In this week’s Parasha we will encounter the last of the ten plagues that Hashem brought upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If we look back at the sequence of the plagues, we can see a very interesting pattern that conveys the ways in which Hashem works. The pattern they follow is “low to high”; that is, the plagues begin at the lowest point on earth and continuously rise from there.
The plague is Dam, or Blood, in which water turned to blood. Water is at the lowest point on Earth. This is followed by Tzefardea, Frogs; frogs are amphibians who live partly in water, and partly on land. The third plague is Kinim, Lice. Lice are wingless insects that emerge from the ground. Next comes Arov, which refers to Wild Animals, who live above ground. The fifth plague is Dever, or Pestilence; that is, disease that affects animals. Shechin, or Boils, affects people. And Barad is hail that fell from the sky onto the ground. The wind brought Arbe, or Locusts, next, followed by Hoshech, a thick Darkness that held the Egyptians motionless. Last was Makat Bechorot, the Killing of the First Born, when Hashem decided exactly who will die and at what time.
These ten plagues that Hashem brought in order to break Pharaoh’s will and induce him to free the slaves will ultimately bring about the Exodus of B'nei Yisrael from Egypt, so they can become a free people and prepare to accept the Torah at Har Sinai.
It may seem odd that we are told how Pharaoh prepares himself for the final plague of Makat Bechorot (Killing of the First Born), the plague that will finally break Pharaoh’s will and force him to let B'nei Yisrael leave Egypt. The Passuk (12:30) says: Vayakam Pharaoh layla. "Pharaoh got up at night...." Rashi comments on this Passuk with just one word: mimitato, “from his bed". What Rashi is saying here is simply that Pharaoh, who was a first-born and who had a first-born son, was so brazen that he was actually able to fall asleep even though he’d been told that he or his son might not live through the night!
So after Moshe had approached him nine times, and each of the nine warnings had come to pass, Pharaoh's Yetzer Ha’ra was so strong that he still didn't believe Moshe regarding the final and most devastating plague. Did he think that Hashem was bluffing after everything that Egypt had gone through? This just goes to show us how strong the Yetzer Ha’ra can be and how it can fool a person, so that even when something should be totally obvious to us, our Yetzer Ha’ra can actually blind us beyond reason!
The Ramban has a very famous and most remarkable commentary at the end of this Parasha. Ramban says, that there are three ways that the Yetzer Ha’ra tries to turn us away from belief in Hashem. It presents us with three levels of rejection:
1) There's absolutely no G-d.
2) There is a G-d, but He doesn't pay attention to what's going on in the world, leaving the world to be on auto pilot.
3) There is a G-d who knows what's going on, but he has no control over what happens on a day-to-day basis; the world is in a free-fall, and there is no system of reward and punishment.
The Ramban answers these three philosophical concepts through the miracles that Hashem displayed for all the world to see, and which prove that Hashem is present; that He does run the world day to day; and that there is a reward and punishment system in place!
Hashem saved B'nei Yisrael through the ten plagues, which powerfully altered the forces of nature, in order to prove these things one time, and one time only. In addition to the plagues, he split the Red Sea as Pharaoh and his army pursued Am Yisrael.
Ramban goes on to explain that the reason that we have so many commandments and the reason so many of our commandments focus on Yetziat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt) is to remind us of the power of Hashem and his involvement in our lives. The ten plagues and the parting of the sea appear in our daily prayers, and we are reminded each time how Hashem saved us beyad chazaka – with a strong hand! Ramban explains that the holidays we celebrate – Pesach, Shavuouth and Succot – were all given to us as reminders of the exodus from Egypt.
Pesach teaches us about Hashem through all the rituals of the holiday, such as the eating of the Matzah and the gathering around the seder table with different foods that prompt the children to ask questions. We want to engage our children in conversation about Yetziat Mitzrayim and all the wonders that Hashem performed for B'nei Yisrael to save them from the bondage of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Similarly, in the holiday of Shavuouth, we celebrate the receiving of our holy Torah at Har Sinai, where Hashem gave the Jews, through Moshe Rabenu, the greatest gift of all, so that we can live by the Torah and pass its precepts and teachings down through the generations from father to son and Rabbi to student.
Finally, there is the celebration of Succot, which commemorates the years that we traveled through the desert for forty years, during which time Hashem protected us with the Maan and the Clouds of Glory. In Succot we sit outside of our homes in booths, and try to feel what B'nei Yisrael felt when they were traveling through the desert.
So Ramban's main point that he wants to teach us is that there's no difference between Hashem's miracles and Nature because it’s all the same! Ramban goes on to say that all the miracles that Hashem performed in order to redeem us were intended to show the world, that, lehavdil, this is Hashem’s "certificate" for the rest of time!
To use an analogy, it would as if a doctor who hangs their diplomas on the wall of their office in order to prove that they are qualified for the rest of their life, as long as they practice in their profession. So if anyone should ever come along to question their credibility, they can just point to the diploma.
Similarly, if anyone should ever come along for the rest of time and question G-d (chas veshalom), Hashem performed these miracles for all of us as a daily reminder through our prayers and our Holidays of the way that He took us out of Egypt with a strong hand through these open miracles.
The very last Passuk of the Parasha (13:16) reads: ”And it shall be a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt!” This Passuk is the origin of the Mitzvah of Tefilin.
