Parshas Shemos – The Real Test of Life


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The Rambam tells us that פרעה serves as a משל for us, an allegory that is intended by Hashem to teach us important lessons. He is a משל for the יצר הרע, that age-old nemesis of ours (כתבי הרמב”ם: אגרת המיוחס להרמב”ם אות כח). Now, פרעה existed, no doubt about it. All the stories that we read about in the Torah took place. Yet the Torah is much more than the history of our people, and the story of יציאת מצרים is much more than the story of the birth of our nation. We must realize that the stories of the Torah act as the guidebook that teaches us all the secrets of how we can live our lives successfully.

So the Rambam is telling us that although פרעה was an actual personality, yet he was foreseen and planned by Hashem as a model of the יצר הרע. Now, the Rambam is not a darshan; he’s not somebody from a hundred years ago. It’s the Rambam talking. And he’s telling us that פרעה represents the יצר הרע. Hr is telling us something that must be studied, an important idea that we should think deeply about.

The evil inclination is a force that Hashem put into this world in order to provide tests of virtue, and to reward those that withstand these tests and thereby develop the potential greatness of their souls. We all know about this יצר הרע that Hashem is testing us with. But how do we identify its weapons that are pointing at us? How do we defeat the Evil Inclination that is testing us? That’s the question that we will have to answer if we want to make something of ourselves.

And so, when the Torah tells us about פרעה, how he acted and behaved, his wiles and cunning, those words serve as guideposts to help us recognize the cunning wiles of the יצר הרע that we face. And by studying the ways of פרעה, we thereby become capable of succeeding in identifying the יצר הרע in our lives that we must triumph over. The words in our parsha hold the key to our success.

Now, we’re not capable of dealing with all the different variations of the יצר הרע in one lecture, but we’ll discuss one of the most insidious forms, one that we face all the time. And we will discuss an important and practical way to overcome this stumbling block, and to succeed at our purpose in life even as we face off in battle against the יצר הרע.


At the end of this week’s parsha, we read about Moshe Rabeinu approaching פרעה מלך מצרים and demanding, in the name of Hashem, that His children be allowed to set off into the desert in order to serve Him. שלח את עמי ויחוגו לי במדבר – “Send out My nation, and they will celebrate with Me in the desert” (Shemos 5:1). But פרעה is no pushover, he’s no milktoast, who’s just going to set free his supply of cheap labor because of a demand of some foreign G-d. “Why should I let allow them to go out into the desert just because their G-d is demanding it? Who’s the boss here after all? אני ואפסי עוד. And who’s to say that this will be the end of their wise ideas? Today it’s go out for a few days, and tomorrow they’ll want more.” פרעה was wise fellow; a wily and cunning king, who was not going to let this redemption unfold on his watch. And he therefore responds with a plan of his own to stop this movement in its tracks.


And so, פרעה puts new workplace rules and regulations into effect. And it wasn’t like today, where every new regulation is meant for the benefit of the employees. More time off for this, more time off for that. A longer lunch break, an extra coffee break. More compensation for less work. No, no, this was the good old days when people worked long hard days. And פרעה was about to make it worse.

“No more distribution of straw to the Jewish workers for their brick workload. Let them scrounge around on their own for the supply of straw that they need. And I won’t accept any reduction in the daily quota that we have always demanded. Most definitely they will need more time, many more hours to accomplish the additional labor that I’m demanding. But they’ll find the time; they can start a few hours earlier, work later into the night, whatever is needed; let them keep busy.”

Now, פרעה was a wise man. And he ran an efficient slave labor policy. No doubt about it. So what was he gaining by suddenly throwing the whole labor system into disarray? He had set in place an effective supply chain, and it was working just fine. And he wasn’t going to gain any better results from this upsetting of the system; it was going to be the same brick quotas filled as it always was. So what was פרעה thinking?!


