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Parshat Va'eira (5761)
In this week’s section G-d smites Mitzriam with the first seven of ten plagues.
But we see something interesting; before G-d sent the first plague He commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh and show him a ‘sign’: turn Aharon’s staff into a snake.
At first glance there was no purpose in this ‘sign’. First of all, it wasn’t a plague so it couldn’t scare anyone. Second, G-d certainly knew that Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do the same trick, so it wasn’t even going to impress anyone.
And finally, G-d informed Moshe just a few sentences earlier that Pharaoh would harden his heart. So even if it was a plague and no one else could duplicate it, it still wasn’t going to accomplish anything.
So why did G-d do it? I would like to answer this with a story.
The founder of Chassidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem, (called the Baal Shem Tov or the Besh’t for short) knew not only all the secrets of the Torah and of creation, but also the greatest secret of all; what each man’s purpose is in this world.
Those who completely believed this and followed his directions were called his Chassidim.
To each of his Chassidim he revealed his task in life, and to one, who is the hero of our story, he instructed to tell people stories about …. the Baal Shem Tov.
“You will know when to stop” the Besh’t explained.
For over ten years the Chassid diligently and joyously carried out his assignment traveling, wandering from town to town telling thousands of people the ‘Baal Shem’ miracles he had witnessed or heard about.
Then, one day, someone told him that there was a rich Jew in Vitebsk that actually paid money for such stories; ten rubles (at that time a huge amount) for every new one and five for those he had already heard, plus traveling expenses. It was a two-day journey but to our hero it seemed like minutes. He knew hundreds of stories and he really needed the money!
When he arrived at the rich man’s plush home it was already late Thursday evening and he was so tired from the road that he only wanted to sleep, but there would always be tomorrow.
But he woke late Friday afternoon and by the time he finished praying it was already time to get ready for Shabbat, but there would be Shabbos. Unfortunately that evening at the Shabbat dinner, try as he could, he just couldn’t remember any stories, not even one. He thought that after a good night’s rest his mind would be sharper, but it wasn’t.
And the next day it was the same story; he would begin a story and suddenly his mind would go completely blank. He thought that perhaps he was going mad. No matter what he did had no results. He even remained for another two days but it was obvious; something strange was going on and he had forgotten everything, he had no other choice than to shamefacedly give up.
The wealthy man was very disappointed but against all hope he accompanied the Chassid in the carriage ride to the train, perhaps at the last moment some story would pop into his mind … but it didn’t.
They got out of the carriage and walked to the station where the rich man bought the Chassid’s train ticket, slipped a few silver coins in his pocket so he wouldn’t feel completely broken, and escorted him to the train. Then, as he put his foot on the first step going up to the car he remembered … “A story!!! OOWAH! I Remember a STORY!’ he shouted.
“Come, come back to my carriage,” Said the rich man excitedly, “Please, let’s not waste a moment!! They returned, entered, sat facing one another and the Chassid began:
“Once the Baal Shem took ten Chassidim and told them to get in his carriage shortly before Shabbat.
They didn’t ask any questions, they were used to such ‘journeys’. They entered and sat down and as usual they immediately felt as though the carriage was flying in the air and moments later landed. “They got out and found that they were in a place they had never seen before. It was a large empty town square that was completely deserted.
Even the stores were all closed, and off to one side stood a stage or pulpit, that looked recently built, surrounded by several large Crosses and flaming torches as though there was about to be some sort of large outdoor Church ceremony.
“The Besh’t told them to follow him as he quickly left the square, walked quickly through some winding streets, and in just minutes went through the gates of what was obviously the Jewish Ghetto. He stopped before one of the houses and began pounding on the door until a small peek hole opened up and someone frantically whispered from inside.
“‘Are you mad?!! What are you doing out there?? !!’ Several bolts and locks clicked and slid until the door opened and the owner frantically motioned for all of them to enter, slamming it shut behind them.
“‘Tonight is one of their terrible holidays! The worst of the worst!!’ he said short of breath as he was re-closing the bolts and locks as fast as possible. “You’re lucky I let you in! In another few minutes the entire town square is going to be filled with bloodthirsty Jew-haters from all around, and the devil himself, Bishop Thaddeus, Yemach Shmo (may his name be erased), will give his annual Easter speech. It’s full of venom against us.
Come, follow me we will make place for you in our underground shelter. Come!! We mustn’t waste an instant! Before they start going wild.’”
“But the Besh’t turned to one of his pupils and calmly said. ‘Go back to the square, and when the Bishop begins to speak, go up to the stage, pull on his robe, and tell him that I want to speak to him urgently.’
“The owner of the house was shocked! He watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the Chassid actually began to re-open the bolts, open the door and slip outside. He didn’t know if he should lock them again or not, he’d never seen anything like it in his life!! It was like seeing someone walk into a fiery furnace!!
