The Influence of Man’s Profound Character
It is written, “Come, let us deal wisely toward them, lest they multiply, and it comes to pass that when a war occurs they will also join themselves with our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land. … And the Egyptians made the Children of Israel serve befarech [with rigor]. And they made their lives bitter” (Exodus 1:10,13-14).
These verses raise at least two questions.
1. What exactly did the Egyptians fear? Did they not see that the Children of Israel had already been assimilated among them (they were seen everywhere, in the theaters, at the circus, etc. – Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 1), to the point that they no longer studied Torah? Why then this fear? The Egyptians should have waited a little longer and they would have been completely assimilated.
2. Some of our Sages, such as Rabbi Elazar, interpret the word befarech as meaning befeh rach (“with gentle speech” – Sotah 11b). How could it be that the Egyptians made the Children of Israel serve with gentle speech?
The answer to the first question is that the Egyptians feared the hidden, deep sentiments of the Children of Israel. Certainly they had shown visible signs of being corrupted, but the Egyptians feared that they were fundamentally upright and capable of returning to G-d at any time. The phrase “that when a war occurs” refers to an internal war, meaning a battle against the inner holiness of the Jews. Such a battle would have an effect on their external makeup, an effect evoked by the verse that states, “I was asleep but my heart was awake” (Song of Songs 5:2). The phrase “they will also join themselves with our enemies” means that they will join themselves to ever-increasing holiness, and “go up from the land” signifies that they will correct the sparks of holiness.
We therefore see that if a man is basically good, he will end up being delivered.
As for the issue of befeh rach, our Sages teach that “all the good of the wicked is bad for the righteous” (Yebamot 103a). The gentle speech of non-Jews represents the most dangerous weapon for the Jewish people. We see this in Moses, who did not want to interfere with G-d’s honor and refused to liberate the Children of Israel by himself. Moses knew that “His mercy extends to all His creatures,” that “He ponders thoughts so that no one be banished from Him” (II Sam 14:14). Moses said to G-d, “I am not a man of words … shelach na beyad [send, please, by Your hand]” (Exodus 4:10,13), or in other words, “Liberate them by Your powerful hand and Your outstretched arm, that we may know that it is You Who has brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt.”
Such was the virtue of Moses, a man who in no way wanted to appropriate honors for himself, and who jealously watched over the glory of G-d alone. The Holy One, blessed be He, loathes those who seek to honor Him outwardly while simultaneously elevating themselves. People in this way help the forces of evil to seize the attribute of Hod (glory, majesty) which has a numerical value of 15, a value equal to that of ga’avah (pride). As the Sages instructed us, “ ‘For the hand is on the throne of G-d.’ The Name of the Eternal [numerical value: 15] and His throne will only be complete when Amalek is wiped out.” Amalek’s pride (ga’avah – numerical value: 15) prevents the revelation of G-d in the world. In fact, those who take consideration for their own honor associate themselves with Israel’s greatest enemy. On the other hand, that which Moses sought with the greatest sincerity was the glory of G-d. This is why he was chosen to liberate the Jews, for the one who is careful to increase the glory of G-d will see himself showered with honors (Bamidbar Rabba 4:21), and G-d loves him for it. He also shares, as it were, in the glory given to G-d, as it is written, “They had faith in the L-RD and in Moses His servant” (Exodus 14:31).
What the Egyptians feared, therefore, was that the Children of Israel become filled with zeal for G-d, and that as such they rectify and elevate all the sparks of holiness in Egypt. The Egyptians also made them suffer and pushed them to commit sins, the most notorious of which was gossip. Our Sages, commenting on this subject with respect to Moses’ statement (“Surely the thing is known” [Exodus 2:14]), teach that the Children of Israel were not worthy of being redeemed because of their tendency for gossip (Shemot Rabba 1:30).
Besides this, we may ask ourselves why the Children of Israel had in actuality fallen so low, having reached the forty-ninth gate of impurity and running the risk of staying in Egypt forever (Zohar Chadash Yitro 39a).
