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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Ke Setzei 5774 "Remembering Our Resiliency"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman zt’l, the Ponovezher Rav, once had to be in Rome. His flight arrived late at night amidst a strong downpour. As soon as he checked in to his hotel room he called his friend Dr. Moshe Rothschild, founder of Mayanei Hayeshuah hospital in Bnei Brak, who had come to Rome sometime earlier. He told Dr. Rothschild that he needed him to accompany him somewhere in Rome immediately. Dr. Rothschild tried to dissuade the Rav, reasoning that whatever he needed to take care of could be done the following morning. But the Ponovezher Rav was adamant; he had to go immediately. Dr. Rothschild hailed a cab to drive him to the Rav’s hotel. When the taxi arrived, the Rav got in and told the driver to take them to the Arch of Titus. Dr. Rothschild was surprised but did not say anything.

When they arrived at the Arch the Rav got of the car and straightened his long frock. He gazed at the ancient arch which paid tribute to the emperor who had destroyed the second Bais Hamikdash. The Rav looked at the images carved into the ancient stone - images of Jewish prisoners being led into captivity, and depictions of the vessels of the Temple, including the famous image of the golden Menorah, triumphantly being hauled off to Rome.

With rain dripping from his face and beard the Rav called out, “Titus! Evil Titus! Take a good look at what has occurred. You dragged my hapless people out of our land two millennia ago and led them into an exile from which they were never to return. You went home to Rome - the most powerful nation on earth - in glory and triumph. But Titus, where are you? What has become of the glory that was Rome? What has become of the infallible empire that was supposed to last forever? The Jewish people however are still here and continue to flourish. Titus, we are here! Where are you?”

With that the Rav returned to the taxi.

“You shall not pervert the judgment of a proselyte or orphan, and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem, your G-d, redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing”[1].

From the verse it seems that the reason why one must be vigilant in regards to an orphan or widow is not merely out of mercy. Rather, we must evoke our collective national memories of when we were downtrodden and oppressed slaves in Egypt. That recollection will help us be wary of the doleful plight of a widow and orphan.

What is the deeper connection between remembering the exile and our sensitivity toward widows and orphans?

The obligation to “remember that you were slaves in Egypt” is mentioned four times in the Torah. It is mentioned here in regards to not causing an orphan or widow undue suffering, it is stated in regards to giving obligated tithes to the poor[2], it is mentioned in regards to observing Shabbos[3], and finally, it is stated in regards to the obligation to give a newly freed slave money and provisions (ha’anakah) to use immediately after his departure[4].

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explains that the purpose of our recalling the servitude and exodus from Egypt is not merely so that we remember the bitterness and misery of our servitude there. More importantly, we must recall that, despite our immense pain and misery, we did not lose hope. Even in the Egyptian inferno we merited glimpses of divine light that infused us with courage and fortitude to maintain our faith. We must remember that we never lost our faith in G-d that the redemption would ultimately occur!

Our Sages relate various subtle miracles that our forefathers were privy to during the exile. The gemara[5] relates that when the Jewish slaves in Egypt would lower their buckets into the water the buckets would return filled half with water and half with edible fish. The Medrash[6] relates that when the Jewish women were about to give birth they would go out to the fields and deliver their babies there. The mothers would be compelled to leave their babies so that the babies would not be immediately killed by the Egyptians. A miracle would occur and the babies would nurse from two “stones”. When the babies would suck on one of the stones oil would emerge and when they would suck on the other stone honey would emerge. When the Egyptian soldiers would go to the field to find the ‘miracle babies’ the ground would miraculously conceal them until the soldiers left. The Medrash Tanchuma also relates that the Jewish women would give birth to six babies at one time.

The Medrash[7] relates that Moshe was able to cunningly convince Pharaoh to grant the weary Jewish slaves a one-day break… on Shabbos! During those desperately needed breaks the broken slaves would listen to Moshe preach words of consolation and encouragement.

When we recall the Egyptian debacle we must remember that even in the darkest and most ominous times of exile we were able to strengthen ourselves and fortify our resolve to endure. So great was our spirit of resiliency that our ancestors were even able to accept their travails and tribulations with a certain modicum of love.

We therefore have an obligation to assist others in their time of need to help foster their feelings of hope, resiliency, and perseverance. We must care not only for the physical needs of our brethren but for their emotional/psychological needs as well. We must ensure that they too have reason to be confident in their ability to transcend their painful experiences.

The Torah emphasizes the need to recall the exile in regards to these four commandments to allude to this idea. We must be vigilant of the feelings and needs of widows and orphans who are particularly challenged and pained because they lack the normal emotional support that a head-of-household provides. We must be scrupulous to ensure that, not only are their physical needs being met, but that they also feel emotionally safe.

We must ensure to separate the proper tithes and other gifts to the poor so that the impoverished can feel that we genuinely care for them, so that they do not become despondent due to their difficult plight.

We must guard the Shabbos not only ourselves, but also by allowing our maids, servants, and animals to have a day of rest and to reenergize, just as we were granted that ability when we were slaves in Egypt.

Finally, we must help a newly freed slave by giving him some provisions and money so that he will have the ability to begin his life anew, just as G-d granted us the wealth of Egypt after our exodus.

Rabbi Schwab continues that it is for this reason that we dip the bitter marror into sweet charoses at the Pesach Seder. The charoses, which serves as a reminder of the mortar which we were forced to grind as slaves in Egypt is not made from sour vinegar or sharp peppers, but rather from apples and sweet fruits. The sweetness of the charoses serves to remind us of the ‘tinge of sweetness’ which we were able to feel while yet in the throngs of exile. Those small rays of Divine light allowed us to maintain our sanguinity that we were destined for a lofty purpose.

We dip the marror - which symbolizes all the bitterness and pain of the exile - into the charoses - which symbolizes the “light in the tunnel”. The marror with a tinge of charoses indeed represents our exile, i.e. a period of intense bleakness, albeit with shadows of glory and hope.

Every person undergoes challenges and tests throughout his/her lifetime. In times of difficulty we are able to rise above our challenges when we are able to find meaning in the events. That sense of purpose allows us to be resilient and have the fortitude to go on.

Recalling the Egyptian exile helps us remember that even when times are hard we must search for the glimmers of light, and maintain hope for a better future.

“Titus, we are here! Where are you?”

“You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt”

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[1] Devorim 24:17-18

[2] “When you beat your olive tree, do not remove all the splendor behind you; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard, you shall not glean behind you….You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, therefore I command you to do this thing.” Devorim 24:20-22

[3] “But the seventh day is Shabbos to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not do any work – you, your son, your slave, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, and your every animal, and your convert within your gates…And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt….therefore Hashem, your G-d, has commanded you to make the Shabbos day” Devorim 4-5:15

[4] “But when you send him away from you free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. Adorn him generously…You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem, your G-d, redeemed you; therefore, I command you regarding this matter today.” Devorim 15:13-15

[5] Sotah 11b

[6] Shir Hashirim 8:5

[7] Shemos Rabbah 1:24

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