Sunday, January 14, 2007

Va'eira, Shemos 9:24. Fire and Ice

Parts of this are based on the Sfas Emes here from year reish lamed hei.

The Gemora in the fifth perek of Brachos says that “afilu nachash karuch ahl akeivo eino mafsik b’tfilah. Akrav, mafsik.” If one finds a snake coiled around his ankle as he recites the Amida, the Shmoneh Esrei, he may not interrupt his davenning. If, on the other hand, he finds a scorpion, he should immediately stop. The Gemara says that a snake can be calmed by rhythmic movement, but an akrav is an immediate danger.

The Sfas Emes brings from a sefer “Ohr Yisrael” from the Rav Hamagid (I don’t know who he is referring to– The mefareish haRambam or someone else) that a snake kills by overheating the victim, while a scorpion kills by chilling him. (This is also stated in the Marsha in Brachos on 57b D’H “The tail of Akrav is in Nehar Dinor.”) The deeper meaning in Chazal's symbols is that there are two things that interfere with a person’s growth in ruchnius. One is the aveiros of heat, of passion, of the tayvos. That type of aveira is terrible, but a person can have a relationship with Hashem despite them, and can grow and overcome those aveiros. The other type is the aveiro of cold, of kerirus, of apathy, of not feeling that a relationship with Hashem is important, of not having hislahavus in avodas Hashem. That aveira does not seem so terrible. It is merely a sin of omission, it is just the sin of being indifferent, of being cool. But that sin is an absolute impediment to spiritual growth. This k’rirus is the beginning of leitzanus, of indifference, of treating Torah and Mitzvos as if they were trivial, mere distractions. If a person has the aveiros of heat, of taivos, he is not mafsik from t’filla, he is still capable of growth in has relationship with Hashem. But if he is cold, his tfilla is meaningless, he might as well stop davenning.

These two destructive possibilities are symbolized in Makkas Borod. Makkas Borod was when Hashem rained down on Mitzrayim two destructive elements, fire and ice. Both are destructive, and both threaten life. But Chazal are telling us that ice is worse than fire. (So the answer to Robert Frost’s question is, “Ice.”)

Every nation has a national symbol. Russia is the Bear, America the Eagle. What was the symbol of Egypt? If you remember Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus, you will remember his shel rosh, the Uraeus, the serpent in middle of his crown. The symbol of Egypt was the snake, the serpent. This is also alluded to in the Haftorah, where Pharaoh is called the great serpent lying in the Nile. Egypt was the zenith, or the nadir, of the aveiros of heat, the aveiros of the Bnei Chom. Amolek, on the other hand, is the one “asher Karcha baderech.” Amalek represents the aveira of k’rirus, and the symbol of Amalek is the Akrov. The Torah says "Asher Karcha Baderech." Literally, Karcha means 'ambushed you'. But Karcha also means 'cooled you.' (Note: The Sfas Emes doesn’t say this with certitude. He says “efsher” that Amalek is the Akrav. And the fact that the Gaon, cited later, also doesn’t have any such reference, indicates that the Sfas Emes’es use of Akrov as Amolek is a novelty without any explicit support in Chazal.) The aveira of Mitzrayim can be overcome. The aveira of Amaleik is much more dangerous. It may seem innocuous, but in fact it can be a greater problem.

There is a sefer called Mima’amkim from Mandlebaum from Har Nof, and in Shemos ma’amar 39, p. 396, he brings a bunch of the Gra’s torah explaining the concept of akrav and nochosh, including on Brachos 32 about being mafsik in T’filla. Regarding Nachash, the Gaon says like the Sfas Emes, that Nachash means aveiros of taiva. He explains Akrav as meaning Avodah Zarah, and he explains the gemara exactly like the Sfas Emes, that once a person has machshavos of Avodah Zarah, his tfilla is a waste of time, because in Avodah Zarah machshavah is mitztareif to maiseh, but other aveiros, even b’po’eil, he doesn’t have a din mummar l’chol hatorah, so his t’filla is still t’filla. The mar’ei makom are: Tikkunei Zohar 185:72, 59:3, 421:52:71 (I’m not sure whether the last letters mean 71 or omud alef), Mishlei 17:11 (where he just says that nochosh means mirmoh and akrov means rah), and Reiah Mehemna Vayikra gimmel ayin beis. (Thank you, Anonymous, for the mar'eh mokom.)

Eric Hoffer once observed that "The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not."


  1. Reish Ayin Mem stands for Raya Mehemna - a section in the Zohar.