Newton’s first law: Parashat Vaera 5777

Hashem has enough. Twice Moshe and Aharon have asked Pharaoh to release Am Yisrael from bondage and twice they have been rebuffed. They have tried to wow him with magic by turning a staff into a snake and Pharaoh laughed so hard he fell backwards in his chair with rivulets of spittle falling down his beard. So the time had come for a plague [Shemot 6:20-21]: “[Aharon] raised the staff and struck the water in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and before the eyes of his servants, and all the water that was in the Nile turned to blood. The fish that were in the Nile died and the Nile became putrid; the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile and there was blood throughout the entire land of Egypt.” The Torah does not tell us if Pharaoh was duly impressed but if he was it didn’t last long. When his magicians also manage to turn water to blood, Pharaoh has had enough [Shemot 6:23]: “Pharaoh turned and went home, and he paid no heed also to this”.

What is the meaning of the words “also to this” – “gam lazot”? Rashi answers that Pharaoh did not attribute any importance to Moshe’s first act of magic – turning a staff into a snake – and he likewise did not even attribute any importance to Moshe’s second act of magic. In this shiur we’re going to extrapolate Rashi’s words in order to try to uncover the essence of Pharaoh’s intransigence: how a leader could watch his nation suffer so badly but still not make the obvious course corrections that could alleviate their pain.

Our Sages teach that the Pharaoh saw himself as a god and that the reason that Moshe always met him “by the river” was because Pharaoh would go down to the Nile early in the morning to secretly relieve himself. The prophet Yechezkel writes [29:3] “Behold I am upon you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lies down in the midst of its rivers, who said, ‘My river is my own, and I made myself.’” The historical truth is somewhat more nuanced. Richard Wilkinson, writing in “The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt”, suggests that “although the Egyptians recognized that the Pharaoh was human and subject to human weakness, they simultaneously viewed him as a god, because the divine power of kingship was incarnated in him. He therefore acted as intermediary between Egypt’s people and the gods”. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Pharaoh saw himself as possessing unlimited power. To deny him of even the smallest amount of authority was tantamount to sacrilege. Moshe and Aharon want to do just that. They want Pharaoh to relinquish his grip on his Jewish slaves. Pharaoh, as a deity, will do no such thing, even if it is proven to him beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is in his best interests to do so.

The way that Hashem tries to convince Pharaoh of the folly of his ways is by making continued use of Newton’s First Law of Motion: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” Let’s rephrase this law in laymen’s terms: Consider a hockey puck lying on the ice. This puck is going to continue to lie there until some guy, say, Sidney Crosby, takes a whack at it with his stick. After the puck is set in motion, it will continue to move in the same direction at the same speed until somebody else takes a whack at it, say, Bobby Orr, or if somebody stops it, say, Carey Price[1].

Let’s go back to the first magic trick that Moshe performs for Pharaoh: he turns his staff into a snake and then he turns it back into a staff[2]. What does the second part of the trick add to the effect? Moshe has already shown that he is well-versed in the art of transmogrification. Turning a staff into a snake and a snake into a staff are really the same trick, no? The answer is, no, they are not one and the same, at all. Pharaoh well understood Hashem’s power when Moshe turned his staff into a snake. But Egyptian children were so well-versed in the dark arts that they could repeat Moshe’s trick and Pharaoh just scoffed. What Pharaoh missed was the second half of the trick: only Moshe could turn the snake back into a stick [Shemot 7:12] “Each one of [Pharaoh’s magicians] cast down his staff, and they became serpents; but Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs”[3]. The force required to stop the puck is equal to the force required to move the puck. Stopping the magic trick is just as difficult as starting it. This is the point that Hashem repeatedly makes: bowing to His will is not an act of weakness – it is an act of power.

This message is repeated time and time again but Pharaoh keeps missing it. Hashem tells Moshe to bring the plague of blood [Shemot 7:19]: “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt… and they will become blood, and there will be blood throughout the entire land of Egypt.” Moshe and Aharon comply [Shemot 7: 20]: “Moshe and Aharon did so, just as Hashem had commanded, and [Aharon] raised the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile”. The wording is strange: Moshe and Aharon did what they were commanded to do, and yet only Aharon struck the water. What about Moshe? How did he do “just as he was commanded”? The Netziv from Volozhn explains that Moshe spoke to Aharon, just as he was commanded, and Aharon struck the water, just as he was commanded. Alternatively, referring back to Sir Isaac Newton, it is equally logical to explain that Moshe did absolutely nothing, just as he was commanded. I’m sure Moshe was just as eager as Aharon to exact Divine revenge upon the Egyptians, but he bows to Hashem’s will. Moshe’s inaction was equal in importance to Aharon’s action.

Aharon raises his staff and all of the water in the Nile turns to blood. You and I have an advantage over all the characters in the Torah in that when we read the Torah we already know what is going to happen: The plague of blood will be followed by nine more plagues and then Pharaoh will finally set the Jews free after all the first-born are killed. Pharaoh did not know this. He did not know that the plague of blood was ever going to stop. As far as he knew, the river had turned to blood and this was the new status quo. The Nile would never again be a source of fresh water. If Pharaoh thought that the plague was temporary, he would have asked Moshe to stop the blood, as he does with the frogs and with most of the other plagues. He doesn’t ask Moshe to stop the blood because he doesn’t believe it’s relevant. Hashem is showing me His power, and there is no power in stopping a plague, so why stop it?

This interpretation imparts a tremendous amount of significance to a verse that is seemingly, well, insignificant [Shemot 7:25]: “Seven full days passed after Hashem had smitten the Nile [and then Hashem brought the next plague]”. This verse does more than just tell us that each plague lasted for one week[4] – it tells us that the plagues stopped at all. The truth is that the whole idea of ten different plagues seems suboptimal. Take Olympic weightlifting as an example: Weightlifters don’t lift a hundred kilos of stones and then a hundred kilos of feathers and so on until they die of fatigue. Rather, the weight that they must lift is gradually increased until they get a hernia. Similarly, one would have expected Hashem to keep adding plagues instead of replacing one plague with another. By the ninth plague hit the Egyptians should have been inundated with frogs, lice, locusts along with six other afflictions. But nine times a plague begins and nine times it ends. Each time a plague hits, Pharaoh recognizes Hashem’s strength – he calls it “the Hand of Hashem” and “the Finger of Hashem”. But when a plague ends, Pharaoh is silent. He cannot understand that he is just as strong when he bends to Hashem’s will as when he defies it.

Some people tell me I’m lucky that I’m religious, as all of my decisions are made for me. Nonsense. The ability to put Hashem’s will before my own on a daily basis is no trivial task. As our Sages paraphrased Newton, “The reward is proportional to the investment”.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] We’re assuming that the ice has negligible friction, and that the rink is REALLY big, such that the puck never hits the wall.

[2] The staff also swallows all the other staffs, but this is not important for our shiur.

[3] See the explanation of the Seforno ad loc.

[4] See the explanation of Rashi ad loc.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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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