(January 17, 2023 / JNS) Have you heard of an a fortiori legal argument? In the Talmud, it is known as kal v’chomer. The idea is that we can derive a law that applies to something major from a law that applies to something minor via simple logic. For example, if crossing a stop sign incurs a $100 fine, then surely crossing a red light should incur at least the same penalty.
This week in Vaera, we read of Moses’s frustration at the beginning of his attempt to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. He wasn’t exactly greeted with acclaim. His Jewish brothers couldn’t absorb his message. Even the thought of freedom was an impossible dream in their minds.
“And they did not listen to Moses because of their shortness of breath [or spirit] and the hard labor.”
Then the Almighty instructs Moses to go back to Pharaoh and insist that he send the Children of Israel out of his land. Moses responds with the a fortiori, kal v’chomer argument.
“Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen?”
Or, in plain English: If I can’t get my own people to hear my message, how can I possibly convince my enemy?
Sounds like a powerful and rather logical argument. So, what does God answer?
“He instructed Moses and Aaron to go to Pharoah and to deliver the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt.”
Moses asked a very logical, reasonable and rational question. Why didn’t God give him a logical or reasonable answer?
One wise answer I found is this: God did indeed answer Moses’s question, but it was not a logical answer. If you think about it, there is no logical answer to the question of how the Jews were liberated from Egyptian bondage. Egypt was the superpower of the day. The Jews had nothing and no friends. How could they ever go free?
The answer is not by logic but by faith. God was telling Moses: You’re right. Logically and rationally, there is no way out. But go to Pharaoh anyway and you will see the miraculous happen. Not the rational, but the Godly and the wondrous. It won’t be logical. It will be extraordinary, unbelievable. Just go and you will see for yourself.
At the very beginning of Jewish history, God was telling Moses that Jewish survival is not dependent on logic but on faith. More than 3,000 years ago, the Almighty laid down the ground rules for Jewish success. Logic was not one of them. Logically, we shouldn’t even exist today. We should have gone the way of the ancient Pharaohs and become a bunch of mummies. Or the way of the Babylonian leaders and Roman emperors, relegated to museums and mausoleums.
The secret of Jewish survival is not logic or even our vaunted intelligence. It is the spirit and determination to live by God’s way and even when things seem quite impossible, we still go to Pharaoh or do whatever needs to be done. That’s how we bring down blessings and protection from above.
This fellow won the lottery. The winning number was 48. When his friends asked him how he came to pick 48, he said, “It was a combination of seichel (brains) and mazel (luck).”
He explained: “I always knew seven was a lucky number. So, I figured 7×7 must be especially lucky. So, I picked 48.”
“But 7 X 7 is not 48, it’s 49!” came the response.
“Ahh, that’s the mazel. I was always lousy at arithmetic,” the man replied.
The Jewish people have always been lousy at arithmetic. Mathematically, scientifically and logically, we should not exist. We cannot live by numbers. We never have. Not since Moses. We live by our faith, our trust in a higher calling and an unshakeable belief in our national destiny.
As David Ben-Gurion famously said, “In Israel, if you don’t believe in miracles, you are not a realist.”
We will continue to confound our enemies and critics, and all the naysayers. Like Moses, we will not shirk our obligations. No matter the odds, we will go to Pharaoh. And we trust the Almighty to do the rest.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.
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