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Va'eira: Merciful Revenge

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

וידבר אלקים אל משה ויאמר אליו אני ה'.

“And G-d spoke to Moshe and said to him: I am Hashem.”(Shemos 6:2)

The commentators ask: “The verse begins with the word vaydaber (spoke), which connotes harsh speech, and with Elokim, which is the Divine Name that implies harsh judgment. But then the verse continues with the word vayomer (said), which connotes soft language, and concludes with the Divine Name Hashem, which is a Name of mercy.  How do we understand this change of tone?”

Rashi comments: “Hashem spoke to him harshly because Moshe spoke boldly and said: ‘Why did You do evil to this nation?’” Why does Rashi use two different words for “speaking” (spoke and said) one after the other, making the phrase sound redundant? And why does he use two different forms of speech, one that implies harsh language and one that implies soft-spoken words?

We also must understand Moshe’s words to Hashem. Was it appropriate for Moshe to challenge Hashem about the hardships that the Jewish people suffered? Why indeed did Moshe speak boldly?  It appears to us that this was not a shortcoming of Moshe; he wasn’t complaining about his personal problems but he was defending the Jewish people.  Hashem knew that Moshe was speaking this way due to his great love for the Jewish nation, so why did Hashem respond harshly?

In parshas Yisro, when Hashem told Moshe that he should speak to the Jewish people about receiving the Torah, Hashem instructs him to speak separately to the women and then to the men.  When he is told to address the women, the Torah uses the word somar, which implies soft speech, but when he is told to speak to the men the Torah uses a form of harsh speech – sagid. It is surprising that even when Moshe addressed the men, he spoke words of encouragement, telling them: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians… You will be cherished upon Me from among all nations…”  We don’t find that any harsh words were spoken to the men, so why does the Torah use the word sagid?  Rashi even comments that these were the exact words that Moshe spoke to the men, and he didn’t add anything. If so, he certainly didn’t add any harsh words.

We can understand all of this with a powerful teaching of the Baal Shem Tov. It says in Tehillim (94:1): “A G-d of vengeance is Hashem.”  The Baal Shem Tov asks: “The Divine Name Keil used for G-d in this verse connotes mercy and compassion. How does this Name fit with the word vengeance?”  He explains this with the following parable:

The villagers of a far-flung hamlet were informed that the emperor would be traveling through their village.  All of the residents excitedly began to prepare for this major event. There was one simpleton who had no idea what a king is; he had never heard about any king before. Seeing the excitement, he thought that the villagers were preparing to fight off a bear or other wild animal that was spotted near the village. He remembered similar incidents that happened in the past, when the villagers would prepare to ward off an intruder. He wanted to be helpful and picked a few sharp stones that he held in his pocket.

When the king finally arrived, the villagers went out to greet him with excited shouts of “Long live the king!” Our simpleton climbed up on a tall tree and followed the commotion. He didn’t understand much, but he did see that everyone was shouting and waving in the direction of a person who was seated in an elegant coach. He must be the one causing all the trouble, he surmised, and quickly took aim. One of his sharp stones landed on the king’s forehead and wounded him.

A commotion ensued, and it wasn’t long before the impudent villager was dragged off the tree by menacing-looking soldiers. He was brought to the king before he would be taken away to be executed. When the king looked at the simple fellow dressed in rags, he realized that the attack did not come from an organized group of insurgents. To everyone’s surprise, he did not authorize the execution. Instead he commanded that the villager should be taken to an education center and given some basic schooling. The king’s unusual kindness to his attacker surprised everyone, but that is exactly what was done. The simple villager was taken to an institution where he was given basic schooling in reading, writing, social studies and worldly knowledge.

As he became more intelligent and educated, the villager began to realize the gravity of what he had done. He learned about the royal house that ruled the country and the greatness of the king. He understood how the government functioned and that everything that transpired throughout the empire was influenced directly by the king’s decisions. He was overcome by shame and remorse for having attacked the king and he begged to be brought before the throne. With the king’s permission, the trembling villager was brought before him. The villager fell to the king’s feet and begged his forgiveness for having attacked him on that day. “I had no idea about your greatness!” he cried. “Please forgive me!” The king kindly forgave him.

To everyone’s surprise, the king ordered that the villager should be enrolled in an institution for higher education. The villager was taught many important subjects and his horizons expanded even more. The more he learned, the more he understood the greatness of the king, and he became even more ashamed of his conduct. Not only did he attack the king, but when he begged the king’s forgiveness he addressed him directly, without the required royal titles, and he didn’t even thank the king for everything he had done for him! Once again, he begged to be brought before the king. This time, he addressed him appropriately: “Your Majesty, I must once again beg forgiveness for what I have done and for speaking with disrespect,” he said. “I deserved to be executed, but instead of punishing me, His Majesty bestowed so much undeserved kindness upon me. I am overcome with remorse and gratitude!”

The king then had the villager enrolled in a military academy, where he was taught to show the greatest respect and awe for the king. The more he learned, the more he regretted his actions and he once again begged the king’s forgiveness. At that point, the king turned to his advisors and said: “If I would have punished him then, he would not even have understood why he deserved such a harsh sentence. But after I’ve shown him so much kindness, he is overcome with remorse. Isn’t this the best punishment for his crime?”

“Hashem also does the same with us,” concludes the Baal Shem Tov. “Sometimes, when a person sins against Hashem, our merciful Father repays him with kindness. When the person sees Hashem’s great kindness to him, he regrets his actions and repents out of love for Hashem. He begins to grasp Hashem’s greatness and feels humbled and remorseful. This is why the verse uses the Divine Name that connotes mercy when describing Hashem as a G-d of vengeance.”

With this insight, we can understand the verses in this parsha. Moshe asked Hashem: “Why did You do evil to this nation?” Rashi’s comment explains Moshe’s intention: Although he spoke harshly, he said words of mercy. His tone was harsh, but his intentions were good. He couldn’t bear to watch the Jewish people suffer so much.

Hashem responded in kind and spoke harshly to Moshe, but what He actually said was merciful: “I am Hashem –the merciful Hashem.” Although He began speaking harshly, He explained to Moshe that everything He did for the Jewish people was with good reason and will ultimately lead them to the greatest and most wondrous exaltation.

When Moshe spoke kind words to the men before the giving of the Torah, this itself was a form of harshness.  When the men heard the kind, soothing words, they were extremely humbled and overcome by awe towards their Heavenly Father. This kindness was more severe than the harshest form of rebuke!

May Hashem indeed show us His great kindness and draw us close to Him through such merciful measures. May we always be privileged to see the chessed of Hashem in our daily lives and use these blessings as a springboard for growth. This will be Hashem’s greatest vengeance for our sins, as we pray: “Bestow kindness upon those who know You, You vengeful G-d!” Hashem should punish us with kindness so that we should be humbled and come closer to Him out of love and gratitude.

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