Redemption, Take One!
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
As I have mentioned before, every book of the Five Books of Moses is
different from the others, having a "flavor" of its own. Each book
continues from the previous book (even Bereishis continues on from Devarim,
since Jewish history, thought, and time is not linear, but cyclical), but
are not merely continuations. It is as if each book represents the approach
to a new "corner," to be "turned" in the upcoming book. This is certainly
the case of Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, and Sefer Shemos, the
Book of Exodus.
Sefer Bereishis ended with the death of Yosef, in the year 2309. Sefer
Shemos begins after the death of all the brothers (the last once being Levi
in 2331), and the beginning of Egyptian oppression, in the year 2332, some
23 years later.
What had life been like for the Jews of Goshen over that time?
From the opening verses of the Chumash, it is hard to tell. However, one
thing we find out right away, and that is, whatever we had been like and
whatever we had been doing until then, we had caught the eye of the
Egyptian nobility, and particularly the king of Egypt, and they didn't like
what they saw.
But what did they see, and why did it make them so paranoid to want to
obliterate the entire Jewish people, if not physically, then certainly
spiritually? This the Chumash does reveal:
A new king arose in Egypt which didn't know Yosef (some say that it was the
same old Paroah who just made himself out as if he didn't know Yosef, to
overlook any gratitude he should have had to the Jewish people). He told
his people, "Behold! The Nation of Israel are more numerous and powerful
than we are. Let's deal with them wisely before they increase and it
happens, in a time of war, that they join our enemy and fight against us
and leave the land." (Shemos 1:8)
Come on! As big as the Jewish people had become, and they had grown quite
large, could there have been such concern? Did the Jewish people express
any desire to take over the country? When treated well, do the Jews of any
particular country turn against that country (in World War I, Jew fought
against Jew having found themselves on different sides of the battle line)?
Do they ever?
There is no question that Jews are politically-oriented, but they are also
usually good "guests." For the most part, Jews have shown appreciation to
their host nations, often contributing much to the infrastructure of the
country in which they live. In the entire history of the Jewish people,
there has never been a time when the Jewish people ever plotted to take
over the reigns of government of a foreign land, and are usually much
happier minding their own business. So what did Paroah see to make him
worry, and every anti-Semite throughout history of mankind, for that
He didn't see anything, really, at least not on his own. Rather, Destiny
Prejudice may be a function of physical differences, and perhaps even of
religious beliefs. But anti-Semitism is not. As Hitler (may his memory be
eradicated) proved, Jews can look like their non-Jewish neighbors, talk
like their non-Jewish neighbors, belong to the same clubs as them, and
even, very unfortunately, share the same religious beliefs as their
non-Jewish counterparts, yet, still, earn their hatred and wrath.
Witness how in Russia the most assimilated Jews were often the most
obvious targets for the Russian anti-Semites. Notice how today, in Poland,
anti-Semitism exists even where Jews do not (not to mention that the Poles
murdered liberated Jews after the war who had hoped to return to their
former pre-war lives). The "New York Times Magazine" even wrote about how
some farmers in the Mid-West and their "Survivalist" colleagues are
stock-piling weapons, ammunition, and food for their eventual "showdown
with the Jews" (whom they believe control the American banks and took away
their farms and livelihood)! And can we ever forget the accusations of the
"The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which, according to an article in
"Reader's Digest," is alive and well and circulating amongst the
anti-Semites of the world.
No matter how you look at it, anti-Semitism is a strange animal, a
frighteningly strange beast!
From a Torah perspective, non-Jewish anti-Semitism (yes, unfortunately,
there is Jewish anti-Semitism as well, usually a mask for religious
self-hatred), is not merely skin deep. As we discussed is Parashas
BeChukosai and Parashas Ki Savo, G-d expects much more from us as a nation
than to simply be good "guests." He expects us to strive spiritually, and
to radiate His light. Anti-Semitism is His device to let us know that we
are forsaking our raison d'=EAtre, and to move us back in the direction for
which we were created. According to the Torah, the severity of the
anti-Semitism depends upon how early we wake up to this reality and assume
our true identity.
"Religious diatribe!" you might be saying to yourselves. "He's just trying
to scare me into de-assimilating, into becoming more committed to Judaism."
You're right. On the other hand, I'm just elaborating on the Torah's model:
small group of Jews moves in. They multiply and do well in business. They
grow more, and do better per capita than their own host nation. Non-Jews do
not celebrate this but get nervous instead; they find an excuse to hate us,
and then to let that hatred reveal itself ... The rest is, as they say,
history, and the prototype laid down in this week's parsha.
