Parshas Va’erah – The Ten Makkos: Lessons in Awareness of Hashem


פרשת וארא

זכר ליציאת מצרים: WHAT ARE WE REMEMBERING?

All the days and nights of our lives, we find ourselves repeating again and again that Hashem took us out of מצרים. We wake up in the morning, and go to sleep at night with אני השם אלוקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים. The first of the עשרת הדברות, the foundation of everything: אני השם אלוקיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים. In davening we are constantly talking about יציאת מצרים. When we approach Hashem in שמונה עשרה, we do so only by being סומך גאולה לתפילה, after first reminding ourselves of יציאת מצרים. Every Shabbos, every Yom Tov, when we say kiddush and daven, and by so many other mitzvos we are reminding ourselves about our redemption from מצרים. All the days of our lives it’s “זכר ליציאת מצרים”. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

But to just say the words superficially, without any thought, no matter how many times it is said, it will not have the effect that Hashem desires. We have to realize and internalize what we are talking about when we say these words זכר ליציאת מצרים. He redeemed us from Egypt!


Now, are we merely celebrating our salvation from slavery?! If that’s all it was, then it could have happened something like this. There would have been a meeting between פרעה and his ministers. It’s after 210 years and the מצריים have been persecuting the Jews terribly. And פרעה has been adamant about not letting them go free. And finally, פרעה has a meeting with his cabinet, and suddenly in the Alexandrian Times, in the Cairo Tribune, it’s headlines, on the front page: Bombshell Report: Pharaoh To Set Israelites Free Before End of the Month. Hashem could have made it happen that way; why not?!

Hashem could have taken us out easily, in a natural way. He could have sent a dream to פרעה, like he had sent to לבן הארמי when he was chasing after Yaakov. Or like He had sent a dream to the old פרעה and to the king of the Plishtim in the time of Avraham Avinu. And פרעה would have gotten up in the morning, and he would have called together his counselors and he would have said, “Look people, I’ve decided to let the בני ישראל go.” And we would have danced out of מצרים with exhilarating joy. “Were finally, after 210 years, going free from מצרים, the land from which no slave has ever escaped!!”


But it didn’t happen that way. Hakodosh Boruch Hu didn’t merely bring us out in a “natural” way. We didn’t sneak out of מצרים in the middle of the night. And neither did Hashem prod the heart of פרעה to set us free for some rational reasons. Instead, Hashem did it ביד חזקה, with His “Mighty Arm,” which means that He turned all of nature upside down for us. What happened in מצרים was a revelation of the strong Hand of Hashem coming crashing down on the head of the מצריים, until Hashem decided it was enough. Hakodosh Boruch Hu made the heart of פרעה hard; He took away his free will. A very unusual case. He didn’t let פרעה set free the עם ישראל.

So we ask ourselves: What was the purpose of this long, drawn out charade that Hashem was playing with the מצריים? If it was time for the בני ישראל to leave, let’s do it already. Why did Hakodosh Boruch Hu have toy around with the מצריים for month after month, grabbing them by the collar and smashing their heads into the ground over and over again, while the בני ישראל, sat on the sidelines watching, and waiting with bated breath for their day of freedom to finally arrive?


So listen well to the answer, because if you understand this, you understand the secret behind זכר ליצאת מצרים. The Chovos Halevavos, at the end of שער הבחינה, tells us that one of the greatest gifts that Hashem gives to the עם ישראל, is the miracles that He performs: הגדולה שבטובות שהיטיב בהם הבורא לאדם… הוא הראות המופתים הנוראים – “One of the greatest gifts that Hashem has bestowed upon us, is the changes in the natural order, the revelation of His awesome wonders.” And why is it such a great gift? The Chovos Halevovos explains: Hashem shows us His יד הגדולה, His Great Hand, in order that we should become aware of His overwhelming power and control over everything in this world. And we thereby can achieve the tangible understanding כי השם הוא האלוקים אין עוד מלבדו – that Hashem, the G-d of Israel, is the only power in the universe, and that there is nothing else besides Him.