And for the answer we turn to one of our favorite seforim, the Mesillas Yesharim. “The intent of פרעה was to leave no leisure time at all for them to consider or to formulate any plans against him. He attempted to divert their minds from any reflection, any ability to make plans, by means of never ending labor.” פרעה understood that the best solution for keeping the עם ישראל at bay, the best way to keep their minds off making any progress towards redemption, would be to keep them permanently busy with the travails of work. A man who is up early doing backbreaking labor in the fields, and he doesn’t return home until late at night, tired and weary, that man has no time, no physical or emotional strength to plan for the future. When a man is busy, he has no time, and no mental energy, to think about anything at all except for the work he’s doing. And so פרעה said: תכבד העבודה על האנשים ויעשו בה ואל ישעו בדברי שקר – “Let this work be heavy upon the men, and they should work continuously in it, and they will therefore not give attention to matters of falsehood.” תכבד העבודה! Be busy with all forms of labor! That was the cunning plan of פרעה.


The Mesillas Yesharim near the beginning of the first perek, says the following: כל עניני העולם ניסיונות הם לאדם – “All of the affairs of this world are tests for man.” He is declaring here, that this world is a place of tests, a place of ordeals. You think that it’s a world, and it happens to be that sometimes you are faced with a test. No, no, that’s a fundamental error that most people, even good people, make. Everything, all day, all night, everything is there to test you. How you react to all the phenomena of life is what you will be judged on. Everything in life is given to you for the purpose that you should be tested thereby. And the way you react, that will measure the success of your stay in this world, or otherwise חס ושלום.

Now, don’t think for even a minute that just hearing these words will do you any good. The Mesillas Yesharim states there: עד שנמצאת המלחמה אליו פנים ואחור – “Man is in a battle that comes upon him in front and from behind.” That means that on all sides he is being attacked. And it’s not merely that man finds himself in a battle. It’s a מלחמה חזקה, it’s a very strong, a very intense battle. Now a battle alone, is already a strong description for life. Nobody sitting here feels that he’s in the midst of fighting a battle. No; you just think that the Mesillas Yesharim here is exaggerating a bit, trying to get our attention. And that’s why you’re all losing the  battle.


You’re in the midst of a battle. And the battle is a מלחמה חזקה, a strong battle! A battle alone is strong; there’s no such thing as a battle that’s not strong. There’s no such thing as a comfortable battle. Any soldier will tell you that anytime bullets are whistling overhead, it’s not so comfortable. And this is more than a simple battle. If it’s a מלחמה חזקה, it means that not only are bullets whistling by, but they’re pouring down like hail. And it’s very difficult to dodge between the hail.

I always tell you the words of the חובות הלבבות. He tells us of a pious man who met a group of soldiers who were returning home with the spoils of war after vanquishing their enemy in fierce battle. And he said to them, “You have returned victoriously from the minor battle; now prepare yourselves for the real war, the war against the יצר הרע.” And these are not just words, empty words. This is the truth of life.

The great test that we are all facing is constant and unending, and therefore if you feel safe, if you feel comfortable and out of danger, then you must know that you are walking in this world completely unaware. Completely! And a man who walks through the battlefield unaware of the battle taking place around him will surely be mortally wounded by battle’s end.


You have to be aware that you’re in the midst of a battle all the time. And this cunning plan of פרעה to keep the עם ישראל busy, too busy to succeed, is one that we are subjected to all the days of our life. Because that is precisely the strategy that the יצר הרע is employing against us all the time. Most of us are so busy with our duties to our families, to our workplace, to our myriad of responsibilities, as well as to some pastimes as well, that we have no time to think about our true purpose in life. The יצר הרע fears that a person might take stock of his affairs and thereby become successful in this world.


