from the heart of jerusalem

A challenge of Vaera: Are we truly free agents?


I recall an incredible series of coincidences that to me were nothing short of miraculous. A student had been desperate to speak with me, and we finally managed to connect in New York the day before I was scheduled to return to Israel. 

The student knew a woman who had been going through a very difficult time for nearly eight years, as her husband had left her but could not be found. Thus she was an agunah, unable to receive a Get and unable to remarry. Jewish tradition considers efforts to free a woman of such circumstances a mitzvah of the highest order, so naturally I said would do everything I could, though having no idea how I would be able to make any headway under the circumstances.

The husband was living in Israel, but had not been heard from in nearly five years. However, based on the story, and the description of the individuals who might know where the husband was currently residing, I immediately thought of a fellow who might know one of the individuals who might be able to find this recalcitrant husband.

I had not seen the fellow I was thinking of in nearly 15 years, since my army days, and had no idea how on earth I would find him, but I promised I would try.

The next day, as we were boarding the plane to Israel, I was shocked to see this very same fellow, with whom I had long since lost contact, boarding my flight with his family! As we spoke during the flight he began to laugh — because the missing husband was also on this very same flight, seated one row behind me! (My friend was eventually able to help facilitate a Jewish divorce, freeing this woman to re-marry.)

Do we really have the freedom to choose and make our own decisions in life, or are we just pawns in some larger plan? Are we surrounded by miracles, or does nature simply take its course? This question, perhaps, is one of the challenges of this week’s parsha, Vaera.

The story of the Exodus is a classic that we all grew up with. Back then, it seems, it was so much simpler: there were the good guys and the bad guys, and when Moses and Aaron squared off against Pharaoh and the evil empire of Egypt, you never had any trouble with who you were supposed to be rooting for. After all, Pharaoh was the villain everyone loves to hate, right? 

But a closer look suggests that the choices Pharaoh and the Egyptians made to enslave the Jewish people in the first place were not really their own free choice, because way back in the time of Abraham, G-d tells Abraham that he should know that “your offspring shall be strangers in a land that is not their own, and they will be enslaved, and made to suffer” (Bereishis 15:13).

Since Hashem had already determined, far in advance, that the Jewish people would be enslaved in Egypt, how could the Egyptians then be held accountable for what they never chose to do? What was the purpose of this entire exercise?

“Ve’Hirbeti Et Ototai, Ve’Et Moftai Be’Eretz Mitzraim” (“And I will multiply my signs and miracles in the land of Egypt”) (7:3).

In other words, G-d wants to show off how awesome He is, and that He can defeat the Egyptians time after time. But that is ridiculous! Are we meant to view this story as a battle between Egypt (or Pharaoh) and Hashem? Could anything be more absurd? Egypt could no more be G-d’s opponent than can my own pen begin to argue with the hand that holds it! Egypt is created by G-d, and serves Hashem’s purpose, so what is this all about? 

At the beginning of next week’s parsha, Bo, the Torah makes it abundantly clear:

“For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart … in order to place my signs in him (in his heart). And in order that you will tell over in the ears of your sons and your sons’ sons, that which I have done (“Hita’lalti”) in Egypt, and the signs that I have placed in them, and you will know that I am G-d.” (10:1-2)

What then was the purpose of all the plagues? Certainly, G-d does not need to get Pharaoh’s permission to let the Jewish people go? And if the point was simply to free the Jewish people, then Hashem, in the blink of an eye, could simply transport them out of Egypt — no need for the entire Exodus story.

Rashi (10:2) suggests that the word “Hita’lalti” does not mean that G-d performed miracles, but rather that through these signs G-d was actually ridiculing the Egyptians. (As in, for example, when Balaam suggests that his donkey is ridiculing him [Ki Hitalalt’ bi”] in Numbers 22:29).

We live, to a degree, in a world of illusion. Once you accept that Hashem is the source of all reality, indeed is all reality, then why are miracles such a big deal? After all, if G-d runs the world, then the fact that He does miracles is only natural. And, more to the point, all of nature is really miraculous.

About two weeks after that remarkable incident allowing me to find that person on the plane, I happened to catch a ride with Rav Yehuda Amital ZTz”l, one of the great Torah scholars of our generation, (in whose yeshiva I was privileged to study), and I told him this story. His response, was: “Atah Mevi Li’ Ra’ayah She’HaKadosh Baruch Hu’ Manhig et Ha’Olam?” (“You are bringing me a proof that G-d runs the world?”)

In other words, we seem to need such incredible stories to affirm that G-d is running the show, but in truth, every story, indeed every moment of every day, is as much an affirmation of G-d as any other. We think that there is nature, and then sometimes G-d performs miracles. But in truth, all of nature is miraculous, and one person’s natural occurrence is another person’s miracle.

In the end, the greatest choice we have is how we choose to look at the world. And that freedom is what the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt is all about.

In ten plagues, Hashem turns nature on its ear: water, the symbol of life in the Torah (and in which we immerse ourselves, in a mikveh, in response to contact with death) became blood, the symbol of death (hence the prohibition against partaking of the blood of even kosher animals). Fire and Water are mixed together in the plague of hail, and light and darkness exist together in the same place and time. Because nature is not a tool of G-d; rather, G-d is manifest in nature, G-d is the source of all of nature. 

Hence the verses proclaim: “And Egypt shall know that I am G-d” (7:5, 17; 8:19). “In order that you (Egypt) shall know that there is none like me in the Land.” (9:14).

Ancient Egypt worshipped nature, as a tool of many gods. But Hashem meant to teach the world that nature is a manifestation of Hashem, if we could only learn to see.  And this is perhaps our greatest challenge.

We live in a world where we are surrounded with a constant stream of contention that tends to forget who really runs the world. The papers regularly declare what America will do, if Iran will do whatever it will do, and how Israel will react. But nowhere in the New York Times does it remember to suggest what G-d is doing. 

Incredibly, even today, after the bloodiest century in history, some people still view man as the pinnacle of creation.

Thirty two hundred years ago, we were blessed to rediscover that in the end, our world depends first and foremost on how we choose to view it, and only then, on what we choose to do with it.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.