Chananiah, Mishal and Azaria cast themselves into the fiery
furnace rather than bow down to an idol. “What did they see,” asks the
Gemorah, “that they chose to die?” The Gemorah answers that they made a kal
v’chomer from the frogs of Egypt, who threw themselves into the ovens: If
the frogs, who are not commanded, and not rewarded or punished, go into the fire
al kiddush HaShem, all the more so should we, who are commanded (Pesachim
Rashi explains the Gemorah’s question: “What did they
see—rather than invoke the commandment of v’chai bahem, that you shall
live for the mitzvos, and not die for them.” Tosafos, however, objects:
One must sacrifice one’s life rather than worship idols in public. He answers
that Chanania, Mishal and Azaria were not told to bow down to an actual idol; it
was merely a statue meant to glorify the king, Nevuchadnezzar. So they could
have run away, but sacrificed themselves instead, taking a lesson from the
Sefer Haikkarim writes that at Har Sinai, HaShem graphically
tells Moshe what’s going on down below. “They have quickly turned away from
the path I showed them and made a molten calf and bowed down to it.” There’s
no doubt that this was true, as Hashem said it. Why, then, didn’t Moshe take the
luchos and break them right there? Why did he wait until he got down to
the encampment? He answers that even Moshe is a human being, and what makes an
impression on a human being is what he sees. Until he actually witnessed
it with his own eyes, he was not ready to break the luchos.
It’s like a sign on a park bench that says “Wet Paint.”
What’s the reaction of most people? They put their finger on the bench to feel
the paint. Why? Don’t they believe the sign? But when we see it, it makes more
of an impression. There is a gap between what we know intellectually, and what
we feel. Since we’re human beings in a physical world, in order to make an
impression on us it has to be a physical experience.
And that’s the key to understanding the Rashi: Chanania,
Mishal and Azaria knew the halacha; but what did they see that
inspired them and gave them the confidence to sacrifice their lives rather than
serve idolatry, and not—as Rashi says—allow themselves to incorrectly
interpret the posuk of v’chai bahem? Unless you have a tremendous
commitment, the danger is that one can find a false leniency. For this they had
to see something, not just know it intellectually. They saw it in the
vivid image of the frogs.
In fact, what you see sometimes makes more of an impression
that what you know. One of the reasons for the Plague of Darkness was to enable
HaShem to eliminate the Jews who didn’t merit leaving Egypt. This was in order
that the Egyptians shouldn’t see it and deny the Divine retribution, saying that
everybody’s dying, including the Jews.
But how many Jews died in the darkness? Four-fifths of the
Jewish population! And that’s the conservative estimate in the Midrash.
According to another, only 2 in 600,000 left Egypt. Consider: The day before the
Darkness there were 3,000,000 Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 60. Then
the lights go out for 6 days. On Day 7, Pharaoh wakes up and there are 600,000
Jews left in Egypt, and the cemeteries are full. Pharaoh doesn’t have to be too
smart to come to the conclusion about what happened, that the missing Jews are
not hiding behind their beds. 80% of the Jews died in the last 6 days. So what
did HaShem gain? The answer is that seeing people die has a tremendous
effect; deducing that they died is a different order of perception.
Similarly, in Parshas Bo, Moshe comes to Pharoah and
prophesies that “about midnight” HaShem will destroy the first-born. Why
didn’t he say “exactly midnight”? Because maybe their clocks will be wrong,
and at 11:50 their clocks will say 12, and they’ll all say, “Moshe is a liar.
He predicted it for exactly 12, and nobody’s dying.” In order to prevent
this, he said “about 12.” But if it did happen, how long would they be
saying that Moshe is a liar? Ten minutes? Soon all the first-born will die, and
they’ll know that the clocks were wrong. Yes, they’ll know the clocks were
wrong, but what did they see? The clocks said 12 and they weren’t
dying. That’s a Chilul HaShem. True, later on they will deduce that they
were wrong, but that does not negate what they saw.
As human beings, our perception of the physical world takes
primacy over our intellectual knowledge. And the Torah takes that into account.