“Moshe spoke before Hashem saying: Bnei Yisrael have not listened to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have closed lips” (Shemos 6:12).
Rashi states that this argument is one of 10 kal vachomers in the Torah. R’ Yitzchak of Volozhin says this kal vachomer needs clarification, though. After all, the Torah clearly states that the Jewish people didn’t listen to Moshe “because of shortness of breath and hard labor.” Pharaoh meanwhile lived in a palace, calmly ensconced on his throne. So it doesn’t follow that because Bnei Yisrael didn’t listen to Moshe, Pharaoh wouldn’t either.
R’ Yitzchok Volozhin offers the following explanation of this kal vachomer in his Sefer Peh Kadosh: If an individual with a severe speech impediment approached a prisoner who has been incarcerated for a very long time and offered to work on his release, the prisoner would patiently listen to him as he struggled to form his words because the person represents hope and freedom.
However, if that same individual tried to speak to the warden about the prisoner, the warden would have no patience for him at all. He would dismiss him and suggest he send someone else to speak on the prisoner’s behalf.
Moshe Rabbeinu was arguing that if the Jewish people wouldn’t listen to him even though he was offering them release from harsh servitude, why would Pharaoh listen to him?
It’s interesting to note that sometimes an individual has difficulty hearing, but when he is interested or sympathetic, he suddenly hears very well. Similarly, a person may think he is unable to accomplish a certain task, yet when he is strongly motivated, he suddenly finds himself able to harness the stamina and determination necessary to complete the undertaking. A similar situation: Someone may have an overwhelming fear of the dark, and refuse to enter a dark tunnel, for example. But if he is offered $1,000 to go in for a minute, he will overcome his phobia.
All three individuals can do what was previously thought unachievable because their will and resolve unearth hidden strengths and embolden them to succeed.
This lesson brings to mind a depiction of the great Steipler Gaon by HaGaon Rav Eliezer Turk. Growing up in Hornesteipel, the Steipler suffered serious inflammations of the ear from the harsh cold weather. As the years passed, he began to lose his hearing. Petitioners who came to the great gaon would have to write their requests on a piece of paper, and he would respond to them in a loud voice.
Yet, curiously, if a talmid chacham came to the gaon to converse divrei Torah with him, there was no need for written communication. The Steipler would listen attentively and speak as if he could hear perfectly.
How is this possible? Since he was especially passionate about Torah, he exerted every effort to focus his heart, mind, and powers to listen.
Similarly, it is told of the Brisker Rav that when he was elderly, he was often distracted when people would engage in idle chatter. He would even doze off sometimes. But when they conversed in divrei Torah, he was alert and participated fully in the discussion.
Rav Yerachmiel Boyer related that when an ophthalmologist came to the home of HaGaon Rav Shach, the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh, to check his vision, he took out the Sefer Ketzos HaChoshen (by R’ Aryeh Leib Heller) and asked him to read from it. He was astounded when Rav Shach began to read flawlessly and enthusiastically, without a moment’s hesitation.
He was sure Rav Shach was reciting it from memory because he knew that the rosh yeshiva required much stronger lenses than what he currently had. The ophthalmologist then took out the Sefer Shev Shmaitza (also by R’ Heller) and Rav Shach once again faultlessly read the lines. However, when the doctor took out a secular book, it was immediately obvious that the rosh yeshiva needed stronger lenses.
Rav Nosson Wachtfogel takes this concept a step further in commenting on the medrash in Vayikra Rabbah which states: If a person is meritorious – i.e., he is a tzaddik – he is told, “You preceded the creation of the world,” and if he is not – i.e., he is a rasha – he is told, “Even the lowly mosquito preceded you.” Rav Wachtfogel notes that there are many degrees of achievement between the two extremes of a tzaddik and a rasha. Why is reference only made to these two?
Rav Wachtfogel explains that the medrash is referring to one’s spiritual aspirations in life. One either desires and yearns to achieve an ever loftier spiritual level – or the antithesis. And one has to be tenacious and mobilize his energies to succeed in his endeavors.