“The Chassid, once outside, made his way back through the winding streets till he reached the Square. It was already filled with thousands of people and more were silently arriving from all sides, a strange cold silence hung in the air and it was beginning to get dark.
“The Bishop strode to the front of the stage as from nowhere and stood imposingly before the crowd in his bright crimson robes and high pointed red hat. The torchlight danced weirdly in his eyes and made the huge golden cross hanging around his neck gleam diabolically. To make matters worse the fires and huge crosses surrounding the stage reminded the Chassid of the stories he had heard of the Inquisition. But he pushed all these thoughts from his mind, waited for the Bishop to begin, closed his eyes for a moment, whispered “Shma Yisroel……” and, with his head down, began gently pushing his way to the podium.
“Amazingly no one even noticed him. They were so transfixed on the Bishop that they just moved out of the way and before he knew it he reached the front. He took a deep breath, said another ‘Shma Yisroel’, grabbed the robe of the Bishop and pulled twice.
“The Bishop was just beginning his tirade when he felt the tug at his garment and looked down. He was startled, outraged, his face became livid with anger, but before he could utter a sound the Chassid looked him in the eyes and said, ‘The Baal Shem Tov wants to see you, and he says you should come urgently’.
“Suddenly the Bishop’s face became pale and his eyes opened wide as though he was afraid. ‘Not now!’ he whispered after a few seconds of confusion. ‘Tell him that I won’t come now. Later! Tell him later! Go AWAY!’
“Miraculously, the entire crowd was all still standing like statues as though hypnotized and noticed none of this. So the Chassid backed his way out, and returned alone to the Besht, convinced that he had fulfilled his mission.
“But the Besht wasn’t pleased, ‘Go back and tell the Bishop that if he doesn’t come now it will be too late’. “Without hesitation the Chassid turned and did as he was told. He left the house, returned to the Town Center, pushed his way through the crowd, and pulled on the Bishop’s robe just as before..
“But this time when the Bishop heard the Besht’s message, he was really stunned. He took a few steps back, put his head in his hands and then, turning his face to heaven he yelled to the crowd. ‘I’m receiving a message from the lord!! I must be alone!’
“He motioned the Chassid to leave, watched him as he walked toward the Jewish section and then he himself descended from the back of the stage and headed in that direction holding his hat under his arm. Minutes later he was standing with the Chassid before the house in the Jewish quarter. ‘Tell him to remove his crosses before he enters!’ Yelled the Besh’t from inside. The Bishop did so and as he entered the house and saw the face of the Holy man he fell to the floor and began weeping like a baby!
“ The Baal Shem turned to the others and explained. ‘The Bishop was born a Jew. He even had a Bar Mitzvah. But shortly thereafter he was lured to the Church and eventually became the anti-Semite he is today. I saw in heaven that now was a propitious time to bring him to his senses.’
“After the Bishop stopped crying the Besh’t told him to stand and follow him into a side room where they closed the door and spoke for several minutes.
No one knows what they said in there, but after a while the Bishop came out dressed in different clothes, left the house and no one has seen him since.
And that is the end of the story.”
The Chassid looked at the rich man and saw that he was smiling with contentment; he liked the story. He liked it so much that he put his hand over his eyes and tears began rolling down his face, he was crying, weeping from sheer happiness.
“That is the story I’ve been waiting for,” he said. He dried his eyes, looked at the Chassid and continued. “I am the Bishop in your story!! The Baal Shem Tov told me in that side room to live a life of repentance until someone came and told me my own story. Now I know my prayers have been accepted by G-d.”
The Bishop became completely transformed through a story. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is the foundation of Judaism; it reminds us that G-d controls the world.
Not only is it constantly mentioned in all our prayers, there is also a Commandment to remember it every day, and it is the beginning of the Ten Commandments.
But most important of all, it is the source for the belief in the coming of, Moshiach and the future redemption that he will bring. (See first Mitzva in Sefer HaMitzvot Katan SM’K)
The Moshiach will be greater than Moshe; like Moshe he will take us out of all spiritual and physical bondage but unlike Moshe he will transform evil it to good rather than destroying it as Moshe did to Egypt.
That is why G-d wanted us to read of how the Staff (which represents Holiness), turned to a Serpent, (representing evil.) and then back to a staff, (to show that the true source of evil is really G-d Himself) which then swallowed those of Pharaoh (As it will be ONLY in the future redemption when G-d and the Creation will be one).
Because this story has the power to transform all who read it Something like how the Bishop became transformed before the storyteller’s eyes from ‘third person’ (the story was told about him) to second person (the story was told to him), to first person (he found his true self).
In the future redemption all the negative things in the world that seem to be far from G-d (third person) will first begin to cooperate with G-d (second person) and eventually unite with the Truth.
And when we read this story we, like the Bishop when he heard his story, will begin to want the Truth; that G-d is One, there is nothing but Him, and we will desire and think constantly about bringing the complete redemption through…
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