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)

Vayigash: “We were wrong!”

Admitting our mistakes is hard but so, so worthwhile!

Towards the end of last week’s parshah, Yosef’s brothers encountered the second-in-command of Egypt. Unbeknownst to them, they were talking to none other than Yosef himself, the brother they had cruelly sold into slavery so many years before. Yosef is unsure whether they have repented since those days and put them through a series of tests. He eventually gets them to go back and bring their youngest brother Binyomin, whom he tries to take as a slave. At that point Yehudah gets up and flatly refuses to hand over Binyomin, giving himself up as a slave instead. His argument is so strong that eventually Yosef breaks down and reveals himself.

But the story begs the question: there were 10 of them! And they were with Yosef for quite some time. If you read the story carefully, you’ll notice that Yosef dropped several hints regarding his true identity. He knew what colour the wood of their cribs was at home. He sat them around the table in order of age, oldest to youngest. How is it possible that none of his brothers became suspicious?

 

Perhaps they didn’t want to think that. Subconsciously, the brothers preferred to stay in denial. Because recognising who he was would have meant admitted that they were wrong. And that, as we all know, is the hardest thing for a person to do.

I said that none of the brothers recognised Yosef. But that might not be entirely true.

When Yehudah makes a case for his brother, he keeps bringing up what his father said. He mentions his mother twice. He stresses how it would kill his father to have to lose his youngest son. It’s as if he recognised Yosef and was telling him “it’s your father, your brother, your mother!”

And indeed, on a subconscious level, that may well have been the case. And even that recognition, on a lower level of awareness, may well have affected Yehudah’s excellent choice of words to Yosef. It’s hardly surprising that it was Yehudah who chose to recognise Yosef. The root of the word ‘Yehudah’ is ‘hoda’ah’-meaning ‘admission’. And that admission ultimately broke Yosef.

Admitting that we erred is not comfortable at all. It’s not the default human reaction. But if we can acknowledge our mistakes, to ourselves and to those whom we’ve wronged, we only stand to gain.

(As heard from Mr Harry Rothenberg ESQ. Click here for the original shiur)

Parshas Korach- Keep an eye on yourself

Beware of your ego!

It was a risky campaign. Korach, a very learned man in his own right, joined forces with Dasan and Aviran to overthrow a leader appointed by G-D Himself!
Moshe challenged Korach and his followers to show up the next day with pans of incense. Since that is forbidden by the Torah, they would all die, aside from the man whom G-D chose as the leader. Korach took up the challenge, knowing full well the risks involved.
Korach was known to be an intelligent man. What possessed him to gamble with his life this way?
Rashi tells us that Korach ‘erred with his eye’. He saw, through prophetic vision, that his descendants would include the prophet Samuel, who, in Rashi’s words, ‘was equal to Moshe and Aharon together. He also saw that his descendants would be among the levi’im, the priests who sang in the Temple, who were all endowed with ‘Divine vision’, a vision that is almost prophetic and is reserved only for the holiest people. Korach concluded that he would escape punishment so that he would have another child, to replace his own sons who would be killed for their part.
What he didn’t expect was that his sons would repent sincerely at the last minute, and thus be saved. Korach’s distinguished lineage would be perpetuated through them.
Rabbi Meir Shapiro quotes a teaching in Judaism that says that G-D created man with two eyes: one to appreciate the handiwork of the Creator, and the other to see his own lowliness as a human being.
Rabbi Shapiro explains that Korach failed to use his second eye correctly. His focus was on his own greatness and sense of entitlement, rather than viewing himself honestly and humbly. This clouded his vision and led him to make poor choices. Moshe, on the other hand, used both eyes well throughout his life, as the Torah tells us, ‘his eye never became haughty’.
Our egos have a way of distorting our reality. They are the underlying mechanisms that cause us to make poor judgements, to fail to learn from our mistakes, to hurt those closest to us just so we can be ‘right’. Korach’s story highlights our need to turn our critical eye inwards and take an honest look at ourselves. If we are to make good choices, we must ensure that they come from a place of pure humility and selflessness, free of any agendas and ulterior motives.