All the "stories" related in Torah are not written primarily for their historic value, although they were real events which did in fact take place. Rather, they represent concepts and ideas which are eternally
relevant, in every generation and in every country. Consider the concept of Mitzrayim
(Egypt), for example. The word Mitzrayim
comes from the word meitzar
, limitation, and is related to the words tzar
(suffering), etc. Thus Mitzrayim
represents (spiritual) limitation, to the point of confinement and even suffering. This does not only apply to the history of enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, but also to any situation in the life of a Jew where he feels boxed in by some obstacle and he doesn't see a way to get out of it. He doesn't feel himself free; he feels confined.
Every Jew has his Mitzrayim, depending on his level. For a person who is just starting out in Yiddishkeit, his limitations and difficulties are entirely different from the obstacles of a person who is seventy years old, and close to being a tzaddik. Each of them has their difficulties, each of them has their obstacles, but they are entirely different. For one person it's his family. It's his family's mockery, their attitude towards him which is stifling him. He's afraid of what people are going to say. This is a real-life situation for thousands of people and it's a real Mitzrayim, it's a real confinement. For somebody else, who's on a much higher level, his problem could be his desire to sit in isolation and learn Torah rather than go out and spread Torah and mitzvos. The Rebbe calls this type of Mitzrayim "Mitzrayim dikedushah" -- limitations within the realm of holiness, as opposed to Mitzrayim dikelipah -- the limitations placed on a Jew by the realms of unholiness -- in other words, the yetzer hara, a person's natural inborn inclination to evil.
The yetzer hara comes to different people in different costumes. To a person who's on a very very simple level, the yetzer hara might come in the form of McDonald's. Here is a person who's not really committed to keeping 100% kosher, and he is really hungry. Immediately, he spots a yetzer hara in the form of a non-kosher restaurant. For another person that might not be a yetzer hara attraction at all. That particular weakness he never had, or has already overcome. His yetzer hara might be this tremendous urge to absolutely ignore another Jew, or talk lashon hara about him, etc. To each and every Jew, the Torah declares: Remember the exodus from Egypt, and draw a practical lesson from it in your daily service of HaShem.
The plagues that HaShem brought upon Mitzrayim (Egypt) will give us insight into what we should do to destroy or break our personal spiritual Mitzrayims. Let us understand the plagues not as simply historical events, but as a message to us as to how to overcome our own spiritual limitations. We will examine the first two plagues -- blood, when all the waters of Egypt turned into blood; and frogs, which suddenly began multiplying and spreading throughout the land.
When HaShem turned the waters of the Nile into blood, it was real blood, not petel. Water, as everyone knows, is cold and wet. In general, coldness is opposed to holiness, for holiness is associated with life, just as unholiness and impurity are associated with death. The Torah tells us that "the blood is the vitality" of a living thing. If there was an injury that caused a lot of bleeding and eventual death, one must bury all of the items that have blood on them with the person in the kever, because the blood is the nefesh. So blood is very much connected with life. The difference between life and death is warmth vs. coldness. If a body is cold, the person is no longer alive. Life is always associated with warmth. Let's give an example. There are people who get very excited when there's a football game or a rock concert. I understand that there's a lot of excitement and warmth and frenzy. Now people who get very warm and excited about a rock concert or a football game, or things of that nature, generally speaking, do not get as excited about learning a sichah. Other people are pretty cold about football or rock concerts: "I don't care if there's a rock concert; I don't care if it's next door; I'm not even going to pay a penny; even if you give me a free ticket. I don't care about it; I don't care about shaking hands with this movie star, it doesn't excite me one bit." Now this is not a matter of internal chemistry. It's a matter of choice. You can, and do, choose what you get excited about.
You might say, "What's so terrible if a person is cold towards holy matters? The main thing is whether he does it or not, not what his feelings are!" Some people feel that keeping Torah and mitzvos is a very big burden. It's a "necessary evil," if you want to use that expression. "I went to a Jewish school because that's where my parents sent me. Now I have to make Shabbos and I have to do all these things, but I do it; I can't say I like it." Sounds familiar? The Rebbe explains that this is the beginning of the downfall. When you have no excitement in your Yiddishkeit, this could lead subtly and very gradually to the other side completely! Why? Because blood, warmth, excitement -- is life. It is involvement!