This was because, aside from the tribe of Levi, they had delivered themselves over to gossiping more than to Torah (Bamidbar Rabba 3:4).
Even a Tzaddik can reach the forty-ninth degree of impurity if he is without Torah. That which saved the Children of Israel from reaching the fatal fiftieth degree was Ve’eileh Shemot Bnei Israel (“And these are the names of the Children of Israel” – Exodus 1:1). The first letters of Eileh Shemot form the Hebrew word for fire, and the vav of Ve’eileh (which has a numerical value of six) alludes to Adam, who was created on the sixth day. This is to teach us that a man should adhere to the Torah, which is the same as fire, as it is written, “from His right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them” (Deuteronomy 33:2).
The power of Torah is extraordinary. Just like a name (“these are the names”), the Torah reveals the identity, the essence of man. It is just like the letter vav that is added to the aforementioned (Shemot Rabba 1:2), for a man has the possibility to extend his study of Torah. The name of our Patriarch Jacob already held great secrets, as it is written, “After that, his brother emerged with his hand grasping onto the heel of Esau; so he called his name Jacob” (Genesis 25:26).
It was therefore the holy names that the Children of Israel carried which prevented them from descending into hell and sinking to the fiftieth gate of impurity. Even though they did not study Torah, they were liberated from Egypt because they did not change their language, nor did they change their style of dress, nor their names, and furthermore they were fundamentally good, even in a detestable land (Vayikra Rabba 32:5).
Our Sages have on several occasions warned us against the catastrophic results of gossiping. Gossip creates an inordinate amount of accusers against man, his sexual immorality increases (he can have keri, or nocturnal emissions), and he is reincarnated in the body of a dog and begins to bark like one (Zohar III:85a). Nevertheless, the Children of Israel corrected this sin: “But against the Children of Israel, lo yehcheratz kelev leshono [no dog shall whet its tongue]” (Exodus 11:7). Note the similarity between the numerical value of yehcheratz (plus 1 for the word itself) and keri.
After the rectification of the sin, even the peh rach (“gentle speech”) of the Egyptians did not succeed in harming the very essence of the Children of Israel. On the contrary, such gentle language turned itself into harsh and oppressive work, work that they had to perform in Egypt so as not to succumb to the filth of that land.
We can therefore better understand the statement of Elisha ben Avuyah (or Acher, “the other”) that is brought by the Talmud (Hagigah 15a). His father, Avuyah, had invited the great men of Israel to his Brit Milah, among them being Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. On that occasion, when these men were deeply involved in Torah study, a fire descended from the sky and encircled them.
“Is it to burn down my house that you came?” asked Avuyah.
“We were only studying Torah, which was given on Mount Sinai by fire,” they responded.
“If the Torah is endowed with such greatness … I will devote my son to the Torah,” Avuyah replied.
Two questions arise as to this account:
1. Why did Avuyah fear that his house would be burned? He could clearly see that such was not going to happen. Why then did he begin to shout?
2. Why did he not promise to devote his newborn son upon seeing the fire? Why did this apparently upright man not devote his son to Torah until such time as he understood its power?
The reason for this is because Avuyah allowed himself to be deceived by the outward appearance of the great of the generation; he did not grasp their profound holiness. He thought that they resembled him – empty on the inside and full on the outside. When he saw the fire, he perceived only its external aspect, one that could burn things down. He did not grasp the internal aspect of the fire or its sublime holiness. And even when the Tzaddikim explained to Avuyah that it was there that lay the power of Torah, and that this fire could not cause harm, he still only saw its external aspect, and therefore decided to devote his son to Torah only when he understood its power. It was this grave sin of not examining things more deeply, and only seeing the external aspect of things, that Avuyah transmitted to his son Elisha, a man whom the Sages accused of reading profane books that only treated subjects superficially and “on the outside” (Hagigah 15b).
G-d only looks at the heart (Sanhedrin 1065b). He reads the thoughts of man, thought that when pure and upright can greatly influence a man’s external makeup. He can in this way come closer to G-d.