(From the teachings of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztvk”l. written by his grandson HaRav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a)
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
Hashem’s Divine Providence (Hashgachah Pratit) and The Epic Story of Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah who were Miraculously Saved by Hashem from the Fiery Furnace, and What they had Learnt from the Frogs During the Plague in Egypt
In this week’s Parashah we learn about the plagues that Hashem smote Egypt with. It was to teach Am Yisrael an important lesson that they realise that there is Divine Providence (Hashgachah Pratit) in the world, that Hashem oversees all his creatures.
The wicked Egyptians were influencing Am Yisrael to, chas veshalom, believe that Hashem had forsaken the land, since it isn’t fitting that He busy Himself with people. To what may this be analogous to? To a king. It certainly isn’t befitting him that he speak with regular soldiers, a private, but rather he has a Minister of Defence below him. The Minister of Defence has a Chief of Staff, who in turn has generals, and likewise in this vein. So the officers communicate with the soldiers but the king himself has no direct contact with the regular soldiers. Likewise with Hashem, it isn’t befitting that He communicate directly with people, therefore He has forsaken the land leaving it to its own devices. He has channelled His supervision with the upper spheres, with the angels. Therefore the Egyptians said, “High above all the nations is Hashem, above the heavens is His glory” (Tehillim 113:4), only in Heaven is His supervision found. But Am Yisrael countered, “Who is like Hashem, our G-d, Who is enthroned on High - yet deigns to look upon the heavens and the earth” (ibid. v. 5-6), both in the Heavens and the Earth He watches and supervises. As Yirmiyahu the Prophet said, “Great in counsel and Mighty in deed, Your eyes are cognisant to all the ways of mankind, to grant each man according to his ways and the consequences of his deeds” (Yirmiyahu 32:19). There is unique supervision for each and every person!
With the plague of blood, an Egyptian would sit in his home and would see that all the water had turned to blood. There was no water to drink. He would go to the home of his Jewish slave and forcibly take from him a container of water. He would then return home and he and his family would come to drink and see that it was all blood! So the Egyptian made a jug with two openings and he called his Jewish slave to come and drink. The Jew drank from one side, there the water was clear. The Egyptian hurried to drink from the second side, but Oh! It was all blood! Until the Egyptians realised that if they purchased the water from Am Yisrael the water would remain clear and pure. During the plague of blood Am Yisrael became very wealthy because they sold water to the Egyptians for a full week. They all saw these miracles and began to realise that there is Divine Providence. The same jug that produced water for this one, produced blood for the other! This can only be that there is certain Divine Providence in the world!
After this came the plague of frogs. An Egyptian would drink water and in his stomach were living frogs. They would croak and the Egyptians couldn’t sleep for the entire week. When they came to relieve themselves in the bathroom, the frogs would enter their intestines and kill them. As the passuk states, “He sent against them a mixture of beasts that devoured them, and frogs that brought them ruin” (Tehillim 78:45). It is not the nature of frogs to kill people but here there was a miracle within a miracle that the frogs changed their nature and abused Egypt.
The wicked Paro also suffered from the plague of frogs. For a whole week Egypt endured the frogs. Paro sent his police throughout Egypt, into the land of Goshen and in every place, to find Moshe and Aron so that they halt the plague of frogs. But Moshe and Aron hid so that Paro would be unable to summon them. They studied Torah for seven days. When the time passed they left their place. Paro’s policemen saw them and ordered them to go before him. Paro said to them, “Pray to Hashem that He remove the frogs!” Moshe responded, “When would you like the frogs to die?” He said, “Tomorrow” (Shemot 8:6). Indeed that is what happened, the next day the frogs died.
We must contemplate this. Paro himself suffered greatly from the plague of frogs. If so, when Moshe and Aron came before him, he should have immediately requested that the plague of frogs cease from him. Why did he request from Moshe “tomorrow”? The answer is that the wicked Egyptians were experts in witchcraft and they suspected everything to be coming from witchcraft. Therefore when Moshe and Aron came before Paro seven days had already passed, the Egyptians said that the plague of blood was seven days and presently the plague of frogs is seven days, so in about an hour the seven days shall pass, because all witchcraft only lasts seven days. They said that this is why Moshe hid until now because he knew that now the plague will cease and in truth it is nothing to do with his ability to stop it. Therefore Paro said to Moshe, don’t stop the plague now but rather tomorrow. And so it was, that the plague lasted another 24 hours and only then did the frogs die. As the passuk states, “‘As you say,’ replied [Moshe]. ‘You will then know that there is none like Hashem our G-d’” (Shemot 8:6).
Our chachamim said (Pesachim 53b), what did Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah see that enabled them to give their lives up for Kiddush Hashem and be thrown into the furnace [for their beliefs]? They deduced from the behaviour of the frogs. If frogs who aren’t commanded in the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, and yet about whom it states, “[They will also be in] the homes of your officials and people, even in your ovens and kneading bowls” (Shemot 7:28), when are the kneading bowls found next to the oven? when the oven is hot, so we, who are commanded in Kiddush Hashem, all the more so! Meaning, that in Egypt the frogs climbed on the dough when it was placed next to the oven just prior to it being baked and they would throw themselves into the oven to extinguish the heat with their bodies. If so, all the more so us, Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah, who are required to sacrifice ourselves for Kiddush Hashem!
