The Ten Plagues – Measure for Measure
This week’s Torah reading describes the first seven plagues the Egyptians suffered for refusing to allow the Jews to leave the land. Besides being a means of persuasion to free the Jews, the plagues also served as retribution for the torturous labor the Jews suffered at the hand of the Egyptians.
The second plague was the plague of frogs. Hordes of frogs swarmed the Egyptians and made their lives miserable. The Midrash says (Lekach Tov, Shemot 7:28) that the croaking of the frogs which the Egyptians suffered from was a measure-for-measure punishment. Because the Egyptians would yell at the Jews to wake them up from their sleep to get up and work, they were now punished with suffering from the irritating noise the frogs made.
Even a “Minor” Offense
This is an astonishing lesson for us. The Egyptians tortured the Jews tremendously. They forced them to do back-breaking labor, including labor which did not serve any constructive purpose. They threw their babies into the river, they whipped them and they killed them when they did not fulfill their quota of work. Despite all the horrific atrocities that the Egyptians committed, nothing was overlooked. They were even punished for the minor offense of disturbing the Jews while they were sleeping by waking them up to work.
The same is true for us as well. If someone is involved in something morally wrong, he may feel guilty, but he is not concerned about any minor sins he may commit along the way. People assume that if they are involved in something that is very wrong, any additional little misdeeds will make no difference. But this is not so. Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Mishlei 16:11) that all of a person’s deeds are analyzed for judgment, the small and the big. Even if a person has severe crimes weighing against him, the minor ones are accounted for as well. As we see with the Egyptians, one will be held accountable for every minor misconduct, even if he is committing a far greater sin simultaneously.
Don’t Lose the Trees for the Forest
Sometimes a person feels that he has erred greatly, and there is no point in even trying to refrain from violating certain restrictions, in his situation, since he is anyways already doomed. One of the tactics of the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) is to say, “Just throw in the towel – you’re anyways a sinner!”
But this is a big mistake, as the Rambam writes (in Iggeret Hashmad) that even if a person has sinned gravely, he shouldn’t think to himself, “What’s the point of being careful to limit my transgressions? I anyway committed sins which are much more severe!” For even if a person sins greatly, the severe sins will not cover over the minor sins. Even the most wicked people who committed the most awful sins will be held accountable for the smallest transgressions they have transgressed as well. And for every mitzvah (Torah law) a person does keep, he will be rewarded, despite his grave sins. Even if a person is tempted to sin and he isn’t going to control himself, he should at least make sure to refrain from violating prohibitions which he is not as tempted to transgress. And when a person is conscious of this and doesn’t just give up on himself, he is likely to get back on track and keep himself from getting entirely out of control.
The Vilna Gaon once came to an inn where there was a Jew who didn’t follow the Torah. The Vilna Gaon noticed that this person was about to take a swig of the beverage he was served, and told him, “Make sure to make a brachah (the blessing required before taking a drink)!” The Jew looked at him with a puzzled expression and said, “I threw off the yoke of religion long ago. What’s the point of me making a brachah?” “Even so,” replied the Vilna Gaon, “if you make a blessing now, you will be rewarded for it, and if you don’t, you will be punished for this as well.” The man listened and made a brachah. This caused a turning point for him, and he eventually did a full teshuvah (repentance).
No Need to Throw in the Towel!
We should never “throw in the towel.” Sometimes a person finds himself in a situation where he is not living up to the standards he knows he should, and he just feels like giving up on trying at all. Every Torah law that we keep, and everything we do to minimize a sin, is invaluable, and we will be sparing ourselves much agony. Moreover, being conscious of our behavior, and making sure to at least abstain from the sins which are easier for us to refrain from committing, can steer us in the right direction. Another lesson we learn from this principle is that when a person does teshuvah, he must not only pay attention to his severe misdeeds, but make sure to rectify everything, even the smallest sins he committed.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org