At the end of last week’s Parasha, Pharaoh, in retaliation for Moshe's request to free B'nei Yisrael, decides to punish them by holding back the straw to make the bricks: "Now you will not be given straw to make bricks but your quota of bricks must not diminish"! Rabbi Frand brings an interesting question: Why didn't Pharaoh just double their quota of bricks instead of holding back the straw? The answer is that Pharaoh wanted to break the spirit of the Israelites. Had he merely doubled the quota of bricks, they would have been forced to work harder.
But by compelling them to find straw to make the bricks, he created a situation of anxiety and distress: they now had the added worry of being able to find the straw. Today, when someone has to work hard, they can manage, but when you throw financial, health or some other problem that brings worry into the equation, the result is psychological pressure and stress.
Hashem is going to punish the Egyptian people for what they did to the Israelites. But what if they say it was their rulers’ fault, not theirs? Therefore Hashem gave the Egyptian people the opportunity to help the Israelites by giving them straw. But they refused to help make life even slightly easier for the slaves. In this way they lost their chance to escape punishment.
There’s another commentary that says the Egyptian people didn’t help the Israelites find straw intentionally, in order to cause dissension among the Israelites, as they would fight with each other over the straw needed to fill their individual quota of bricks. The same is true with the German and Polish people during the Holocaust who were also not innocent bystanders. They cannot say it was the army and those in charge who persecuted the Jews, because they the vast majority participated. They might say, “I just drove the train” or “I was just following orders from my superiors” but in the end they must all be held responsible for their actions against the Jewish people.
They were willing ‘kegs in the wheel’ of the Nazi machine, destined to be destroyed and to pay for their actions. Of course there were many stories of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews. Unfortunately, they were a very small minority. The goal of the Egyptians, like the Nazis, was destruction of both body and spirit.
Rav Pam zt”l told a story about a man who received a lengthy prison sentence of hard labor. He had to push a large wheel round and round for fifteen hours a day. The work was exhausting and monotonous. One day he asked the jailer why the wheel was being turned, and he was told that the wheel was attached to a mill outside the cell, which ground wheat. Upon hearing this, the man’s efforts took on a new purpose. He fantasized in his mind that his toil was producing flour for bread that would feed a hungry child somewhere.
He visualized the satisfaction of an old woman on a cold winter morning eating a bowl of hot cereal made from the crushed wheat. These fantasies kept him going through the arduous years of labor. When the day finally arrived and he was released from his captivity, his first request was to see the mill that the wheel was attached to. The guard looked at him with puzzlement. "What are you talking about? There's no mill here, the wheel is attached to nothing! That was your punishment!"
When the man heard that his back-breaking efforts over the course of all those years had been in vain, he collapsed and died. This is what Pharaoh intended to inflict on the Israelites. As humans we need to have a sense of accomplishment and when that's taken away from us, it can destroy us!
Later in the Parasha, when Egypt is barely surviving the plagues inflicted on them by the wrath of Hashem, we read, in Perek 7 Passuk 3: "But I shall harden Pharoah's heart and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt." Hashem is speaking here after Pharoah is being stubborn and preventing Moshe from letting the Israelites people leave Egypt to serve Hashem.
So the famous question is asked by all the commentaries: "How can Hashem harden Pharoah's heart, thereby removing his Bechirah (free will), and then continue to punish Pharoah with even more severe plagues on his country and the Egyptian people? "
The answer our Rabbis give is that Pharaoh is his own worst enemy. Hashem gives everyone a chance to choose how to utilize their own free will. We must not ignore the numerous opportunities that Hashem gives us to improve our ways. Nevertheless Hashem can remove our free will at any time as he did with Pharaoh, after he ignored Moshe's request to let B'nai Yisrael go. If we choose to follow down a path that leads us to sin and we continue on that path, then Hashem will make it harder for us to refrain from committing that sin and make Teshuba.