Every person is beset by all the circumstances of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a tranquil period of your life or a more hectic and busy period. Either way, you’ll always be dealing with the business of life. Here’s a frum man. He wants to do what’s right; he’s not a lazy fellow. But the hours and minutes of his life are full. No time to spare. Making a parnassah, raising children, dealing with a spouse, and neighbors. People are weary, worn out physically and emotionally, dealing with the hustle and bustle of life. There’s no such thing as tranquility during the days of a man’s life, because no matter where you are in life, you’ll be a busy man.

If you’re a wealthy and successful man, you’re busy collecting the rent from all of your apartment buildings. You’re sitting in your comfortable chair in your office, opening the envelopes, counting the money coming in. You know that even counting money takes time. It’s fun to count money, but it takes time. Running a business keeps you busy. And if you’re not wealthy, if you’re poor, is it any better?! You’re going from one uncle to another, borrowing money. Borrowing from one g’mach to pay another. And if you’re just a regular fellow, not rich, not poor, you’re just as busy. You’re juggling the gas bill with the electric bill. You’re deciding between paying שכר לימוד to the cheder and the grocery bill. It’s not easy. It takes up your life. The hustle and bustle of lifeis a big responsibility, a big עול on a man’s shoulders.


And even when you’re not busy trying to make a living; in the morning or in the evening when you come home from work, you’re busy with your family; your spouse, your children. It’s an overwhelming responsibility. And it’s time consuming. A child is not a plant that you can merely put into the ground and water once a day. It’s all day, all night! There’s no rest in raising a Jewish family. Even for a goy it’s difficult, but we, the עם ישראל, who are busy raising large families בדרך התורה, it’s a thousand times busier.

And it doesn’t matter what role you play in this complicated world. Or what stage of life you may find yourself in. Either way, you’ll be busy. Do you realize what a mother is busy with? A Jewish mother is running a big company, she’s managing a complex of huge apartment buildings. And it all rests on her shoulders. What is she not busy with already? She’s a cook and a doctor and a peacemaker and a rebbi. She’s cleaning the house and washing their clothes, and trying to help with the parnasa as well. Have you ever seen a busier person in your life than a holy Jewish mother?!

And truthfully, that’s a משל for all of us. You could be a Beis Yaakov girl, or a boy in mesivta, a young choson or an old Bubby. Either way, you’re busy with life. Whatever you’re doing, you’re running from one thing to the next, non-stop.

And even the one who makes time for his עבודת השם; he’s careful to learn, daven, to do chesed. He’s a great man! But even he is busy. He’s running to shul, he’s davening. He’s קובע עיתים; he sets aside time to go to the בית כנסת at night to daven and to learn. But it’s still a hustle and bustle. That’s what he’s keeping himself busy with; but he’s still busy.

Every detail of life keeps you busy with life itself. And it’s not an accident. It’s all the plan of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. It’s the יצר הרע of תכבד העבודה imposing itself upon you so that you shouldn’t have the leisure time to contemplate the true purpose of life and to succeed. Oh yes, you might be a success in this busy world! You might be a successful businessman or accountant. You might be running a successful chesed organization and raising a frum family; or even be a successful melamed or rosh yeshivah. But whatever it is, you’re still too busy for your true purpose in life.


And I must tell you that there is a much more subtle manifestation of this יצר הרע of תכבד העבודה, that affects all of us, and all the time. And if we study it for a few minutes, and begin to understand the secret of the great test that this world is, we’ll have a much easier time overcoming it and succeeding.

In Koheles we read : וגם את העולם נתן בליבם – “Hakodosh Boruch Hu put the world into the minds of people,” מבלי אשר לא ימצא האדם את המעשה אשר עשה אלוקים מראש ועד סוף – “In order that people shouldn’t see the work that Hashem is doing from the beginning until the end” (Koheles 3:11).