However we must understand what did Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah really deduce from the frogs? Did they really need this process of deduction to fathom that a Jew is obligated to sacrifice himself for Kiddush Hashem? It is a mitzvah in the Torah! We shall answer this, but first we shall explain what exactly what happened with them:
The king of Bavel, the wicked Nevuchadnetzar, built an idol approximately 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide, and it was in his own image. When Nevuchadnetzar conquered Yerushalayim he took the Cohen Gadol’s holy tzitz [this was a special band worn across his head which had Hashem’s Name on it] and he placed it under the idols tongue. At a certain time the idol would declare, “I am the lord your god who took you out of Egypt, you shall have no gods of others besides me!” At that time Nevuchadnetzar ruled the entire known world. He summoned representatives from all the nations and they all gathered in a semicircle before the idol. Each one held their country’s flag and when the idol said, “I am the lord your god”, the royal orchestra sounded and all who were there bent their knees and prostrated themselves before the idol.
The Jewish representatives were also in Nevuchadnetzar’s royal palace, they were, Daniel, Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah. The king summoned Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah and ordered them to bow before the idol together with the representatives from the other nations. He told Daniel to go and hide himself, so that he be saved from the decree. This was because Nevuchadnetzar was very fond of Daniel.
Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah came to Yechezkel the Prophet and said to him, “Our teacher and master Yechezkel! If we give ourselves for the sake of Kiddush Hashem, will Hashem perform miracles for us?” He replied to them, “I cannot answer you this. But I have a tradition from my teacher Yeshaya the Prophet, ‘Hide for a brief moment until the anger has passed’ (Yeshaya 26:20), so go and hide yourselves!” They said, “Our master Yechezkel, are you suggesting that everyone shall bow and also Yisrael [i.e. perhaps others Jews] are bowing? Rather we want to go and perform a Kiddush Hashem [and thereby prevent others too from bowing]! Just tell us, whether or not Hashem will perform a miracle for us.” Yechezkel went somewhere private until Hashem appeared to him, and then Yechezkel prophesised, “Some men of the elders of Yisrael came to enquire of Hashem, and they sat before me. Then the word of Hashem came to me saying, ‘Son of Man, speak to the elders of Yisrael and say to them: So says Hashem Elokim: Is it to enquire of Me that you come? As I live, [I swear] that I will not relate to your enquiries - the word of Hashem Elokim!’”” (Yechezkel 20:1-3). He said to them that “He will not make a miracle for you!” Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah said to him, “Our master Yechezkel! Whether or not Hashem will perform a miracle for us, we will go and sacrifice ourselves for Kiddush Hashem!” And with that they went away. Yechezkel sat and cried for them, since they would now be destroyed. Hashem appeared to him and said, “I inform you that I will perform a miracle for them but you may not inform them because what will be their greatness in them knowing that they will sacrifice themselves when they know from the outset that I will perform a miracle for them?”
They said in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabba), “Such is your stature, likened to a towering palm tree,” (Shir HaShirim 7:8), this refers to the towering stature of Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah who stood erect before Nevuchadnetzar’s idol and did not bow down! Nevuchadnetzar saw them and commanded his servants to immediately throw them into the fiery furnace which he had prepared. They bound their hands and took them to the fiery furnace. At the entrance of the fiery furnace, due to the extreme heat, the officers who threw them in died, but nothing happened to Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah. They walked around inside the fiery furnace as if they were in Boston and they were singing, “Praise Hashem, all nations; praise Him, all the states! For His kindness has overwhelmed us, and the truth of Hashem is eternal, Halleluyah!” (Tehillim 117:1-2).
Nevuchadnetzar stood and said to his servants, “How many men did you throw into the fiery furnace.” “Three”, they replied. He said to them, “But I see four! And the fourth has 6 wings and looks like an angel”. In fact this was Gavriel, the officer of fire, who descended to save them from the fiery furnace. [Hundreds of years prior] when Nimrod threw Avraham into the fiery furnace, Gavriel sought permission from Hashem to allow him to descend and save Avraham. Hashem said to him, “It is fitting for an individual to save an individual”, Avraham is my unique one, there is no one like him in the world, I too am Unique, and I will save him. And concerning your beautiful request, I promise you that in the future you will save 3 of my sons from a fiery furnace!”
Nevuchadnetzar approached [the fiery furnace] and beckoned Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah, and said to them, “Servants of Hashem! Come and go out.” And he sent them away alive, good and in peace, after he had smelled the aroma on their clothes, the fragrance of Gan Eden.
The next day Daniel heard what had happened, he left his hiding place and came before the king and requested, “My master the king, give me a ladder because I want to go up and kiss the idol on the mouth.” They erected a ladder for him and Daniel went up it, until he reached the tzitz and said, “I adjure you that you not create a Chillul Hashem! Go out immediately!” The tzitz was ejected from the idol’s mouth and Daniel placed it in his pocket and he descended the ladder. Immediately the idol disintegrated from its spot leaving nothing. Such was its demise.
Let us return to our topic. What did Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah learn from the frogs? Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah said, it sates in the Torah, “The Nile will swarm with frogs, and they will emerge, they will be in your palace, in your bedroom, and [even] in your bed. [They will also be in] the homes of your officials and people, even in your ovens and kneading bowls” (Shemot 7:28-29). However, when the plague of frogs ended it states, “And the frogs in the houses, courtyards and fields died” (ibid. 8:9), yet those that entered the ovens aren’t mentioned, they didn’t die. Rather, each frog that sacrificed itself in the oven, could have said, “It is more comfortable for me to lie in Paro’s bed!” Nevertheless, divisions of frogs leapt into the ovens. And so Hashem paid them their due reward and He saved them all. They all emerged from the ovens and returned to the Nile! This miracle, Hananyah, Mishael and Azariyah learnt form the frogs. They said, “If for the frogs Hashem made such a miracle, all the more so He will perform a miracle for us too!” And indeed, so it transpired.
This was all to teach us that a person who sacrifices his life for Kiddush Hashem, Hashem will perform miracles for him. May it be His will that we merit to see a complete redemption, “As in the days when you left the land of Egypt, I will show it wonders” (Micha 7:15). Amen, ken yehi ratzon.