Why Did the Fish Have to Suffer?
The Lesson of the Hamotzi Blessing
Don’t Antagonize the Nations in Exile
And G-d spoke to Moshe, and said to him, “I am Hashem.” (6:2)
Why does the Torah switch in mid-sentence from “Elokim” to “Hashem”? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moshe said, “Why have You dealt badly with this people? Why did You send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has made this people suffer even more.” What Moshe did not realize was that the decree of exile had really been for 400 years, and now Hashem was taking Israel out of Egypt after only 210 years. In order to make up for the other 190 years, Hashem was making the slavery especially hard at the end. Thus, the extra suffering was actually beneficial, and essential to the redemption process. Hashem therefore said to Moshe, “Even when I appear in the role of Elokim, the attribute of justice and punishment, I am really Hashem, the attribute of mercy. Do not complain about the suffering of exile – know that I am doing everything for your benefit.” (Tuv Hapeninim, p. 279)
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The Ateres Yehoshua gives another explanation as the benefit of this extra suffering. If Pharaoh had obeyed right away and let the Jewish people go, he would have had a hand in the birth of the Jewish people. When a wicked man gives something or accomplishes something, he has a certain power over it; in this case, Pharaoh’s generosity would have left an imprint of defilement on the Jewish people forever. For our benefit, Hashem made sure that Pharaoh resisted the order, so that when we did eventually get out, we would be completely free of Pharaoh’s influence. We would then be ready to accept the Torah at Sinai. How important it is to avoid favors and money coming from unclean sources – the Exodus from Egypt was delayed only because of this! (ibid. p. 280)
Behold, I am smiting the water in the river with the staff in my hand, and it will become blood. And the fish in the river will die…” (7:17-18)
Rashi explains that the Nile River was smitten in the first plague because when Hashem punishes a nation, He first punishes its idols. The Egyptians depended on the Nile for irrigation, and they worshipped it as a deity. This explains why the Nile suffered, but why did the fish have to suffer? The Satmar Rav answered: The fish lived and breathed and were sustained by the river, which was idolatry. Whoever is sustained by idolatry is punished along with the idolatry, even if he himself is righteous and innocent. (Toros Ve’uvdos Mibeis Raboseinu, p. 128)
Reb Dovid Soloveitchik reports that his father, the Brisker Rav, once said, “Those who keep far away from the Zionist movement – from their deeds, their money and all that is theirs – need not fear, G-d forbid, the evil that will befall those who support Zionism.” (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 203)
“And I will place a separation between My people and your people; tomorrow this sign will be.” (8:19)
The word “pedus” means “separation,” but it can also mean “redemption.” The Mesorah notes that the word occurs only two other times in Tanach: “Redemption He sent for His people” (Tehillim 111:9), and “Israel will hope to Hashem, for with Hashem is the kindness and with Him is much redemption” (Tehillim 130:7). Moreover, in our parsha the word is written without a vav, but in both places in Tehillim it has a vav.
