Moshe reiterates to the people the responsibility they took on when they agreed the covenant at Sinai:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. אֶת-ה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו. וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר – Today, Hashem your God commands you to perform these laws and statutes; to guard and keep them – with all your heart and soul. Regarding Hashem you have said today, that He will be a God to you; that you will walk in his ways, to keep his laws and statutes; and listen to His voice.
Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos. And He will place you supreme, above all the nations He made; for praise, honour and glory, that you would be a holy nation dedicated to Him, as was said. (26:16-19)

The former part relates to our commitment to the relationship, and the latter, Hashem’s commitment to us. The transition though, is quite difficult: וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו – Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos.

The opening is clearly Hashem speaking of us, but the ending is clearly back to our commitment. How is adherence to Torah related to being called עַם סְגֻלָּה? Whose commitment is this about? And what is the supremacy granted as a result?

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being called עַם סְגֻלָּה – “chosen” – is not what it seems at face value. It is not a status we are born with; it is a title earned, an achievement, that we have to strive towards.

In a similar vein, a man does not make the blessing שעשני איש the way a woman says שעשני כרצונו – because איש – to truly be a “man” – is what we spend our lives striving towards.

So too with circumcision, the first mitzva a newborn is party to, is a microcosm of the Jewish mission; perfecting what we have with everything we are given, working towards the ultimate goal of perfection.

Rabbeinu Bachye says that the entire verse pertains to our commitment – לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו – we just have to earn it.

So being chosen is in fact a bestowing of responsibility, but is in turn rewarded with being עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם – supreme over the other nations.

R Shamshon Refael Hirsch writes how when the responsibilities are met, the world becomes a better place. The world is damaged, and being better people bring harmony back, repairing it.

Adam was commanded to “conquer” the world, when he was still all alone. His conquest would be through exercising his free will to listen to God; this is how all the animals knew to come to him to be named – they perceived godliness in him.

The same is true of Yakov – the Torah emphasises how he left Beersheba and went to Charan. The former seems redundant – it should only matter that he arrived somewhere. Clearly, his departure does matter. When someone righteous leaves or goes somewhere, the environment and atmosphere of the place fundamentally change.

There is a story told of a young Chafetz Chaim, who saw the ills of the world, and decided to change the world. Seeing that the task was too monumentally large, he changed his mind, and set out to change his community. After seeing that this too was impossible, he downgraded his ambitions again, and decided that if he could not make them better, he’d start with the man in the mirror.

And by making himself better, he really did change the world.

R Hirsch teaches that by being better people, the world becomes a better place. There is famine, war, child slavery and kidnapping in the world, and while people attempt to deal with the symptoms, it is ultimately futile if humans aren’t more humane.

This is also what we mean when we make brachos, when we say אשר קדשנו במצוותיו; and what we mean we say אתה בחרתנו on Yomim Tovim – וקדשתנו במצוותיך.

The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through perfection of ourselves. Introduce a little more humility, kindness and gratitude into your life; and a little less being mundane and materialistic. The world around you may just change.

At the end of Creation, before the first Shabbos begins, the concluding overview summarizes how all the component parts came together:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – And God saw all that He had done, and it was very good. With an evening and a morning, the sixth day. (1:31)

The Ramban notes how כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה includes the  unpleasant aspects of creation which are nonetheless labeled טוֹב מְאֹד – excellent. With a greater perspective, everything turns out for the best.

The Netziv further adds that this was not just true of that individual moment. Within that moment, all potential and future moments were dormant, and all that latent potential was excellent as well.

Rabeinu Bachye notes how at the conclusion of every other day, the Torah describes it as כי טוב – it was “good”. But on the final day, where all the different aspects of existence had been formed and came together, it became something else; טוֹב מְאֹד – “excellent”. The creation itself was truly greater than sum of its parts; like a sophisticated machine, all the various levers, gears and cogs came together to become something utterly incredible.

The Kli Yakar points out the contrast between the first five days of כי טוב, and the conclusion of events called וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד. The Kli Yakar explains that כי is a term of clarification. It indicates a deliberation weighing towards טוב. But when everything comes together, it is unqualified – וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד – it is clearly and absolutely good.

The Sforno explains that the conclusion of creation achieved an equilibrium; existence was literally “at rest” – precisely the definition of Shabbos. With the acceptance and absorption of the imperfections in the world, the Torah was in balance. The Torah calls this טוֹב מְאֹד.

Existence was whole, complete and in balance. On such a sixth day – הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “the” perfect sixth day, Shabbos can finally commence.

Perfection is seeing that there are countless components to the sophisticated machine that is life, some of which are tough, but all of which, together, make it work. It just takes a little perspective.

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר- Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. (1:1)

באחד בניסן הוקם המשכן, ובאחד באייר מנאם- Rashi explains, When He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.

A question arises. Why weren’t they counted already by the first of Nissan?

Rashi mentions it had something to do with the shechina coming down to Bnei Yisroel and that had already occurred on the first of Nissan.

