Rabbi’s Corner

Our present determines our future

Rabbi Israel Becker
Rabbi Israel Becker

Two weeks ago, we read that Moses’ father-in-law Yisro’s life changed forever when he heard of the massive miracles that occurred for the Jewish people as they left Egypt. At our Pesach seder, we remember these miracles, the 10 plagues, the splitting of the sea, etc. But one dimension of the story made the biggest impression on Yisro. Rashi, the great 11th century Torah commentator, explains Exodus 18:9 by saying, “But above them all … no slave was able to escape from Egypt for the borders of the land were sealed, but the Jewish people left 600,000 strong.” We actually just walked out in broad daylight. In recent history, we experienced the closed walls of the Iron Curtain. Yet, even from within those walls there were individuals who escaped and there were others who were able to leave after many difficult years of perseverance. Not so with Egypt, whose borders were sealed.

We might better understand the magnitude of what occurred in Egypt if we project a parallel to our troubled times today. The entire world has been placed into a state of fear by the ISIS Muslim terrorists. Imagine if ISIS were to seize a city under penalty of gruesome death and forbid anyone to leave. Then, in broad daylight, the people of the town just walk out. Imagine if all of a sudden, ISIS and all the world’s terrorists put their arms down. Surely, the entire world would be struck with profound ecstasy. Ancient Egypt, in many ways, was another ISIS. Discussing Exodus 18:4, Rashi tells how Pharaoh tried to behead Moses. The Midrash tells how Pharaoh would slaughter Jewish infants every morning and every evening and bathe himself in their blood. The Midrash also tells how every Egyptian would rejoice when the Jews were afflicted. When Egypt laid down its arms, opened its doors and removed its Iron Curtain, the entire Jewish people freely exited. The miracle was astounding. Our rabbis teach that the Exodus was known to the entire world (even without today’s instant media). Yet, the world was silent. Only one man was stirred to come forward by the awesome event that transpired. Didn’t anyone else see what Yisro saw?

In last week’s portion, Mishpatim, the Torah tells us our response to G-d’s offer to present us with the Torah was “naase v’nishma,” we will act and we will hear. We stated our commitment to observe the Torah even before hearing what that would entail. The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) lavishes praise on our ancestors for uttering these words. “A heavenly voice emanated and said to them, ‘Who revealed to My children this secret which the ministering angels use?’’’ Rabbi Nison Alpert zt’l (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing), a renowned 20th century Torah scholar and teacher, asked, why does the verbal order in which we stated our commitment warrant so much praise? Either way, we would still observe the Torah. He answered with a magnificent insight that defines not only “naase v’nishma,” but also how we live every aspect of our daily lives. Without naase there can be no nishma. Naase, Rabbi Alpert indicates, is the commitment to grow, to perceive that every moment in life must be filled with an ever-present desire to change, to improve. A person who says that today I am changed from yesterday, today I must grow, that is a naase person. And when that naase person sees miracles occur before his very eyes, he will respond with a refreshing new level of growth as his life is changed. Yisro “heard.” He moved forward to join the Jewish people and to hear the words of Torah. His life was changed forever. That is because, before he heard, he was ready for naase. The rest of the world heard and saw the same but was not ready for naase. The greatest miracles in the universe might occur before someone’s very eyes, but when that person is not pre-committed to grow, he will not be in touch with what is really happening. He will remain blind and deaf.

I can vividly recall June 1967. Israel was being attacked from every direction. Egypt’s President Nasser had sworn that he would drive Israel into the sea. In a call for worldwide support, hundreds of thousands of people converged on Washington, D.C. By the time our bus arrived, the war had ended and became known as the Six Day War. A miracle occurred before our very eyes … the scheduled demonstration turned into a resounding celebration. The time was so very ripe for Jews to return back to their roots, back to Torah. The miracle was so obvious, why wasn’t every Jew in the world propelled spiritually?

Talmud Berachos 13a teaches us that the miracles that took place at the time when we left Egypt will be eclipsed by those that occur in the future. Can we imagine miracles greater than the splitting of the sea, greater than the sealed gates of Egypt freely opening wide for an entire nation? One miracle for sure that will occur is that all the evil and terror in the world will be extinguished. How will we respond when the unbelievable miracles of Hashem occur before our very eyes? Will we be spurred on to lofty levels of spiritual grandeur or will we remain blind and deaf? We can do a self-test. We can do it today. We can do it right now. Each of us can ask ourselves, “Am I living each day of my life saying naase as my ancestors did? Do I view each day as an opportunity to become a new person? Am I satisfied with the spiritual level that I am on? Do I constantly strive to make a difference in Hashem’s world?” If we are not open to change, then the greatest miracles in the history of the universe will just pass us by.