You are an undercover agent (Shabbos 5)

Have you ever wondered how the Pharaoh who would not ‘Let my people go’ looked?  We imagine this huge monster of a man, whose very presence intimidated all who entered the palace.  Moshe and Aharon must have felt petrified as they entered the inner chamber of this larger-than-life tyrant.

Our Sages tell us (Moed Katan 18a) that he was actually incredibly short.  His height was only one amah, which is approximately two feet tall!  If you’re finding it hard to believe this talmudic ‘tall’ story, such instances of dwarfism are not unheard of.  In fact, there are people alive today who are not much taller, such as Bollywood actor, Jyoti Amge.

But, despite his height, Pharaoh was not afraid of making a public spectacle of himself.  He would let his beard grow long, all the way down to the ground.  He would then part his beard in the centre and kidnap Hebrew children from their homes.  He would make them stand on either side of him, to carry the two sides of his beard, as he walked through the marketplace of Egypt.

הֶעָנִי עוֹמֵד בַּחוּץ, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת בִּפְנִים: פָּשַׁט הֶעָנִי אֶת יָדוֹ לִפְנִים וְנָתַן לְתוֹךְ יָדוֹ שֶׁל בַּעַל הַבַּיִת הֶעָנִי חַיָּיב וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת פָּטוּר

Mishnah: A poor person is standing outside, and a householder is standing inside. If the pauper raised an object from the public domain, extended his hand into the private domain, and placed the object into the hand of the householder, the pauper is liable.

אַמַּאי חַיָּיב? וְהָא בָּעֵינַן עֲקִירָה וְהַנָּחָה מֵעַל גַּבֵּי מְקוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עַל אַרְבָּעָה, וְלֵיכָּא

Why is he liable? Don’t we require that lifting and placing be performed from and onto the surface of an area that is four by four handbreadths?  And a person’s hand is not that size.

אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: כְּגוֹן שֶׁשִּׁלְשֵׁל יָדוֹ לְמַטָּה מִשְּׁלֹשָׁה וְקִבְּלָהּ. וְהָא ״עוֹמֵד״ קָתָנֵי? — בְּשׁוֹחֶה. וְאִיבָּעֵית אֵימָא — בְּגוּמָּא. וְאִיבָּעֵית אֵימָא — בְּנַנָּס. אָמַר רָבָא: אִיכְּפַל תַּנָּא לְאַשְׁמֹעִינַן כֹּל הָנֵי?! אֶלָּא אָמַר רָבָא: יָדוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם חֲשׁוּבָה לוֹ כְּאַרְבָּעָה עַל אַרְבָּעָה

Rabbi Abahu said: It refers, for example, to a case where the householder lowered his hand below three handbreadths off the ground and received the object. (Below three handbreadths is considered like the ground).  But the Mishnah reads, ‘standing’! If he is standing, how is it possible that his hand is within three handbreadths of the ground? Answer: He is bending over. Alternatively, we could suggest that he is standing in a pit and his hand is adjacent to the ground. Or alternatively, we could suggest that we are dealing with a dwarf.  Asks Rava: Would the Mishnah’s author (bother to) teach these (farfetched) cases? Rather, Rava concludes: A person’s hand is considered for him like an area of four by four handbreadths.

The Gemara wants to know how it is possible to collect an object in your hand in such a way that may be considered as if the object were being placed on the ground.  It offers three suggestions of such circumstances.  First, you could be bending over, so that your hand is near the ground.  Second, you could be standing in a pit such that you are level with the ground.  Third, you could be a dwarf, so short that your hands are always near the ground.

Rava concludes that these examples are farfetched and that there must be a simpler solution to the meaning of the Mishnah.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the Gemara was compiled and edited by Ravina and Rav Ashi and further refined by the ‘Savuraim.’  Nothing in the Gemara is superfluous.  And so if the Gemara maintains the reference to these three seemingly farfetched cases, even though it concludes differently, there must be a tangential lesson it wishes to share.  What then does the Gemara mean when it suggests that certain situations are akin to being close to the earth?

