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Welcome to our Shabbos Table!

We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.

Please share them at your own Shabbos table, and send us your most interesting responses. A selection of the best will be posted on the website, and eventually, included in a book. To respond, click on "Click here to respond" or email us at
responses@ourtable.org.

Parshas Vaera # 1

Leaving Egypt

“Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and commanded them [to speak to] the people of Israel, and to Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to take the people of Israel out of Egypt” (Shmos 6:13).

After two hundred and ten years of bitter, brutal enslavement, the tide was about to turn for the Jews in Egypt. Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak to the Jews themselves, as well as to Pharaoh, instructing them about the Jews’ upcoming liberation.

Pharaoh obviously needed some very powerful persuasion to let go of his Jewish slaves. They were the backbone of the Egyptian economy, and losing them would spell disaster for the entire country. Why should he let them go? He had to be spoken to in the very strongest of terms.

But why were Moshe and Aharon also “commanded… [to speak to] the people of Israel,” and persuade them as well that it was time to leave Egypt? Their lives there were miserable. Why would they have to be convinced to leave? They should have been more than ready to go!

Chickens and Cows

Rav Mordechai Kamenetsky answers this question with a story.

A poor European Jew and his family labored long and hard to eke out a living, with the lion’s share of their profits going to the cruel poritz (wealthy landlord) who owned their land and home. They survived, thanks to the eggs laid by their few chickens, and the milk provided by their aging cow. Their lot was unfortunately not uncommon for the times, and as the years passed, they came to accept their difficult life without question. Realistically, what else did they have to hope for?

One day the husband returned home from the local market, visibly upset. His wife, fearing the worst, asked what had happened. He told her the bad news: “The talk in the market is that Mashiach is coming soon. When he gets here, he is going to take us all to the Land of Israel, and then what will become of us? If we leave the poritz’s lands, where will we live? And what will happen to our chickens and cow? How are we going to manage without them?”

His wife, a woman of great faith, reassured him. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Hashem is merciful, and He never abandons His people. He saved us from Pharaoh in Egypt, protected us from Haman in Persia, and has watched over us ever since, throughout the exile. He will surely save us from this ‘Mashiach’ as well!”

As a nation, the Jews in Egypt had been crushed by centuries of oppression. By this time, they were too broken to even think of freedom – slavery was all they knew. Like the harassed, impoverished couple in old Europe, they too clung to what was familiar, and needed to be convinced that it was to their benefit to leave Egypt behind. No less than Pharaoh, Moshe and Aharon had to “[speak to] the people of Israel,” and urge them to prepare for liberation.

Life can take us to places we never dreamed of, and they are not always pleasant or positive. With time, we can become accustomed to almost anything: a sloppy roommate, difficult landlord, dead-end job, or even an untreated medical problem. We forget our dreams and who we really want to be. Ironically, change, even for the better, becomes our worst enemy.

We need to take a step back, confront our “inner Pharaoh,” and tell him, “Let my people go!” There is no need for us to live in a rut; we can find ways to get back on track and make our life what it should be (Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky, “Lost In Egypt”).

Question for Discussion:

When were you in a difficult situation, and what did you do to free yourself?

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Response:

From a second year student at Ohr Somayach: For me, the journey to teshuvah was one of self-purpose and identity. I had always hated school, and academics were never my strong point. My real talents were in drama and music. About four years ago, I achieved a long coveted goal: the lead role in the school play. The moment of triumph would be the curtain call, when the cast came on stage to take a bow after the performance. As I understood it, this was a euphoric moment, when you listened to the applause and knew that this was what you wanted for the rest of your life.

I got a standing ovation, with the audience cheering and calling my name. I stood there, but instead of feeling proud and euphoric, I felt flat and confused – and very sad. I became obsessed with discovering my purpose in life. For a time, I thought I had found it in music. About a year later, someone heard me sing and offered me a job touring the east coast with a band. We were on the road for nine months. The first half of the tour was fun – I loved seeing new places and meeting new people.

As we began the second half of the tour, it was no longer fun. Once again, I was confused and sad, and could not understand why the music was no longer fulfilling. I left the band and was now totally lost. I was uncertain of who I really was and why I was here. If not theatre and music, then what?

I felt that it would be helpful to leave the United States, and decided to visit my sister in Israel for two weeks. She was married with three children, and had lived in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem for eight years. After two weeks, I decided to extend my stay and started looking for a job. I found something, but my boss said that the job required learning in a yeshivah once a week. I wanted the job, and I figured, “Once a week? No big deal.”