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי- Speak to Bnei Yisroel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. (Exodus 25:2)

אמרו רבותינו שלש תרומות אמורות כאן, אחת תרומת בקע לגלגלת, שנעשו מהם הא-דנים ואחת תרומת המשכן נדבת כל אחד ואחד- Rashi mentions the three times Bnei Yisroel were counted during their first year after leaving Egypt. One of them is when each member of klal Yisroel gave half a shekel for the sockets of the mishkan.

This was, of course, before the first of Nissan, before the mishkan was set up. There is a deeper meaning to the counting of Am Yisroel, as explained by the Rabbeinu Bechaya and other Rishonim. The two sets of counting are to show how we are all united; we are all one unit. (In gemara, we constantly find the connection and importance of the number 600,000.) Therefore, there was great importance to each of the two sets of counting.

The first one, which took place when Bnei Yisroel donated for the sockets of the mishkan, was to gather all the single members of Bnei Yisroel and weld them (no pun intended) into one unit. After it had already been established that we are all one unit, and the shechina had already come to rest on Am Yisroel, the time came to show how each person in klal Yisroel is an individual, even whilst they are part of the single unit; they still have their own unique way to express themselves!

The Apter Rov, the Oihev Yisroel was once asked how it is possible to love every Jew. It is written in Masechet Gittin, 6a, that the Torah has 600,000 letters to represent Bnei Yisroel. If even one letter of the Torah is missing, it is incomplete and therefore, considered pasul (unfit for use). So too, each Jew is part of a collective whole; a part that we can not exist without. Love every Jew; all of them together complete the whole unit, while still retaining their individuality and their own purpose in this world.

After experiencing the incredible miracle that was the Red Sea splitting, the people collectively sang Az Yashir:

זה קלי ואנוהו אלקי אבי וארוממנו – This is my God, and I will glorify Him – the God of my father – and I will exalt Him. (15:2)

The Mechilta observes how any maidservants at the sea saw things that even Yechezkel ben Buzi, who had the most vivid prophecies, did not.

Who were these maidservants? How were there any servants among the Jews, a newly liberated people?

The commentaries wonder how Chazal derived their statement. The Vilna Gaon, the Maharil Diskin and the Maskil L’David accept essentially the same view. Rashi writes that there are two parts to the passuk. The second half, that of “אלקי אבי וארוממנו”, is a reference to Hashem being the God of their fathers, illustrating a relationship begun earlier than those saved at the Sea. The above commentaries explain that the word “זה” refers to both clauses; once for “זה קלי ואנוהו” and then for “זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו”. However, the Jews did not leave Egypt alone. Non-Jewish servants and maidservants, a.k.a. the Eirev Rav, came along in order to convert. Unable to refer to their relationship with Hashem as beginning with their forefathers, substituted “זה קלי ואנוהו” instead. Did the Jews say both statements? Maskil L’David says they did, whereas the Eirev Rav said only “זה קלי ואנוהו”. The Vilna Gaon and Maharil Diskin teach that this passuk was truly split; with the Jews saying”זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו” , and the non-Jewish servants and maidservants saying “זה קלי ואנוהו”.

The commentaries explain how Chazal understood that the maidservant saw “more” than Yechezkel. The word “זה” – “this here” – was used at the Sea to connote something concrete and direct, as opposed to the general “ואראה” – “I was shown” – used in the later prophesies. Chazal saw from this that even this maidservant, essentially any non-Jew who was there, was able to point and say “זה קלי ואנוהו”; and truly saw a greater revelation than even the greatest of the prophets; the Presence of Hashem was manifest in such a great way that one could simply point and say, “This is my G-d”.

Interestingly, there is discussion amongst the Rishonim regarding the nature of Hashem’s “revelation” at the Sea. Rabbeinu Bachayei writes that Chazal do not mean to say that the maaidservant had greater ability to grasp such things, nor were they wiser than Yechezkel. Hashem simply “showed” Himself more at the Sea than He ever did to Yechezkel. The Rambam disagrees; in describing the lofty levels reached by the Jews in the generation of the Exodus and the Desert travels, he writes: “The lowest of them was like Yechezkel, as Chazal say. This seems to be a reference to the statement of Chazal under discussion. Apparently Rambam understood this statement to be descriptive of the nation’s spiritual heights, which enabled them to have as remarkable a revelation as they did.

According to the Rambam, two insights would appear. Firstly, that even the “lowest” Jew at that time was indeed greater than Yechezkel. Secondly, it appears that we need not understand that the maidservant was at least originally non-Jewish. In context, the Rambam is discussing the great level of the Jewish nation at the time, and yet he uses this statement of Chazal as a proof. This leads one to surmise that the Rambam understood that the maidservant in question was Jewish. If this is the case, our original question returns; why is there a “maidservant” in this newly liberated nation?

