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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Va'eira 5771 "First Hand Experience"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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VA’ERA 5771


A Paul Harvey classic[1]

“It was a sweltering hot day, and word was traveling like a brush fire through the countryside: “The British are coming”.

“No false alarm. The British army was closing in fast. Looking for one man. A prominent patriot with a price on his head.

“In the mounting rebellion against the British, of the small but courageous forces opposing the Crown, he was commander-in-chief. And he was hiding in a coffin-like compartment in the ceiling of his home!

“The secret compartment had been prepared for this purpose. But the heat of August made it like an oven. So, with barely enough room to lie flat in the sweltering, suffocating, starving, thirst-searing delirium of that quiet darkness, the fugitive patriot would try to fight off madness by remembering.

“His men had tried to warn him that the British were coming. He had not taken the warning seriously. He had awakened before dawn to hear his dog barking in the yard and the clatter of approaching British troops in the distance.

“In minutes the town would be isolated and a house-by-house search would begin.

“Fortunately, his home appeared on the official register of the Crown under a name that was not his own. Yet even as he took comfort in that thought there came a knock at the door… the army of King George! He had ascended to his secret hiding place in the ceiling only moments before.

“The patriot’s wife let the soldiers in, answered to the alias by which she was addressed. Her husband was visiting in another town, she said. After searching the house, the soldiers ordered her and her two little children to come with them. Temporary headquarters had been set up nearby. They would be held for questioning.

“So now the patriot was alone in that torrid tomb, sealed in the ceiling of his own home.

“On the brink of unconsciousness he recognized the ultimate horror: If something should happen to his wife and children, he would be left there to die in an unmarked crypt. His forces, leaderless, would surely be crushed by the troops of King George.

“Days passed.

“No food, no water. The only sounds were the occasional voices of British soldiers taking refuge from the August son – and the miraculously incessant pounding of his own heart.

“On the evening of the third day, when he would almost have welcomed capture by the British, came a tapping at the boards on which he lay. And then he heard his wife’s voice.

“It was over. The British troops had given up the search, had gone.

“The dream for a new nation conceived in liberty - lived.

“The fugitive patriot with a price on his head, the hunted commander of the freedom forces, had survived a premature tomb to lead his men to victory, eventually to lead his country.

“The nearness of his capture, during those three days in purgatory, is measured in a coincidence.

“The British soldiers, choosing a site at random, had unknowingly arranged their temporary search headquarters in the courtyard of the man they sought!

“And that man, who might have suffocated in the ceiling of his own house – the dissident leader with a price on his head, hiding from the troops of King George VI, in Tel Aviv, in the August of 1946, was Menachem Begin.

“And now you know… THE REST OF THE STORY.”

The time for the process of redemption had finally arrived. G-d instructed Moshe to inform the battered nation of their glorious future, which was now imminent. Moshe was to inform them that the servitude would cease, they would emerge triumphantly from the shackles and confines of Egyptian oppression, they would become the Chosen People, and they would receive the Holy Land as an inheritance. But when Moshe tried to relay the message his words were unheard. “They did not heed Moshe, because of shortness of breath and hard work.”

Moshe became very dejected from that encounter. “Moshe spoke before G-d saying, ‘Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me?”

The Tiferes Yonason explains that this was part and parcel of Pharaoh’s methodical diabolic plan. His astrologers informed him that the savior of the Jews was going to be a member of the tribe of Levi. Therefore he deliberately granted the Levites a mass exemption from the enslavement. It was not simply a clerical exemption but a brilliant way to ensure that the savior would be doomed to failure.

Pharaoh understood well that a leader who could not relate and understand his followers was hardly a leader. In the words of the wisest of men[2], “The protector of a fig tree will eat its fruit.” But one who was not involved in the laborious task of planting and guarding the fruit will not be welcomed to eat the fruit in when it finally ripens.

Pharaoh exempted the entire tribe of Levi so that when the savior arose to fulfill his mission he would fail abysmally. The weary embittered slaves would surely not follow the lead of a Levite who did not endure the pain and suffering they had experienced for generations.

Pharaoh’s scheme was initially successful. The nation didn’t hear/hearken to his words because of the severity of the servitude. They saw Moshe as an outsider who could not appreciate the extent of their suffering and the depth of the exile, and therefore they turned a deaf ear towards him. Moshe himself realized this point when he stated that if the Jews wouldn’t listen to him surely Pharaoh wouldn’t listen to him.

The Torah Ohr[3] explains that ultimately Pharaoh’s scheme did not work however, because Moshe went way beyond the call of duty. The Torah relates that Moshe grew up in the lap of Egyptian aristocracy, in fact in the palace of Pharaoh himself. Yet he left the safety of the palace to seek out the welfare of his oppressed brethren. He went down to the worksites and wept as he witnessed what was transpiring to his people. Beyond that he actually bent down and joined in their workload to alleviate some of their unbearable burden. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beat a Jew he zealously killed the Egyptian at the risk of his life. Because of that event he had to escape Egypt for decades. He remained away from his people and family for many years until G-d instructed him to return to Egypt to lead the Jews out of the country.

The Egyptians sought to destroy his ability to lead by disconnecting him from his people, but the very attribute which made him worthy to be the leader – his love and empathy for his people - foiled their plan. When the nation realized this truth about Moshe they began to hear his words, despite the fact that he was a Levite.

The gemara[4] states, “We do not appoint a caretaker upon the public unless he has ‘a box of insects’[5] hanging from behind him, so that if he becomes too haughty they say to him, ‘Turn behind you’.” A leader who never struggled, at least on some level, will not be able to relate to his followers. Such a leader is severely deficient.

By definition a leader is one who can understand the challenges of his followers and can relate to their pain. Yet at the same time he must have the ability to lift his followers above and beyond their limitations and shackles.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the quintessential leader because he had an uncanny ability to do just that. He understood the needs of every individual and appreciated their individual struggles. At the same time he was (eventually) able to help them recognize that they had the ability to traverse the morass of the exile they were muddled in. As soon as Moshe was able to convey to the people that sense of hope and confidence he was able to demand that Pharaoh not impede the fulfillment of that vision.

“The protector of a fig tree will eat its fruit”

“There arose none like Moshe”

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[1] “More of Paul Harvey’s The Rest Of The Story”

[2] Mishley 27:18

[3] Commentary on the Tiferes Yonason

[4] Yoma 22b

[5] i.e. the Talmudic equivalent of ‘skeletons in the closet’.

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