A foolish royal prince acted so inappropriately that his father banished him from the palace. Homeless, the prince wandered from place to place, feeling the bitter taste of want and poverty. Eventually, he totally forgot about his former lifestyle and took a job chopping wood for a villager. The axe he was given was old and rusty, making his task extremely difficult. So the prince wrote a letter to his father, asking him to have mercy on him and send him a new, good axe.
When the king received the letter, and read what his son was asking for, he grew even angrier and ignored the request entirely.
Time went on, and the prince-turned-commoner grew nostalgic for his past. He reminded himself who he really was, and began to compare his former life in the royal palace to his impoverished, pain-filled life now as a wood-chopper for a simple villager. Once again he wrote a letter to his father, but this time he pleaded with the king to have mercy on him and bring him home.
The king was greatly moved by the contents of this second letter. His fatherly love was awakened; he sent for his son and brought him back to the palace.
Dovid Hamelech says in Tehillim (22:2): “My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me? [Why] So far from saving me, [from] the words of my roar.”
Harav Yechezkel, the Rebbe of Kuzmir, zy”a, quoted an unnamed tzaddik as using the above parable to explain this verse as a question and answer. We ask why it seems that Hashem has forsaken us, and the response is that the words of our roar — what we are asking for — are so far from our real need of spiritual salvation.
Using this concept, his grandson, the Divrei Yisrael of Modzhitz, explains several apparent difficulties in our parashah.
As Moshe Rabbeinu stood near the burning thorn bush, Hashem informed him, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sufferings.” (Shemos 3:7)
In the next passuk, Hashem tells Moshe, “I have descended to rescue them from the hand[s] of the Egyptians,” and to bring them to Eretz Yisrael.
In the third passuk, Hashem refers once again to the cry of the Bnei Yisrael. “And now, behold, the cry of the Bnei Yisrael has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression that the Egyptians are oppressing them.”
What does the third passuk add to the first? What is the meaning of the words “now, behold”? The cry of the Bnei Yisrael was already previously mentioned!
There are several significant differences between the first and third pesukim.
In the first, the cry is identified as coming because “of their taskmasters”; in the third passuk it just says “of the Bnei Yisrael.” In the first, it says, “and I have heard their cry,” indicating a certain distance; in the third, it says, “the cry … has come to Me.”
Much like the prince in the parable, during the long years when the Bnei Yisrael were enslaved in Egypt, they were so overwhelmed by the backbreaking labor and persecution that they forgot who they were. They forgot that they were royal princes, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. All their cries were about the “faulty axe” — about their evil taskmasters and their physical suffering. Hashem heard their cries — but from a distance, for their requests were still far from yearning for their real salvation.
It was only when the time of their redemption arrived that the Bnei Yisrael were awakened and reminded of who they were and where they came from. They recognized that Egypt — a bastion of moral decadence and impurity — was no place for a descendant of the saintly Avos. It was not the terrible physical conditions that pained them, but their longing for Hashem.
“Now” their cry was no longer “because of their taskmasters,” but the “cry of the Bnei Yisrael.” This time it was no longer heard from a distance; rather, Hashem states this cry “has come to Me.”
* * *
Each year, for the six weeks beginning with Parashas Shemos, we merit to experience Shovavim — an acronym for the first letters of the first six parshiyos of Sefer Shemos — a special time of returning to and cleaving to Hashem.
The Viledniker Rebbe, zy”a, in She’eiris Yisrael, expounds at length on the topic of Shovavim. He states that there are sins that Yom Kippur does not atone for — but in these lofty days of Shovavim, even those sins can be rectified.
In many kehillos, extra pirkei Tehillim are recited during these weeks, and the number of hours of uninterrupted Torah study is increased. In some kehillos the minhag is to fast a day or part of a day during each week of Shovavim.
It’s also an appropriate time to revaluate what our requests are of Hashem. Are we asking for a new axe — or are we asking to grow close to Him?