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This week, we begin the second of the five books of Moshe – Exodus – or in Hebrew, Shemot. In our parsha (also called Shemot), we find the famous story of the “burning bush” – the bush that Moshe stopped to observe because although it was burning, it wasn’t consumed. From the bush, G-d spoke to Moshe, attempting to persuade him to become G-d’s emissary to Pharoah, king of Egypt. Moshe’s mission was to tell Pharoah to let the Jewish people leave Egypt. The only problem was that Moshe really didn’t want this mission. His reasons were twofold; one, he felt that his older brother Aharon was more suited for the job, and two, since he (Moshe) would not be the final redeemer, (he would not bring the Jews into the land of Israel), he did not want to be the one to take them out of Egypt, either. It took G-d a full week of talking to Moshe via the “burning bush” to persuade him to take on the mission, and even that only occurred when G-d demonstrated some exasperation, which is what finally moved Moshe to relent and take upon himself the mission.

In preparation for the mission, the Torah tells us, “And Moshe took his wife and his children and placed them on the donkey, and returned to the land of EgyptŔ (Ex. 4:20). Rashi comments regarding the words “on the donkey” – “this was the unique donkey, the one that Abraham saddled on the way to the sacrifice of Isaac, and it is the one upon which the King, the Meshiach will reveal himself in the future, as it says, ‘a poor man riding on a donkey” (Zecharia 9:9). At first glance, Rashi wished to explain a simple detail in the Torah. Why does the Torah says “the donkey,” rather than just “a donkey.” In response, Rashi explains that this wasn’t just “any old donkey.” This was “the” donkey, the same one used by Abraham and the one to be used by meshiach in the future.

But, if this were his purpose, it would have been sufficient for Rashi to point out, “This was the donkey that Abraham saddled,” without adding any further details. The connection with Abraham was sufficient to make the donkey unique. It was not necessary to add the detail about the sacrifice of Isaac (we don’t find anywhere that Abraham saddled a donkey for any other reason). In particular, it seems superfluous to add the detail regarding the meshiach in the future, since that involves a huge miracle (that the donkey should live thousands of years), that has nothing to do with our simple understanding of the verse.

The Talmud (Megila 9A) says that this verse is one of a few that was changed when the Torah was translated by the seventy-two elders for King Ptolemy, who wanted the Torah translated into Greek. Rather than translate the word chamor as “donkey,” the sages translated it as “carrier of people.” Rashi says that they meant to imply that it was a camel, and the ibn Ezra explains why: “It would have been disgraceful for Moshe to place his wife and two sons on one donkey.” If this is the case, then we might surmise that Rashi wanted to answer another question: Why did Moshe place his wife and two sons (and presumably all of their belongings as well) on one donkey, and not upon a horse or camel, or at least upon a few different donkeys? And the answer might be that Rashi tells us that this was no ordinary donkey. This was the donkey that Abraham saddled and that the Meshiach was to ride in the future, so it was not surprising that this donkey could also carry so many people and so much weight. But if so, we would have to answer another question, “Why did Moshe take this special donkey and not a few ordinary donkeys or a horse or camel (animals more suited to carrying greater weights)?”

The source of Rashi’s explanation is the Pirkei deR’ Eliezer (Ch. 31), but there it says, “This was the donkey, offspring of the ass that was created at dusk [as the first Shabbat of creation entered].” Rashi, for whatever reason, leaves out this detail. And although it is not necessarily the way of Rashi to always copy his sources word for word, nevertheless this detail would have added to our understanding of the unique nature of the donkey. And yet, instead of mentioning this detail, Rashi mentions something else - this is the donkey that Meshiach will appear on in the future - something that seems to have nothing to do with our simple understanding of the verse! We must conclude that Rashi did not mean to simply tell us something about the general overall nature of the donkey. Instead, he wished to inform us of something specific that applies to our episode – the journey of Moshe and his family from Midian to Egypt in order to redeem his people. And that is the reason why Rashi also mentions the donkey upon which the Meshiach will ride, since that is also a story of redemption – the final redemption of the Jewish people from exile and the appearance of Meshiach. But if so, why mention also the detail regarding Abraham and how he saddled the donkey?