When Adam was created, he was fashioned from the earth.  Consequently, his name was a derivative of the word for earth, adama.  After his body was formed, God blew into him a neshama, a soul of life. Ever since that moment, human beings have struggled between two opposing forces.  We consist of our bodies that are earthly and seek physical pleasures, and our souls that are heavenly and seek spiritual pleasures.  Our Gemara describes three circumstances that lead a person in the direction of the earthly inclinations taking control of our lives.

Our mission in this world is to strive for a higher purpose.  Hashem wants our soul to be victorious in its struggle against the body’s earthly desires.  Both aspects – body and soul – are important.  But sometimes we find ourselves bending over and looking downwards much more frequently than our gaze ahead of ourselves along the path to the future.

Think about it like this.  Let’s say you’re walking down the street.  Most of the time, you should be looking ahead in the direction of your destination.  Nevertheless, periodically you need to glance towards the ground, to make sure you’re not stepping where you shouldn’t, such as into a puddle or mud. But you can’t be constantly bent over looking towards the ground, because doing so would impede your ability to focus on the path ahead of you.

That’s the first warning sign, says the Gemara, that you are too close to the earth.  If you’re bent over, only focusing on the earth around you, right here, right now, you run the risk of forgetting the bigger picture and the long-term goal.  The further ahead of you that your gaze can extend, the greater chance you will have of fulfilling your Divine mission.

Let’s demonstrate the concept with the following (overly simplistic) formulation.  I want to drive a beautiful car.  I also want to have Jewish grandchildren.  The car is my here-and-now earthly desire.  The grandchildren are my focus-on-the-future spiritual desire.  The more I can look up and keep my eyes on the path ahead, the greater the odds that my spiritual desire will be fulfilled.  The more I’m bent over and focused on the earth right in front of me, the less chance I’ll be successful in my goal to reach my long-term destination.

The question of where I’m looking towards will determine the choices I make in life.  Should I take my hard-earned cash and spend it on my children’s way-too-expensive Jewish education or should I use it to purchase a faster automobile?  Should I invest in a Jewish summer camp experience for my kids or should we take a Bahamas cruise?

The second analogy the Gemara offers is the fellow standing in the pit.  Sometimes in life, you realize that you’ve become so ‘bogged down’ by the here-and-now that it’s difficult to escape from the pit.  There’s no moving forward.  There’s not even any thinking forward, until you’ve extracted yourself from the pit that you find yourself in at present. And that’s not easy.  It means, firstly, the recognition that you’re in the pit.  That the ‘earth’, symbolizing your physical and material pursuits, has taken over your life and you’ve been neglecting to focus on the long-term path ahead.

And then there’s stage three.  Chances are, if you’re in ‘dwarf’ stage, you’re not reading this.  The spiritual dwarf is the individual who has become so captured by their earthly desires that they no longer even realize that life has a spiritual dimension.  Or that there’s a long-term mission to fulfil.

Despite the possibility that he was an actual dwarf, according to the Maharal, the Midrash about Pharaoh’s height should not be read literally.  One understanding is that Pharaoh was so steeped in the fulfilment of his immediate physical and material pleasures that he one with the earth.  All he wanted was to fulfil the desires of the here-and-now, with no view to any spiritual future.  That’s why Pharaohs were buried with their treasures – all they valued was material and physical pleasure.  Our Sages ascribe spiritual dwarfism to Pharaoh, in order to contrast Egyptian life and values with the new spiritually-focused mission that lay ahead for our people at Sinai.

You are a child of the King of all Kings, a Divine prince or princess.  But you’ve been sent on a secret mission.  In your undercover identity, you’re wearing commoner clothing.  That’s the way your soul feels inside the body.  May you forever remain focused upon your Divine mission and be victorious over the temptations of your earthly surroundings!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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