Expanded Daily Vort, Edition #12 For Week Of December 30th- Parshas Shemos

Parshas Shemos:

“And a man from the house of Levi went out, and took for his wife a daughter of Levi.” [Shemos 2:1]

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains the extra word “vayelech [went out]” in this verse, which refers to Amram and Yocheved. Amram had previously married Yocheved, he explains, but separated from her in response to Pharoah’s decree that all Jewish boys be killed. Amram “went out” in the path of his daughter’s advice.

According to our Sages, his daughter Miriam told him, “Your decree is still worse than Pharoah’s! Pharoah decreed only against Jewish boys, but yours is against girls as well!” Because of Miriam’s counsel, Amram remarried Yocheved, and Our Rabbi Moshe was born.

We should wonder, though, when Miriam made her argument, and when it was accepted. Obviously the separation went on for some time, especially because Pharoah made two decrees. The first decree was that the midwives should kill any male Jewish child [1:16]. After that failed, Pharoah then told his entire nation to throw any Jewish boy into the Nile river [1:22]. Amram, apparently, remarried only after the second decree, which ordered all Egyptians to take part! Does this make sense?

In order to answer this, let us look first at another puzzling story. In Parshas Vayeshev, which we read several weeks ago, Yosef’s brothers decide to kill him. But “Reuven heard, and he saved him from their hands…” [Br. 37:21]. What did they do instead? They threw him in a pit, “and the pit was empty, it had no water” [37:24]. Our Sages asked, “if it says the pit is empty, don’t I know that it has no water? Rather, it had no water, but it did have snakes and scorpions” [Talmud Shabbos 22a]. So what kind of “rescue” did Reuven carry out? How can the Torah credit Reuven with “saving” Yosef, when he dumped Yosef into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions?

The answer goes to the very nature of a human being. A human being has one trait which, above all others, distinguishes us from animals: the trait of free will, of choice. Humans can choose to kill or not to kill; for animals, the decision is made by a host of external factors – animals don’t go on a rampage because they “feel like doing it,” nor are they generous by choice. Only we humans have the ability to make our own decisions.

Because the natural order of things is for humans to have free will, it would have been miraculous beyond nature for Divine Intervention to save Yosef from his stronger brothers who had surrounded him. Because scorpions, on the other hand, do not have free choice, it is not entirely unnatural (though certainly unusual) for them to fail to sting and kill someone who lands in their pit. Therefore Reuven did indeed save Yosef. He saved Yosef from his brothers, given that Divine Intervention could then save him from the snakes and scorpions in the pit – a miracle, but not beyond nature.

We can then understand why Amram might more willingly remarry Yocheved after the second decree. Under the first, the midwives were commanded to kill the boys, and had they not displayed amazing self-sacrifice, an open miracle would have been needed to save each child. The second decree, however, put death in the hands of the river – and thus only a “natural” miracle would be needed to save them.


And it happened during those many days that the King of Egypt died and the Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to G-d.. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchok, and with Yakov. G-d saw the Children of Israel and G-d knew. (Shemos 23-25)


Here the Children of Israel find themselves in the depth of a long and brutal exile and because of the pain and suffering they groan and cry. Suddenly they attract the attention of The Almighty and wake up the promises to patriarchs. This precise point signals the the beginning of the end of the exile and therefore we need to know, “What happened here? How did they do it?”


Why does the verse tell us that “G-d saw…”? HASHEM sees everything. Why are we told that HASHEM knew if HASHEM already knows everything? Rashi comments, that “HASHEM focused on them and He did not hide his eyes from them.” That helps somewhat to explain the not knowing.


The Sefas Emes references a most fascinating Midrash on the verse that supplies some new information, “G-d knew that they had done Teshuvah (repentance). Only they did not know, this one about this that one. Only G-d knew!” The new simple explanation is that only G-d knew that all of them had done Teshuvah privately, independently, and simultaneously. The Sefas Emes adds, “Maybe they themselves were not able to express their thoughts articulately…there are incomplete thought fragments that no one else is able understand except for The Creator Blessed is He, because He inspects the heart and the kidneys.”


