Parshas Va’era – Harsh Speech, Gently

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Va’era, the Israelite slaves will finally see that redemption is on its way, as the Eser Makkos (Ten Plagues) begin to unfold, when G-d unleashes His power and might upon Pharaoh and his countrymen.  While wreaking havoc to the natural order, the RS”O (Master of the World) clearly shows Pharaoh Who is in charge of whom, and the plagues come as a powerful answer to Pharaoh’s brazenness of “Who is G-d that I should hearken to his voice, to send forth Israel?  I do not know G-d and I will not free Israel” (Shemos 5:2).   

As punishment is brought to the land of Mitzrayim, Egypt is subject to the makkos of blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, plague of the domesticated animals, boils and hail.  Still to come, in next week’s parsha, are the final three makkos: locust, darkness and the plague of the death of the firstborn. 

The parsha begins when Hashem speaks to Moshe and says: וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי ה – and Elokim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him: I am Hashem (Shemos 6:1).  Rashi says: וידבר אלהים אל משה. דִּבֵּר אִתּוֹ מִשְׁפָּט, עַל שֶׁהִקְשָׁה לְדַבֵּר וְלוֹמַר, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה – Hashem spoke to Moshe with words of rebuke, for his having spoken harshly, keviyachol, against the RS”O, when he said to G-d: Why have You harmed this people? (5:22).

What lesson do we learn from this opening verse of the parsha and Rashi’s commentary?

R’ Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita writes, “The term וַיְדַבֵּר (and he spoke) connotes harsh speech (see Bereishis 42:30, for example), while the term וַיֹּאמֶר (and he said) represents gentle speech (see Shemos 19:3 and Rashi there). 

“In this first verse in our parsha, we find both terms, representing both types of speech. וַיְדַבֵּר, And G-d spoke, represents harsh speech, while וַיֹּאמֶר, and he said, represents gentle speech.  Which one was it; did Hashem speak harshly or gently to Moshe?

“The answer is: Both.  Hashem was reprimanding Moshe, as Rashi says: He spoke to Moshe with words of rebuke for speaking harshly and saying, ‘Why have You harmed this people?’ But the Torah is teaching us that even when rebuke is necessary, it should be given in a gentle manner. 

“… Shlomo HaMelech tells us: אַל-תּוֹכַח לֵץ, פֶּן-יִשְׂנָאֶךָּ; הוֹכַח לְחָכָם, וְיֶאֱהָבֶךָּ – do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you (Mishlei 9:8).  We learn from this verse that when rebuking a person, we should not tell him, ‘You’re a scoffer!’  Rather, we should tell him, ‘You’re a wise man, and it is therefore unbecoming of you to act in such a fashion!’  The chances of success in influencing a person to change his ways are much greater if we speak to him in this way, then if we pour harsh criticism upon him.

“This is the task of our generation.  Many people who are distant from Torah are interested in hearing about our lifestyle, but we have to speak to them gently.  This requires special skill, and it is our duty to learn this skill… When people see the fine middos that characterize Torah-observant people, they will be spurred to draw closer to us” (Aleinu L’Shabei’ach, Shemos, p.110-111).

In speaking to Moshe, the RS”O is teaching us all a lesson.  There are times when it is necessary to give rebuke…however, more than what we say, we must monitor and control how we say it.  When Hashem needed to teach Moshe that he spoke and questioned G-d inappropriately, He did so with kindness, gentle speech, and love.

I once heard the following impactful vort in the name of Rav Yaakov Bender shlita, Rosh Yeshiva Yeshiva Darchei Torah. 

We know that the rainbow is a message of rebuke to the generation, that the people have strayed from the path of purity and morality.  When a rainbow appears, it reminds us that though we are deserving of destruction, Hashem has promised never to destroy the entire world again with a flood, and hence, we will be spared.  In essence, the rainbow is a message of rebuke, a form of וַיְדַבֵּר, And G-d spoke, which represents harsh speech.

If that is the case, asked R’ Bender, why is a rainbow so beautiful?  “Because Hashem wants to teach us that when we need to give tochacha (rebuke), we must do so with sheinkeit (gentleness and beauty).”

“On the eighth day of Pesach, Rav Moshe’s (Feinstein zt’l) doorbell rang.  R’ Dovid Birnbaum, a talmid who was a guest in the Feinstein home, opened the door to admit a poor, elderly European woman.  When R’ Birnbaum led the woman into the dining room, R’ Moshe made a point of averting his gaze so that it was obvious that he could not see the woman’s face.

“The woman said that her sister had passed away on Yom Tov and she had a question about using the deceased’s possessions.  R’ Moshe answered her question and then, in a soft voice, he asked, ‘Today is Yom Tov, why did you ring the doorbell?’  The woman replied, ‘I come from Poland and we eat gebroktz on the last day of Pesach.’  She mistakenly thought that the dispensation of this custom on the eighth day meant that it had the status of Chol HaMoed or less.

“R’ Moshe explained to her that this was incorrect.  He then wished her well and she left.  R’ Moshe then turned to his talmid and said, ‘I kept my eyes averted because I had to point out her error in ringing the doorbell.  This way she will not be embarrassed should we meet again, because she knows I do not know who she is’” (Reb Moshe, Artscroll 25th Yarzheit Edition, p.367-368).

True, a parent may need to rebuke a child, a rebbe his talmid, a morah her student, a friend may need to rebuke another friend… When the words are given with respect, concern and love, they will surely be heard and accepted.  For when G-d needed to speak (harshly) to Moshe, He said (kindly) to him.

May we be courageous enough to implement this teaching, thereby bringing peace – and the beauty and wisdom of the Torah way of life – to our own lives, and the lives of all of those with whom we interact. 

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,


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