By way of explanation, Rashi wishes to answer some basic questions that remain unanswered when we examine the verses alone. As mentioned above, Moshe was quite reluctant to set out on this journey of redemption that was suggested for him by the One Above. His reasons, as mentioned, were that his brother, also a prophet, was greater and older than he, and should therefore take on the mission. And the second reason was that he, Moshe, would not be the one to lead the Jews into Israel. Moshe eventually took upon himself the mission that G-d wanted him to adopt, but nowhere do we see that his two objections to the mission were answered. Rashi tells us only that Moshe acquiesced because G-d “became angry at him” (Rashi on Ex. 4:13). So, why did Moshe “back down” and accept the mission placed upon him by G-d? What did he hear that overcame his objections to the mission? The explanation is hinted to by Rashi: “This was the unique donkey the Abraham saddled for the sacrifice of Isaac, and it is the one upon which the king the Meshiach will reveal himself.”

1) Here was a hint for Moshe; Abraham responded to G-d’s command to offer up his only son with speed and alacrity. He saddled the donkey himself, and set out on the journey. By mentioning the donkey of Abraham, Rashi hints that Moshe also ultimately took on the mission happily, even though it could potentially offend his older brother, Aharon.

2) And by mentioning that this was the donkey upon which Meshiach will ride, Rashi answers the second question; there is no difference between the redemption from Egypt and the future final redemption of the Jewish people. The final redemption is to be an extension and continuation of the redemption from Egypt. The nature of the future redemption is similar to the nature of the redemption of Egypt, and this was the answer to Moshe’ objection that he would not be the final redeemer. It is all one long process of redemption, and the same donkey upon which Moshe rode will be the one upon which Meshiach will ride.

Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the answer to the second question has a bearing upon Moshe’s first objection as well. Rashi quotes from the verse in Zecharia, “a poor man, riding upon a donkey” in reference to Meshiach. However, if his point was only to indicate out that the future redemption was an extension of the redemption from Egypt, and they were both part of the same process, it was only necessary to quote the words, “riding on a donkey.” That would have been sufficient to indicate that the two processes were one and the same, since in both cases the redeemer was riding on the donkey. Why did Rashi choose to also quote the word oni, meaning “a poor man, (riding on a donkey)”? It turns out that in his commentary on the verse (Zecharia 9:9), Rashi translates oni not as “poor man,” but as “modest man,” from the root word onov, meaning one who is modest. And that has a bearing upon Moshe’s first objection to the mission. Out of modesty, he did not see himself as worthy to take a position of leadership of which he felt his brother was more worthy. But, with his commentary regarding Meshiach, Rashi hints that his modesty was the very reason that Moshe was chosen for this task. As Rashi explains, riding on the donkey will be an expression of the modesty of the Meshiach, when he ultimately arrives. By quoting the word oni and telling us that it means “modesty,” Rashi hints at the characteristic that made Moshe the right person for this task – he was exceedingly modest. This was the answer to both of Moshe’s objections – he was chosen over his brother Aharon because he was modest, and he the future Meshiach will also ride on this donkey because he will be exceedingly modest.

Looking into the inner dimensions of the subject, we can discern three historical periods in Rashi’s explanation. First of all, Rashi mentioned Abraham. Then, the subject of Rashi’s commentary is Moshe himself, and ultimately Rashi mentions the era of Meshiach as well. In each case, we find a subtly different use of the donkey, corresponding to the epoch in which it was used. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, also means “physical substance,” and refers to the need for all of us to refine and uplift our physical tendencies and nature. There are three processes involved in refining ourselves. First of all, there is the necessity to rein in and maintain control over our physical lusts and temptations. However, with the passage of time, we need to do more than that; we need to transform our animal nature into something more G-dly and spiritual. And that takes place in two stages; in the first stage, we work upon and persuade our animal soul to participate in its own refinement. We meditate upon and reach understanding of G-dliness that even our animal soul can understand and bend itself to the will of the G-liness within us. But, the ultimate goal of the process is not persuasion, but transformation. When the animal soul within us perceives of the great reward and infinite light that awaits it within the realm of G-dliness, it does a “hundred and eighty degree” transformation and transfers all of its energy to kedusha, or “holiness,” and it does so of its own volition. It does not rely upon outside persuasion and meditation; it does tshuva (return to G-d) of its own volition.

