The journey of a band of slaves going out to freedom is fascinating, mostly because it’s not just a long ago and far away, and not just a national story of some tiny people some place, but rather, something that each person can identify with. The struggle with various kinds of enslavement (physical, emotional, spiritual) and the complicated journey out is one we all face. One of my teachers compared the exodus from Egypt to a birth: first we’re inside the womb, well provided but constrained; then we’re pushed out (through water-) to freedom, only to discover , the journey has just begun, and that not all of it is “fun”. One way or another, this story has been a favorite from Louis Armstrong’s soul song to Prince of Egypt and more.
So this week we read, again, about the (the first seven) dramatic famous plagues, and it seems like the more often one reads it, the more questions arise. When we’re younger we “just know” the story and grow to think this is the way it suppose to go, but as we read it again – and again, it’s hard not to wonder, what is this? Why all these plagues? I mean, if G-d – or anyone for that matter- wants to get someone out of a bad situation, why not just go in and get them out? What’s this whole extravagant show for?? And the people? Didn’t they know they were in slavery? Didn’t they just want to go out??
Rashi, the medievalist commentator, points to Exodus 6:9 וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל-משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – “and they couldn’t listen unto Moses due to impatience of spirit, and cruel bondage”. Drawing on the unique term “kotzer ru’ach” – literally meaning, shortness of breath, he says that someone whose breath (“ru’ach”, also wind, spirit, soul) is short, cannot have long breathing. Isn’t 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 were pressuring the Children of Israel, leaving them breathless, unable to hear anything.
G-d then explains to Moses what’s the master plan, and how there will stages to the delivery from bondage. And again, we wonder, why? I get the guy with the asthma and the inhaler, but here we’re talking G-d! Why not just get the people out? After all, they are suffering so much and G-d can do anything!
Inspired by watching “Chatufim”, the Israeli TV drama that was bought in the U.S. and became Homeland, I realize the devastating pattern of enslavement even more. Chatufim tells the story of three IDF soldiers who are kidnapped and kept in captivity for 17 years. The complex and highly recommended show has left me with many issues to ponder, chief among 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 naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” Number 11:5). Heat stroked imagination? Or perhaps, not everything was bad in Egypt, or else slavery would not have been possible. Too much oppression ultimately begets escape, riots and revolts or the death of captive, a situation the oppressor usually actually wants to avoid. 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 of the 1930’s leave Europe? Why doesn’t a battered woman walk out on her abuser? Why doesn’t our hero in Chatufim cross the border, not even a few miles away, even though there are times he can??
The bottom line is, from where they (we-) stand at that moment – that is not possible. 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. And note: this is no different whether the captivator is an outside or an inside force, keeping us “jailed” within. Maybe we’re told here that even G-d takes time when delivering a band of slaves from under oppression and that while we too should be determined to go, we have to be patient with the journey ahead.