There are four passages written inside the Tefilin, the first two are from the Shema, and express the concept that Hashem is One and that we accept His Kingship and the concept of reward and punishment and the responsibility to observe all the commandments. The second two passages are from this Parasha and basic to Judaism in that they speak of the Exodus, which is central to our awareness of our responsibilities to Hashem, Who liberated us and made us a nation.
We learn many of the details of Tefilin from the Gemara and it’s a staple Mitzvah for Jewish men. There are many stories about how Tefilin is deeply connected to our lives. One of those stories is about an elderly Holocaust survivor.
David, who volunteered to work one summer at the local senior citizen home in his neighborhood tells this story of his encounter with one of the senior residents there. One of the jobs of the volunteers was to ask the residents if they would like to go to the daily services. Most of the residents were receptive. Those who were not, were generally pleasant about it. There was one man, however, who was rather offensive in his attitude.
He not only refused to attend, but he even once cursed the volunteer. Hearing this, David decided that he have a friendly chat with his resident. David came into his house, sat in the dining room and said, “The volunteers are only here to help you. There is no reason to curse them.” The resident responded, “Wheel me back into my room, I want to tell you a story.” After he was comfortable, the resident began to relate the following story:
“I had grown up in a prominent, observant home. Everyone but my father and I had already been murdered by the Nazis. In the concentration camp in which we were sent to, someone had smuggled in a Tefillin-shel-rosh, which is worn on the head. Every morning the men would take turns putting on the Tefillin, even if just for a second. The day before my bar-mitzvah, my father became aware of a man who had a whole set of Tefillin. That evening the man who had smuggled in the pair of Tefillin was killed by the Nazis. After hearing of the man’s death, my father decided to go to his bunk and locate the Tefillin so that I could have a complete pair of Tefillin for my bar-mitzvah. On the way back, my father was seen by a Nazi, who shot and killed him before my very eyes. Somehow I managed to take the Tefillin and hide them.”
The resident paused and then asked, “How could you expect me to pray to a G-d who would kill a boy’s father right in front of him? He was getting Tefillin for me to be able to pray to Him! Is this his reward? My father was all I had left in the world. Why?”
Another minute went by, and the resident said, “Go to my dresser and open the top drawer.” David did as he was told, opened the drawer and found an old black, worn-out bag. The man asked him to bring over the bag. The resident opened the bag to reveal its contents – a pair of Tefillin. “You see these boxes! I keep them to show people what my father died for: dirty black boxes and straps. They were the last thing my father gave me. This is my inheritance!”
One can only imagine the hurt and depression this young boy must have felt. David left the room speechless, he could neither eat nor sleep restfully. He empathized with the resident, but how could he explain to him that he was wrong? The next day, he avoided the man until he was notified that they were one short of a minyan, and one of the residents needed to say Kaddish. He searched all over for a tenth man, but to no avail. He had no choice but to go to the angry resident and ask him to join them.
David went to the room and asked the resident if he would attend the services so that another resident could say Kaddish. He was prepared for a negative response, so he was taken aback when the reply was, “If I come, will you then leave me alone?” David said, “Yes, if you come I will not bother you any more.” David quickly added, “Would you like me to bring along the Tifillin?” To his shock, the resident said, “Yes, but after this, you must promise to leave me alone.”
They went down to the synagogue. David wheeled the resident to the back. When the services were over, David returned to the room to help bring back the residents. He came into the synagogue to find one worshiper – the survivor! He was sitting in the back of the shul, with his Tefillin still on. Tears were pouring down his cheeks.
“Should I get you a nurse or a doctor? Does something hurt you?” David blurted out. Nothing – no response, just bitter weeping. He was mumbling something. David bent over to listen. He heard the resident saying over and over again, “Tatti, Tatti, it feels so right,” as he kept staring at the Tefillin straps on his arm.
David waited until the man calmed down. He took him back to his room and helped him into his bed. The man turned to David and said, “During the hour that I wore the Tefillin, I felt as if my father was with me.”
Every day after that, David would pick the man up and bring him to shul to pray with his “newly found” Tefillin. One day towards the end of the summer, David came to perform his daily ritual, but the man was not there. He was told to his great chagrin, that the resident was taken to the hospital during the night. They had just received word that he had died. David was broken-hearted. He had developed a close relationship with the elderly resident over the past few weeks.
A few weeks later, a woman came to the home and asked to speak to David. She said to him, “You don't know me, but you were very special in my father’s eyes. Actually, in a way, you saved my father’s life.” She then introduced herself as the resident’s daughter. “Shortly before my father died,” she continued, “he asked me to bring him his Tefillin. He knew he had very little time left, and he wanted to put on his Tefillin one last time and pray with them. You helped him to reconcile himself with his past. My father died wearing his Tefillin. Thank you so much for caring about him.” Years of bitterness were made sweet by an individual who cared about another person. This is a Tefillin story with a message about caring, because we do not always realize the difference that a little bit of caring can make.
May we all be aware enough to always see the signs that Hashem sends us in order to make Teshuvah. May we all understand that our Tefilot, our Mitzvot keeping Shabbat and all of our Holidays are all meant to be reminders that Hashem delivered us from the bondage of Egypt so that we could receive the Torah and become His nation as a free people to serve and observe Hashems Mitzvot forever!