you for one day, for one month, for two or three months. But after that, they’re going to stop making fun of you.” What happened? It worked. Rabbi Akiva went to go and learn and he became Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Rabbis of all time.
What happens nowadays? A girl who’s trained to marry a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, she marries this guys, he thinks she’s great. After a month or two, they see the guy doesn’t get up for the minyan, prayers. He doesn’t want to learn. What does she do? She starts to badger him and yell at him and scream at him, and she feels, “Oh, I was cheated. What happened? I got this bad guy. It’s horrible.” She tortures him, and she feels she has the right to scream and yell at him. Everything’s going to be lost that way, nothing’s going to work. What does he say to her? “A zivug, match gets according to their deeds. It must be you’re also not on a level, you have to look at yourself.” It’s all up to you. If you’re clever, you’ll be quiet and you’ll show your nobility. And from your nobility, from the woman’s nobility, the man will turn around.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s podcast. Please share it with your friends. I need you to put ratings on iTunes. If you can put comments and ratings on iTunes, it will really help the podcast.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff
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