Water is also necessary for life. In some respects, it has the opposite character from blood. Water is cool and calm. It doesn't generally get excited. Our Sages point out that water is an analogy for Torah -- just as water is necessary for life, so too with Torah. However, water can also freeze, at which point its movement stops, and it becomes "dead." The same is true of Torah -- it is only alive if it's imbued with vitality, with joy, with enthusiasm and energy. If it cools off, it can simply become a non-life-sustaining block of ice. So a Jew has to know that joy, warmth and enthusiasm are not just luxuries, nice features of life. A verse in Tehillim states, "Ivdu es HaShem besimchah" -- "serve G-d with joy." This is a fundamental principle of Yiddishkeit, which is especially emphasized in Chassidus.
One of the lessons that the first plague -- the waters of the Nile turning to blood -- teaches is the importance of warmth and enthusiasm, symbolized by blood. A Jew is required to get rid of that coldness and replace it with warmth. We should have a real simchah, joy and warmth, for Yiddishkeit.
What about the plague of frogs? Among animals, some are cold-blooded (i.e., creatures whose blood temperature ranges from freezing upward in accordance with the temperature of their surroundings), some warm-blooded (i.e., creatures whose blood remains fairly constant, independent of the environment). Frogs belong to the former category. In addition, they are water creatures. Not all cold-blooded creatures are also water creatures, as for example, a scorpion.
Frogs infiltrated every part of Mitzrayim, but the Torah tells us explicitly that one of the places they penetrated was the ovens of the Egyptians. The question is asked -- if the Torah wants to emphasize that there were frogs everywhere, why doesn't it tell us that the frogs went into the closets, underneath the beds, on the table, etc? Or just tell us that they went everywhere. Why emphasize that they entered the ovens? The Gemara explains that this was to show that the frogs were even willing to martyr themselves -- have mesirus nefesh, so to speak -- in fulfilling the command of HaShem that there would be frogs throughout Egypt. The Rebbe explains that the fact that they entered the ovens indicates to us the degree of mesirus nefesh the frogs had -- they went totally against their natures (as cold-blooded creatures) and entered burning hot ovens. The frogs therefore symbolize cooling down the fires of passion for negative, forbidden matters (the symbolism of the oven). The main point is, that you can use your excitement for mitzvos, or G-d forbid, for aveiros, things that HaShem does not want in the world. But you have to choose.
I remember an incident which will remain etched in my memory probably to the end of my life. I come from a family of one boy and five daughters. My father was always hoping that he would have a table-full of talmidei chachamim, but they kept on having girls. Then, one day, my parents had a boy. My father invested all his dreams and his hopes in this boy, that he should be a talmid chacham. However, he was very troubled when he discovered that my brother, as a young boy, was into baseball and other types of nonsense. He would always go to Yankee Stadium, and had a whole box of comics and baseball cards under his bed. Now my father came from Russia, and he couldn't relate to it at all. "My son should be learning!" But my brother was more excited about comics than about learning Gemara. My father would get reports about my brother from his teacher, and he was very very upset. He kept telling him, "Your bar-mitzvah is coming up, and then, ge-endikt! No more comics, no more baseball cards; turn over a new leaf, become serious." But my brother didn't think that my father really meant it; he was hoping for a reprieve. I still remember the day after his bar-mitzvah. My father made him take all his comics and baseball cards, and they went to a garbage fill -- not in front of the house, but across the street and down the block -- and my father made him trash everything. My father said, "Ge-endikt! No more! Now you're bar-mitzvah." It was probably the hardest thing my brother ever did in his life. But, as many of you know, my brother turned out OK, baruch HaShem. He is a very successful shaliach, and my father is proud of him. Until you get rid of the shtuss (nonsense), you cannot put your energies into where you should put them.
This then is the lesson we should learn from the plagues -- to break any Mitzrayim you have on any level. In other words, you must try to analyze in what your warmth and excitement lies. Is it lying in the right place, and if not, work on getting it into the right place. Take the cooking, the excitement in things that you are not supposed to be involved in, and replace it with warmth and excitement in matters of holiness, and this warmth will eventually bring you to the right place, so that you will achieve what you are fully capable of.
- (Back to text) A drink made from syrup, known in America as "bug-juice."