Vaera: Stupendous supplication

While Parshat Shemot sets the stage for the redemption and introduces us to all the players in the drama, the actual process of redemption begins in Parshat Va'eira.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Shoshana Charnoff, right, the OU-JLIC female Torah educator at Queens College in New York, learns with a
Shoshana Charnoff, right, the OU-JLIC female Torah educator at Queens College in New York, learns with a
Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            While Parshat Shemot sets the stage for the redemption and introduces us to all the players in the drama, the actual process of redemption begins in Parshat Va'eira, and seven of the ten plagues are recorded in this parsha. A pattern is established: Moshe Rabennu goes to Pharaoh, asks that Bnei Yisroel be granted permission to worship their God, Pharaoh refuses, Hashem brings a plague onto Egypt, Pharaoh asks Moshe Rabennu to lift the plague, Hashem accedes to Moshe Rabennu's prayer on Egypt's behalf and ends the plague, and Pharaoh again refuses to let Bnei Yisroel go.

            In the last of the plagues in this parsha, the plague of hail, there appears to be a departure from the routine of the previous plagues. Here alone the Torah records that Moshe Rabennu would leave the city to pray and spread out his hands to Hashem, "the thunder will cease and the hail will no longer be, so that you [Pharaoh] will know that the earth is Hashem's... I know that you are not yet afraid of Hashem, God."

            Our Sages question this seeming departure from routine. Why was leaving the city necessary at this juncture? Was it in fact different from previous practice, or was it the standard ritual, only recorded here for the first time? What is the meaning of Moshe Rabennu's raising his hands? Finally, why is Pharaoh told specifically at this plague that he will recognize that all the earth belongs to Hashem?

            Our first response is quite simply explained by Rashi and Ramban. They claim that Moshe Rabennu did in fact go out of the city to pray for the removal of the previous plagues. The plagues ended the following day. Here, Pharaoh asked that the plague end immediately, so, while Moshe Rabennu was continuing with established protocol, he had to inform Pharaoh of this protocol so that Pharaoh would know the plague would end only the next day. Alternately, in previous plagues there was no need to raise his hands heavenward, so there was no need to leave the city. These reasons would also explain why Moshe Rabennu nay have remained in the city to pray for the removal of the other plagues even though the city was full of idol worship both before and now.

            Rabbi Kluger z”l in Imrei Shefer provides a logical reason for Moshe Rabennu's leaving the city to pray now, a reason that should reverberate with us as well. The city was so full of noise from the thunder and the falling hail that it would be difficult for Moshe Rabennu to concentrate through these distractions. Rabbi Kofman z”l  adds in Mishchat Shemen the idea of the Daat Zekenim that while some pagan worship may have been within the city at all times, the main object of Egyptian worship was sheep, and these were generally kept in the fields outside the city. However, the Torah records that those Egyptians who feared Hashem brought their livestock indoors in anticipation of the plague, so the city now was flooded with avodah zarah.

            While we can now understand why Moshe Rabennu left the confines of the city, we still have not explained why Moshe Rabennu needed to raise his hands heavenward to remove this plague. Perhaps the reason lies in the very essence of this plague, its supernatural character. The Torah records that this hail, rather than being solid ice, had fire at its core. These two components, usually at war and destroying each other, here coexisted peacefully to do Hashem's bidding. Because the plague itself was supernatural in its essence, ending it would also require a supernatural approach, explains the Shem MiShmuel.

            In a similar vein, Rabbi Avigdor Parness explains in Lev Tahor that this plague with its supernatural element came from a very elevated place and therefore required raised hands to bring the Divine Presence/Shechinah down from heaven, in contrast to most prayer that originates here below and rises upward. This is similar to the Priestly Blessing when the priest raises his hands to invoke Hashem's blessing upon us. Because Hashem's presence "rested" on the priests' hands at this time, it would be detrimental for Bnei Yisroel to lay eyes upon those hands and see the Divine Presence. Although without the Beit Hamikdosh, the Shechinah does not descend onto the priests’ hands, we continue this practice in anticipation of the rebuilt Beit Hamikdosh. Moshe Rabennu needs to bring the Shechinah down to remove this supernatural plague so that Pharaoh will finally acknowledge Hashem and feel that Hashem is coming near to vanquish the Egyptians. The process begins here with barad/hail.

            Every plague had a dual purpose. First, it was definitely meant to punish and teach the Egyptians a lesson. But the plague also needed to benefit Bnei Yisroel in some way. What was the benefit to Bnei Yisroel here?

            Rabbi Schwadron z”l uses a Gemarrah in Taanis to explain the benefit to Bnei Yisroel and its connection to Moshe Rabennu's raising his hands. Quoting and interpreting Shir Hashirim, allegorically, Bnei Yisroel requests that Hakodosh Boruch Hu engrave us as a seal on His heart and on His arm. But the arm and the heart are not always visible. Instead, Hashem responds that He will engrave us on the palms of His hands, as hands are always visible. Hashem let His presence rest on the hands of the priests as they blessed Bnei Yisroel, and here on the uplifted hands of Moshe Rabennu as a sign of the unbreakable bond between Hakodosh Boruch Hu and Bnei Yisroel. When Moshe Rabennu raises his hands, he is symbolically signaling to Hashem that we are ready to solidify this relationship.

