Va'eira: The Dangers of Respite

My wife and I just celebrated our fourteenth anniversary.  Which is, quite frankly . . . strange.  We’re still trying to wrap our heads over the fact that we’re probably considered "adults" now, a title which I still refuse to carry.  And we’re happy that we came close to divorce only once (when we had the big blowout on what dessert we were going to eat one Shabbos. Thank G-d we compromised and ate both).    I was trying to think of all the lessons I’ve learned in marriage that have helped it continue, yet I’ve only come up with “Just shut up, Michael.”  It seems that’s the best advice I can give.  The more the man keeps his mouth shut, the less chance he’ll get into trouble.


Actually . . . that’s not true . . . she’ll still find a good reason . . . .


Okay, on to Torah!


The Ramban writes in the beginning of Sefer Shemos, that the sefer isn’t a simple history book of the Jewish People.  Rather it describes the spiritual nature of exile (Egypt) to redemption (the Mishkan).  We know that the Torah itself isn’t a history book either.  Rather, we learn lessons from it and directions in life.  According to the Ramban, then, if a person wishes to learn how to bring HIMSELF from his personal, spiritual exile to his personal, spiritual redemption, he should pay special attention to the lessons in Sefer Shemos.


With that in mind, I will be trying to learn Sefer Shemos this year, with a more critical eye.


“When Pharaoh saw that there had been a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, just as G-d had predicted” (Shemos 8:11).


I noticed an interesting use of language here: “. . . there had been a respite, he had hardened his heart . . .”  It was used in regard to the second plague, the frogs, but not, as I recall (though I could have missed it), in regard to the other plagues.


I was wondering why the Torah decided to use such a way to describe Pharoah’s reaction, when it became clear to me the lesson to be learned from here.


Often, we hear stories of people who have done tshuva after surviving terrible, traumatic, incidents.  They “saw the hand of G-d” in their lives, and changed things around.  Yet, we don’t hear so many stories of people who had smaller incidents turning their lives around.


When Pharoah saw that there was a respite from the plague, he hardened his heart from making any changes in his life.  This is our natural reaction to events in our lives as well.  When something occurs in our lives that causes us pain, we start to daven to Hashem for help.  Perhaps even promise to make some change in life.  Yet, as soon as that source of pain goes away, we stop davening with such attention, and our promises slowly slip away.  Until the next time something painful occurs, then we open ourselves to Hashem and daven that He takes it away, etc.  This cycle will constantly repeat itself. 


However, there are times when we have run in so many circles that we are sent something even bigger and more painful to deal with, and as a result of that salvation,  we see we truly keep to this new level of existence that we pulled ourselves up to.


Pharoah was hit with 10 plagues.  After each one, his heart was hardened.  At the beginning, it was easy for Pharaoh to harden his heart.  He got hit with something painful, he "repented," and as soon as things went back to normal, he returned to his old ways.  This happened time and time again, until finally, he lost everything and saw the clear “hand of G-d” at the Red Sea.  It’s interesting to note, that it’s a midrash (I believe) that says that the king of Ninvei (the non-Jewish city that did tshuvah en-masse in the Book of Yona) was Pharaoh himself.  And that is why they were so quick to do tshuvah, since by then Pharaoh finally learned his lesson.


From here we learn something about ourselves.  When we have smaller, painful experiences in life, it’s best not to let the “respite” pull us back down.  Because after so many times of going through that circle, bigger things might, G-d forbid, be sent to us, to force us to change our lives, since we refused to previously.


Have a great Shabbos!


Michael Winner