Despite the seven plagues described in this Parasha, the commentaries have spent an indescribable amount of efforts to explain a very mystical Pasuk:
“Therefore, say to the Bnei Yisrael, I am Hashem, and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; and I will save you from their service; and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgments. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be a Hashem to you…” (Shemos 6:6-7)
This passage uses four separate expressions of redemption and is the source of the four cups of wine served during the Pesach’s Seder. Surely any one of these expressions alone would have sufficed to convey Hashem’s promise to redeem the Jewish people! So, what’s the purpose in using all four languages?
The Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai explains: Rabbi Yudan said; Bnei Yisrael deserved to remain in Egypt as they had violated their circumcision and transgressed the prohibition to serve idols. Had it not been for the Almighty’s oath to save them, they would’ve not deserved the salvation. This is the meaning of the Pasuk (shemos 2:25) “Hashem looked upon the Bnei Yisrael and Hashem knew”. Rav Yehuda ben Lakish explains; Hashem saw that the Bnei Yisrael will anger him, and He knew that they will rebel against Him. Thus, He saved them only because of the Glory of His Name as stated in Yechezkel (20:9). Rav Shimon Bar Elazar disagrees with the above explanation and stated the reason of their salvation was due to the fact they would not lie! Indeed, the Pasuk (Isaiah 20:8) states it clearly: “Surely they are My people, Children who will not lie, so He was their Savior”.
In truth, Rav Shimon Bar Elazar’s explanation is difficult to understand: The reason Hashem despises people that renege their Brith Mila or that serves idols is indeed because they’re liars! In both instances, they are self-serving, in order to give way to their lowly impulses, and will anyway rationalize their immoral behavior. How could he then state that Bnei Yisrael were saved because they were truthful? The answer is; since the entire Egyptian philosophy was based upon immorality, some of the people were totally ignoramus and indeed others were self-serving their animalistic impulses. The difference between them was Moshe informed them, those ignoramuses repented immediately, while the others refused to modify their lifestyle. Therefore, the formers were saved while the latter met the same fate as the Egyptians. The foundation of Rav Shimon’s teaching is that a liar cannot repent!
Lying is so evil to Hashem’s eyes that we were commanded (Shemos 23:7) “To refrain from false speech”. The reason the Torah is so stringent about this specific character trait is a perpetual blemish. Such a person will come to transgress the most fundamental commandments toward Hashem, as mentioned above, and in his dealing with people, whether in business or through misguided flattery. The ends up falling for his own lies and sees himself as a just and therefore is immune to Teshuva. He doesn’t feel the need to repent as he rationalizes even theft.
Truth and Mercy are the required attributes of every Jewish person as stated in Micah: “You will give truth to Yaakov and mercy to Avraham”. Straying away from Truth and Mercy blurs one’s identity and self-expels the person from being an integral part of the Jewish nation. A person allowing himself to occasionally lies will surely become a habitual liar and then pathological liar, at which point he’s unable to discern the facts from the lies, as all the frontiers are blurred. That’s the reason he’s out of reach of Teshuva. Now, that we understand that the foundation of Bnei Yisrael is Truth and because of it deserved their salvation, let’s try to explain the redemption.
Rabbeinu Bachye explains that the four expressions of salvation are not merely expressions of redemption; rather, they represent four separate redemptions (see also Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:1). These four redemptions can be understood as four stages of redemption that were needed to completely liberate the Jews from the Egyptian servitude.
The Midrash (Socher Tov on Psalms 114) compares the enslaved Jewish nation to a fetus within the womb of an impure animal, based on the verse, “…to take for Himself a nation from amidst a nation” (Bamidbar, 4:34). The Jewish people were living “inside” the Egyptians. The Jewish people had fallen to the lowest possible spiritual level that their identity was completely meshed with the corruption and immorality of the Egyptian society.
The Nesivos Shalom explains; since the situation was so severe, the first stage of redemption was for the Jews to be taken out from the darkness and impurity of their surrounding culture. Nevertheless, they were still be slaves to their inner drive toward negativity, their yetzer hara. The second stage, then, was to be saved from this servitude. The slave mentality cannot be so easily eradicated, however; even after being saved, the Jewish people were still subjugated to the side of negativity. It was this subjugation from which Hashem redeemed the Jews. The final stage of redemption was for Hashem to take the Jews as His nation.
When we look carefully at the progression of these four stages, we see the Jewish people gradually moving away from their Egyptian neighbors and defining their own identity, slowly transforming from Egypt’s possession to Hashem’s. This process enabled the Jews to grow into themselves and recognize their unique identity as a people.
The Ibn Ezra (on Shemos 8:28, citing Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi) states: The ten plagues (seven of which are found in this week’s Parasha) are a concrete example of this process. As the plagues progress, the Jews’ separation from the Egyptians becomes increasingly clearer. This distancing from other nations is not a blanket condemnation; rather, it entails a rejection of those secular influences that are destructive to spiritual growth or antithetical to Torah values. Indeed, according to the Torah the function of the brain is to inhibit the bodily attraction to impurity and darkness, while the gentile’s morality progresses with time, because their brain function is to justify the immoral impulses. This process crystallizes the Jewish people’s unique identity.
Therefore, the plagues progressed from the bottom up. The first two plagues, blood and frogs, involved water, which flows to the lowest places on earth. The next two plagues, lice and wild beasts, took place on the land – one step higher than water. The following plagues, livestock epidemic and boils, were caused by airborne disease – one step higher than land. The plagues of hail and locusts involved clouds (the locusts formed a cloud of their own!), representing the highest reaches of the atmosphere. The plague of darkness took place on a level even beyond that, in the celestial realm. And the death of the firstborn affected people’s very souls, coming from beyond the furthest galaxies.
The Midrash (Shemos Raba 9:10) explains that during every plague, the Egyptians were stricken, while the Jews were spared. However, the Jews who completely identified themselves with the Egyptians were not saved (Shemos Raba 14:3). They died during the plague of darkness. Their desire to become like the Egyptians ultimately resulted in their sharing the same fate as their neighbors.
This passage of the Parasha teaches us the importance of being always truthful, as it is the foundation of the Jewish identity. It was Yehuda’s main valuable attribute; he admitted publicly his mistakes despite the consequential shame. His reward was the eternal kingship of Israel and providing the ultimate savior, the Mashiach. The word Yehudi, meaning Jew, but is directly derived from the name Yehuda, as we must emulate his attributes.
The second teaching is learnt from the Zohar who asks, the fourth language of redemption alone should’ve sufficed, as if the Jewish nation becomes Hashem’s people, it means they will no longer be enslaved. Despite that it’s indeed true, since a slave’s primary focus is freedom, Hashem “spoke” their language and built up the ultimate goal of the redemption. In turn, when teaching a child, the teacher should emulate Hashem’s ways and should not impose his logic as being the absolute truth. However, he should worry about understanding the logic path of his student and cater accordingly.
By Rabbi Shimon Friedman – Din Torah Of NMB, FL 305.399.0393 / firstname.lastname@example.org