Vaera: Hail to the Hail

A close look at the plague of hail, using a variety of commentators and finding lessons on fear and love.

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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Young women study Torah
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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Vaera brings the power of Hashem to bear on Egypt to effectuate our exodus, for this parsha recounts the bulk of the plagues Hashem brought on Egypt. While all of the plagues are worth studying for the multiple levels of understanding and lessons for our lives, in this shiur (lecture), we will focus on the plague of barad, hail, and some of the wisdom it contains.

A quick comparison to the previous plagues that afflicted Egypt will reveal some interesting difference. While in the previous plagues, when the plagues were removed, nothing remained in Egypt - all the waters of the Nile reverted to water, all the frogs except those in the Nile itself were removed,  and later, every locust, even those in pickling jars, were removed, here we are just told that the hail stopped, but not that it was removed.

Furthermore, Moshe prayed for the other plagues to end while he was in the confines of the city, but for this plague, Moshe had to leave the boundaries of the city to pray. Why these differences?

First, our Sages tell us that the plague of hail never fully disappeared although it no longer afflicted the Egyptians. Hashem kept it in abeyance to use in Joshua’s battle, and He will again use it at the end of days in the Battle of God and Magog. Second, this plague had a special spiritual component, the subject of the rest of this shiur, which first required that Moshe extend his hand above the earth, closer to heaven to bring on this “miracle within a miracle” and then required him to leave the confines of the city to pray for its removal.

The doubly miraculous nature of this hail is recorded in fairly great detail in the Torah itself. This was not standard hail composed of frozen water, but water with a core or a base of fire that rained down from above. As Mizrachi writes (as cited by Artscroll), the first miracle was that fire hailed down instead of rising upward. But the second miracle defied nature even further, for fire and water, two elements that generally destroy each other, made peace and functioned together. Because this cooperation was a decree from Above, Moshe also had to reach above the confines of this world says the "Shem Mishmuel" both to bring it on and to remove it.

It seems strange to us that we can talk about inanimate objects “making peace”, as if animals and inanimate objects have thought, feeling and choice. But this is precisely what Rabbi Bloch discusses in "Peninei Daas". Heaven and earth, the spiritual and the physical, although two separate realms of existence, are connected in many ways. First, all that exists on earth first existed and continues to exist in heaven. In that spiritual realm, Hashem created everything (specifically the heavenly luminaries) with daas, binah, uvhaskel – knowledge, insight and discernment (Shabbat liturgy). Thus within the heavenly realm, everything still has feeling and choice to follow God’s will or not. In the heavenly realm, rocks could argue on whose head the righteous Yaakov should rest, for example.

In fact, Rabbi Bloch maintains, the verses we attribute to each creation in Perek Shira (Songs of praise sung by all of creation) are actually sung by these creations on high. For this reason, Moshe could not personally perform the plagues against those entities that had somehow saved him in the past, from the Nile where his mother hid him to the dirt in which he hid the Egyptian taskmaster. These plagues were delegated to Aaron. Therefore we must treat all objects, and certainly human beings, with respect.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab in "Maayan Beis Hashoevah" continues this line of thought.  According to Rav Schwab the whole world was created with knowledge.  However, when creation was completed and the stamp of Shabbat was put upon the world, only Man retained this wisdom while inanimate objects no longer have this insight leading to free choice in the physical realm, when Hashem brings miracles into the world, when nature again becomes malleable in His hands as it was before the first Shabbat, these animals and inanimate objects regain the pre Shabbat insight and choice they had during the period of creation. Therefore, the dogs could choose not to bark when Hashem passed over Egypt and killed their firstborn, and for this choice they are regularly rewarded with our table scraps.

Rabbi Michoel Rubiyov in "Minchat Michael" asks an interesting question about this special hail. Why did Hashem deem it necessary to rain down fire with the hail? Would not hailstones, which can be as large as ping pong balls or even grapefruits, have been enough to cause the damage to the crops and to the animals that Hashem desired? Undoubtedly, for those who feared Hashem brought their animals into their homes to protect them. However, not all Egyptians feared Hashem. Some were filled with chutzpah and had the audacity to try to challenge Moshe and his God. They refused to take their animals into their homes but instead were going to build outdoor sheds just sturdy enough to withstand the hail. When the hail ended, and their livestock would have survived, they would be able to sneer at Moshe and say that his prediction didn’t come true. Therefore Hashem sent down fire within the hail to burn these shelters down.

Rabbi Mordechai Druck offers a beautiful homiletic interpretation to this partnership between fire and water, In "Dorash Mordechai" he writes that this hail was beloved by Hashem and therefore kept it in existence after the plague. Rabbi Druck posits that this hail was formed by the fiery tears of anguish and pain that burned the eyes and cheeks of Bnei Yisroel as they bore the pain of their enslavement. Feeling the pain of Bnei Yisroel, the fire and water came together  now to avenge those burning tears. Therefore this hail was precious to Hashem, and He saved it for future use.

