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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Exodus / Shmot - Va-Era
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January 2008, Contributed by Asher ben Shimon
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At one point in Jewish history, there was an oppressing force that forbade public reading from the Torah. It was then that the rabbis instituted to read a portion from the prophets similar to the Torah portion that would have been read that week under normal circumstances. This custom remained even after the oppressor left and that's why we still read the Haftarah every week after we read from the Torah.

This week we will be reading from the book Yechezkel (Ezekiel) who prophesized about different kingdoms in his time. The first prophecy is directed against Egypt who had aroused G-d's wrath. Hashem notifies Yechezkel about the calamities that were about to befall Egypt. They were going to be captured and exiled for forty years. When they would return to their homeland, they would remain a low and insignificant kingdom forever. Then they would know that "I am the Lord."

Following is a prophecy directed to Nevuchadnetzar king of Bavel who was going to receive Egypt in reward for conquering Tzur (Tyre). (The leader of Tzur had proclaimed himself a g-d and by doing so, signed his own verdict. The entire city was destroyed by the above mentioned king. It had taken Nevuchadnetzar a very long time to conquer the city and when he finally managed to get in to this coastal fortress, a flood swiped away all the booty. So although it had been a strategic victory, it had not been a very profitable one.

The connection between the first prophecy regarding the fall of the Egyptian empire and this week's Torah portion `Va'era', is obvious. We read about the ten plagues that befall the Egyptians of those days for not allowing the Jewish people to leave. The connection with the second prophecy, regarding Nevuchadnetzar's reward, requires explanation though. The focus in the prophecy is on Nevuchadnetzar. That he was receiving Egypt as a reward, is only a technical detail. In our Torah portion we only read about Egypt being destroyed, slowly but surely, but we don't find anywhere that someone was receiving it as a reward for a good deed.

According to one opinion we therefore don't read the second prophecy, but the generally accepted custom is that we do. Why do we, if it has no connection with the Torah portion?

When we say that the Haftarah has to be similar to the Torah portion, it doesn't mean that the STORY has to be completely similar. Torah comes from the word Hora'ah which means a lesson and instruction. The lesson we can learn from Nevuchadnetzar receiving Egypt as a reward for conquering Tzur is a detail in the same message we can take from Egypt being destroyed both in the story in Yechezkel as well as in Va'era.

Last week in Shemot, we learned about Moshe being told by Hashem to go to Pharaoh to ask him to let the Jewish people go. Pharaoh said no, and in order to show his full control he came out with new, harsher decrees. We finished off by Moshe returning to Hashem with a complain. "Why did you send me? You only made it harder for the Jews!"

The answer is what we start Va'era with. Hashem tells Moshe: "I have heard their cries and I will take them out and save them etc. and I remembered the covenant I made with their forefathers to free them from slavery."

Moshe may have been very pleased to hear that Hashem was finally going to take care of the problem but how did it answer his question "why did you make it WORSE after you sent me?". Obviously it were the cries of pain and anguish that came as a result of new wave of decrees that caused Hashem to act. That is what Hashem answered Moshe. Now that the Jewish people really suffered they can be redeemed. What was the purpose of all the suffering?

The ultimate purpose of the slavery in Egypt was to prepare for the giving of the Torah. The Torah is G-d's wisdom. As we mentioned several times, it is per definition IMPOSSIBLE for a human being limited by the boundaries of nature, to have any connection to Hashem's UNLIMITED, infinite wisdom. We explained that that is the reason why we have to say the words of Torah out loud even though in general that disturbs the intellectual faculties. Only when we go out of our own self, we can have some sort of connection to what's higher than us.

The same applies to the Mitzvot. Mitzvah means besides for `commandment' also `connection'. The same mundane act of eating a matzah can be making a connection with our creator when it is being done on Pesach, but won't have any spiritual effect when done on a different day.

In order for limited creatures in a finite universe to be able to connect with the infinite G-d, both needed a preparation of complete nullification.

To the Jewish people this meant slavery and to the world this meant the ten plagues in Egypt.

It took the increased measures of back braking slavery which were added by Pharaoh after Moshe requested their leave, that accomplished the proper nullification of the Jewish people. Although they were still physically alive, they were so completely exhausted that it could have been considered as if they had totally no own identity left.

