Torah Fax 

Friday - January 23, 2009 - 17 Tevet, 5769

Torah Reading: VaEra (Exodus 6:2 - 9:35)

Candle Lighting: 4:44 PM
Shabbat ends: 5:48 PM


A Tale of Two Cities


At the end of this week's parsha, we read about the seventh plague G‑d brought on Egypt—the plague of hail. Pharaoh pleaded with Moses to bring an end to this devastating plague and Moses complied. However, Moses added: "When I leave the city, I will spread my hands to G‑d." In other words, Moses offered to pray to G‑d, but only after he would leave the city.


Rashi addresses the question: why did he have to leave the city to pray to G‑d? Couldn't he have prayed in Pharaoh's palace? Rashi's answer, based on the Midrash, is that the city was full of idols and Moses could not pray to G‑d in the vicinity of these idols.


Rashi's answer, however, prompts a follow up question.


Why, in the earlier plagues—such as the plague of frogs—does the Torah not stress that he left the city to pray to G‑d to stop the plague? Why is the plague of hail different?

Commentators answer that the plague of hail was so devastating that Pharaoh demanded its immediate cessation. Moses, therefore, had to inform him that he could not pray until he leaves the city. In the earlier plagues—that were not as devastating—Pharaoh did not express such anxiety, so there was no need to pray immediately. Hence, Moses did not have to tell Pharaoh that he would have to wait until he leaves the city.


We can also answer this question as to why he had to leave the city for this plague exclusively by first answering another more basic question:


Why did Moses have to leave the city to pray to G‑d? Isn't G‑d present even where there is idol worship?  Is G‑d closer to us in the countryside than He is in the city? Does the presence of a ridiculous icon have the power to offend G‑d and drive Him away? 


The answer can be given in light of a deeper way we should understand the ten plagues. The plagues were not intended simply as a punishment for the evil. Rather, the plagues were educational devices intended to expose the Egyptians and the Israelites to the existence of G‑d and His providence. Each plague introduced them to another dimension of His power.

And as the plagues continued, G‑d's presence became more and more apparent. Never before had the world been exposed to such G‑dly light and energy. All of this was a prelude to the world's most momentous event and the greatest revelation of G‑dliness—the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.


The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was meant to make our physical world receptive to G‑d's presence. Prior to the giving of the Torah, G‑d was certainly omnipresent. He filled all the space of the world. And there is no place, and there never was a place, devoid of Him. Creation did not in any way detract from G‑d's pervasive presence in all aspects of existence. If the Torah had not been given, the world from G‑d's perspective would not have been any different from the way it is now. As we say in our prayers: "You are the one before the world was created and You are the same one after the world was created." Creation did not alter G‑d's state in the same manner human creations alter their creator.


The question that follows then is: If the world has no effect on G‑d, what did the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai achieve in terms of G‑d's relationship with the world?


The answer is that the change is from our perspective. When G‑d created us—which includes the entire universe—he designed it in a way that it would be naturally resistant to the recognition of its Divine author. The giving of the Torah at Sinai reversed that process. The world can now, of its own volition and ability, perceive the reality of its existence and translate that perception into all aspects of one's life. It is like saying, while the author knows the book he or she wrote, the book does not know its author. Sinai gave the "book" the capacity to appreciate its Author the way the Author knows the book.


However, this is a gradual process. The first step is for the world to simply recognize that it did not make itself. It then has to veer away from seeking the secret of its existence in physical forms, such as worship of idols, or the celestial bodies and the forces of nature. The next step is for the person to realize that there is only one non-corporeal Creator who created everything. This realization is followed by the perception that the Creator is not bound by His own rules—the laws of nature. It then behooves us to translate these realizations into every fiber of our being. Every thought, word, or action should be permeated with the acknowledgement that there is one Transcendent G‑d who is responsible for every facet of our existence.


This process—the introduction of the counter intuitive perception of G‑d's role in everything—began with Abraham and culminated with Sinai. At Sinai the world was temporarily given a “flash of lightning” view of the reality of G‑d's presence. But even after that flash dissipated, it left us with the potential to recreate the thunder and lightning of Sinai by way of Torah study and observance of the Mitzvot. When we collectively perform a sufficient amount of Mitzvot—G‑dly acts—the impact will be so great that it will permanently alter the consciousness of the world. Its default position will be the same position G‑d Himself has in relation to the creation.


Indeed, this is what we believe is the ultimate goal of the Messianic Age. It is not just a time for world peace and prosperity, but it is a time when the world will become sane and perceptive. That, in turn, will guarantee that we will not revert to the Cain kills Abel syndrome that the world has experienced since the beginning of history.   


We can now begin to appreciate the reason why Moses could not pray in the city where idolatry abounded. While G‑d's presence is in no way altered by the presence of idols, our perceptions are indeed affected. The realization of G‑d's singular presence in the world precludes any association with idols, if only to be in their proximity. G‑d is not offended by these idols, but He wants us to be offended by them.


However, the discomfort at having idols in our midst is commensurate with our ability to perceive G‑d's presence in our lives. When we attain a certain level of spiritual sophistication our revulsion at representations of evil and ungodly symbols in our midst also grows.


With the advent of the seventh plague a milestone in G‑d revealing His existence, singularity and transcendence to the world was reached. With such a force of G‑dly energy unleashed in the otherwise depraved Egypt, Moses—for the first time—had to respond by distancing himself from idolatry. What didn't hurt in the earlier plagues—praying in the midst of idols, when G‑d had not yet become appreciated to any extent by the Egyptians—would hurt now. Now that Egypt has "grown" in its perception of G‑d's pervasive influence in the world, it became imperative to leave the city.


The above can be applied to our own lives:


A letter is a brick, says Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalisitc works, and a word is a house. So a city is a collection of words and sentences containing structured ideas.


And there are two models of cities: There is what the Psalmists call "the city of our G‑d" and there are cities that convey idolatrous ideas, such as the city the generation of the Tower of Babel sought to build. Many of us are influenced by these "cities." They are the popular media that indoctrinate us into ways of thinking that are contrary to G‑d and are anathema to those who reside in the "city of our G‑d." At the very least, before reciting our prayers we have to emulate Moses and leave these "cities" by divesting ourselves from the secular and idolatrous ideas that insidiously fill the popular media that bombards us incessantly.


The closer we get to the final Redemption, at which time G‑d's presence will be more and more pronounced, our challenge is to leave the city of Pharaoh and get ready to enter the "City of our G‑d" both figuratively as well as literally.    


Moshiach Matters  

When on realizes that Moshiach himself is waiting with baited breath to come and redeem the world, it is understood how special each of our acts to bring about his revelation that much sooner are, and when Moshiach comes, he will personally thank each of us for all the good we did to hasten his arrival. (The Rebbe, Parshas VaEschanan, 1988)

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