Torah Weekly

For the week ending 4 January 2003 / 1 Shevat 5763

Parshat Vaera

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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G-d tells Moshe to inform the Jewish People that He is going to take them out of Egypt; however, the Jewish People do not listen. G-d commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh and ask him to free the Jewish People. Although Aharon shows Pharaoh a sign by turning a staff into a snake, Pharaoh's magicians copy the sign, emboldening Pharaoh to refuse the request. G-d punishes the Egyptians and sends plagues of blood and frogs, but the magicians copy these miracles on a smaller scale, again encouraging Pharaoh's being obstinate. After the plague of lice, Pharaoh's magicians concede that only G-d could be performing these miracles. Only the Egyptians, and not the Jews in Goshen, suffer during the plagues. The onslaught continues with wild animals, pestilence, boils and fiery hail. However, despite Moshe's offers to end the plagues if Pharaoh will let the Jewish People leave, Pharaoh continues to harden his heart and refuses.



"I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel" (6:5)

If I asked you now to tell me whats written on your wristwatch, could you tell me? Go ahead. Dont peek! Think of everything thats written on your watch.

Now have a look.

Ill bet you missed out at least something.

How many times a day do you look at your watch? Twenty? Thirty? And youve probably owned that watch for a year or so. That makes a minimum of over 7,000 times. Youve looked at your watch over 7,000 times, and you still dont know what it is says!

We can look at things every day, but unless we make an effort to see them, they will never register in our minds.

Until a couple of years ago, living in Israel was about as dangerous as living in Brisbane.

True, there was the very occasional terrorist outrage, but no more than the average maniac-on-the-loose that modern society seems to spawn most anywhere in the world.

A couple of years ago, all that changed. Being a Jew in the land of the Bible meant living on the front line, and sometimes behind it. Tragedy followed tragedy on a daily basis. For those of us who were post-war babies, born into a world of relative tranquility for the Jewish People, its easy to think that the past couple of years have been an aberration, and what preceded it was the norm.

A cursory glance at Jewish History proves the reverse. Since the Babylonian Exile, some 2500 years ago, the majority of Jewish history has been full of suffering. The notoriety of the Holocaust needs no further publicity. The Chielminitzki massacres, the Crusades and the expulsion from Spain were near total devastation to the Jewish People. Let us also not forget the oppression of the medieval Moslem world, the so-called "Golden Age" of Spain in which Jews had no legal enfranchisement and were at the mercy, or the lack of it, of their Moslem rulers.

Todays situation isnt the exception. Its the historical norm.

Jewish law mandates that whenever we hear of a tragedy we should tear our clothes. However, this law was abrogated many years ago, for were we to tear our clothing at every tragedy, we would be walking around in shreds.

And it wouldnt be just our clothes that would be in shreds.

So would be our emotional life.

Regrettably and inevitably, every new tragedy that occurs has less and less effect on us.

Theres a fine line here. If we made ourselves, as well as our clothes, into schmatters rags what good would we be to ourselves, to our families or to society at large. On the other hand, how do we combat the numbness of the heart that repeated death and injury seems to inflict?

It says in last weeks Torah portion, "And he (Moshe) went out to his brothers and he saw their burdens" (2:11) Rashi comments "he gave over his eyes and his attention to experience their pain." Moshe did not lack for servants to bring him news of the situation of his fellow Jews. Why was it that Moshe himself went out to his brothers?

You cant compare hearing to looking. And you cant compare looking to seeing.

Moshe wanted to see. He wanted to give over his eyes to the sight of the suffering of the Jewish people. He wanted to give his heart, to pay attention, to their pain.

Empathy requires effort.

"the G-d of Israel, and under his feet was the likeness of a sapphire brick." (Shemot 11:10) That brick was in front of G-d all the time that the Jewish People were captive in Egypt as a reminder of the pain of the Jewish People and their slave labor.

Let me ask you a question. Does G-d need to tie a knot in His handkerchief to remind Himself not to forget? The Omniscient needs no reminders. There is no forgetfulness before His throne. He sees everything. He knows everything.

G-d was teaching us a lesson.

To empathize we must concretize.

We must make the effort, set aside a little time each day, and think. Think for a few moments. Think about what it means to be on the phone to my wife and I suddenly hear gunshots, shouting in Arabic, and I recognize the screams of my wife and my children and realize that there is NOTHING I CAN DO.

By nature we are all selfish. Why should I concern myself with the problems of others? I have my own share of problems.

The only way we can love other people is to love ourselves less. We must conquer our most cherished unexamined belief: That I am the most important thing in the world.

Every drop of self-love poisons the love of others.

We must make the effort to know the suffering of others, better than the writing on our own wristwatches.

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