As it turned out, it was a very big deal. Soon enough, once a week was twice a week. I loved it so much that I quit my job and enrolled in yeshivah fulltime. In just two months of learning Torah, I found purpose and identity that I had never known before. My two-week visit to my sister became a two-year life-changing experience through Torah. I no longer have questions about who I am and what my purpose is; I have learned the answers. I am a Jew, and my purpose is Torah and mitzvos. I understand now that Hashem put me through the hardships and confusion in order to bring me to teshuvah. Thanks to Hashem and His Torah, I have never been more at peace.

Parshas Vaera #2

Frogs

“And Hashem did as Moshe said, and all the frogs died, from the houses and the courtyards and the fields. They gathered them up into piles and piles, and the land stank. And Pharaoh saw that there was [some] relief, and he hardened his heart, and did not listen to [Moshe and Aharon]” (Shmos 8:9-11).

Despite Moshe’s warning, Pharaoh refused to free his vast corps of Jewish slaves. In response, the laws of nature turned upside down in a series of ten overtly miraculous Plagues. The second Plague was that of Tzefarde’a, the frogs which invaded every inch of Egypt. Doors and walls did not stop them from entering the Egyptians’ homes, beginning with Pharaoh’s own palace. They jumped into their beds, their baking ovens, and even into their internal organs, croaking incessantly all the while. The frogs were everywhere, and there was no letup (Yalkut Shimoni, Vaera,183:8; Shmos Rabbah 10:2-3,6).

Pharaoh begged Moshe to rid him and his people of the frogs, promising that he would let the Jews go. Hashem listened to Moshe’s prayers, and soon the country was full of revolting, foul-smelling dead frogs, “in the homes, the courtyards, and the fields.” The croaking ended, but the sight and stench of the dead frogs permeated the land as the unhappy Egyptians heaped them up in piles.

Once It’s Over

Once the worst was past, Pharaoh had a change of heart – he “saw that there was [some] relief, and he hardened his heart and did not listen to [Moshe and Aharon].”

Throughout the Torah’s description of the Ten Plagues and Pharaoh’s reaction to each Plague, there is no mention of him experiencing any sense of relief. What was different about this one Plague?

The Kli Yakar (Shmos 8:11) explains that there was a critical distinction between the Plague of Frogs and the others. As bad as they were, when they were over – they were over. The blood, the lice, the wild animals and all the rest promptly disappeared, allowing Pharaoh to quickly put them out of his mind. It was easy enough for him to forget the message and revert to his old self.

In this case, even when the Plague ended, there was still a very real reminder of what had happened. The pervasive stench of the heaps of dead frogs made it difficult for Pharaoh to put this particular Plague behind him. However, apparently there was at least some partial relief. The Kli Yakar writes that in open spaces, away from the dead frogs, the smell was not so bad, so that Pharaoh was less affected. Even this partial reprieve was enough to make him forget what had happened and “harden his heart.” As he would again and again, he slipped back into his familiar pattern of evil.

How many times do we make up our minds to change, only to slip right back? Inspired by events, insights, or other factors, we make spiritual commitments, whether large scale or small. For example, when Elul arrives, we are determined to improve. We sincerely do mean it, and hold out until Rosh Hashanah, and even through Yom Kippur. Realistically, though, how much longer does it last? When we prepare to bite into our first bagel after the fast, what is the kavanah level of our berachah? As the days pass, how do we stand up to the very tempting lashon hara floating around us, the distractions which eat into our daily learning time, and more? Year after year, and Plague after Plague, we make up our minds to do better, only to quickly forget, again.

Question for Discussion:

What can we do to make our commitments stick?

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Responses:

Aric Zamel of Los Angeles: When you make a commitment, enlist a friend to act as a buddy. This way, the commitment is not only to yourself, but also to each other. My longtime chavrusa now lives in Houston, Texas, but we still hold each other accountable in our learning. Whenever he is in Los Angeles, we use every opportunity to learn together. Beyond that, we keep in touch and make sure that we are both on the same daf at the end of every week.

An Ohr Somayach student from South Africa: Back in South Africa, before I came to yeshivah, I had a hard time getting up to daven with a minyan. I had a friend with the same problem, and we made a deal: we would report to one another any time we missed minyan, and pay each other a small fine. Now that I am in yeshivah in Jerusalem, we still keep up the system long distance. By mutual agreement, we now donate any money from fines to tzedakah.