Do you hear that חידוש? A נס is a gift, but not a gift of salvation. A much more valuable gift – the gift of awareness  of Hashem. People don’t understand that. People think that a נס is merely that I was in trouble, and then Hashem came and saved me from my troubles. No, that’s an error; it’s a misunderstanding of what a נס is. Hashem could have saved you in other, more natural ways, without performing a miracle. What a נס really is, is a gift of emunah, a shot-in-the-arm of awareness of Hashem. A נס is a totally convincing phenomenon which testifies to the existence of Hashem in this world. You might want to be an עקשן, a stubborn mule, but you can’t help yourself when you see Hashem. A נס acts as a tremendous גילוי שכינה, a tremendous revelation of Hashem, which is meant to sear into our minds His overwhelming power and control.


And that’s exactly why Hashem took us out of מצרים with His Mighty Hand. He wanted to give us the gift of emunah, the gift of awareness of Him. And Hashem made this very clear to us in the beginning of this week’s parsha, when He spoke to His enslaved nation: אני השם – “I am Hashem.” “And how I am I going to show you that I am Hashem”? והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים… בזרוע נטויה ובשפטים גדולים – By “taking you out from under the burdens of Egypt with an outstretched arm and wondrous punishments.” And through that grand spectacle, וידעתם כי אני השם אלוקיכם – “You will know – truly know – that I am Hashem your G-d” (Shemos 7:6-7).


Hashem was telling the בני ישראל: “I am taking you out of מצרים with a Mighty Hand only because I want you to see My Mighty Hand. So you’ll tell me that you know  already?! No, no. I’m going to take you out in such a manner that you’ll truly know Me forever!” אני השם אלוקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלוקים! You have no idea what was accomplished by each makkah! Each one was another shiur in דעת השם. Like it says, וידעו מצרים כי אני השם – “And Egypt shall know that I am Hashem” (ibid. 7:5). And if the מצריים saw Hashem, then the בני ישראל, the intended recipients of the lessons, saw Him a thousand times more.

And that’s why, over and over again, we read: ואני אקשה את לב פרעה – “And I will harden the heart of Pharaoh.” The great principle upon which this world operates, the principle of בחירה, was turned over on its head! And for what? והרביתי את אותותי ואת מופתי בארץ מצרים, so that I, Hashem, can put on a magnificent show of My power. These great events in Egypt were intended as the source of greatness for the עם ישראל. By means of the wonders witnessed in the land, Hashem’s children were to unleash a fountain of Awareness that the Creator is the G-d of Israel, and is in full control of all of nature, which He manipulates solely for the sake of His people.


And the gifts of Hashem did not go to waste. When the בני ישראל saw the hand of Hashem, the יד חזקה, demonstrated openly again and again, they didn’t remain passive. They went wild with enthusiasm and crazy with emunah. They were ecstatic with love of Hashem. The עם ישראל walked the streets, watching Hashem toy with the helpless Egyptians. !אשר התעללתי במצרים Hashem was playing with the Egyptians putting on a show of emunah for us. And we, the spectators, watched with enthusiasm and saw Hashem every step of the way.

Now, if Hashem wouldn’t have hardened the heart of פרעה, and he would have just let the בני ישראל out of מצרים on his own, I have no doubt that they would have walked out delirious with joy, bursting with happiness. But that wasn’t the primary goal here. Hashem wanted us to be delirious, but not only because of our newfound freedom, but more importantly to be delirious with emunah and Awareness of Hashem. And that’s why the בני ישראל were only set free after ten long plagues, ten long lessons in דעת השם.


ויהי דם בכל ארץ מצרים – “And there was blood in all the land of Egypt” (ibid. 7:21). You have to know that the Torah here is being very stingy with its words. You know what that meant for מצרים?! All the water is blood! The whole land was in turmoil! From the Ipuwer Papyrus, composed by an ancient Egyptian sage who witnessed these events with his own eyes, we can only begin to imagine the turmoil: “The river is blood…Blood is everywhere… Men shrink in disgust from tasting…That is our water…What shall we do? Everything is in ruination!” The magnificent blessing of the Nile that always bestowed happiness upon the land now became a curse. The blessed elixir of life which flowed day and night, now become a a disgusting and loathsome nuisance.