Anyone who looks at the world we live in, notices immediately that all of the affairs of this world are in constant flux. The world around us is full of diversity and variety. There are various kinds of food and drink, and all types of flowers and trees and people. There are always simchas, and tragedies, incidents and stories, all the many various occasions. The news and the weather crowd onto your mind. All the happenings in the public sphere, the events of the far off countries whose names you can’t even spell. And the events in the lives of those close to you. What’s taking place in the street right now, and what’s taking place in your home. Your mind is always interested and involved in the variety that life offers.


This world is מחליף את הזמנים, constantly changing right before our very eyes, in a variety of different ways. So many things are always happening, and it draws you in. It’s bitter cold outside, and you’re discussing the cold. There is snow in the forecast, and for days you’re discussing the snow and its effects. You’re enthralled by the bright neon lights of life. I still remember, as a child, I must have been only two years old, and my mother was pushing me in the carriage, and I looked up and saw the flashing neon lights. I was in awe; it enthralled me. And that’s what this world does to you all the days of your life. It incites your curiosity, it excites you and draws you into its clutches. Your mind is always moving, thinking. Thoughts are flowing through your head all the time. וגם את העולם נתן בליבם – “And Hashem has put the world into our minds.”

And שלמה המלך noticed this early on in his career. And this wise man reveals to us the reason for this kaleidoscope of life that Hashem has set before our eyes. It’s no accident. It’s only the plan of Hashem. שלמה המלך says that it’s a test. A test! מבלי אשר לא ימצא האדם את המעשה אשר עשה אלוקים – “So that man should not be able to achieve the intention of Hashem in this world.”

Now, you didn’t know that, did you?! How could you even think of fulfilling your purpose in this world, of succeeding in serving Hashem, if you don’t even recognize the weapons of the enemy?


Hashem put all these things into our minds, that’s what it means את העולם נתן בליבם. And for what purpose? שלמה המלך tells us that the most significant purpose of this, is to see if you will be מסיח דעת, if you’ll forget about Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the One who is standing behind the kaleidoscope of life. We are being tested: Will we forget about Hashem when we see so many things taking place in our lives, and in the world so many objects and the various processes of life and history? Are you going to remember Him despite all the things that are going on around you?

Now I must tell you that this posuk means much more than even that. I want to explain to you an even more profound understanding of these words in קהלת. It’s not only that Hashem has set into the structure of this world so much variety and so many affairs of day to day life to keep you busy, but He has actually “placed this world into the hearts of man” – Hashem has planted into the hearts of man an instinctive attachment, even a love, for this world. It is the nature of Mankind that they feel attached to all the affairs of their personal lives. Every man, every normal person, has a mind that is tied up with himself, his family, his wife and his children, his block, his neighborhood, his parnasa. חן מקום על יושביו – “The place where a man settles finds favor in his eyes” (Sotah 47a). And מלמד שכל אחד ואחד יפה לו הקב”ה אומנותו בפניו – “Hashem intentionally made it that a person should feel an emotional attachment and love for his work” (Brachos 43b). Hashem has purposefully placed into man’s heart a deep connection, even a love, for the things in this world.

Now, if it wasn’t for this posuk, we might have said that this is one of the many חסדי השם that Hashem bestows upon Man. That we should feel an attachment, an interest, in all the affairs of our lives. We don’t appreciate it enough, but if it wasn’t for this instinct, life would always be a drag on a person, always a bore.


But while this is of course true, שלמה המלך here reveals to us a much deeper and much more profound intention of Hakodosh Boruch Hu: גם את העולם נתן בליבם מבלי אשר ימצא את המעשה אשר עשה האלוקים מראש ועד סוף – “Hashem has placed the world into the heart of man, in order that Man should not find, not realize, the true intention of Hashem in this world.” That doesn’t mean that Hashem doesn’t want you to uncover the secret of why you’re in this world, but that He wants it to be difficult to do. If Hashem had made your true purpose in this world so accessible and so simple to attain, then this world would be no test at all. And so Hashem made us love this world. He made us connect to this world, in order that we be pulled into all of the עניני העולם, all the affairs of עולם הזה, so that we should be constantly faced with a test. Not only is our attachment to this world a חסד for us, but it acts as a test to pull us away from our true purpose in life. And so we find ourselves in a מלחמה חזקה that is arrayed against us from פנים ואחור, from all sides.