We see these tree steps in the history of the Jewish people as manifested during the epochs of Abraham, of Moshe and of Meshiach. Abraham preceded the giving of the Torah, so that his entire life he was faced with the challenge of reining in the power of the physical world. Before the Torah was given, there was nothing to weaken or refine the power of the physical world to prevent revelation of G-dliness. When Abraham concluded intellectually that G-d is one, and that He is the boss of the universe, the logical outcome was to rein in and minimize the power of the physical world. And indeed Abraham set about promulgating monotheism in the world, which entailed curtailing the power of the physical in such things as idol worship and unbridled lust. But, all he could do was apply checks and balances to the physical; he could not uplift and refine it. Thus, the Torah uses the terminology of “saddled” the donkey – Abraham controlled and restrained the physical world by “saddling” it.

The world changed, though, when the Torah was given. By enabling man to bring G-dliness down into the physical world, and fix it within earthly objects, the Torah began to have an effect upon the world. Rather than entirely hide and conceal G-dliness, the world began to acquiesce to spirituality. Now, when man fulfills a mitzvah, the world reveals G-dliness. It does not do so of its own volition; a mitzvah is necessary in order to reveal G-d in the world. Nevertheless, it was no longer necessary to break and shatter the world in order to make room for spirituality. This is why the Torah says that Moshe placed his wife and children on the donkey in order to “ride” it. It was no longer necessary to “saddle” and control the world. By “riding” the world (fulfilling mitzvot), a Jew is able to reveal G-dliness in the world. However, this is still dependent upon the efforts and behavior of man; the world does not reveal G-dliness of its own volition, it must be induced to do so.

With the arrival of meshiach, this as well will change. It will no longer be necessary to “induce” G-dliness into the world. It will no longer be necessary to “persuade” the world to reveal spirituality by fulfilling mitzvoth. Instead, the physical world itself will reveal G-dliness, of its own volition. We will see G-dliness with the naked eye, even as we visualize the physical world. The very nature of the world will be to reveal G-dliness to the naked eye. That is why Rashi says that when the King the Meshiach arrives riding on the donkey, he will “reveal” G-dliness in the world. He will not “saddle” or “ride” the donkey, but “reveal” himself as the Meshiach while on the donkey.

The distinctions between historical periods are reflected not only in the language of the Torah when discussing the “donkey” (chamor – “physicality”), but also in how each protagonist “used” his donkey. When Abraham “saddled” his donkey, we do not see that either he or his son Isaac actually rode upon it. Instead, they placed their tools (the wood and the knife) upon it, while they walked. This was because in Abraham’s time, it was still necessary to break and shatter the physicality of the world. Therefore, Abraham had no “personal” connection to the physical realm, and he put only his tools on the donkey, and not his son or himself.

By the time of Moshe, the world was ready to receive the Torah. But even so, it would only reveal G-dliness if something was “riding” upon it – if man was fulfilling mitzvoth. This is why the Torah tells us that Moshe hirkiv (“placed,” but with the implication that they were riding upon the donkey) his wife and sons on the donkey – this meant that even though the world was not yet ready to reveal G-dliness of its own volition, it could be induced to do so (via Torah and mitzvoth). Although we don’t find that Moshe himself rode upon the donkey, he placed his wife and children upon it. The implication was that the world had already become a cali, or vessel for G-dliness. But since it was not yet ready to do so of its own volition, there was not yet a direct connection between Moshe and the donkey, and he himself did not ride upon it.
That will have to wait for the advent of meshiach, when the world itself will reveal G-dliness. The verse says that meshiach will arrive “riding” upon a donkey, but Rashi comments that means that the donkey will “reveal” G-dliness. That is, the physical nature of the world at that point will be so refined that it will reveal G-dliness of its own volition. That is why the meshiach himself will come “riding” on the donkey. Not only his tools, and not only his family, but he himself will be the master over the physical world, to the extent that the physical universe will not only permit, but will actively promote revelation of G-dliness in the universe.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 31, pp. 15-22 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem