Parshat Bo: Let Him in!

When all the gates are locked, humility tunnels you under them…

Throughout the saga of the ten plagues, the narrative remains the same: G-D inflicts the chaos, Pharaoh begs Moshe to ask G-D to stop, G-D ends the nightmare, Moshe orders Pharaoh to release the Jews, Pharaoh’s heart hardens, Pharaoh refuses, G-D is angered, and the cycle repeats itself.
Pharaoh’s refusal makes him deserving of punishment. It makes sense, at least on the surface.

But, as the Torah tells us from the beginning, it was G-D who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Pharaoh had ZERO control over his free will. He couldn’t repent of his wickedness even if he wanted to.

And yet, G-D punished him over and over, in a series of escalatingly intense plagues, with the ‘grand finale’ at the Red Sea.

Doesn’t that seem unfair?

A Rabbi of a Synagogue noticed something rather odd that happened once a year. One of the shul’s members was a man who only came to services on Rosh Hashanah. He would walk in, pray for a few minutes quietly, and then leave. And for those few moments, his face showed that he was concentrating very intensely. One year, the Rabbi couldn’t control his curiosity. He called the man over and asked him what he was praying for.
“Every year” he replied “I have this request:
“G-D: I have a great marriage, a financially rewarding career, all the cars and luxuries I want, kids who are doing well in school. One thing I ask of You: Please, stay out of my life!”

This sad joke is indicative of the type of person Pharaoh was. We mentioned that Pharaoh was beyond the point of no return. But that wasn’t entirely true. He had a ‘backdoor’ option.

The Talmud tells us that there are sins for which the gates of repentance remain closed. But the commentaries stress that even in these situations there is an answer. If one calls out to G-D, He will dig a tunnel (so to speak) under the gates for you to go through.

That, says the Chofetz Chaim, was an option that Pharaoh had all along. With a sincere expression of submission before his Creator, he could have changed his life. But like the poor fellow in the story, he lacked the desire to have Hashem in his life. Pharaoh’s lack of humility prevented him from bridging the gap between him and G-D.

A man came to the Steipler and told him that he was concerned about his difficulty in maintaining faith in G-D. the Steipler’s ‘diagnosis’ was clear. “Haughtiness” declared the sage. “If you’re too concerned about yourself to think about others, you have no room in your heart for Hashem either!”

A humble person knows that he isn’t the master of his destiny; G-D is.

(Based on a lecture from Rabbi Fischel Schachter. Click here to watch the lecture video)

Vayechi: The blessed disagreement

Don’t try to change anyone –
except yourself!

You find yourself disagreeing with your spouse, clashing with your business partner, arguing with your child.
You know you’re in the right, and you’re desperate to get the other person to see that.
What do you do?
Yaakov Avinu is on his deathbed. Yosef takes his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, to get their Grandfather’s blessing. Yaakov will be blessing both boys simultaneously, placing one palm on each head. Jewish tradition considers a person’s right hand to be the stronger one spiritually. As Menasheh is the firstborn, with more significant privileges and responsibilities, Yosef wants him to receive the more prominent blessing. He intentionally places Ephraim on Yaakov’s right-hand side and Menasheh on his left.
But Yaakov sees things differently. Through prophetic vision, he realises that Ephraim is destined to become greater than his older brother. Thus, Yaakov feels that the more prominent blessing would benefit Ephraim rather than Menasheh.
But rather than switching them around, Yaakov does the unexpected: he stretches his right arm over his left arm in an X shape!
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn of Komemius, gives a beautiful explanation for Yaakov’s behaviour:
Yaakov had no wish to change his son’s position. He merely wanted to do what he had to do without fuss. Yaakov’s response to the conflict was to change his way of doing things. To do what he felt was right while respecting Yosef’s position.
It’s a lesson for all of us. Disagreements aren’t about changing other people’s views. On the contrary; they could be springboards for own growth. It could be a matter of understanding the different viewpoint while still disagreeing, strongly even. It could mean overhauling our perspectives completely. Or it could be a case of just choosing our battles wisely. But when interacting with others with opposing views, the goal must be about changing ourselves. For the better.

(As heard from Rabbi Shimon Semp)