The Yitav Lev explained this based on the Midrash Tanchuma, end of Acharei Mos: “Fortunate are you, Israel, who is like you? A people redeemed with Hashem” (Devarim 33:29). It does not say “a people that Hashem redeemed,” but “redeemed with Hashem.” Just as a man takes his maaser sheni tithes and redeems them with coins, so too Israel is redeemed with Hashem, if it were possible to say such a thing. Said the Holy One, blessed is He: In this world you were redeemed by humans – in Egypt by Moshe and Aharon, in the time of Sisera by Barak and Devorah, in the time of the Midyanites by Shamgar the son of Anas, as it says, “And he also saved Israel.” And so by the Judges, and since they were humans, you became subjugated again later. But in the future, I Myself will redeem you, and you will never be subjugated again, as it says, “Israel is redeemed with Hashem an everlasting redemption.” (Yishaya 45:17)
This is why the word “pedus” – redemption – is missing a vav in our parsha: the redemption from Egypt was incomplete and not permanent. Why wasn’t it permanent? Because “redemption He sent for His people” – Hashem sent the redemption through a human emissary. But when Hashem Himself exercises His kindness and redeems us Himself, then “with Him is much redemption” – it will be complete and permanent. (Toros Ve’uvdos Mibeis Raboseinu, p. 128)
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The Midrash Shochar Tov explains the same concept with a parable. “For with You is the source of life; through Your light will we see light” (Tehillim 36:10). Rabbi Yochanan said: Once a man lit a candle at night, and it went out. He lit it again and it went out. He said, “How long will I tire myself out? I will wait until the sun rises and go by the light of the sun.” So too, the Jews were subjugated in Egypt – Moshe and Aharon arose and redeemed them. They were again subjugated in Babylonia – they were redeemed by Chanania, Mishael and Azarya. They were again subjugated by Greece – they were redeemed by the Hasmonean and his sons. They were again subjugated by Edom. Said the Jewish people: We have become tired – we are continually redeemed and then subjugated again. We no longer wish for the light of human beings, only the Holy One, blessed is He, as it says, “Hashem is G-d and He made light for us.” (Tehillim 118:27)
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Reb Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov once posed the question: Why is our custom regarding the location of a wedding the opposite of the custom at the time of the Gemora? In the Gemora’s times, the kallah was brought from her father’s house to the chosson’s house, and the wedding took place there (Rashi on Kesubos 15b). But our custom is that the kallah’s parents make the wedding in their place, and the chosson comes to the kallah. He answers by quoting the Zohar (Vayikra 6a) where Rabbi Acha asked Rabbi Shimon the meaning of the verse, “The virgin of Israel has fallen and will never get up.” (Amos 5:2) Rabbi Shimon replied that it means that in the final redemption, Israel will not get up on her own as she did in previous redemptions, such as in Babylonia where the Jews went back with permission from the king. She is not allowed to do so, for Hashem adjured us not to arouse or awaken the love before its time (Kesubos 111a). Rather she will wait in her place in exile until Hashem Himself comes and helps her up. This is why the later generations established the custom of having the wedding in the place of the kallah, and the chosson comes to her to rejoice with her – the chosson symbolizes Hashem, who will come back to the Jewish people in exile. Indeed, all Israel’s customs are prophecy, for they are the children of prophets! (Bracha Meshuleshes on Chullin Chapter 5, Mishnah 3)
“And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be your G-d, and you will know that I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” (6:7)
In the Gemara, Berachos 38a, there is a dispute about the meaning of the word “hamotzi” in this verse. Rabbi Nechemiah says it is present-future tense: “You must know that I am Hashem Who is taking you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” The other Rabbis say it is past tense, and they connect it to the beginning of the verse: “I will take you to Me for a people when I give you the Torah, and then you will know that it was I, Hashem, Who took you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”
This led to a dispute about the correct wording of the blessing over bread. According to the Rabbis, it is “hamotzi lechem min haaretz,” meaning “who brought forth bread from the earth.” But Rabbi Nechemiah holds that one cannot say “hamotzi” because that would mean “who is bringing forth bread from the earth,” which would not make sense because the bread upon which he is making the blessing already came forth from the earth. Rather, one must say “motzi”, which is definitely past tense as is evident from Bamidbar 23:22.
The Gemara tells a story: Rabbi Zeira heard his students praising a certain scholar, saying that he was a great man and an expert on blessings. He asked his students to send this scholar to his house so that he could meet him. When the scholar came, Rabbi Zeira served him bread. The scholar recited the blessing “motzi lechem min haaretz” and ate. Rabbi Zeira commented, “This is the man you said was an expert on blessings?! Had he said ‘hamotzi’, he would have taught us the meaning of the verse, as well as the fact that the halacha follows the Rabbis. But now that he said ‘motzi’ what has he taught us?” The Gemara adds that the scholar’s intent had been to fulfill his obligation according to both opinions, Rabbi Nechemiah and the Rabbis.
The Satmar Rav asks: What was so wrong with what the scholar did? Is it not praiseworthy to be strict and fulfill all opinions? Does everyone have an obligation to make a point of being lenient in order to teach the halacha?
He explains that the reason to be lenient here is to teach the great lesson that emerges from this verse of the Torah the way the Rabbis interpret it. G-d said, “When I give the Torah, you will know that it was I Who took you out of Egypt.” This seems strange: why did the Jewish people need to be convinced that G-d took them out of Egypt? Didn’t they already experience ten supernatural plagues and the parting of the sea? If that did not convince them, what would?
