Rabbi Binyomin Rabinowitz related the following story about his father, Rabbi Yisroel Rabinowitz zt”l, who was the rabbi at Kehillas Ohel Moshe in the Bronx, and the author of two volumes of Kol Bo on the Shulchan Aruch:
“During his adolescence, my father learned in the Lomza yeshiva in northeastern Poland. When the Germans began bombing in 1939, the air-raid sirens immediately began blaring, and everyone in the town would immediately escape into the shelters. The shelters were located in the middle of the street. Everyone would climb down a ladder into the shelter and tensely wait for the bombing to cease.
“During one such raid my father was with a large group of people in the shelter and a baby kept crying. The relentless wailing intensified the already tense feeling in the shelter, but the baby could not be soothed. After some time my father approached the man holding the baby and asked him what was bothering the baby. The father replied that the baby was thirsty and they had no water to give him. My father turned around and started heading for the ladder leading to the street. The father called after him, ‘Where are you going? If anything, I should be the one going to risk my life for my son.’ My father replied, ‘You have a family. If anything happens to you, you will leave behind a widow and orphans. But I am just a bochur. My parents are far away. If anything happens to me no one will have to cry.’
“With that my father climbed out of the shelter and began hastily running towards the nearest building. As he did so he noticed a German plane flying frightfully low and letting loose a barrage of bombs. One of those bombs fell directly into the shelter he had just departed from, instantly killing everyone inside.”
The time of the redemption had finally arrived. Just as G-d had promised, Pharaoh aimlessly circulated the streets of Goshen desperate to locate Moshe. When he found him, he begged Moshe to leave the country immediately. Egypt’s pride had been shattered and Pharaoh wanted the former slaves to leave the land immediately.
The Torah then relates: “The Children of Israel carried out the word of Moshe; they requested from the Egyptians silver vessels, gold vessels, and garments. G-d gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they granted their request; and they emptied Egypt” (Shemos 12:35-36).
Rashi notes that they carried out Moshe’s earlier instruction which was to adhere to G-d’s command (11:2), “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his friend and each woman from her friend silver vessels and gold vessels.”
The Vilna Gaon explains that Rashi was bothered by the wording of the earlier verse, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his friend and each woman from her friend.” How could the Egyptians be referred to as friends after all of the tormenting and oppression they had subjected the Jews to? Furthermore, why did G-d need to ask Klal Yisrael to “please” do it? Wouldn’t they be more than happy to demand of the Egyptians a small portion of compensation?
The Gaon answers that Bnei Yisrael had to be worthy of the Egyptians handing over their valuables and wealth at the time of the redemption. How would they merit it? By demonstrating selflessness and love to each other. That was G-d’s original request. He wanted Klal Yisrael to borrow and share with their own friends – their fellow Jews – and demonstrate fraternity and devotion. Because they did so, at the time of the redemption they were indeed able to ask the Egyptians for their wealth. This is the deeper meaning of the latter verse, “The Children of Israel carried out the word of Moshe,” i.e., which was to create a spirit of kindness and devotion. Therefore, “They requested from the Egyptians… [G-d] gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they granted their request.”
A well-known businessman once arranged to have a private audience with the Chasam Sofer. “Rebbe,” he began, “I’m sure you know me as a very wealthy person. However, my business has a taken a turn for the worse, and I have lost all of my wealth. Please give me a blessing that my fortune should turn around and I should regain it.”
The Chasam Sofer answered, “You have an impoverished brother. Help him and your money will return.”
The merchant replied, “Rebbe, as soon as I regain my wealth I will help him generously.”
The Chasam Sofer shook his head, “At the beginning of parshas Va’era when G-d informed Moshe that the commencement of the miraculous redemption was imminent, G-d declared, ‘And also I have heard the groans of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves.’ What did G-d mean by saying ‘And also I have heard’? Had someone else heard first?
“The answer is that when the enslavement became unbearable and there was almost no hope for the Jews, they began to help each other. Despite the severity of their oppression, when one Jew cried out, another came to his aid despite utter exhaustion. When that occurred, G-d declared, ‘Just as they have heard each other’s cries, I too, I have heard their cries.’ It was their selflessness that granted them the merit to redemption.”
The Chasam Sofer concluded, “I didn’t mean that you should only help him when you are again financially comfortable. You need a merit right now. Help him despite your difficult situation and that will give you the blessing to regain your wealth.”
Tanna D’vei Eliyahu states (Eliyahu Rabbah 23:9): “When the Children of Israel were in Egypt, they gathered together and sat together, and they all formulated one group, and they made a covenant together that they would perform kind deeds with each other, and they would preserve in the hearts the covenant of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and serve their Father in Heaven alone…”
The Chofetz Chaim explains that when the Jews saw that their situation was virtually hopeless from a natural perspective, they decided to make this covenant together. They knew that if they performed acts of kindness with each other G-d would perform kindness with them.
This idea is expressed clearly in the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 11): “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Israel, “My son, if you see that the merits of the patriarchs and the merits of the matriarchs have been depleted, go and cling to kindness…”
The Chofetz Chaim explains that this is the meaning of the words that Klal Yisroel recited in Az Yashir, “With Your kindness You guided this people that You redeemed.” It was in the merit of the kindness they performed with each other that G-d redeemed them out of kindness. This is also the meaning behind the beautiful words of the navi (Yirmiyah 2:2): “So says G-d, ‘I recalled for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following me into the desert, into an unsown land.’” It was our kindness that served as the catalyst for G-d’s kindness.
The prophet states: “Behold, I will redeem you – the end as the beginning.” The miracles that we will yet witness with the advent of Moshiach and the process of redemption will in many ways parallel those of the redemption from Egypt.
At times, we may wonder if we possess sufficient merits to be worthy of the ultimate redemption. But there is one area in which Klal Yisroel still excels and is unquestionably worthy: in our kindness to each other. One needs look no further than at the classified section in this and other publications to see sections dedicated to different gemachim.
If one, G-d forbid, needs to be in the hospital, there is a Bikur Cholim room set up for any Jew, no matter what his level of religiosity is. The room is regularly re-stocked with free food, and reading material, and the room itself provides for a brief respite from the intensity of the hospital. When a woman in our community has a baby, there is an immediate mobilization to ensure that meals are provided for the family for some time. The same holds true in the face of a tragedy, G-d forbid.
What a nation! What a people! With all of our shortcomings and despite all of our internal and external challenges, the covenant that our forefathers made in Egypt lives on. We revel in it and it is one of our defining features and, ultimately, we will again merit redemption because of it.