The Jew watched as his Egyptian neighbor recoiled and grew faint at the sight and smell of the sickly red torrent. A revolting miasma came up from all the streams of Egypt, streams that led to the private fields, gardens and homes of every Egyptian. The Egyptians lost all semblance of appetite, and spent their days and nights retching and vomiting at the sight and odor of the revolting fluid. Normal life in Egypt came to an abrupt standstill, and now, for the first time in the history of this wealthy land, thirst became the chief matter of the land. Everywhere, the infirm and aged lay dead; and the nation of slave owners groaned in the depths of despair.


And the בני ישראל looked on with wide open eyes. They were now seeing with their eyes the Hand of Hashem. It wasn’t just stam an idea in their head, some faint glimmer of belief in Hashem, merely a name in the prayer book. No, it was really Hashem, acting out against their persecutors on their behalf, with wonders that turned nature upside down. They saw Hashem with their flesh and blood eyes.

The Jew looked out of his window and watched as large groups of wailing מצריים gathered on the bank of the Nile, staring in horror and disgust at the flowing torrent of blood, in the place where moments ago ran fresh water. In the fields they saw lone Egyptians crawling on their stomachs, desperately digging into the ground with their bare hands, in hope of finding an underwater spring. And Hashem, knowing that the Jew looked on, played with the מצרי so that the Jew could gain even more awareness of Him. When the Egyptian, after hours of digging would find  a trickle of fresh water, he would desperately bring the cup to his lips. And the Jew watched as the water turned to blood as it poured into his mouth. And the Jew was ecstatic, delirious with joy at seeing the יד השם, and the posuk of וידעתם כי אני השם אלוקיכם was being fulfilled to its utmost.

And when the first lesson of Awareness of Hashem finally came to an end, the Jewish People had grown in knowledge of Hashem and they were delirious with excitement. And not just excitement about nothing, like people get excited about today. They were excited about Hashem! And now, with their newfound emunah, they were ready to make their way out of מצרים.


No, no. They weren’t ready yet. The first makkah was only the first lesson in what was to be a full year of the great teaching of אני השם אלוקיכם. The בני ישראל were going to receive ten shiurim, ten classes of דעת השם, from the best Rebbi in the world. They were ten lessons whereby the בני ישראל became more and more aware of השם אלוקי ישראל, who was protecting them.

The quality of emunah is not merely a statement of belief, a willingness to subscribe to some vague concept. You don’t just sign on the dotted line, “I believe,” and you’re done. You signed on to emunah and you’re finished?! And don’t tell me stories about emunah p’shuta! Real emunah is not p’shuta at all.


You know, if you want to be an accountant, or a plumber, you can’t just sign on the dotted line, “I am hereby willing to be a plumber.” And you don’t just go to school for a month to train, and then you’re all finished, ready to join the plumbers union. Plumbing is an אומנות, a trade, and it takes time and effort to learn a trade. Now, emunah, what we call דעת השם, is an אומנות that is a thousand times more important than any other אומנות in the world.

The quality of emunah is much deeper than merely agreeing to something. It is a store of awareness which can continue increasing in infinite progressions. And every extra step forward is a great achievement.


And so, before the Egyptians even had time to recuperate from the first makkah, the frogs came upon the land from all the rivers of Egypt. They were croaking all day and all night. The Yisroel peeked into the home of his Egyptian neighbor and watched as the family helplessly flailed away with brooms at the thousands of frogs that had filled their home. All over Egypt, wherever they walked, the מצריים stepped on frogs and squashed them. And the land stank because of the frogs. ותבאש הארץ – “The land stank [because of the dead frogs piling up]” (ibid. 8:10). And nighttime brought no respite for the weary Egyptians. Even while lying in bed, they were awakened by the incessant croaking of these unwelcome invaders who would creep into their beds and contaminate the clean sheets. And the Jew would fall asleep in his comfortable bed, listening to the groans of anguish emanating from every Egyptian home.