Pharaoh was besides for a dictator who ruled all his subjects with an iron fist, also a self proclaimed g-d. In the Haftarah he is described as "the great crocodile who sits in his river and proclaims "the river is mine and I have made myself!"". He is symbol of the epitome of haughtiness. Pharaoh's pride had to be crushed to ready to world for the descent of the Torah into this world. Significant progress in that direction was made by the first seven plagues we read about this week. At the end of the parsha Pharaoh admits that " Hashem is righteous and I and my people are the wicked ones."

The prophets usually elaborate on what the Torah (meaning the 5 books of Moshe here) says in short.

In Yechezkel's prophecy in the Haftarah two reasons are given why Egypt was worthy of punishment. Firstly because they had promised the Jewish people help against their enemies and they broke their promises numerous times. (sounds familiar?). Secondly, as we read a few verses down the page, because Pharaoh announced that "the river is mine and I made myself".

Since both reasons are given for the same exact thing, we must say that they are interconnected somehow.

The reason WHY they did not keep their promises, which is not a very nice thing to do according to ALL nations, regardless of which religion they follow, is because of their haughtiness. They thought so highly of themselves that anyone else was not worthy of consideration to them.

The Torah also gives us two reasons why Egypt got the ten plagues. A) "so they will know that I am the L-rd." B) as punishment for having tortured the Jewish people for so many years.

The Haftarah, by connecting the two reason, explains that there too the two reasons were one and the same. Because Pharaoh had proclaimed himself a g-d, he didn't mind treating innocent people in a cruel way that had not been known to mankind before.

Egypt and Pharaoh were what was holding back the giving of the Torah. The Torah expects us to act in a manner directly opposite of the Egyptian behavior. Although the Torah contains 613 mitzvot, most well known are the Ten commandments. Interestingly, those commandments deal with very basic issues as honoring parents and not stealing and murdering. This teaches us that ALL mitzvot have to be fulfilled solely because they're Hashem's will. Even simple things every normal nation would include in their laws, we, as Jews, do because they are divine commandments and NOT because we understand them. Egypt stands for believing in ones own powers without a G-d, Torah and Judaism stands for complete self nullification to G-d.

Every Mitzvah consists of two elements. The actual physical deed (the eating of the matzah), and the spiritual effect it causes in the higher spheres.

When a mitzvah is done with certain intentions, especially those that are known to the kaballists, they may cause a greater spiritual change.

We are told that even before the Torah was given, our forefathers were performing Mitzvot. Their Mitzvot were mainly on a spiritual level though. It says for instance that the tricks Yakov did with the pealed branches to cause the sheep to have different looking offspring generated the same spiritual energy as when we put on Tefillin. In those days, since here had not been specific instructions how to draw down the divine energy, different physical object could be used to achieve the same we do now with our Mitzvot. A totally new dimension was added to the Mitzvot with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. From then onwards a mitzvah was a divine commandment. The intentions that had been the main aspect before that time, became of secondary importance. They only enhance the Mitzvot. Now ANYONE who performs a mitzvah, regardless of his intentions, fulfills Hashem's will.

The second prophecy in the Haftarah brings out this point. Nevuchadnetzar received Egypt as a reward for having fulfilled Hashem's will. (conquering Tzur) The prophet says that the reward was for the `DEED'. Nevuchadnetzar wasn't Jewish and was not known to be a very religious man. He was in the process of conquering the entire world to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for power. Nevertheless, since he was the one who brought Hashem's will to fruition, he was the one to be rewarded for it. It wasn't the intention, it was the deed.

To summarize in a few words. The first prophecy teaches us that only by being selfless we can receive the Torah which we learn from Egyptians being punished for acting the opposite way. The second prophecy highlights the point that this can be expressed primarily by performing simple physical Mitzvot which do not seem to be divine to the beholder.

To us it means also that now, ever since the Torah was given some 3300 years ago, every mitzvah we do, no matter what our personal interest may be, is being regarded as a selfless act that connects us to Hashem for which we deserve a reward.

May Hashem take all the many Mitzvot we have been doing since the beginning of our existence with or without intention and reward us for them by bringing us Moshiach NOW! 

________

Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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