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Shemot 5766-2006

“And G-d Built Them Houses”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of Pharaoh’s demonic plot to weaken and ultimately destroy the Jewish population of Egypt.

Pharaoh appoints taskmasters over the Hebrews and afflicts them with great burdens, commanding them to build huge storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. To Pharaoh’s great chagrin, the more he afflicts the Israelites, the more they increase and flourish. Pharaoh further embitters the lives of the Children of Israel with crushing hard work, with mortar and bricks. When Pharaoh realizes that his harsh decrees are not working quickly enough, he resorts to outright murder of the Jewish children.

Pharaoh summons the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, and tells them to kill any Jewish male child who is born. But the midwives fear G-d, and refuse to heed Pharaoh’s wishes. When Pharaoh asks them why they let the boys live, they tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are healthy, and give birth to the children even before the midwives arrive.

In Exodus 1:20-21 Scripture informs us of the blessing that G-d bestowed upon the midwives for their heroic actions: “Va’yay’tev Eh’lo’kim lah’m’yal’dowt,” G-d rendered good to the midwives. “Va’y’hee kee yar’ooh ha’m’yal’dot et ha’Eh’lo’kim, va’ya’ahs la’hem ba’teem,” and because the midwives feared G-d, He made them houses!

Our rabbis say (Sotah 11b) that the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, were really Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses. Rashi, again quoting Sotah 11b, maintains that G-d rewarded the two women for their devotion by providing them not with actual houses, but rather with “dynasties.” Jochebed (Shifrah), through her children Aaron and Moses, was to become the progenitor of two dynasties, the Cohanim (Priests) and the Levites, while Miriam (Puah) was to become the forebear of King David.

The Talmud makes frequent reference to how G-d assists those who wish to do good, by allowing them to do even greater good than they originally intended. The Talmud in Shabbat 32a states: “M’gal’g’lin z’choot al y’day za’kai,” additional merit is rendered by the Al-mighty to those who are meritorious. In Shabbat 104a, the Talmud further states: “Bah l’ta’hayr, m’sa’yeen o’toh,” He who comes to purify himself, G-d aids him in the process.

The Or HaChaim, cited in the Stone Artscroll Chumash, maintains that when a person desires to serve G-d at great personal sacrifice, G-d enables that person to succeed and perform even more good deeds. Specifically, because of the midwives’ intention to help the nation grow, G-d rewards them through their families, with special blessing and accelerated growth.

When I first started the National Jewish Outreach Program, I had decided that unless significant funds were raised before formally founding the organization, I would not go forth with the dream. I was prepared to take a risk with my own livelihood, but not with others. Unfortunately, I had little prior experience in fundraising. I spent the good part of a year visiting prospective donors, hoping to raise the necessary start-up funds. Being wet behind the ears, I never realized how important it was to acknowledge in writing the commitments that I had received.

Early on, I went to one philanthropist, and audaciously informed him that I needed “one million dollars” in order to start the organization! To this day, I still recall him saying to me, “You got it!” But when I returned to him several months later to collect the pledge, he gave me $10,000 (for which I was nevertheless grateful). Fortunately, I had collected significant funds from other sources, and by that time it was already too late to turn back. I was, of course, brokenhearted by this terrible misunderstanding on my part or on the philanthropist’s part, but nevertheless, I forged ahead.

What I viewed then as a great setback, turned out to be a great blessing. The presumed million dollar pledge, actually served as a source of great encouragement for me to go on and collect the additional funds.

Today, whenever I read the verse in which G-d renders kindness to the midwives, I remember the early days of NJOP. Yocheved and Miriam were rewarded with “houses”–the dynasties of the Priesthood and the Levites, and eventually the monarchy of King David. This unusual reward makes me think of the tens of thousands of Jews who have gone through the NJOP programs, among whom are many who, when they started, had no idea that they were in fact Priests or Levites, and as a result of learning more about Judaism through NJOP, are today actually functioning as Priests and Levites.

Of course, my ultimate hope is that one day a former NJOP student, who is a descendant of the tribe of Judah, as most Jews are, will be designated by the Al-mighty to lead our people in the Messianic times. Who knows? We can dream, can’t we?!

May you be blessed.