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Where logic ends

Written by d fine

After a long history of tranquillity in Egypt, the Jewish people there begin to feel that they are not wanted. Pharaoh starts issuing decrees against the Jews; and we end up in slavery for over two hundred years. In his first call on the ‘Jewish problem’ to the Egyptian people, Pharaoh lays down his problems with the Jewish people. He says[1] ‘the nation Bnei Yisrael are too numerous and strong for us. Let us act cunningly against it lest it multiply and add to our enemies in war and drive us out of the land.’ It does not take a rocket scientist to point out the problem in the pshat of the psukim: are Bnei Yisrael already too numerous for Pharaoh or is the problem that they will become too numerous if they are allowed to multiply? Pharaoh seems to contradict himself on this one.[2] One answer is that there are two different degrees of numerical advantage here. Pharaoh is worried about their current numbers as it stands, but at the moment they are not numerous enough tooverthrow Egypt in battle. Therefore, Pharaoh is also worried about the prospects of Bnei Yisrael multiplying to such an extent that they could lead a war against the Egyptian people. However, I think the truth is that there does not necessarily need to be an answer here. The Rambam and Raavid both make clear[3] that basically all the Egyptian people took part in enslaving the Jews; hence they all suffered under the ten plagues. Therefore, the Egyptians did not necessarily need a logical argument to turn their backs on their Jewish citizens; they wanted to hurt the Jews and so any excuse would do. This is proven from the fact that the Raavid says that HaShem’s punishment of the Egyptians stemmed from the fact that they subjected the Jews to a more intense slavery than HaShem had promised Avraham Avinu.

This point finds its expression across the annals of Jewish history. There has been little need for logical argument to spur other nations on to make us suffer; they have first decided to act on their anti-Semitic desires, and then decide to find some form of ‘justification’ which may or may not fit the bill. Lest you take my uneducated word for it, here’s Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University, speaking in 1987: “The uniqueness of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that no other people in the world have ever been charged simultaneously with alienation from society and with cosmopolitanism, with being capitalist exploiters and also revolutionary communist advocators. The Jews were accused of having an imperious mentality, at the same time they’re a people of the book. They’re accused of being militant aggressors, at the same time as being cowardly pacifists. With being a chosen people, and also having an inferior human nature. With both arrogance and timidity. With both extreme individualism and community adherence. With being guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus and at the same time held to account for the invention of Christianity.” Or, as historian Martin Gilbert puts it[4] “…I was surprised, depressed, and to some extent overwhelmed by the perpetual and irrational violence which pursued the Jews in every country and to almost every corner of the globe…”

The point here is to clearly define which thoughts are merely cover-ups for following one’s selfish desires, and which thoughts are real logical reasoning. Another example of the irrational desire-cover-up can be seen from the Korach episode.[5] The Chidushei HaRim asks why Korach picked on an argument that Moshe was ‘raising himself over the Kahal of HaShem’ (16;3) if HaShem had said Himself that Moshe was the most humble person that lived (12;3). If Korach is going to make something derogatory up about Moshe, why pick something that is blatantly untrue. And Korach managed to get a following with this ‘election campaign?’ The Chidushei HaRim answers that this is the power of machlokes (argument, or selfish conflict); nobody thinks straight and anything goes as ‘truth.’ Similarly, the Midrash Tanchuma relates that Korach told his followers a story about how Moshe and Aharon had taken terumah and pe’ah (and more) all for themselves from the field of a widow, eventually leaving her with basically nothing. Korach told this story despite it being impossible for terumah to be taken in the desert; no-one owned land there and nothing grew. How could he get away with such a story? Because he knew that anything will be accepted in a machlokes; people use their thoughts to facilitate their desire to win in the machlokes, and logic goes out the window.
This is our theme; to try and distinguish between thought processes connected to reality and those that are facades for bending the reality to one’s own point of view. The yetzer hara’s weapon is to tempt people with these dimyonos (lit. imaginations/fantasies); mental presentations which do not match reality.[6] It tries to paint rosy pictures of forbidden or unproductive activities which look (to the mind’s eye) like they are much more important than they really are. Our principal weapon of clear, accurate thinking connected with reality is the study of Torah. Apart from it teaching a clear thought-process and removing one from the shackles of the yetzer hara, it puts one in tune with a higher reality and a correct way to view the world. The arena where the battle between fantasy and reality of thought is staged is when one is studying Torah, as Rav Wolbe points out,[7] because Torah is our central weapon for clarity of thought, and the yetzer hara tries to disturb that power and potency.

The mashal given in the name of the Chafetz Chaim is appropriate here. When one is in a cinema, the room is dark and the projector projects the film onto the screen. If one wants to disperse the moving pictures, all one has to do is shine light onto the screen, and the pictures disappear. So too, in removing the fantastical pictures of the yetzer hara, one only has to shine the light of Torah onto these pictures; i.e. one needs to evaluate them clearly through the lens of Torah.
Perhaps one of the hardest areas of gaining clarity of thought is in evaluating oneself; one strengths and weaknesses. Here is where the most degree of bias comes in and it is one of the most important areas of ensuring that one’s knowledge matches reality. Everyone has their own challenges, and so one needs to realise where these challenges lie in order to succeed; it is not enough to ‘follow the crowd,’ because each person will have different things that they find difficult. This is the way the Maharal explains the Mishna (Avos 3;11) ‘anyone whose fear of sin comes before his wisdom, his wisdom remains.’ The Maharal comments that the Mishna does not say ‘fear of sin’ (yiras chet), but rather ‘fear of his sin’ (yiras chet’o); meaning that each person must be aware of their personal area in which they are tempted to sin. Each person will have a different area; for some it’s Shabbos, for others it’s tzedakah, for others Tefillah, and it necessitates an objective assessment of oneself. This was something that Pharaoh could not do. He grasped the thoughts which were disconnected with reality, and so deluded himself and his people into thinking that he was a god.[8] In fact, he even dreamt that he was above his god (the Nile) in the beginning of parshas Miketz.
Therefore, in summary, our theme is to appreciate the importance of thoughts connected to reality, as opposed to the fantasies of the yetzer hara or mental excuses to cover-up for one’s preconceived desires/notions, with specific reference to the importance of knowing oneself.
Have a great Shabbos.

[1] Shemos 1:9-10
[2] See the Or HaChaim for approaches
[3] Rambam hilchos Teshuva 6:5 and Raavid there
[4] Jewish History Atlas (these sources were borrowed from the Aish Discovery booklet)
[5] I heard this part from Rav Osher Weiss
[6] See Beis Halevi towards the end of parshas Bereishis
[7] The first article in Alei Shur
[8] See Rashi Shemos 7:15

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