The tears of Bnei Yisroel are never in a vacuum, for Hashem always saves them and always responds, even if not immediately, for He bears our pain with us.

One can approach this phenomenon from a completely different perspective, as Rabbi Kofman does in "Mishchat Shemen". What was Hashem trying to teach us by changing nature in this way? The lesson begins not here, but in creation itself, for Hashem, in trying to teach us the importance of peace, united aish and mayim, fire and water, to create the very heavens, shomayim. In the plague of hail these two contradictory entities were again united to perform the will of God.

If these two entities that are generally mutually exclusive can join together in peace, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in "Tiv Hatorah", certainly we as human beings should be able to make peace with each other to do Hashem’s will in spite of conflicting personalities; we can no longer use our differences as an excuse for our inability to make peace and work together in service to Hashem.

Rabbi Schwab takes this idea a step further to include shalom bayis, peace between a husband and wife and between parents and children. And finally, Rabbi Schwab brings it to the ultimate, to peace within an individual’s soul, for the Priestly Blessing ends with vayosem lecha shalom – May He establish peace with you.

“Peace with you” can now be extended, perhaps, to read, “Peace within you.” This is the direction Rabi Kofman pursues in discussing the peaceful coexistence of water and hail. Our very being is comprised of two conflicting, contradictory elements, the body and the soul, the physical component and the spiritual component of life. The plague of hail was to teach the Israelites as well as the Egyptians that Hashem exists within the land, the God and godliness exists within the confines of the limited, physical world, and they must be able to coexist to serve Hashem. The Torah commands us, “Anshei kodesh tihiyun le – be for Me a holy people.” Be human, physical entities, but integrate the physical with the spiritual, so that we may come to know Hashem through the physical world as well as the spiritual realm, to thank Hashem for our physical pleasures and thereby raise them to a spiritual level.

In a scientific analogy, Rabbi Simcha Bunim in "Ethics from Sinai" quotes the Nefesh Hachayim (Brisker Rabbi) who compares the spiritual/physical/spiritual cycle of everything we enjoy on earth to the nitrogen cycle or the rain cycle. For every process that happens, there is a corrective, reverse process that keeps everything in balance to complete the cycle. Similarly, everything we receive on earth comes from Hashem on high. How does the cycle continue? Whenever we recite a blessing in acknowledgement of a Heavenly gift, we are figuratively returning that gift to God and completing the cycle. Every physical experience, every food we eat, beauty we see, garment we wear can thus be transformed into a spiritual experience, taught the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism.

Everything Hashem does for us is a manifestation of His love. Why then, asks Rabbi Wolfson in "Emunat Etecha", do we have trouble feeling that love? It is due to our difficulty (or refusal) to focus that love on its target and return it to Hashem. Instead of loving Hashem, we “love” an ice cream or our exercise or a movie idol. Like everything else, to be effective, love must have boundaries to delineate it, for, as good as love is, dispensed toward everything and often to the wrong things not only dilutes that love, but often is contrary to what love is meant to be.

The most blatant example, from the Torah itself, is one who marries his sister. This the Torah calls chessed, a skewed form of love. However, this love misdirected toward a forbidden individual, has taken love “out of bounds” and created a “foul”. Love must be balanced with awe and fear, chessed must be countered with gevurah, strength and discipline. Abraham, the paradigm of chessed went to the akedah with Isaac, the paradigm of gevurah, and he took the fire, also representing gevurah with him. Abraham and Isaac went together, each balancing the other.

 In a related idea, Rabbi Wolfson notes that Jews use a lunar calendar while the rest of the world uses a solar calendar. In much of our tradition, the moon representschessed while the sun represents gevurah. (“May those who love Hashem be like the rising sun in its strength” – Judges 5:31) Their gevurah runs rampant, with bloodshed as the rising red sun. Our calendar is based on love, but unlike the Islamic calendar which is also lunar based, our calendar is balanced with a solar element that keeps the holidays in their appropriate seasons. The Muslim calendar has no such counterbalance, and Ramadan occurs in different seasons in different years. There, “love” and “passion” run rampant.

Water is often a symbol of love. But unbounded, unrestricted it can cause untold damage like raging floodwaters. The unbounded love Egyptians displayed in their culture led to rampant promiscuity. When Hashem brought the hail onto Egypt, He was showing them that their unrestricted lifestyle was totally destructive, just as the hail destroyed everything in its path. But Hashem also supplied a lesson for Bnei Yisroel; infuse your love with fire, gevurah, with the strength of self discipline to keep it from wreaking havoc on your world.

Fear and love, like fire and water, can coexist when the fear of God is not merely glib or intellectual. When man can fear God on such an emotional level, says Rabbi Horovitz as quoted by Rabbi Pliskin in "Consulting the Wise", that nothing else exists but God and His will, then he will simultaneously experience great love for his Creator and he will do nothing that takes him away from fulfilling God’s will and His Torah.

This is the lesson of the hail. Fire and water, strength and love, can and should coexist within our societies, within our communities, within our families and, most importantly, within ourselves.

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