Mealtime was transformed from a time of feasting to a time of disgust. When slicing open a loaf of bread, the sight of a sliced frog inside the bread robbed them of any desire to eat. And even the aristocrats in the palace weren’t spared. When they baked a big pie for פרעה, and placed it before him on his royal table, they found a frog baked into the dough. It says that openly: ובמשארותיך – And in your bowls of  dough, frogs crept.” And the big bad פרעה, the one whom before people cringed in fear, was suddenly not so important anymore. Upon biting into his pastry and finding a piece of frog embedded in the place where he had bitten, פרעה vomited onto the palace floor.

Everything tasted of frog, even the food cooked in the ovens. ובתנוריך! And the frogs, in the thousands, jumped into the hot ovens, and crawled into the foods. All the conveniences and pleasures of this wealthy land became befouled and ruined. Their large kitchens and comfortable bedrooms became places of consternation with frogs everywhere.


And the בני ישראל did not waste the opportunity. They watched and transformed the sights into דעת השם. The father stood by the open door and called to his wife and children: “Chanaleh, kinderlech, come here quickly. Come look! Look at the frogs coming from everywhere. Did you ever think you would see so many frogs at one time?! And look at the מצריים running away! Look well, because this is the יד השם taking revenge for everything that the מצריים have done to us. Hashem is fighting on our behalf! Keep your eyes and your mind wide open!”


And then came the כינים. Hakodosh Boruch Hu had only begun his special set of classes of Awareness of Hashem. Lesson number three for the בני ישראל was about to begin. The whole land turned into lice. The earth of Egypt was the most beloved soil in the world, the most fertile soil. You know that the Nile rises every year and floods over the banks of the river. And then, when the Nile recedes, it leaves over a rich loam, that makes Egypt the very best place for agriculture. They loved their soil; it was their lifeline, their sustenance. They would pick up the soil and kiss it. It was such a treasure, they enjoyed just the sight of it.

And now, when they picked up a handful of soil, it was full of bugs, all kinds of bugs that attach themselves to the body. Every kind of louse sucked into their body and made sores on them. They became ill with every type of sickness that was spread by the overwhelming abundance of lice. The country of Egypt was tottering on its weak legs. In the streets, people couldn’t even walk. They would hold themselves up by the sides of the homes, as they tried to regain their balance. But the infections were already in the blood supply, and they were falling dead in the street. And the Jew would walk outside and wander the streets taking in the sights, completely unmolested by the abundance of lice.


As each plague came upon the מצריים, the בני ישראל sat in their homes, and they spoke late into the night about the Mighty Hand of Hashem that they were witnessing right outside their doors. They walked on the streets and conversed excitedly amongst themselves about the marvels that they were being shown by Hashem. They were squeezing out as much emunah as they could. And the awareness of Hashem became engraved on their minds in a manner far beyond our ability to comprehend.

And the truth is that we could also speak all night about the יד חזקה of Hashem that the בני ישראל were witnessing day after day. Only that you all want to go home tonight. You have to get up for work tomorrow morning. But for the בני ישראל, they were too excited to fall asleep. They were waiting, their hearts and minds pulsing with excitement – “What will the Hand of Hashem bring tomorrow morning?!” Every day, every minute, they were becoming more and more aware of Hashem. Or course they were, because that was the primary purpose of the makkos. Every detail that they witnessed was another step forward in the great עבודה of becoming aware of Hashem’s complete control over everything.

But these gifts of emunah weren’t intended merely for our ancestors in מצרים. Hashem wanted to gift all the future generations as well.Us too! Yes, even we who are sitting here now! Hashem wants that we too should grow great in the awareness of Hashem.

And that’s why Hashem commanded us והגדת לבנך. Every father and mother must tell over to their children, the stories of what happened in מצרים. And their children relate the events to their own progeny. And over three thousand years later, we are still benefiting from the great gift of the miracles of יציאת מצרים, and becoming more and more aware of Hashem.

