Parshas Va’era – A People of Distinction

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Va’era, the process of the miraculous redemption from Egypt begins to unfold.  Beginning with the arbah leshonos geula – four terms that assure us of G-d’s promise of redemption – and culminating with the plague of barad (hail), the parsha delineates the destruction of Egypt.  And G-d told Moshe to tell the Bnei Yisrael: וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, And I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם, and I will save you from their work; וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, and I will take you to Me as a people (Shemos 6:6-7).

As for the fifth lashon of geula, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, אֶלהָאָרֶץ, and I will bring you to the Land (6:8), we still await the final promise and ultimate redemption, may it be immediate and in our days.

When Pharaoh does not allow the Jews to march to freedom of his own volition, G-d begins to unleash His great wonders and signs against Mitzrayim, in the form of the Eser Makkos – the Ten Plagues that wreaked havoc and brought chaos upon the land, and people, of Egypt.  

In this week’s parsha, we learn of the first seven plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils and hail.  

In introducing the plague of arov, wild beasts, the pasuk says: וְשַׂמְתִּי פְדֻת, בֵּין עַמִּי וּבֵין עַמֶּךָ; לְמָחָר יִהְיֶה הָאֹת הַזֶּה, and I will make a division between My people and your people; this sign will come about tomorrow (8:19).  

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “וְשַׂמְתִּי פְדֻת, בֵּין עַמִּי וּבֵין עַמֶּךָ, and I will make a division between My people and your people.  In the havdala prayer at the close of the Shabbos, we bless G-d Who has separated between the holy and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the other days of creation.  When we analyze these examples of havdalah, or separation, more closely, we notice a fundamental difference between them.  The havdalah between light and darkness is clear for all to perceive.  Indeed, even animals and plants respond to these stimuli; with the arrival of sunset, flowers close their blossoms, and when the sun rises, the blossoms open to face it.  The havdalah of light and darkness is a havdalah that is seen or sensed by all.  The havdalah between holy and profane is much different.  The eye cannot perceive this havdalah.  A person needs to have special intuition, to see with his heart, as this separation can only be sensed.  After alternately mentioning the clearest of havdalos, dark and light, and the most hidden of havdalos, between the holy and the profane, the author of the prayer then poses a third havdalah: between Israel and the nations.  

“The havdalah between Israel and the nations is sometimes identical with the dichotomy between light and darkness, and at other times with the dichotomy between sacred and profane.    When Jews keep the commandments, when they live their lives as a holy nation, the contrast between Israel and the nations becomes evident to all.  When the Jew abandons G-d, however, no longer is there obvious evidence of havdalah.  Yet as mired in sin as the Jew maybe, deep in the Jewish soul there remains something holy and mysterious, which can neither be erased nor destroyed.

“In Egypt, the Israelites lived in an era where both the Egyptians and the Israelites worshipped idols.  One could barely perceive a contrast between them.  Yet the Master of the Universe indeed separated between them.  He discerned holiness in the soul which was profane and full of sin, and therefore saved His people.  The very word ‘Passover’ expresses the idea of havdalah, when superficially there seems to be no reason to make such a separation” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Shemos, p.67).  

To Hashem, our kedusha – even if hidden deep within – is always present and precious and always burning within.  Hence, the makkos, which wreaked havoc and destruction upon Pharaoh and Egypt, would distinguish between the Israelites and the Egyptians, as G-d placed a division between our people and theirs.  

“The Jewish High Holidays were drawing near, and fear in the Janowska Concentration Camp mounted.  In Janowska, there was a Jewish kapo by the name of Schneeweiss; he was sadistic and cruel towards his fellow Jews, and if the Jews wanted to ‘observe’ the holidays, Schneeweiss would have to be dealt with.  

“A few prisoners approached the Bluzhever Rebbe, R’ Yisrael Spira zt’l, and asked him to approach the kapo, and request that they be excused from work on Yom Kippur (Y”K)… With a heavy heart, the Bluzhever Rebbe approached.  ‘Tonight is Kol Nidrei.  You are a Jew like us.  There is a small group of Jews who want to observe the holy day; can you help us?’  To his surprise, the kapo replied, ‘Rabbi, I cannot do anything for you tonight, as I’m not in charge of the night brigade.   But tomorrow, I will put you and your friends to work cleaning the officers’ quarters without polish or water, so that it will not be against Jewish law.  I will supervise.’

“True to his word, the next day, the rebbe and the others were brought to the S.S. officers’ quarters and put to work with dry rags.  While they worked, they chanted the Y”K tefillos through tears.  At noon, two Nazis suddenly burst into the room with trays of food and demanded of the starving inmates: eat or be shot.  Nobody moved.  The lead Nazi reiterated the command.  Still nobody moved.  The Nazi called in the sadistic kapo, Schneeweiss, from the next room and ordered: Make them eat, or you will be killed along with them!  

“Schneeweiss stood up defiantly and said, ‘Today is Y”K, a day holy to Jews and we may not eat.’  Incredulous, the Nazi asked the kapo to repeat himself.  Proudly and defiantly, Schneeweiss repeated that it was Y”K and Jews did not eat on this day.  The German pointed his revolver at Schneeweiss, who did not even blink.  A single shot ran out and Schneeweiss fell dead.  

“Much later, the Bluzhever Rebbe would recount this story, and say, ‘It was only then that I understood the meaning of the Sages’ words: Even the sinners in Israel are full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds’” (Heroes of Spirit, p.160-162).

Ha’mavdil bein kodesh la’chol, bein ohr la’choshech, bein Yisrael l’amim… May our distinction always be apparent and elevated, as we live our lives with holiness, meaning, purpose and direction.  

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,

Michal

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