in the beginning of Parshat Vaeira, Hashem tells Moshe that He will take the Jews out of Egypt. Moshe passes this message on to the Jews but they are suffering so much that they do not believe him. Hashem then tells Moshe to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Jews go. Moshe objects and says that if the Jews didn’t believe him, it is doubtful that Pharaoh will. The next verse says (6:13) “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Jews and Pharaoh to bring the Jews out of Egypt.” It seems strange that Hashem is commanding Moshe and Aaron regarding the Jews in the matter of their being taken out of Egypt. After all, the Jews were not in control of taking themselves out of Egypt. And Rashi’s explanation that Moshe and Aaron were being commanded to treat the Jews nicely also leaves a bit to be desired because Moshe and Aaron’s next interaction is only with Pharaoh not the Jews. So why are they being told to treat the Jews nicely now?”
R. Meir Simcha of D’vinsk (better known by the name of his Sefer the “Meshech Chochmah”) gives two explanations for this. In his previous message to the Jews, Moshe promised them a whole list of things. He promised them that Hashem would (6:6-8) “Take them out from under the burden of Egypt, save them from slavery, redeem them with a strong hand, take them to Him as His special nation, and bring them to Israel.” When a person is suffering, hearing that he will get a lot of good things, will only serve to overwhelm him or make him skeptical because it is “too good to be true”. There is a Yiddish story of a man by the name of Bunsha Schveig, who was extremely poor his whole life and suffered terribly, yet remained a righteous person. When he died, he went up to Heaven and the angels said “Because you were so righteous despite your troubles, you may now ask for the greatest thing that you can imagine and it will be granted.” “The greatest thing I can imagine?!” asked Bunsha in disbelief. “Yes,” said the angels, “there is no limit on what you can request”. Bunsha thought for a few moments and said “Could I have a piece of bread with butter?” Upon hearing this, the angels started crying, saying “How badly did this man suffer that the greatest thing he can think of to ask for is a piece of bread with butter!”
Similarly, the Jews who were suffering in Egypt, could not appreciate the long list of promises that Moshe gave them. It only made them think that it was all “too good to be true” and thus they did not believe him. Therefore, Hashem now commanded Moshe and Aaron “regarding the Jews to take them out of Egypt”. In other words, this time, they were only to promise the Jews one thing, namely to take them out of Egypt.
But then R. Meir Simcha quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi which says that it sounds like Moshe and Aaron were to pass along a command to the Jews, as a pre-requisite for them being taken out of Egypt. As to what that command was, the Talmud says that the Jews were being commanded to let their slaves go. Based on this, R. Hila says “The Jews were punished because they did not let their Jewish slaves go, as it says (Exodus 21:2) ‘At the end of seven years, you must let your brother, the slave go free.'” According to R. Meir Simcha, even in Egypt there were a number of rich Jews who had Jewish slaves working for them. The Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 13) says “Most of the tribes did not have any type of ruling status in Egypt, except for Reuven, Shimon and Levi, who ruled over their brothers.” So Moshe and Aaron were being told to tell those tribes who had Jewish slaves that “The pre-requisite for the nation to be redeemed from Egypt is letting your own Jewish brothers go free first. After all, freedom starts at home. Only if Jews care enough about freeing their fellow brothers will they merit Hashem taking the whole nation out of Egypt.” Interestingly, this was the same criteria for the Jews to be redeemed from the Babylonian exile. As the prophet Nechemiah writes in his sefer (5:5-6) “Now, the flesh of our Jewish brother is like our own flesh and their children are like our own children. Yet behold, we are conquering our own sons and daughters by selling them into slavery. And it pains me greatly to hear their cries.”
This second explanation of R. Meir Simcha’s also answers another question that the commentaries have. Before Moshe and Aaron go to Pharaoh, the Torah interrupts this story with a list of the heads of families in the tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Levi. The question that most ask is: why does the Torah only list these three tribes and not the other nine? Rashi says that the Torah really only meant to list Levi’s families in order to show the lineage of Moshe and Aaron since they are mentioned here. But since the Torah has to get to Levi, it starts at the beginning with the first tribe–Reuven. Rashi even brings a second explanation (probably figuring that most people would not be satisfied with the first one) which says that since Yaakov rebuked these three tribes on his deathbed, the Torah decides to list them to show that they are still important and worthy. But then the question would still be: “why now?”
According to R. Meir Simcha of D’vinsk’s second reason, we know why. It was these three tribes who owned Jewish slaves. Thus, before Moshe and Aaron could ask Pharaoh to help the Jewish nation by freeing them, the Jews themselves had to help their brothers first.
The same holds true today. Before we ask America and other nations in the world to take an active role in trying to solve the situation in Israel, Jews around the world have to take that active role first. After all, a visit from General Zinni is okay, but a visit from a fellow Jew means so much more!