What had G-d come to know? He had deciphered a hidden language of the heart and kidneys that even the person himself does not understand clearly what he is saying. Like a parent that hears distress in a child’s cry and knows that this is no ordinary formalistic attention getting whimper. Here too we have on open display a certain type of wordless cry, a groan that is included amongst the thirteen expressions of prayer. Not only is it included in prayer but it may be a superior form of prayer. As the Talmud states, “That person that prays with crying and weeping until he is not able to express verbally. This is a complete prayer that comes from the heart and it does not go unanswered.”


The original spark the triggered the grand exodus from Egypt was a very private, and, to the human mind. an inarticulate cry. There are many who cry for whatever reason. Are all those emotional moments also a form of Tefilla too? There may be one extra point that make this cry so effective.


I once heard a story about a young boy who came running into his house all upset and crying hysterically. He was sobbing uncontrollably. He was barely able to explain to his father what he was so upset about. Someone had taken his toy or excluded him from a game. He could hardly control his grief. His father listened carefully and then handed him a Sefer Tehillim. The child still quite upset looked at his father with wonderment, as if to say, “What’s this for?” The wise father explained to him, “As long as you’re already crying, you might as well pray!”


The Talmud says that there are tears that are compared to smoke and tears that are like seeds. Tears that are like smoke dissipate and disappear without a trace. Tears that are like seeds fall to the ground and create everlasting results. One can write the most articulate and brilliantly crafted letter in the universe, put it into an envelope, put a stamp on it and a return address and still it will never hit the mark unless there is an address. Crying is one thing. Crying to HASHEM is potent form of prayer that may be the genesis of exodus!


Rashi cites two opinions on the pasuk “And a new King arose who did not know Yosef” [Shmos 1:8]: The first opinion is that it actually was a new administration that arose. The other opinion is that it was the same Pharaoh who knew Yosef but who had a change of policy and imposed the terrible decree of slavery upon the Jewish people.

Rav Moshe Feinstein asked, “Why should we care about this? What difference did it make to Chazal whether it was a new king or the same king with a new policy?” Rav Moshe points out that there is something to learn from this. According to the opinion that it was a new king — we can readily understand that a new king will have new policies. We see this all the time in Washington D.C. — when there is a change of government, there is a change in policy. However the opinion that it is the same king with new policies is teaching us a lesson:

The Torah is showing us the depths to which a human being can sink. Here we have a king who was indebted to his advisor (Yosef) like no other person has ever been indebted. Pharaoh had an advisor that literally saved the entire country. Not only did he save the country, but made it prosperous as well. This very king can turn on the immediate descendants of this advisor and tell them “Sorry, I changed my mind. We have a new policy.”

It is important for us to know that this happens. We should not think to ourselves “No one could be so low to do such a thing. No one could be such a snake, such a traitor.” The Torah wants to teach us just how ungrateful and unreliable human beings can be. Just look at Pharaoh.

Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes a Medrash on this pasuk: “Whoever denies the favors done for him by his friend will in the end deny the favors done for him by the Almighty.” The Medrash derives this principle from Pharaoh, about whom it first says, “who did not know Yosef” and about whom it later says, “Who is G-d?” [Shmos 5:2]

This is a lesson for all of us — this can happen to a human being. But it gets even worse. There is an example in this week’s parsha that is even more egregious that Pharaoh’s lack of gratitude.

Moshe went out and saw an Egyptian striking a Jew. Moshe killed the Egyptian who was striking the Jew. The next day, Moshe encountered two Jews fighting and asked the aggressor why he is beating his friend. The aggressor turned to Moshe and asked him “Are you going to kill me like you killed that other guy?” Moshe responded, “I see the matter is known!”

The Medrash says that the Egyptians had a system whereby the Egyptian taskmasters would lord over the Jewish policemen to force them to get the other Jews to do work. The Medrash says that every single morning, at the crack of dawn, the Egyptian taskmasters woke up the Jewish policemen to get the other slaves to start working. This particular Egyptian taskmaster saw that the wife of the policeman he was waking up was a beautiful woman. After he sent the Jewish policeman out of the house, he came back and had relations with the man’s wife. It was still before dawn and the woman, in the dark, thought she was having relations with her husband.

