Below, please find this adaptation of Rav Weinberger's drasha from last Shabbos, parshas Bo 5779. Rav Weinberger has reviewed this write-up and any corrections are incorporated herein. Enjoy!
Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Bo 5779
Making a Mockery
Did Hashem inflict the ten plagues on Egypt as a prank? The passuk in this week’s parshah says, “In order that you should relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son that I have made a mockery of Egypt and the signs that I have placed on them, and they shall know that I am Hashem” (Shmos 10:2). Rashi explains that Hashem was saying, “I made a joke” of Egypt. First, can it really be that Hashem performed all those miracles in order to play a joke on the Egyptians? And why does Hashem care so much that “they [the Egyptians] shall know that I am Hashem?”
The Degel Machaneh Ephraim zy’a, taught in the name of his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov zy’a, that there is a little Egyptian within every Jew. He explains that because we lived in Egypt for so long, they became almost completely immersed in the impurity of Egypt. When the passuk says that Hashem did the plagues so “they,” the Egyptians, would know that “I am Hashem,” this was not referring to the Egyptians themselves. It was referring to the Egyptian aspect within each Jew. Hashem did the plagues so that the Jewish people themselves would finally be able to let go of their attachments to the course physicality of Egypt.
Why is this force of impurity within a Jew called “Egypt?” According to the Mei HaShiloach, the Torah calls Egypt the “garden of G-d” (Bereishis 13:10) because it was a such a lush environment, filled with every blessing from G-d, where one could enjoy all of the pleasures of the physical world. This level of physical luxury is why the Midrash says that until the Jewish people left, a slave had never fled Egypt (Mechilta Yisro 1). There was no constituency of Egyptians demanding that a wall be built around the country and that the Canaanites should pay for it. No slave had ever fled before because despite all of the hard physical labor, those in bondage were also enslaved to the physical desires they could only satisfy in Egypt.
Even today, we see so many people enslaved to substances or behaviors even though they know how bad they are. They feel they are simply unable to flee. There are those who engage in illicit behaviors, whether online or with other people even though they know they are, in some cases, destroying their jobs, their families, and themselves. They cannot imagine life without their drug of choice.
We see this with regard to the desire for wealth as well. I know people who made enough money to live on for the rest of their lives 30 years ago, but they continue trying to make new fortunes rather than learn in the beis medrash or use their entrepreneurial spirit to spearhead projects that would help other people directly. Such people also cannot imagine living without a certain type of home or without a certain type of kitchen.
Whatever the flavor of excessive attachment, whether to money, illicit desires, food, some substance, or almost any other form of pleasure to which a person can become obsessed, the intense form of pleasure forms a border around the person. It blinds him from seeing the broader world. It makes him or her smallminded. The Hebrew word for Egypt – מצרים – comes from the word meaning “border” or “limit.” Being a slave to the pleasures of this world puts blinders on a person, binding him into a tiny world where he cannot imagine anything greater than a life filled with his indulgence of choice.
But imagine if a person could see these silly little pleasures not as his whole world, but for the absurd joke that they are. Anyone who reads the book of Devarim or has read Tanach knows that the desire to worship idols used to be overpowering, intoxicating, and almost inescapable. Yet do any of us feel drawn to bow down to a crucifix on a Sunday morning? Even the suggestion is laughable. Ever since Chazal nullified this desire (Yuma 69b), the temptation for idol worship has become ridiculous in our eyes.
It was critical that Hashem make a mockery out of their pleasure-seeking lifestyle that the Egyptian part of ourselves felt drawn to. He knew the only way we would be able to be the first slaves to flee Egypt was to first release the psychological stranglehold that materialistic place had on our psyches by demonstrating its absurdity.
Similarly, when Moshiach comes and Hashem slaughters the evil inclination (Sukkah 52a; Bava Basra 16a), “our mouths will be filled with laughter” (Tehillim 126:2) when we look back at the years we spent working excessively or pleasure-seeking. “How ridiculous we were. How could we have been so foolish? How could we have fallen into an obsession with such drivel? What have we done?!”
How did the miracles of the ten plagues accomplish this? Hashem knew the only way we could escape from the small-mindedness of Egypt was to expose us to true greatness. As Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto zt’l, explains at the beginning of Messilas Yesharim, “Man was only created to delight in Hashem…. This is the true pleasure.” When a Jew tastes the pleasure of plumbing the depths of a Gemara or experiencing that “Aha!” moment when he comprehends the profound depth hidden in the words of a particularly difficult Tosafos, the shallow, small material pleasures of this world feel like a joke by comparison.
This is the entire theme of Shir HaShirm, which begins, “Your love is better than wine” (Shir HaShirim 1:2) because “your love [is better] to me more than any wine banquet and more than any pleasure and joy” (Rashi). The passuk uses this expression “because He gave them His Torah and spoke to them face to face, and that love is still more pleasant to them than any pleasure” (ibid.).
All of this is why the Torah separates the first seven plagues into last week’s parshah and the last three into this week’s parshah. The Torah only explains that the purpose of the plagues is to inculcate “knowledge” beginning with the first of the last three plagues (Shmos 10:2). This is because the first seven plagues correspond to the 7 emotional characteristics (chessed, gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, yesod, and malchus). The last three plagues, on the other hand, correspond to the three intellectual faculties, chochmah, binah, and daas – wisdom, insight, and knowledge. It is only when our minds absorb the message that the pleasure-seeking Egyptian life is a joke that we can begin to leave Egypt.
How can we, today, rise to a level where the pleasures of the world seem silly compared to the greatness we are capable of attaining? Rebbeinu Yona, at the beginning of Shaarei HaAvodah, writes that, “The first step for a spiritual seeker is to know his own value, recognizing his own strengths and the strengths of his forefathers, as well as their greatness, esteem, anb beloved status to Hashem. And he should work and continually strengthen himself to live up to that standard.” By taking out time to think about the greatness Hashem placed within us and the inner power we have inside as a birthright passed on to us from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, we eventually start to see the absurdity and silliness of materials pursuits by comparison.
Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt’l, relates a parable to help us understand how to pass this higher perspective on to our children. In it, a boy is playing baseball with his friends in a park that happens to be adjacent to a Jewish cemetery. In the midst of the game, this boy is playing in the outfield when the batter hits a home run. The ball sailed over the fence into the cemetery. The rule of the game is that the outfielder closest to the ball must jump the fence to retrieve it so that the game can continue. So, this boy began to put his leg over the fence to jump over when he suddenly felt his father embrace him, saying, “No, my son, you cannot go into the cemetery.” Not wanting to be different from others or have restrictions placed on him, he responds, “But Dad, the outfielder always has to get the ball. All of the other boys do it. Why am I worse than them?”
The boy’s father responds, “No my son. You are not ‘worse’ than the other boys. On the contrary, you are a descendant of Aharon HaKohein and you have within you an even higher level of holiness than other Jewish people. You cannot go into a cemetery not because you are lower than others, but because, in a certain way, you have an even greater level of holiness within you. It is beneath you to enter a place of impurity because you are part of something greater.”
May Hashem bless us to recognize our own greatness and the awesome potential to conquer the emptiness of the world’s pursuits for G-dliness. May He cause us to experience the depth, intense pleasure, and sweetness of Yiddishkeit so that we will not have to struggle so mightily to escape from the small-mindedness of a purely material life and connect to Hashem and the broad-minded path of Torah!