Living in such dire circumstances for so many years in Mitzrayim, who wouldn’t be jumping out of their skin to leave? Bnei Yisrael finally depart from Mitzrayim … but not all of them. In fact, many (as Rashi says, a grand total of 80% of them!) never made it out, but instead perished in the ninth makkah of darkness. Rashi says these people were wicked and didn’t want to depart from Mitzrayim.
How could it be that so many people wanted to stay and not leave?
Rav Chaim Mintz discusses two factors that could have contributed to their resistance. The first is leaving behind everything one worked for and built up until now. A person could have spent years developing his life and his welfare, and now one would have to leave it all behind to go to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild from scratch. The second is that in Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael were in the 49th level of impurity—the level right below the point of no return. Those people who preferred to stay in Mitzrayim, stuck to living their lives in this way.
I think that in a general sense, perhaps, we see from here that the overall theme that led these people to want to stay in Mitzrayim, instead of leaving to eventually go to Eretz Yisrael was their attachment to gashmiyut and worldly matters. As Rav Mintz concludes, that every person is to introspect if they are any better than those people who didn’t want to leave Mitzrayim: If one is, indeed, ready to leave everything behind when Mashiach comes; if one is, indeed, ready to depart from all his worldly and physical desires, and from all his activities, and from his big house, to instead go to Eretz Yisrael—a holy place—to live a life of ruchniyot (“Etz Hachayim,” Bo).
Such a phenomenon is so prevalent that it affected—potentially—20% of the nation. It would, therefore, seem then that overcoming this attachment may pose as quite a challenge when the hopeful day of Mashiach arrives. In fact, Rav Shlomo Wolbe says that when Mashiach comes, who knows if the Jews in Europe and America will want to leave their houses and go to Eretz Yisrael—for this will be a big test.
What do we really want: a greater life filled with ruchniyot, or to remain with our possessions and mundane and physical activities that we may be involved with here? Do we want our status quo, or do we want Mashiach? We might want him to come, but do we wait for him?
When the city of Brisk expressed their interest in having Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik as their Rav, Rav Soloveitchik turned it down quite a number of times, until finally someone told him, “Rabbi, there are 20,000 Jews in Brisk waiting for you!” Upon hearing this, Rav Soloveitchik agreed to the position.
The Chafetz Chaim said, it thus appears that we are not waiting for Mashiach, for if we were, then if Rav Soloveitchik couldn’t turn down the 20,000 Jews who were awaiting him, how could Hashem turn us down and not bring Mashiach? Indeed, do we wait for him, or do we want him to wait for us? As the Steipler brings from the Sefer Habrit that if someone were to be told “Mashiach has arrived!” he would want Mashiach to wait, so that he can liquidate whatever businesses he’s involved with.
So, we might want him to come and might await his arrival, but how eager are we for him...
The Chafetz Chaim was once with Rav Avraham Kalmanovitch, the Rav of Rakaŭ, and asked him, “Rav of Rakaŭ, do you await Mashiach?” The Rav said, “Yes.” The Chafetz Chaim asked again, and the Rav said, “Yes!” again; this went on a third time. Finally, the Chafetz Chaim exclaimed, “No, no, Rav of Rakaŭ! To await Mashiach, one must wait like the mother waited for Yankel!”
The Chafetz Chaim proceeded to explain and illustrate what he meant—by providing a detailed, yet beautiful story. In very brief form:
“A couple was childless for many years, lo aleinu. They went to this doctor and that doctor, to this tzaddik and that tzaddik. Nothing helped, and as one can imagine, the pain was great.
Finally, they had a baby boy—and as one can imagine—the joy in the home was palpable, the simcha was immeasurable. The day of the brit came. The celebration was grand. Everyone was jubilant. The child—whom the parents waited so long for and now merited to make a brit for—was named, “Yaakov,” and in endearing form, they called him, “Yankel.” The day of the pidyon ha’ben arrived. Everyone was so joyous, and even more so were Yankel’s parents, who have waited so long for him and have now merited to participate in this pidyon.
Yankel began to develop. Any step of growth brought tremendous happiness to the parents—Yankel started crawling! Yankel started walking! Yankel started talking! Is there anything more joyous than this for the parents …
It’s time for Yankel to go to school. Yankel began learning. His mother was ecstatic—she merited for her dear son, Yankel, to go to school! She waits for him every day, anticipating his return from school—only a couple more hours and he will arrive! She constantly thinks about him. Yankel advances to learning Chumash—his parents are elated! They make a huge party. Their Yankel advances and starts learning Mishnayot, and again they make a big celebration, and they do the same when he begins learning Gemara. What could be more joyous than seeing their dear Yankel progress.
The day of Yankel’s bar mitzvah arrived, and the joy and excitement was through the roof. The party they made for him was fabulous—for their Yankel isn’t just any ordinary child, he’s their single child whom they had waited for so long. Yankel delivered his speech so nicely, and his parents were so proud, with their faces beaming with pure, immeasurable joy.
The time came for Yankel to go off to yeshiva. His parents were filled with joy, despite the difficulty—especially for his mother who was so much attached to him—of having to be separated from him while Yankel was in the yeshiva. While he’s away, his mother constantly thought about how he was doing, how his learning was going, and also, how many more days it would be until he would come back home. And when he does come back during the breaks, the reunion was one of utter joy and warmth. They made a big celebration for him when he came back; they were so proud that their dear Yankel was growing in learning.
One day, the parents received news: Yankel had been arrested, even though he was innocent. When the mother heard this, she almost fainted. They do whatever they could to get him released. They went to the head of the police, and then the mayor, and then to the government officials, pleading their case. Finally after much pleading, they agreed to release Yankel, and he would be home in three weeks. His mother was elated. She started counting the weeks, and the days, and the hours. With twelve more hours until his arrival, Yankel’s mother headed to the train station to await him. Half-an-hour left... In such eager anticipation she couldn’t sit; she walked back and forth—bubbling with excitement. The minutes passed... She could hear the sound of the train in the distance, and she almost fainted from such exhilaration. Yankel was coming!
The train pulled up, as she watched eagerly. The people started descending, one by one. But no Yankel. Where was he? What has happened? The mother went to the conductor who looked at her ticket and said, “Mother, you have made a mistake, his train is the next one—arriving in six more hours.”
The Chafetz Chaim turned to the Rav of Rakaŭ and exclaimed, “Think about how the mother is waiting and the level of anticipation that she will have in those six hours... To await, hope and anticipate Mashiach should be like how the mother waited and anticipated Yankel’s arrival during those six hours!”
Do we want Mashiach, do we wait for him—and like the mother—are we watching and looking out in eager anticipation for his arrival? May he come speedily in our days.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work