Just like in a battle, when a soldier finds himself in the midst of a battle facing an enemy, and he’s able to overcome him, the enemy flees or better yet, he shoots him down. This soldier cannot sit down and take a rest. What’s doing in back of him? Immediately he has to turn around and confront a different foe. Because that’s what war is: פנים ואחור. On all sides we are confronted by תכבד העבודה. In life there’s no such thing as a vacuum; no such thing as a person living in perfect tranquility, where no tests are taking place. And the test of תכבד העבודה is always crowding in on a man constantly.


So we are caught up in the greatest battle, the מלחמה חזקה. And this deserves our focused attention. We are fighting this big battle all the time and therefore one of the first things we have to determine is what is the desired outcome  of this battle? What would a victory look like? If we are fighting a battle all the time, it behooves us to know very well what would be considered a triumph, so that we can prevail in this great test.

So for that we will look again into the Mesilas Yesharim: השלימות האמיתי הוא רק הדביקות בו יתברך – “The true perfection, the ultimate good, is only when a man is joined to Hakodosh Boruch Hu” (Perek 1). And that means, among other things, that when your mind is connected to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, that is the true success in life. Thinking about Hashem, that’s the true דביקות! No need for the secrets of the Torah or other things of that sort. You can be דבוק to Hashem with the mere use of your mind. When you sit here and you think about the Creator, you’re fulfilling not only a very important mitzvah in the Torah of ובו תדבק and ודבקה בו – “You should cling to Him,” but that itself means that you have been victorious in your battle versus the יצר הרע.

And so, the יצר הרע of תכבד העבודה and of נתן העולם בליבם are hard at work trying to prevent you from achieving the שלימות האמיתי, the true perfection that you were brought into this world for. Being busy with life, as well as your instinctive interest in this world, prevents you from being דבוק to Hashem. The יצר הרע is even willing to allow you to be busy all the time with doing mitzvos, as long as you’re busy enough to keep your mind off of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.


Let’s say you’re waiting for the light to change. You’re on your way to work, or to shul. Or maybe to pick up the children, or to catch a bus. Whatever it is, you’re busy. You’re most definitely busy with this world. It’s the great Evil Inclination of תכבד העבודה breathing down your neck. And it’s a great opportunity for achieving success in the midst of the difficult battle. So instead of wasting your time, and succumbing to the enemy facing you, you’d like to hit the foe over the head with a club. So while you’re standing there waiting for the light to turn green, that minute, or half minute, think about Hakodosh Boruch Hu. That’s the שלימות האמיתי; the little you, standing on the corner in Flatbush, is standing taller than anyone else! You’re clinging to Hashem!


And if you’ll think that He created the world, even better. It’s a great achievement, a successful conclusion to the battle. And its a מצוות עשה מן התורה! It’s no less than wearing תפילין מהודרין, because תפילין מהודרין cannot be better than a מצוות עשה. Women, listen to this well! Thinking about Hashem for a minute is no less than wearing תפילין. And it’s no less than wearing a set of the most beautiful תפילין available.

If you stand on the corner and think that Hakodosh Boruch Hu made the world, just for the time that it takes to say these words, you have already fulfilled this very important mitzvah of the Torah. ובו תדבק, we are commanded. And that’s exactly what you’re doing – you’re clinging to Him. That’s the שלימות האמיתי! The יצר הרע is not pulling any punches. He’s on the job, attacking you from all sides, keeping you as busy as possible and as attached to this world as he can, only to prevent you from this perfection of thinking about Hashem. And that’s exactly why you’re so busy and lost in your thoughts as you wait for the light to change. But if you think about Hashem for those few moments, then you have triumphed. And then if you think also at the next light or while you’re crossing the street, that Hashem took us out of מצרים, that’s a הידור on top of a הידור. That’s already much more than $350 tefillin. That’s $600 tefillin!!! (The Rav zatzal said these words in 1975). And it’s free of charge.


