BO (Exodus, 10:1-13:16) — “If I Could Only Be Like ___”

Did you ever have an experience that affected your whole way of looking at things?  A life-altering event that changed you forever? 

Pharaoh did. (Or so it seems.)

Moses kept demanding the release of the Hebrew slaves.  Pharaoh kept refusing.  Egypt was bombarded with six devastating plagues, and he still didn’t get it. As we read last week, it took until the seventh plague, the Plague of Hail, to bring the Pharaoh to his knees.  There was lightning and thunder.  The hail was a miraculous mix of ice and fire that killed any man or beast that was outside.  The hail fell throughout Egypt, except in Goshen, the “Jewish neighborhood.”

Pharaoh sent word and summoned Moses and Aaron.  He said to them, “This time I am guilty.  G-d is righteous!  My People and I are wicked!  Pray to G-d.  There has been enough of G-d’s thunder and hail.  I will let you leave. You will not be delayed again.” (Exodus, 9:27-28)

He finally got it.  Or did he?  Last week’s Torah Portion closed with yet another refusal to release the Israelites from Egypt.  He still didn’t get it!

This week’s reading opens with a desperate plea from the king’s advisors: “Let them go! … Don’t you realize that Egypt is being destroyed?!” (Ibid, 10:7)

What was the matter with this man?  How could he be so foolish?

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There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 102a).  King Jeroboam was an evil man who led his entire nation astray.  He is referred to as one of the very few people who have totally forfeited a share in the Next World.  G-d, however, offered him a reprieve: “Repent, and I and you and (David) the son of Jesse will walk together in the Garden of Eden.”

Sounds like a good deal.  I’d say go for it!  But Jeroboam wanted more information: “Who will walk in front?”

G-d responded, “The son of Jesse.”  Jeroboam wasn’t interested.

How can a man be so foolish?  He was receiving a prophecy from G-d!  He was in direct contact with the Master of the World!  How could he be so arrogant and stubborn as to turn down an offer of clemency from the Creator?!

The answer is that G-d gives us the power to defy Him.  One of the primary concepts of the Torah is that we are given free will.  We are granted the ability to choose between right and wrong.  We are not robots who automatically do G-d’s will.  He doesn’t “program” us to want to do what’s right.  If He did, there would be no point in rewarding good and punishing evil.

Even in the middle of a prophecy, Jeroboam’s evil nature was allowed to penetrate the awe and aura of G-d’s presence and say “no.”

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We see the same concept with Pharaoh:

In introducing Plague #8, G-d said to Moses, (AFTER his above-mentioned contrition) “Go to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart stubborn … so that you may relate … that I made a mockery of Egypt and about My signs that I placed among them, so that you will know that I am G-d.”  (Ibid, 10:1-2)

G-d then sent Moses and Aaron to say, “How long will you refuse to be humbled before Me?   Release My People!   If you refuse… I will send locusts…” (Ibid, 3-4)

Was this fair?  It looks like a set-up!  It looks like G-d is forcing Pharaoh to stubbornly refuse to release the Israelites, and then He plans to punish Pharaoh for being stubborn!

Why should Pharaoh be punished?  He should plead “Not Guilty, by reason of Divine Coercion!”  After all, as we saw above, Pharaoh had already agreed to let them go.

This is similar to what we saw in the case of Jeroboam. The Plagues were so relentless, so overpowering, that Pharaoh’s free will disappeared.  It would be impossible under such circumstances for a human to refuse to comply with G-d’s demands.

In reality, G-d was not forcing Pharaoh to say “no.”  He was doing the exact opposite! He was removing from Pharaoh the pressure to say  “yes.”  G-d restored to Pharaoh the ability to make a choice.  G-d didn’t FORCE Pharaoh to be stubborn; He ALLOWED him to be stubborn.  To do otherwise would be unfair.

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Some people seem to get all the breaks.  It doesn’t seem fair.  They just have it easier:

“If only I could be as rich as Bill Gates!  There would be no poverty.  I’d take care of the homeless.  I’d support my favorite institutions.  It would be wonderful!”

“If only I had a more efficient metabolism!  My food consumption would not affect me so negatively.   My cholesterol (and weight!!) wouldn’t be approaching 300!  It would be wonderful!”

“If only I were as tall as Chaquille O’Neil!  I’d be a basketball superstar!  It would be wonderful!”

“If only my kindergarten teacher had smiled at me.  I wouldn’t be … It would be wonderful!”

“If only Mom hadn’t loved you best.  I would have … It would be wonderful!”

“If only I had received a better Jewish education as a child.  I would find it much easier to be religious.  I’d be fluent in all the prayers.   It would be wonderful!”

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Yes, it really seems sometimes that some people get a more manageable slice of Life on their plate.  They find themselves in a better position to cope with life’s physical, spiritual, financial and emotional challenges.  It just doesn’t seem fair.  Why don’t we start out evenly?  How can we possibly expect to compete in life when the cards are stacked against us?

The answer, says the Talmud, is that everything IS even. The greater a person is, the greater his Evil Inclination is.  (That’s why Jeroboam was able to receive a prophecy and still choose to ignore G-d’s will.)  Every person has his own challenges.  Those who are wealthy have their difficulties.  Those who are talented and educated and privileged have their own issues that they need to deal with.