But what is the use of a gift that one never looks at? If someone gave you a beautiful watch, and you just put it away in your drawer to never use, then what you are doing is scorning the gift. And the daily repetitions of זכר ליציאת מצרים, and the few hours we spend at the Pesach seder are not the way to properly utilize the gift of יציאת מצרים. And that’s because we are always speaking in general terms. And even when we are willing to donate some of our thoughts to זכר ליציאת מצרים, we think in vague terms: יד חזקה, “The strong hand of Hashem.” אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים, “Who took you out of the land of Egypt.” And while repetition does something, all of these vague ideas leave vague impressions on our minds. The effect on us is very faint; very weak.


And so we’ll discuss something tonight that might sound new to your ears, but you should listen well because it’s so very important. And that is what we will call עבודת הציור, the great עבודת השם of creating pictures in your mind that will last with you forever.

The unfolding events that the בני ישראל witnessed were actually gifts of ציורים, pictures in the mind, that would stay with them forever. With their own eyes they saw the חוזק יד, the Mighty Hand of Hashem wreaking havoc on their enemies. And those pictures would remain in their minds forever. Seeing is believing! (see Mechila Shemos 19:9). And that’s what the בני ישראל were doing day and night – seeing the Hand of Hashem. Every detail  witnessed, created a ציור, a picture, in their minds that strengthened their awareness forever and ever.

But what could we do already?! It’s more than three-thousand years since that glorious period of our history. We didn’t see anything. Our fathers didn’t see. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers didn’t see. We weren’t there to see the חוזק יד of Hashem.


So I’ll tell you what the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel, said: אינו דומה שמיעה לראייה, hearing about something won’t have the same effect on you as actually seeing it with your own eyes. And so too, there is no comparison between the ראיית העינים , the vision of your eyes, and the ראיית השכל, the visions that one creates in his mind. A sight that your eyes of flesh and blood see will dissipate after time. But the ציורי השכל, the pictures that one creates in his mind, are seared into his soul forever.

And so that is our job in this world. To create pictures in our minds. Shlomo Hamelech said ובדעת חדרים ימלאו כל הון יקר ונעים – “And with da’as, the rooms become filled with all the precious and pleasant wealth” (Mishlei 24:4).This means that every person should fill his mind with beautiful furniture. It is your mind that you will take with you to the Next World. Your mind is your future because your thoughts are what you will be left with at the end. And therefore your goal in this world is to fill your mind with all forms of beautiful and expensive furniture. And when a person fills his mind with דעת, then he has acquired all the true wealth of this world.

But what is this דעת that Shlomo is referring to? And how do we fill our minds with it? So you have to understand that there are two types of furniture that a person must acquire in this world for the purpose of furnishing his mind. One is חכמה, information, and the second is דעת, knowledge. חכמה is the knowledge of facts, the acquisition of information, and this is very important. Everyone is obligated to fill their mind with as much Torah information as possible. The words of Chazal, the Torah seforim, and the mussar seforim must fill our minds. And a lot of us are doing a pretty good job at that. We are filling our minds with Torah information, the חכמה of the Torah.

However, that חכמה is not enough. That’s not called precious furniture. Shlomo Hamelech said; בדעת ימלאו, if you fill your mind with דעת, that’s a mind that is  furnished with all good things. What is דעת? How is דעת different than חכמה?

When you fill your mind with Torah information, it is still somewhat superficial. It hasn’t become part of your personality. It’s only when you take the חכמה, the ideas of the Torah that you read, and you make them real by transforming them into your own attitudes, only then have you accomplished the achievement of דעת. Because חכמה on its own doesn’t affect the attitudes and actions of theperson. חכמה won’t change you. It’s only when you  transforms the חכמה into דעת, that’s what leads to your perfection.


And that’s where ציורי השכל, pictures of the mind, comes into play. The way to acquire the דעת השם that we came into this world for, is by donating your time, and your mind, to meditating on the great events in our history. It is through שימת לבו וריכוז מחשבתו on this חכמה, that a person takes this חכמה and transforms it into something that changes his personality. By concentrated thinking on the information you already have, the ideas begin to seep into your heart.

One way to accomplish this, is by the process of breaking down your acquired information into details. You take a piece of of חכמה and break it down in your mind into its details. And you think about them. You meditate on יציאת מצרים and you create pictures in your mind. And the more details, and the more pictures, the better. Because as your mind becomes full with detailed pictures of the stories of the Torah, you begin to actually live the stories. And you can gain the same benefits as those who were actually there in מצרים.


