Nearly thirty years in the defence industry has taught me that there are two primary ways in which a new program is born. Both ways involve the hands-on assistance from both Engineering and Marketing. The first, and most common, way in which a new program is created begins with Engineering. An engineer discovers how to do something never done before or how to do something much less expensively than before. Perhaps he discovers a new algorithm, a new manufacturing technique, or a novel method of packaging. Once Engineering has defined the core system, Marketing takes over. They tweak the system into something that is desirable and marketable and pray that the system sells like hotcakes.
The second way in which a program is created begins with Marketing. An overly exuberant marketing executive promises a potential customer performance that lies far beyond the pale of what Engineering is actually capable of providing. Once a deal seems imminent, Marketing meets with Engineering and reveals what they have promised the customer. Typically, a boisterous argument breaks out. Often, Engineering must explain to Marketing that the system they are trying to sell defies certain laws of physics. In most of these cases, Marketing remains unconcerned. “So change the physics”, they say. It becomes the job of Management to negotiate a settlement between Marketing and Engineering. In most cases, the system that is eventually sold to the customer provides much, but not all, of what Marketing had promised the customer. In most cases, these programs end up costing far more than the customer’s budget and so the contactor ends up spending considerable out-of-pocket money to develop the system. Everyone prays that the investment can be recouped in future sales.
Parashat Vaera contains an example of the second kind of program. G-d has already hit the Egyptians with the Plague of Blood. For one entire week, the Nile River – the sole source of fresh water in Egypt – had turned to blood. Now G-d has hit them with another plague, the Plague of Frogs. The frogs have a devastating effect on Egypt and they quickly bring Pharaoh to his knees. Pharaoh runs to Moses and tells him [Shemot 8:4] “Plead with G-d to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go”. Moses, realizing that he has Pharaoh on the run, makes him an offer [Shemot 8:5]: “You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile?” Sure I can get rid of the frogs! When do you want me to get rid of them? This afternoon? Next Thursday? Try me! Pharaoh tells Moses to wait until the next day. Moses happily agrees. The very next day [Shemot 8:8] “Moses cried out to G-d in the matter of the frogs which He had inflicted upon Pharaoh.” G-d listens to Moses and all of the frogs die.
What is Moses possibly thinking? Why does he dare Pharaoh to test him? Perhaps the Plague of Frogs was destined to last for seven days just like the Plague of Blood, no matter how much Pharaoh begs and pleads? How does Moses know that G-d will follow his lead? And what would have happened had Moses been wrong? How would he have looked if the plague had not stopped precisely when he said it would? Whoops. In fact, Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived in Spain in the twelfth century, notes that because Moses had boasted to Pharaoh without consulting with G-d, Moses was forced to “cry out” (tza’ak) to G-d – to “pray fervently” – in order to convince Him to cut the plague short.
We will base our explanation here on one given by Rabbi Rafael Baruch Sorotzkin, who headed the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, during the second half of the last century. Rabbi Sorotzkin begins his explanation by noting that in only three out of the ten plagues does Pharaoh run to Moses and ask him to cut the plague short: the Plague of Frogs (Plague #2), the Plague of Wild Animals (Plague #4) and the Plague of Hail (Plague #7). In all three plagues, Pharaoh initiates the request to ask G-d to stop the plague. In all three cases, Moses prays to G-d and in all three cases, G-d stops the plague prematurely.
It would be easy to spend the rest of this lesson explaining why Pharaoh wanted specifically these plagues to be cut short and not any of the others. Did Pharaoh not mind boils and lice? Rabbi Sorotzkin, however, is bothered by something else entirely, something much more fundamental: What right does Moses have to serve as a liaison to take Pharaoh’s message to G-d? Moses was appointed by G-d to serve as His emissary to Pharaoh. As far as Moses is concerned, Pharaoh’s reaction should be irrelevant. If Pharaoh wants to send a message to G-d, then he should go figure out some other way to send it.
Rabbi Sorotzkin’s difficulty can be addressed if we look back at G-d’s first revelation to Moses at the burning bush. G-d gives Moses a well-defined mission [Shemot 3:10]: “I will send you to Pharaoh and take my people out of Egypt”. G-d wanted Pharaoh to free the Jewish People. Our viewpoint is skewed because we are reading the story more than three thousand years after it is over. We know what is going to happen. We know that there will be exactly ten plagues. We know that Pharaoh will not break until the very end. We know that he will not “send the Jewish People out of Egypt” until G-d kills all of the Egyptian first-born. But just because we know what the outcome will be does not mean that the outcome could not have been different. G-d does not want Pharaoh to break. He wants Pharaoh to change. He wants Pharaoh to understand that he must bend to the will of a Higher Power, that he must free the Jewish People of his own volition. Rabbi Sorotzkin asserts that the goal of the plagues was to teach Pharaoh – and the rest of the world along with him – the power of prayer.
All too often, we see prayer as a shopping list. We ask G-d to grant us all sorts of nice things, and, oh, if He has the time, could He please send a speedy recovery to the people at the bottom of this lesson. This is a narrow-minded and egotistical definition of prayer. Prayer is not a trip to Walmart. Prayer is a profound understanding of the vast distance that separates G-d and man, along with the simultaneous understanding that G-d wants us to bridge that gap. G-d wants us to see Him as our King but also as our Father. Rabbi Sorotzkin points out that in the three instances that Moses pleads to G-d on Pharaoh’s behalf, the Torah uses three different verbs. The first time, in the Plague of Frogs, the Torah tells us [Shemot 8:7] “Moses shouted (tza’ak)to G-d”. In the Plague of Wild Animals, we are told that [Shemot 8:26] “Moses pleaded (he’etir) with G-d”, and in the Plague of Hail [Shemot 9:33], “Moses opened his palms (paras kapav) to G-d”. Conversely, in all three instances, Pharaoh uses the exact same word, asking Moses to “plead” – “he’etir” – with G-d. While Pharaoh believes that prayer is something mechanical – press the right buttons and good things happen – Moses teaches Pharaoh – and us – that there are different ways of approaching G-d in prayer: The “baseline” approach is “pleading”. This kind of prayer is exemplified by Isaac and Rebecca in Bereishit [25:21] when they “pleaded” G-d for a son. “Pleading” means telling G-d that as a finite human being, this is what I need. “I am telling You this because I know that You will listen, even though You might not do what I want You to do.” In the case of Isaac and Rebecca, they needed to be parents, to love a child the same way the G-d they were pleading to loved them. A second kind of prayer is “shouting” with no holds barred. “Shouting” is the prayer of a person on the edge of despair, turning to the only thing in the universe that can give him comfort. The third kind of prayer is “opening of the palms”. According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Rabbi of Frankfurt Am Mein in the nineteenth century, “opening of the palms” means literally turning one’s hands skyward and telling G-d “I have nothing left that I can give.” It is the prayer of a person beyond despair, and yet he continues to pray.
When G-d sends Moses to Pharaoh to demand that he free the Jewish People, Pharaoh answers [Shemot 5:2] “I do not know G-d, nor will I let Israel go.” Only after Pharaoh “knows” G-d, only after he understands how he could and how he must relate to an infinite Master of the Universe, could he “let Israel go”. This message would resonate long after the last Jewish slave had left Egypt.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Tehila bat Adi.