And this is not any גוזמא. It’s not the slightest exaggeration! If you want to be rich, all you need to do is stir the mind, to think that one thought  And if you’ll think about it for two minutes, that’s a הידור on top of a הידור on top of a הידור. And you’re a great person! If you can think two minutes, you’re an exceptional person in this world. You’re a rarity among men because there are very few like you. Even if you did it only once. And if you do it a number of times or even once a day, then you are making headway in this battle. And you can do it many times a day if you put your head to it. It’s not hard at all. If you would put your mind to it, if you would make that decision to fight this battle, you’d be a success. Always keeping this is mind, and taking advantage whenever you can, is your achievement in this world. You may be busy with life, you may be the busiest man in the world, but your mind is always free to think thoughts of Hashem.

And the Mesillas Yeshorim says that this is the טוב האמיתי, that is “the true good.” Not one of the good things. It is the true good! The true success of your life is הדביקות בו יתברך, that your mind should be on Hakodosh Boruch Hu. And that’s why you find people, good people, who do everything in life except for that. Special people who are willing to do a lot of good things, but not to think once about the בורא יתברך. Because it’s such a rare gem that not everybody finds it, and succeeds at digging it up. The gem of thinking about Hashem all day long, is so valuable that the יצר הרע allows you to find all the other treasures, of mitzvos and Torah; as long as he can keep you busy enough with these things and prevent you from finding the rarest and most valuable gem of הדביקות בו יתברך.

You think that by hearing this now, you have it in your pocket?! A nechtiger tug! Let’s see if you’ll remember his when you walk out of here tonight. You’ll walk out into the world, the עולם אשר נתן בליבם, the world that Hashem has placed into your heart. You walk out of here, and you’re right back into the grind of תכבד העבודה.


But I’m afraid that even me talking to you now is a waste of time. Because once you go out into the street, back to your home, it’s like you were hit over the head with a club. And you fall into a drunken stupor. And the days pass, and the years go by. And you’ve been lulled into a deep sleep. Everyone is sleepwalking through the grind of life. And maybe, when you’re an old man, you’ll look back and realize that you were so knocked out your whole life, you were being banged around all the time, it was so hectic, and you were so weary, that you missed the glorious opportunity of life.

And so, never lose sight that you’re standing before Hashem. When you’re slaving away in the kitchen, putting food into the oven while doing homework with the children, think of Hakodosh Boruch Hu: “Hashem, I know that I’m standing in front of you.” You’re standing on the train going to work, “Hashem, I know that You’re watching me.” And as you take a sefer off the shelf, “Hashem, You’re the only One in this world.” When you walk up the stairs in your home, “Hashem, I am walking with You.”

Anywhere you walk, you can be walking with Hashem. As you walk down the street, the fork in the road lies before you. Will you get caught up in the world around you; the stores, the people, the noise? Or will you be thinking about your Creator. I’ll give you a simple עצה. Say to yourself, “From this tree, until I get to that lamppost, I’ll be thinking that Hashem is watching me.” And you’re a success!


Once you understand what life is all about, once you become aware that all the processes of life are here for the purpose of testing you, and knocking you out, only then is success within reach. The יצר הרע of תכבד העבודה will always keep your mind preoccupied with this world. But all it is, is a test. Will you forget the purpose of life, or will you overcome all the disturbances, all the hectic activities, and you will continue to think always about Hakodosh Boruch Hu, no matter what? And that’s the השלימות האמיתי, the real perfection, and the טוב האמיתי, the real happiness of life. And that person, who is able to keep his mind on the true business of life, his loving Creator, is living successfully.


Have a wonderful Shabbos.