I’ll give you a picture of a Jew who used to live that way. Once a talmid in the Radiner Yeshiva peeked into the keyhole of the Chofetz Chaim’s room. It wasn’t a nice thing to do but he did it. He wanted to see what the Chofetz Chaim was doing. The Chofetz Chaim had a little room in the attic , so this bochur peeked through the keyhole and saw the Chofetz Chaim sitting on the edge of his bed holding a chumash. Now, it wasn’t the week of פרשת וארא. It wasn’t Pesach. It was the middle of the year. But the Chofetz Chaim was a Jew who lived Judaism. He wasn’t the stereotype who just followed; someone who would mention יציאת מצרים during davening in the morning, and then forget about it for the rest of the day. “I discharged my obligation and I’m finished with יציאת מצרים for the rest of the day until the nighttime. And then I’ll perfunctorily mention it again and forget about it right away.” No; the Chofetz Chaim lived יציאת מצרים. So this talmid saw the Chofetz Chaim sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a chumash. And he was reading the story of the makos that came upon פרעה and Mitzrayim. And he was saying as follows: “A makkah came on Pharaoh! גוט אויף עהם! Good for him!” he said.

The Chofetz Chaim was an old sage; he had been through this for years. He was an old man and he had studied it with all the meforshim, you can be sure.  But the Chofetz Chaim wanted to relive these great moments to re-enact the great events of our history. He lived יציאת מצרים. And as he sat on his bed, he was picturing exactly what happened. In the mind of the Chofetz Chaim were all the ציורי השכל that make a Jew great. He saw פרעה sitting, let’s say, on his bed, his royal couch, and he was scratching on all sides. He couldn’t escape it even in his royal chambers. והיה הכינם בכל הארץ. And the Chofetz Chaim is picturing it. Under the purple robe, under the velvet, under the satin, the lice were crawling all over the skin of פרעה. And פרעה was cursing; he was stamping his feet. He was calling for exterminators, but nothing would help. And the Chofetz Chaim was picturing that, and he was saying “גוט אויף עהם, good for him!”

Now, that’s the briefest kind of report, because that boy didn’t have the nerve to look for too long.  He felt he was eavesdropping on the shechina when he looked at the Chofetz Chaim through the peephole. But that brief report opens up for us a whole new way of understanding what greatness truly is.

And once you begin to fill your mind with all the ציורים of the Mighty Hand of Hashem, those pictures of emunah are stored in your head forever. And then, whenever you mention יציאת מצרים in your daily life, whenever you mention the strength of Hashem, and even when you merely mention His name, your store of pictures is awakened. And those images infuse your words with an energy of emunah that make you greater and greater each time you say those words. And instead of being hollow words that mean very little, your words transform you into a person who lives all day long with דעת השם seared into your soul. אני השם אלוקיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים becomes words that excite your mind. The words הא-ל הגדול הגיבור mean so much more to the person who already has pictures of Hashem’s overwhelming power flowing through his mind. And all day long you’re growing more and more perfect in love of Hashem.


And therefore, we too can take full advantage of all the miracles that Hashem performed for us at יציאת מצרים. But the only way to accomplish this, is with ציורי השכל, creating pictures in your mind. There is so much information, חכמה, about יציאת מצרים that is available for us to choose from. But the only way to gain the emunah is by taking the time to think deeply and passionately about these stories. It won’t come with a mere few words, or few thoughts here and there. You have to create time for yourself to relive all the details that our ancestors witnessed in מצרים. And the more time and effort that you put into meditating on these great events of our past, the closer you get to actually feeling that you yourself walked out of Mitzrayim. כאילו הוא בעצמו יצא עתה משעבוד מצרים – “As if you yourself just now left Mitzrayim” (Rambam Hilchos Chametz U’Matzah 7:6). And then, just like our ancestors in מצרים achieved the greatest heights of emunah by witnessing the יד השם, so too will you gain that greatness.


Have a wonderful Shabbos.