Parshas Vaeira (5770)
"Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh who feared the word of G-d chased his servants and his livestock into the houses" (Exodus 9:20).
Imagine that you are an Egyptian landowner in ancient times, living through the Ten Plagues. Like most of your countrymen, you would no doubt be very skeptical of this G-d of the Hebrews. After all, Egypt was world-renowned for its sorcerers and necromancers. Surely Moses and this new deity of his would be no match for the top Egyptian magicians. However, then Moses foretells the blood, the frogs, and the lice coming to a swamp near you and they all come true!
So you start thinking, this guy's pretty good! But, once again, your stubbornness and your pride in Pharaoh's wizards cause you to persist in your belief that the Jews and their G-d are phonies. Then, Moses threatens a swarm of wild beasts followed by an epidemic and boils, and each time the man is right on the money. Everything happens exactly as Moses predicts it, at exactly the appointed time.
Later, you read in the Egyptian Times that Moses says his G-d will send down huge hailstones from the sky, destroying everything in their path. Don't you think that by now, after Moses had predicted the onset of six miraculous and devastating plagues with 100% accuracy, even the most ardent skeptic or atheist would at least move his livestock and servants indoors?
That's not what happened, though ... The Torah records that only those Egyptians who "feared the word of G-d" chased their servants and livestock inside. That's strange ...What does fear of G-d have to do with it? With those odds, only a total lunatic would disregard Moses' warning. How did those Egyptians remain so "stone deaf" when they should have heard the warning and seen the hieroglyphics on the wall?
The truth is, though, that we all share some of that lunacy with the Egyptians of long ago. In his famous allegory, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the mussar (Jewish ethics) movement, describes the following scenario: A very thirsty man walks into a room and sees a cup of water on the table in front of him. All who are present assure him that the water is pure and suitable to drink except for one meshuggeneh (crazy person) who warns him not to drink the water because it is poisoned. Although the odds are that the water is perfectly fine, no normal person would take a chance and drink it. That is human nature - even when the slightest possibility of danger is sensed, we stay away like the plague.
If so, asks Rabbi Salanter, how do we go about our daily life not thinking about our final judgment after we die? Even if we are not 100% convinced that every word of lashon hara (gossip or slander) spoken against our fellow man in this world will bring us punishment in the World to Come, it still could be true. After all, many of the greatest Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers, theologians and thinkers in history believed in the Afterlife - so can we be so sure that they are all wrong?! All it should take is the remote possibility of reward and punishment in the hereafter to stop us from sinning, yet it does not work for us today any more than it did not work for those non-G-d-fearing Egyptians 3,300 years ago. Why did it not work?
The answer must be that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) has all of us wrapped around its fingers. Sure, the Egyptians should have calculated the odds and made a rational decision to concede defeat to G-d and the Jews. However, they did not want to; their egos, their stubbornness, and most importantly, the implications that such a concession carries with it - that G-d runs the world and not Man - made it nearly impossible for them to see what they should have seen. As a result, they brought destruction upon themselves when they could have been saved.
That is the power of the yetzer hara. Deep down inside, we all sense the truth of everything G-d says; we all know the disastrous repercussions that can result from our negative actions in this world and the next. We should behave better because of that knowledge, but we do not want to - just like the Egyptians of old. Our egos and our fantasies will just not let us. So we engage in all kinds of behaviors and make all kinds of decisions that are ultimately spiritually harmful to ourselves and our families - so long as we can keep that fantasy - that we, and not G-d, run the world - alive.
A case in point (this one I got from Rabbi Israel Miller in his insight-filled book: What's Wrong With Being Happy?):
A typical American Jewish married couple are the proud parents of a 12-year-old daughter. They are not at all Jewishly observant, but they want their child to grow up happy and healthy, and to marry a Jew. You point out to them what is happening in many public schools - drugs, teenage pregnancies, all sorts of horrors - and you also cite the statistics on the probabilities of today's Jewish children intermarrying when they weren't given a proper Jewish education. Finally, you suggest: "Why not enroll your daughter in a good Jewish day school? Even if you're not religious, do it to protect the child, as a kind of insurance that she should not be negatively impacted and that your grandchildren will be Jewish!"
And the Jewish father smiles and says: "I'm not worried. I know my daughter. She'll be okay." One might wonder how the man could be so na´ve. But this same man is not na´ve when it comes to his business or his stock portfolio, and he would not dream of putting his life savings into an investment which might just possibly collapse. Why is it that only with his own child is he so trusting, and willing to take such risks?
Of course, the answer is that even if the father is willing to examine the problem intellectually - in which case the decision should be fairly obvious - on the emotional level he refuses to consider it at all. He doesn't want to enter the world of reality; because reality might force him not only to agree with you and enroll his child in the day school, but it might push him to bring Jewish observance into his home as well (in order to accommodate his child's new learning), changing his entire life. And that is something he is just not willing to do.
So you see that it is possible to know the right thing to do - to clearly see the writing on the wall - and yet to avoid doing at all costs - because of what it might force us to do or become in the future.
With the story of the "suicidal" Egyptians of ancient times, the Torah is teaching us that only one who instills in himself a healthy "fear of G-d" - and is not afraid to submit to this Higher Power - will heed the warnings of the repercussions of his actions. And that fear of G-d comes from a lifetime of Torah study and mitzvah observance, which trains us to overcome the blocks of our yetzer hara and to realize the Divine truth that has always been there deep inside us all along.
What is so sad about this refusal by so many of us to submit to G-d and to realize His ultimate power over us - with all the negative repercussions that often stem from this delusional thinking - is that it is so unnecessary. It is often based on a fear of losing personal freedom, or a feeling that accepting G-d's will means forfeiting happiness, while the truth is the exact opposite. It is those of us inside the fantasy who live in fear; fear of reality, fear of facing ourselves and the fear that comes from being alone in the universe, without G-d giving you support from above.
If only we would realize that "giving it up for G-d" brings comfort and support where there was loneliness, happiness and contentment where there was fear, and ultimate meaning where there was existential angst, we would readily submit to our "Father in Heaven", greatly enhancing our lives in the process.