The Torah portion of Va’era, Exodus 6:2-9:35
this year to be read on the week of January 6-12, 2013
The lyrics for Louis Armstrong’s famous soul song appear on line with slight variations: “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land, Tell all Pharaohs to Let My People Go!” says one version. The other says: “Tell old Pharaoh, To let My people go!”
Whether the instruction was intended to all Pharaohs, or just the one ol’ Pharaoh, my challenge with this famous and moving song remains: where is the rest of the command? G-d didn’t just so dramatically say, “Let me people go!”, but rather: “let my people go so they can worship Me” (Exodus 7:16). The journey was always connected to a goal. It was not just freedom for freedom’s sake, but for being Hashem’s people.
And yet, it turns out that the song is not the only place where the journey has been separated from its purpose. A careful reading of the text shows that the Children of Israel themselves also couldn’t hear nor comprehend the full message.
Rashi comments on Exodus 6:9 וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל-משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – “and they couldn’t listen unto Moses because due to impatience of spirit, and cruel bondage”, drawing on the unique term קֹּצֶר רוּחַ – literally, shortness of breath, and says that someone whose breath (“ru’ach”, also spirit, soul) is short, cannot have long breathing. Is that stating the obvious? Rabbi Beni Lau explains Rashi: “This is like a person who is experiencing an asthma attack, and seeks immediate relief. As he reaches for his inhaler, someone tells them about an experimental new drug which might be available someday. The patient’s reaction is likely to be – I’m choking here, and you’re talking to me about something long term in the future? Likewise, the rulers of Egypt are pressuring the Children of Israel, leaving them breathless. Therefore, G-d tells Moses about the various stages of what’s about to happen: והוצאתי… והיצלתי… וגאלתי… ולקחתי… “and I shall take you out…. And I shall save you…. and I shall redeem you… and I shall take you to me unto a nation” (Exodus 6:6-7), and more.
Why? Why not just get the people out? After all, they are suffering so much and G-d can do anything!
Inspired by my recent watching of “Chatufim”, the Israeli TV show that was bought in the U.S. and became Homeland, I realize the devastating pattern of enslavement even more. Chatufim tells the story of 3 IDF soldiers who are kidnapped and kept in captivity for 17 years. The complex and highly recommended series (available on-line in Hebrew, and can be purchased with translation) has left me with many issues to ponder. One of them is the psychology of the kidnapped. It shows what happens to someone who is kept in isolation, beaten up (physically and emotionally) and at the same time, fed and cared for. Each one of these three components is critical and the combination is a “winning” recipe for creating complete dependence and enslavement of the kidnapped to his captives.
This is the pattern that repeats itself in various abuse situations, from that of POW’s to battered women to the Children of Israel in Egypt (we see it later, when the Children of Israel will moan “remembering the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” Number 11:5). Not everything was bad in Egypt, or else slavery would not have been possible. Too much oppression ultimately begets escape, riots and revolts. It takes the right mixture of isolation (in this case away from their land, from the silent G-d), harsh labor & torture (as in the back breaking work and killing of the baby boys) as well as care (“free food”) to create the ultimate slavery.
We often look at such situations and ask: Why didn’t the person who was in so much pain – just walk out? If Egypt didn’t work anymore, why didn’t Jacob’s children just go home? Why didn’t the Jews leave Europe? Why doesn’t a battered woman walk out on her abuser? Why didn’t the Biblical Joseph go home even once to see his aging father? Why doesn’t our hero in chatufim cross the border, not even a few miles away, even though he has times when he can??
The bottom line is, from where they stand at that moment – they can’t. The successful captivator knows it. The successful redeemer must know it too. The carefully constructed web designed to keep one in, must be carefully undone to ensure a complete and safe journey out. Maybe in this week’s parasha G-d suggests to us that we shouldn’t judge so quickly. Even He takes time when delivering a band of slaves from under oppression and out of their captivity.