The Rambam answers this question in Foundations of the Torah 8:1: “The Jews did not believe in Moshe our teacher because of the miracles that he performed. For one who believes based on miracles retains some doubt in his mind, for it is possible that the miracle was done through magic or witchcraft. Rather, all the miracles Moshe did in the wilderness, he did according to the needs of the time, not to bring proof to his prophecy. He needed to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sunk them in it. We needed food, so he brought down the manna. They were thirsty, so he split the rock. The company of Korach disbelieved in him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same is true of all the other miracles. And on what basis did they believe in him? When we stood at Mount Sinai and our eyes saw and not someone else’s eyes, our ears heard and not someone else’s ears, the fire and the thunder and the torches, and he drew near to the thick darkness, and the voice spoke to him, and we heard it: ‘Moshe, Moshe, go tell them such-and-such.’ And so it says, (Devarim 5:4) ‘Face to face Hashem spoke with you.’ And it says (ibid. v. 3), ‘Not with our forefathers did Hashem establish this covenant.’ And how do we know that our experience at Mount Sinai alone is the proof that Moshe’s prophecy is true? The Torah says (Shemos 19:9), ‘Behold I come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people might hear when I speak to you, and also in you they will believe forever.’ This implies that previously, they did not believe in him with a permanent belief, but a belief that leaves room for doubts and second thoughts.”
Thus the giving of the Torah was the only true proof that G-d was the one Who took us out of Egypt. Only after the giving of the Torah was it clear beyond a doubt that the miracles of the Exodus were the work of G-d and not done in some other way.
In our time as well, we must always keep in mind that the success of an enterprise does not prove it correct, for success, even extraordinary success, can come about in a number of ways. To determine what is right or wrong we must look only to G-d’s words spoken at Mount Sinai and recorded in the Torah, and then we will never be led astray. This is the lesson of the word “hamotzi.” (Divrei Yoel, Vayikra p. 82).
And Pharaoh called for Moshe and Aharon, and he said, “Go sacrifice to your G-d in this land.” And Moshe said, “It is not proper to do that, for we will slaughter the deity of Egypt to Hashem our G-d; behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt before their eyes, would they not stone us?” (8:21-22)
This answer given by Moshe seems strange. Moshe and the Jews never let fear of the Egyptians stop them from doing anything. Moshe came and went in Pharaoh’s palace without permission, giving him harsh warnings. On the day before the Exodus, the Jews did indeed slaughter the lamb, the deity of Egypt, before their eyes.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 16:3) says this explicitly: “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moshe: By your life, Israel will not leave here until they slaughter the god of Egypt before their eyes. I will show them that their god is nothing… on that night Israel slaughtered their pesach offerings and ate them, and the Egyptians saw their firstborn killed and their gods slaughtered, and they could do nothing… Let all those who serve idols be ashamed!”
So how could Moshe have been afraid of the Egyptians stoning the Jews? And if he was not really afraid, but just used this as an excuse to Pharaoh, why did Pharaoh believe it? And if for some reason he was afraid, why did he say “it is not proper to do that”? He should have used much stronger words: “we are afraid to do that” or “it would be dangerous to do that.”
The answer is that yes, when the time of redemption arrived and G-d instructed the Jews to slaughter the deity of Egypt, they could do so without fear. But now it was not yet the time of redemption, and G-d had not commanded them to slaughter the deity of Egypt before their eyes, so this slaughter would have been a transgression of the prohibition on provoking the gentiles during exile.
For the same reason, G-d commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak respectfully to Pharaoh, as Rashi says (6:13). The time of the redemption had not yet arrived, and talking arrogantly to Pharaoh would have been considered “provoking the nations.”
Moshe continued, “Three days journey we will go in the desert, and we will sacrifice to Hashem our G-d as He will say to us.” Seemingly, the words “as He will say to us” are unnecessary. But the meaning is: we must do everything just as G-d tells us. We will sacrifice here in Egypt, but only when He tells us to do so. It is not that we fear the Egyptians. They will not be able to stone us, but they will certainly want to, and it is not proper to provoke them like that. (Divrei Yoel, p. 161)