            Until now, there were those of Bnei Yisroel who sometimes worshiped Hashem and sometimes worshiped other gods. Now, with the evidence presented by the hail, all Bnei Yisroel came together in unity, just as the fire and water came together in full faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu. The salvation could now begin in earnest.

            The Kli Yakar brings a different perspective to our discussion. The Kli Yakar posits that the plague of hail was an omen and a warning, a precursor to the plague of the death of the first born. The hail destroyed the “first born” products of their hands, the crops that ripened early. This destruction undoubtedly brought much pain to the Egyptians. How much more pain would they feel with the deaths of their firstborn children?

            Every punishment, every plague is perfectly meted out midah keneged midah/measure for measure, continues the Kli Yakar. The sound of thunder that accompanied the hail was meant to remind Pharaoh of his refusal to recognize Hashem and listen to the gentler sound of His voice. Now Pharaoh would acknowledge that he has sinned, and that Hashem is righteous. Further, this plague was also a response to Pharaoh for speaking loshon horo against God by his refusal to acknowledge Him.  Hail brought down all four capital punishments meted out by the courts, for loshon horo has the power to transgress all the cardinal sins. The hailstones pelted the Egyptians, the fire within the hailstones burned the Egyptians, the people were slaughtered, and the flooding waters drowned and suffocated them. Now we can further understand why Moshe Rabennu needed to leave the city to pray, for Hashem cannot reside in a place where loshon horo exists.

            Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian z”l explains how loshon horo is so powerful. Human beings sin quite often, but Hashem is willing to overlook our iniquities as long as no one stands and accuses us. However, when we speak or listen to loshon horo, we are unsealing the lips of our potential accusers. The speaker of loshon horo is compared to a fish caught in a bad trap. A fish caught in a net has no illusions about its fate. Its entire body is caught. But a fish caught by a hook in its mouth still imagines itself free, as his whole body flaps about. So do we also consider ourselves tzadikim/righteous people and free of sin, not realizing that our mouths have hooked us into a battle for our very existence. Pharaoh represents loshon horo.

            In a similar vein, Pharaoh also represents lip service rather than conviction, notes Letitcha Elyon, citing R’ Avraham Zvi Kanai. Moshe Rabennu knew and even told Pharaoh in advance that Pharaoh was not really contrite, did not yet really fear Hashem. Pharaoh was merely mouthing words here to lift the plague of hail from his realm. He would again revert to his old ways once the plague was lifted. Indeed, the Torah bears witness that that is exactly what Pharaoh did. Further, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, Moshe Rabennu wanted Pharaoh and Egypt to understand that all things and all power belonged to Hashem, and Moshe Rabennu was merely Hashem’s emissary, just as the sun, moon and all other things the Egyptians had deified were not gods, but God’s emissaries.

            Our own prayers and requests should also be enveloped in complete faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Our sincere prayer is an expression of that faith, writes Rabbi Wolfson in Service of the Heart. It is a declaration that Hashem is all powerful and only He has the ability to fulfill my every word. 

            Therefore emunah/faith goes way beyond recognizing that Hashem is the Creator. That evidence is all around us, notes Rabbi Pincus z”l in Shearim B’tefialaEmunah encompasses the belief that Hashem is still involved and can grant us our every need. In this context, we begin with praising Hashem for all He is and all He does, and then follow with our requests. Only by preparing oneself in advance of prayer can one approach Hashem with the proper feeling of proximity to Him so that any distractions between us fade into the background and do not interfere in our dialogue. Only with emunah already in place can we approach Hashem in prayer. Therefore, it is hard to approach Hashem in an impure place or, more to the point, from an impure place in the heart. We must rid ourselves of all thoughts that keep us from internalizing that nothing exists outside Hakodosh Boruch Hu and prevent us from making that deep connection to Him, interjects Rabbi Sternbach.

            This requires time for preparation, at least a few moments before entering into our tefillah, to distance ourselves from the mundane and everyday thoughts that constantly clutter our minds. We need to prepare ourselves to symbolically enter Hashem’s palace and get a private audience with him. Our preparation signals to Hashem that we are ready for Him to draw near to us.

            Rabbi Meislish offers some practical tips on preparing for tefillah. First, learn the halachot associated with the prayers. Wash up so that you are physically ready to greet the King. And keep to a designated spot for your tefillah. Use the Pesukei d’Zimra as the preparation for your private conversation with Hakodosh Boruch Hu during Shemoneh Esrei/Silent Meditation. If Moshe Rabennu Rabbenu left the city to avoid distractions, how much more so must we train ourselves to avoid the tumult of our surroundings as we approach Hashem in prayer?

            Rabbi Pincusz”l uses this point for an additional idea. One cannot be influenced by contact with something with which he has nothing in common. A man would not be influenced to adopt the behavior of chickens, for example, because he feeds them daily. But we are surrounded by other nations and other cultures throughout our lives. It is often a struggle to maintain our separateness and distinctiveness. That focus we can only get and maintain by the study of Torah which teaches us our uniqueness and helps us maintain our Jewish identity. Torah study keeps us from negative thoughts. If Moshe Rabennu Rabbenu felt it necessary to leave the city in order to stay focused, the gift of Torah that he brought from Hashem and taught us is our path to connection and sincere prayer.