The Gemara in Sota 11b tells the story of how the pregnant Jewish women in Egypt would go out to the fields to give birth, and would leave their newborns there. To take them home would mean their being captured and tossed into the Nile. Hashem took care of these newborns, sending angels to clean, feed and care for them. When the Egyptians found out about these children living in the fields, they came to kill them. A miracle occurred; the earth would swallow these children deep enough to protect them from Egyptian plows. After the Egyptians left, the children sprouted out of the ground like plants. When they grew up, herds of them would return to their homes. And when Hashem revealed Himself at the Sea, these children “recognized” Him first having been raised in His presence and said: “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Clearly this Gemara understands that the Jews too said “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Now according to the Maskil L’David, that “זה קלי ואנוהו” was also said by the Jews, this Gemara can be congruent with the Mechilta. However, according to the Vilna Gaon and the others, this Gemara too needs reconciliation with the word usage of the Mechilta: “maidservant,”, and we are left with our question.

Food for thought.

There are interesting explanations of how the Plague of Darkness actually took place. On one hand, R’ Avraham Iben Ezra learns that it was a fog so tremendously thick that it extinguished any fire lit within it. He writes that he himself saw experienced such a phenomenon many times near the ocean. Yet the Torah Temima understands that the plague meant that the Egyptians were stricken with severe cataracts. The Vilna Goan explains that darkness is not like we commonly tend to think of as simply the absence of light, but rather a creation in its own right. Hashem however set up the light/dark relationship in such a way that light always wins in a “fight” with darkness. By this makkah, though, that relationship was reversed.

Rabbeinu Bachaiyei (Bo 10:21) seems to learn a pshat somewhere in the middle. He quotes the Medrash Shemos Rabba (14:1-3) detailing and expounding upon this plague. He mentions the tangibility of the darkness; this darkness was not just the absence of light. Rather, it was an existence in itself that had substance. So thick was it, that during the last three days of the six day duration of this plague, no Egyptian could move a muscle and was frozen in place. (Ralbag writes that Hashem sealed the Egyptians’ noses and mouths. They could not breathe for three days. That they did not die was a miracle. He did this because had the Egyptians breathed in this new, thick dark air, they surely would have died. Being kept alive without breathing for this time was a source of tremendous suffering for them.) Klal Yisrael, however, had plenty of light, not only in Goshen but even when they entered the Egyptian houses to search for valuables.n

Rabbeinu Bachaiyei explains the nature of this particular darkness. In order for the eye to see light, the light must travel from its source through the air into the eye. This is similar to hearing; the sound waves travel from the source to one’s ear. In other words, air is the medium through which light travels. During the first three days of the plague of darkness, Hashem “sealed” the pathways of the air from allowing passage of light. In the absence of the ability for light to get through the air automatically turns dark. For the last three days, Hashem thickened this dark air so much so that the weight of it did not allow them to move. This was not the case for Klal Yisrael; Hashem did not close the passageways of air for them. They were able to see freely and could go where they pleased.

In understanding this Rabbeinu Bachaiyei, it would seem that one would need to clarify his words as follows. We cannot say that all the air particles in any specific Egyptians house were sealed off to light. For if so, how could the Jew entering to search for valuables be able to see? On the other hand, to say that the air particles were open to light would mean that the Egyptians would be able to see! One must say that the plague of darkness how we tend to envision it. It wasn’t that the land of Egypt was completely dark. Rather, the air particles immediately and in closest proximity to the individual Egyptian were the ones that were sealed off from light (for the first three days, after which this very air became heavy enough to hinder any movement). It was as if every Egyptian had a heavy, dark shell around his body. But during the day, the land of Egypt itself was as bright as any other country.

One could comment, however, that according to this the Plague of Darkness effected the Jews as well. Being that the air directly surrounding the Egyptians did not allow light to pass through, all that a Jew saw in looking at an Egyptian was a thick human-shaped black cloud. The Jew would not have been able to see through due to the sealed air. If, for example, the Jew would want to know the identity of the Egyptian whose house he had entered by looking at him, he would not be able to (and those Jews who were able to tell specific Egyptians about the whereabouts of their valuables would have had to have know their identities by other means)! Possibly one could suggest that the air around the Egyptian worked like one-way glass; one side can see through while the other side can’t. The Jews could see the Egyptians while the Egyptians could not see out. The problem with this might be that if the light could not get in to the Egyptians, then it would not be reflecting back towards the Jews to enable them to see the Egyptians.

The easiest pshat in Rabbeinu Bachayei might therefore be that the air was open for the Jews and closed for the Egyptians. Though this may not make sense in our minds (as we asked above), we can safely throw up our hands and say, “Who is so wise to understand Hashem’s ways!” So writes the Alshich (10:21-23). The Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo explains that all the miracles preformed in Egypt were a testimonial for generations of there being really no such thing as nature, rather everything is Hashem’s doing. The miracles there were a wakeup call to this. After writing this, I found in the Medrash Tehilim (aka Sochar Tov 22:2) exactly this idea. “In the way the world works, can a man light a fire and say, ‘Ploni who is my friend shall benefit from this light, but Ploni who is my enemy will not’?! Rather everyone benefits together. Yet Hashem is not this way. He can shine light to one and place darkness on another.”