When the Jewish policeman came back to his house he noticed the Egyptian leaving. When the Jewish policeman asked his wife if the Egyptian had done anything to her, she admitted that she had relations with him thinking that he was her husband. When the Egyptian realized that the Jew found out what he had done, he started beating him and wanted to kill him.

This is the context of the story in the Torah of the Egyptian beating the Hebrew. Moshe, upon seeing this, knew through Ruach HaKodesh [Divine intuition] what the Egyptian had done to this man’s wife and what he was trying to do now to destroy the evidence of his crime. Moshe realized that for the crime of adultery as well as for attempted murder, the Egyptian was deserving of death and therefore Moshe took the law into his own hands in killing him.

The Jewish person who Moshe rescued in this story was named Dassan. The next day, when Moshe went out, he saw this very same Dassan beating up another Jew. Moshe chastised Dassan and said, “You wicked one, why are you hitting your fellow man?” Dassan turned around and taunted Moshe, “Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Dassan then went to the authorities and reported that Moshe Rabbeinu killed an Egyptian taskmaster, getting Moshe in trouble to the extent that he had to run for his life and escape Egypt.

Can we imagine a more ungrateful person than Dassan? Moshe saves his life and he turned around and causes Moshe to have to flee the country!

Pharaoh and Dassan were the “worst of human personalities” — totally ungrateful to those whom they should have owed a tremendous debt of gratitude.

In contrast, now I will cite an example of the “best of human personalities”: Yisro. What is the story with Yisro? Pharaoh called in his most trusted advisors. He called in Bilaam, Iyov, and Yisro among his advisory panel. He asked them to help him solve his ‘Jewish Problem’: “Come let us take counsel regarding them lest they become more numerous and it may be that if a war will occur, they too may join our enemies, and wage war…” [Shmos 1:10] The advisory panel came up with the “brilliant” idea of throwing all male newborns into the Nile River. Bilaam supported the idea enthusiastically. Iyov kept quiet. Yisro resigned from his advisory capacity. In those days, one could not just resign in protest of the government’s policies. That was grounds for having oneself executed. But Yisro felt that after all that Yosef did for Egypt, to now turn on his family like this would be such colossal ingratitude that there was no way he could be a party to it.

What motivated Yisro? He was a “makir tova”. He recognized a favor when it was done and he realized the moral responsibility that comes with being the beneficiary of a favor. He understood that one of the most basic ethical traits a person must practice is to be appreciative for what one has received. As a result of this courageous stand on Yisro’s part, he merited to marry off his daughter, Tziporah, to Moshe Rabbeinu.

How did Yisro merit getting such a wonderful son-in-law? Moshe Rabbeinu was better than “the best boy in Lakewood”. He was better than the best guy in Brisk, the best guy in Mir, the best guy in Ponnevez. He was the best guy in the world! How did Yisro get him? The answer is revealed in a pasuk in the Torah.

Moshe Rabbeinu came to Midyan. Yisro’s daughters were being picked on by the Midyanites. Moshe came to their rescue and Yisro’s daughters came home and told their father what happened. Yisro responded with surprise that his daughters let the stranger go after this rescue without inviting him home and offering him a meal. He chastised them for being such ingrates. This was his life — Hakaras haTov! He could not understand how his daughters could not have picked up on the key attribute of his own personality — that of being beholden to someone who has done a favor. The daughters explained — according to the Medrash — that Moshe was a fugitive from Justice; that he had a price on his head in Egypt.

Nevertheless, Yisro insisted that they owed him a favor after having rescued them from the Midyanites bullying. He ordered his daughters to go back and find the stranger and insist that he come home to eat with them. Moshe Rabbeinu came, sat down for supper, and made a nice impression on Yisro. The rest is history. Yisro said, “I want this man as my son-in-law!” This is a segulah we should all be aware of: One who is “makir tov” [appreciative] will wind up with “the best son-in-law in the history of the world.”

Parshas Shmos represents the best of times and the worst of times — the best of human personalities and the worst of human personalities. It includes the worst ingrates we will ever learn about and on the other hand, one of the most appreciative persons who ever lived.  

Filed Under: Torah


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