There is a well-known Rashi commentary from Parashat Balak (22:35), where the Angel of Hashem says to Balaam, "Go with the men, but do not say anything other than the exact words that I declare to you." Rashi comments: Bederech she’adam rotzeh le’lech, ba molchin oto. "Along the road on which a person wishes to go, there he will be led!" In other words, the way that you really wish to go, that is the way you will allow yourself to be led. Hashem’s guidance proceeds from our own decisions. It is entirely in our hands, which path we want to take: one that will lead us to spiritual growth or, Has Ve’Shalom, to spiritual decline.
Rabbi Twersky relates how forty years of working with alcoholics enabled him to understand Pharaoh’s obstinacy. The alcoholic can suffer blow after blow, each time swearing off drinking: “I will never drink another drop as long as I live!”Invariably, he resumes drinking soon afterward. The Rabbi remembers one man whose drinking resulted in severe pancreatitis, which caused such horrific pain that it was not relieved even by morphine.
He cried bitterly, “If you can only get me over this pain, Doc, I swear I will never, ever even look at alcohol.” Three weeks after being released from the hospital, he was drunk once again. Alcoholics who go through the ordeal of a liver transplant may drink at their first visit outside the hospital.
Pharoah acted like a typical alcoholic. When he felt the distress of a plague, he pleaded with Moshe (just as the patient pleaded with Dr Twersky), promising to send out the Israelites. No sooner was the plague removed, Pharaoh retracted his words. The doctor relates that this behavior is not at all unusual.
Rabbi Twersky tells a story of one of his patients to exemplify the magnitude of the situation when someone’s heart is hardened, and how there’s practically no way for a person to recover from his heart being hardened by an addiction (or in Pharaoh’s case his stubbornness to let the Israelite nation go free).
“Jim was a very bright, resourceful young man, who got a job with a major construction firm. He was so efficient that he received promotion after promotion, eventually becoming second-in-command to the CEO, at an unprecedented young age. Jim drank excessively, and his wife’s appeals fell on deaf ears. When she told him that she could no longer tolerate it, he said that she was free to leave. She took their three young daughters and left. Jim continued to work, but eventually the drinking impaired his performance. When his peers pointed this out to him, he said, “They’re just jealous of my position.” One day the CEO fired him. Jim would sit in the tavern, expecting that any moment a head-hunter would recruit him to be the CEO of a Fortune-500 firm. He drank away all his savings then drank away his home and lived on welfare. At age 49, Jim admitted himself to my hospital. He was down, yet the next day he signed himself out of the hospital against medical advice. Two years later, Jim was back. “I know you’re mad at me, Doc,” he said, “for walking out on you last time.” I said, “Jim, you walked out on yourself, not on me.” Jim nodded. “I’ll do anything you say.” I asked Jim,” What makes you more ready now than two years ago?” Jim responded, “You know what you get for selling you blood? Sixteen beers.” “So when you sell your own blood for beer...thats hitting rock-bottom?” Jim shook his head.” No, Doc,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for a year.” “Then what brought you in today rather than a year ago?” I asked. Jim said, “When I was with the firm, I practically ran the United Way drive myself. The past week I’ve been panhandling quarters on Liberty Avenue. I can’t live with that.” Every alcoholic has his individually unique “rock-bottom” which is the point at which he recovers. Jim’s loss of his family, his home and his car; sleeping in doorways; and even selling his blood for alcohol were not his rock-bottom, but begging for quarters on the street corner finally did it for him!”
May we all learn from this so that we may strive to reach our own personal potential while keeping our humility as Moshe Rabenu showed us. We must also be sensitive to the needs of our fellow Jews. May we also have the foresight to always travel on the right path and be able to utilize our Bechirah (free will) in the proper way so that we may never come to the point where our hearts will become hardened from Has Ve’Shalom an addiction, or stop us from growing in Torah and Mitzvot and thereby always making it easier for us to continue on the right path and make a proper Teshuba! Amen!