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Parashat Bo – 01/20/2010

Weekly Torah portion:

Parashat Bo

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Parashat Bo sees the culmination of the 10 plagues, and the liberation of the nation of Israel from Egyptian bondage.  I’d like to continue our discussion of the Jewish concept of faith through knowledge of Gd as we see it unfolding in our Parashah.

First, we should note that some of the commentators assign a fairly long period, almost a year, to the 10 plagues.  Each plague was a week long, but was preceded by 3 weeks of warning and exhortation.  This is in line with our understanding that the plagues were not meant simply as retribution for the multitude of evil that the Egyptians piled on Israel, but as an education for both Israel and the rest of the world.  This yearlong period gave everyone a chance to absorb the lessons of the plagues, one at a time.

Second, our Sages tell us that Israel had fallen to the “49th level of impurity” prior to the redemption.  Had they descended any further they would have been irretrievably lost.  Yet a mere 50 days after the Exodus they were standing at Mt. Sinai receiving Gd’s Torah.  Perhaps we could say that the year’s time gave them the chance to step back from the brink, reassess their spiritual condition, and begin rectifying it.  As they saw Gd’s greatness manifested on an increasing scale, and as the Egyptians’ grip on them lightened, they were more able to develop their faith in Gd, based on the knowledge and experience they were gaining.

In verse 10:3 Moshe Rabbeinu demands of Pharaoh in Gd’s name: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?!”  Malbim comments: “After all the clarification you’ve seen of the existence of H” and His involvement in the details of the world, you still think that you have some divine power?  Now you’ll be humbled before the smallest of creatures (locusts).”  It appears that an important lesson here is that humility is a prerequisite to faith.  Let us try to understand what humility is all about.

We can take as an example the one person in all of Torah who is described as “humble” – Moshe Rabbeinu.  In Numbers 12:3 we read “Now the man Moshe was extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.”  Besides the fact that humility is a quality that is in notably short supply among the political and even most religious leaders we are used to in our day, one has to wonder how the greatest of all prophets and the man who had the closest relation to Gd, could be described as “humble.”  R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer, in his translation and commentary on Ramban’s letter to his son (Iggeret haRamban published by Artscroll) explains that it is precisely Moshe Rabbeinu’s closeness with Gd that led to his humility.

As long as we see ourselves as separate from Gd, we will think and act in ways that tend to reinforce that separation.  We try to build ourselves up, generally at the expense of others.  Not so someone whose knowledge of Gd is more complete.  Such a person perceives and knows that next to the infinite, all differences between finite creatures are nullified.  What is the difference between 2 and 3 compared to 100?  Compared to 1,000,000?  Compared to infinity?  Anyone who has ever been in the presence of a truly great person has some inkling of what it must be like to live life in the presence of Gd.  It is a very humbling experience!

Closeness to Gd leads to humility, but the reverse is also true.  The Talmud has Gd saying “The arrogant person – there is no room in the world for both of us!”  Arrogance means assigning some great value to our small, finite selves.  We all have experienced people who are “full of themselves.”  Unfortunately if we are full of ourself, we don’t leave any room for Gd!  The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his Chasidim “Where is Gd?”  They all answered, “Gd is everywhere.”  He corrected them – “Gd is where you allow him to be.”  As long as our awareness is filled up with small things, the great things, and most especially Gd, will be crowded out, and we will be left with nothing.  Instead, we must cultivate a humble nature, one that is as empty as we can make it, so that Gd can fill us with Himself and all the blessings that come along with. This is what we pray for three times daily in the Sh’ma Koleinu prayer: “And from before You our King, do not send us away empty.”  The implication is that when we first approach Gd, we need to be empty!  If we are full, what more can Gd stuff in there?  It is certainly not our intention in prayer that Gd send us away full of the same junk that we started with!

The Rema (1520-1572, Krakow), in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, begins with the quote from Psalms: “I have set Gd before me continually.”  He comments that all the teachings of Torah are based on this concept.  If we cultivate the knowledge that we are continually in the presence of Gd, in Whom our very existence has its root, then we will be unable to act in a way that violates Gd’s Will.  We will be unable to ascribe power to ourself, or to anything other than Gd.  This is humility, and it leads to closeness with Gd.  Humility and closeness with Gd form a cycle of growth that takes the individual human awareness to unparalleled heights, and ultimately fulfills Gd’s purpose in having created human beings to begin with.

A propos of the idea that knowledge of Gd is the fulfillment of the purpose of creation, here is a paragraph from Rav Schwab on Yeshayahu, compiled from audiotapes of lectures on Isaiah given by R. Shimon Schwab (d. 1995) to his congregation in New York.  I believe that the lectures were given in English.  They were compiled and edited by his son, R. Moshe Schwab.  R. Schwab is commenting on Isaiah 2:22 — Chidlu lachem min-ha’adam asher n’shamah b’apo, ki-vameh nechshav hu? Remove yourselves from the man who has a soul in his nostrils; for with what is he valued?  (The boldface and the translations of the Hebrew terms are mine.)

The Midrash continues with another Aggadah [homiletical interpretation] based on our pasuk [verse], which gives us food for thought.  The Chachamim [Sages] say that when the malachim [angels] saw Adam HaRishon [the first man], this perfect creature made by HaKadosh Baruch Hu [Gd], who was the crown of His creation, they wanted to worship him with the title Kadosh, “Holy One,” thinking him to be Gd.  Adam’s mind, before he committed the first sin, was the most brilliant mind that ever existed.  It was like a mirror reflecting the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, similar to a mirror on a wall of a room which makes the room appear twice as large as it is.  Only when one comes close and touches it does he realize that it is only a mirror.  Similarly, seeing Adam, the malachim thought they were seeing Gd, and wanted to worship him.  The Midrash continues, “So what did Gd do?  Vayapeil H” elokim tardemah al-ha’adam vayishan, Gd caused Adam to fall asleep (Bereishit 2:21).”  When the malachim saw that this marvelous being had fallen asleep, they realized that what they thought was Gd, was in reality only a “mirror of Gd.”  So long as a human being attaches his mind to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, he is as great as any creature can become, even higher than malachimBut once his mind “falls asleep,” and he loses contact with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, he is like a broken mirror which no longer reflects anything.  Therefore, very appropriately, the malachim learned that Chidlu lachem min-ha’adam asher n’shamah b’apo, ki-vameh nechshav hu?, as great as a man can become, nevertheless, once his connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu is broken, and he lives his life in a tardemah, slumber, he becomes merely a mortal, physical being whose value is limited to the “breath in his nostrils.”  (See Yalkut Shimoni to Yeshayahu, Chapter 2, #394.)