No one is entitled to make excuses. There is no free ride.  Pharaoh and Jeroboam should have found it easy to do good.  In spite of that fact, they utilized their free will and CHOSE to do the wrong thing.

We all have challenges.  Yes, the apple pie covered with ice cream looks delicious.  Yes, it would be easier to advance in the company if the boss was your father-in-law.  Yes, it’s easier to observe the Sabbath if you’ve been raised to do it all your life.  But none of that changes our obligation to do the right thing.

We are required to make our dinner using the ingredients that life has provided.  Sometimes it seems tough; sometimes it’s easier.

The bottom line is: “He who comes to purify, (i.e., to be righteous) is assisted from Above.  He who comes to defile, (i.e., to be wicked) is assisted from Above.” (Gemorrah Shabbos, 104a)

What we ask for is what we get.  G-d will help us serve Him, if we are so inclined.  He will also “help” us defy him, if that’s what we want to do.  The Torah is, if you’ll pardon the expression, “pro-choice!”

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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From the Archives 

“How Many Plagues Does It Take to Punish a Pharaoh?”, or, “A Plague on TEN of Your Houses?” (2012)

… G-d told Moses to tell Pharaoh, “G-d said, ‘My firstborn son is  Israel…You have refused to release him…I will kill your firstborn son.’”

As we all know, he refused to release G-d’s “firstborn”, and eventually he sustained the loss of the Egyptian firstborn in the Tenth Plague.  Based upon this original warning, it appears that the only punishment necessary for refusing to release the slaves was the tenth Plague.  Why the other nine?…

Read more.

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“Time Off for Bad Behavior” (2010) 

The numbers don’t add up.

The habitation of the Israelites during which they dwelled in  Egypt was four hundred thirty years.  It was at the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, the legions of G-d left the  land of Egypt.  (Exodus, 12:40-41)

There’s a problem with the math.

…  Obviously, our stay in  Egypt must have been considerably shorter.  In fact, says Rashi, we were only there for 210 years.

… what happened to the other 190? 

Read more.

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“Just Desserts” (2009)

…The lamb was sacred to the ancient Egyptians.  …Now the Egyptians would suffer the anguish of seeing their god made into a schwarma sandwich…

This is difficult to understand.  Our People were enslaved.  We were beaten.  Jewish children were murdered so the Pharaoh could bathe in their blood.  In the major scheme of things, not getting the beef seems to be an almost insignificant addition of insult to injury.  G-d brought ten plagues against the Egyptians.  He devastated their country.  He shattered their economy.  The god-roasting of the Passover Lamb seems to be an inconsequential supplementary slap at an already chastised sinner…

Read more.

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“Double Dating” (2007)

A few weeks ago we opened up our new calendars and re-taught ourselves how to write checks … 

There are authorities who rule… that one is not permitted to abbreviate the secular months of January, February, etc., as 1, 2, etc.  …  Other authorities … argue against the use of the secular months entirely!…

Read more.

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“Pharaoh’s Brother” (2006)

One of the unsung heroes of the Exodus from  Egypt is the Pharaoh’s older brother.  He was the one who finally brought the Pharaoh to his senses.

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of the Pharaoh’s older brother?  Well, I did tell you he was an UNSUNG hero!…

Pharaoh lost it.

Get outta here!” he screamed.  And don’t ever come back!  If you dare come to see me again, you’re a dead man!”  (Loose translation of Exodus,10:27)…

Read more.

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“Lox, Cream Cheese, and … UNLEAVENED BAGELS??!!!” (2005)

You don’t have to be religious to feel Jewish…

Pharaoh no longer refused to let the Israelites leave.  Not only did he permit them to leave, he INSISTED that they leave.  Immediately!

… we have been in exile for close to two thousand years  … How is it that our ancestors would not have been able to withstand a moment more than 190 years of exile, while we continue to exist into our third millennium?

… there is a very big difference between our generation and that generation…

Read more.

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“The Dog Days of Egypt” (2004)

… He’s doing it again… That obnoxious know-it-all at the office who always manages to grate on your nerves.  He “knows” who’s going to win the primaries and who’s going to win the Super Bowl.  He’s got an opinion about everything, and he’s consistently full of baloney.

You really want to put him in his place.  You’d love to tell him, just this once, exactly what you think of him and his crazy notions.  Still better, you’d just love to punch him in the nose! …

Read more.

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“If I Could Only Be Like ___” (2003)

… G-d said to Moses, …”Go to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart stubborn …

Was this fair?  It looks like a set-up!  It looks like G-d is forcing Pharaoh to stubbornly refuse to release the Israelites, and then He plans to punish Pharaoh for being stubborn!

Why should Pharaoh be punished?  He should plead “Not Guilty, by reason of Divine Coercion!”  …

Read more.

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“Nissan Maximum” (2002)

… How can we celebrate the first of Tishrei in the fall as the New Year, when the Torah tells us very clearly that year really begins on the first of Nissan in the spring? …

Read more.

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“Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts…I’ve Already Made Up My Mind!”  (2001)

…Egypt is in shambles. The king’s own advisors have begged him to wake up and smell the coffee and realize that he is destroying his own country by continuing to disregard G-d’s demands.

Now it’s time to take off the kid gloves and get tough! …

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in  Monsey,  New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 8, 2003 at 7:44 am  Leave a Comment  

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