‘Grace Under Pressure’ Pesach 5782

The Pesach seder can be neatly divided into three parts: The first part runs from the beginning of the seder until after the Four Questions (Ma Nishtana), the second part is comprised of an assortment of rabbinical exegeses of verses from the Torah pertaining to the Egyptian Exodus, and the third and final part includes all of the ritual foods, dinner, dessert, and clean-up. To young children, and even to some of the adults, the middle part of the seder can get, well, boring. Unsurprisingly, the internet is rife with suggestions on how to spice up the seder so as to keep the children, and even some of the adults, engaged. From personal experience, there are certain parts of the seder that, no matter how hard one tries, will always remain, well, boring. And this poses a serious problem because when we rush through the boring parts, we might very well miss certain things that are actually quite interesting.

One such example is in the Haggadah’s interpretation of the verse [Devarim 26:8] “G-d freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents”. The Haggadah explains the phrase “an outstretched forearm” as follows: “This [refers to] the sword, as it is stated [I Chronicles 21:16] ‘And his sword was drawn in his hand, leaning over Jerusalem.’” This is odd. Where in the story of Passover are we told that G-d used a sword to punish the Egyptians? In fact, one could correctly assert that G-d used everything but a sword on the Egyptians. Wild animals, weather, disease and a raging sea – absolutely. But a sword? Not so much.

This question was asked by Zedekiah ben Avraham the Doctor, better known as the “Shibolei ha’Leket”, after a book he penned in the thirteenth century on Jewish ritual, customs, and explanations of prayers. The Shibolei ha’Leket brings two answers to our question. First, he quotes his brother, Benjamin, who maintains that the sword is actually a metaphor for G-d’s Holy Name. In other words, the Haggadah is telling us that G-d used supernatural means to smite the Egyptians. He then brings an alternate answer, which he attributes to his teacher, Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir directs our attention to a midrash in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana that describes the events that transpired on the day Moshe told Pharaoh [Shemot 11:5] “Every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones”. According to the midrash, the first-born Egyptians, upon hearing Moshe’s warning and upon noting that everything that Moshe had predicted until that point had come true, feared for their lives. They ran as fast as they could to Pharaoh and begged him to let the Jews go free. When Pharaoh scoffed at their request, they turned on the Egyptians and murdered “six hundred thousand[1] of their kinsmen”. Rabbi Reuven Margaliot, who lived in Israel in the last century, strengthens the explanation of the Shibolei ha’Leket by quoting the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [111a] that identifies the location of the insurrection of the first-born as Alexandria.

According to the Shibolei ha’Leket, the “outstretched forearm” with which G-d defeated the Egyptians belonged not to G-d, but to the Egyptians, themselves. When faced with adversity, Egyptian society broke down and committed national hara-kiri. When the tenth plague finally arrived and G-d killed all of the Egyptian first-born, precisely as predicted by Moshe, the game was already over.

The destiny of a society is ultimately determined by its conduct under pressure. The Jewish People, like their Egyptians masters, had a similar problem. Years of abject slavery had taken its toll on their society. When Moshe first leaves the royal palace to see first-hand the abominable conditions that were the daily existence of his Jewish brothers, he kills an Egyptian slave-master who is mercilessly whipping a Jewish slave. The next day, Moshe goes out again and he sees two Jews arguing[2]. When he tries breaking up the fight, one of them looks at him and says [Shemot 2:14] “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?!” Moshe is frightened and he cries out, “Then the matter is known!” According to the simple meaning of the verse, Moshe is concerned that his killing of the Egyptian slave-master has become public knowledge and that he must fear for his own life. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in the eleventh century in France, suggests something else. Quoting from the midrash in Shemot Rabbah, Rashi explains Moshe’s words as “Now there is known to me that matter about which I have been puzzled – how has Israel sinned more than all the seventy nations, that they should be oppressed by this crushing servitude? But now I see that they deserve this.” Only a nation whose hope for redemption had been crushed would turn on each other in such a way. In order for the Jewish People to be redeemed, they had to prove that they could, as a society, display grace under pressure. They had to prove that they could trust in G-d and that they could be loyal to their fellow Jews, come what may.

They finally prove this, only two weeks before the exodus. On the first day of the month of Nissan, they are commanded to take a lamb, to tie it to their bedposts for two weeks, and then to slaughter it and to smear its blood on the doorpost. Cognizant that the lamb was considered a god by the Egyptians, this was tantamount to suicide[3]. They could have justifiably told Moshe [Shemot 8:22] “If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us?!” And yet they do no such thing. The Torah tells us [Shemot 12:28] “And the Israelites went and did so; just as G-d had commanded Moshe and Aaron, so they did.” The commentators are troubled by the words “so they did”. They seem unnecessarily repetitive. I suggest that these words come to teach us that the Jewish People – as a nation – do exactly what Moshe and Aaron told them to do, simply because they were Moshe and Aaron. When faced with the same situation as the Egyptian first born, when death hung over their heads like a dark cloud, the Jewish People maintained their national composure, setting the stage for their exodus.

Israel is not an easy place in which to live. We seem to move from crisis to crisis – from drought to terror attacks to rockets to the implosion of our government and back again. Time and time again, Israelis have shown incredible resilience. We even have a word for it: “Shigrat Herum” – “Emergency routine”. These crises do not drive us apart – they bind us together. One recent example is Israel’s initial response[4] to COVID-19. We were locked down but not shut down. Defense contractors began developing life-saving equipment. Start-up companies uploaded to the internet detailed plans for ventilators for free download. The army took on responsibility for the management of the COVID-19 response of the city of Bnei Berak, a city with a large ultra-orthodox population whose relationship with the army had been chequered. They were welcomed with open arms and food baskets. While there have admittedly been road-bumps along the way, we have always somehow managed to mimic the behavior of our ancestors in Egypt [Shemot 1:13] “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they spread out”.

This was the secret to our redemption from Egypt and this is the secret to our future redemption, speedily in our days, Amen.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach v’Kasher,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] The number “six hundred thousand” is often used by our Sages to denote a very large number.

[2] If you can imagine.

[3] See our discussion from two weeks ago, Tazria-HaChodesh 5782. This is the answer proposed by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, the author of the “Ktav v’haKabala”.

[4] I am referring only to Israel’s initial response. Afterwards, we became kind of sloppy.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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