Hence, it is ludicrous and downright dangerous to say, "Well, that could
never happen here ... and that could never happen there ..." Such
statements presuppose that anti-Semitism follows the laws of nature, and
has a logic to it. It does not, at least not one that we can always readily
discern. And as the paroah's of history have proven, anti-Semitism is
always a stepping stone to a new era of Jewish history, one that, had we
moved towards that new era on our own, we might have avoided altogether.
When Destiny calls, be sure to answer the door.
A man from the house of Levi married a daughter of Levi. The woman
conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was good and hid him for
three months. (Shemos 2:1)
When Moshe was born, the house was filled with light. It is written here,
"... And she saw that he was good ..." and there it is written, "God saw
the light, that it was good ..." (Sota 12a)
The fact that the same word describing the Hidden Light of creation
("good") created on the first day is also used to describe Moshe himself,
may, on the surface, seem insignificant. However, the rabbis saw in this a
connection between the Supernal light and Moshe Rabbeinu, the future leader
of the Jewish people.
What makes this connection even more significant is the date of Moshe's
birth: 2368 from creation, thirty-six years after Egyptian bondage actually
began. As we have said in other weeks, thirty-six is a number that always
alludes to this light (which shone for thirty-six hours before being
hidden). Hence, though the light of creation was hidden after shining for
thirty-six hours during the first week of creation, the light was again
revealed through the birth of Moshe thirty-six years into enslavement.
According to Rashi, Moshe's vision extended to beyond what the physical eye
He saw an Egyptian hitting a fellow Jew. He looked there and there, and
when he saw that no one else was around, he smote the Egyptian and buried
him in the sand. (Shemos 2:12)
The midrash states that the reason why the Egyptian beat the Jew is because
he had been with the Jew's wife and now wished to do away with him. Moshe,
through prophetic vision, was able to see this, and felt justified in
executing the Egyptian himself. And not only could he see this, but:
"He looked there and there ..." He saw what he [the Egyptian] did in the
house, and what he did in the field ... "He saw that no one else was around
..." That no one would come from him who would convert. (Rashi)
Hence, Moshe was able to see into the past and the future while standing in
The Kabballists write that, the entire time that Moshe was alive, and led
the Jews in the desert, they possessed the potential, through him, to
rectify the sin of Adam who had eaten from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge
of Good and Evil. Up until the episode during which Moshe hit the rock
instead of speaking to it to bring forth water (BaMidbar 20:7), Moshe was
there to act as a spiritual conduit to draw down this special, corrective
light of creation. Had he done so, you'd be reading this parsha sheet in
the Garden of Eden instead.
But what was Moshe's real strength? This we learn from Rashi much later on
in the Chumash, during the confrontation with Moav right before Moshe's
Moav said to the Elders of Midyan (BaMidbar 22:4) ... What did Moav see
that made them seek the advice of Midyan? When they saw that Israel was
victorious in a supernatural way, they said, "Their leader [Moshe] came
from Midyan. Let us ask them what is his trait." They [Midyan] told them,
"His strength is only in his mouth." They [Moav] said, "We will attack them
with someone whose strength is in his mouth too." (Rashi)
His mouth? What does Moshe's mouth have to do with anything? Big muscles,
or a great knowledge of practical Kabballah with which to smote enemies
(which, incidentally, is how Moshe killed the Egyptian, by uttering one of
G-d's holy Names)-that's power! The pen may be "mightier than the sword,"
but who said anything about a mouth?
We'll talk about this more, b"H, in the upcoming weeks. But in the
meantime, let's not forget the fact that the holiday that celebrates our
freedom from Egyptian slavery is called "Pesach," which can be divided into
two words, "peh" and "sach"-the "mouth that spoke"-a holiday celebrated by
the verbalization of the account of the redemption (Haggadah). Or, how the
Jews were oppressed by an evil ruler named "Paroah," which means "evil
mouth," who made them work "b'pharech" (with a "soft mouth").
Perhaps this is why the Zohar comments, "From a man's mouth you can tell
what he is" (Zohar BaMidbar 193). In any case, the covenant that best
describes our relationship to G-d and represents our commitment to physical
and spiritual freedom is called, "Bris Milah," the Covenant of the Word,
which seems to indicate that speech is the highest representative of man's
creative power. No, according to Torah, talk is not cheap, and if anyone
appreciated this most, it was Moshe Rabbeinu.
Moshe returned to G-d and said, "G-d! Why have You done such evil to this
people?! Why did You send me?! Because I went to Paroah to speak in Your
Name, he has done evil to this people! You have not redeemed this people at
all!" (Shemos 5:22)
Understandably, Moshe was upset. He had gone to Paroah, as G-d had
commanded him to, and demanded the release of the Jewish people. And on
cue, Paroah promptly rejected his plea, and not only didn't free the Jewish
people, but even increased their burden. Moshe left Egypt not as the
instrument of freedom he had hoped to be, but the cause of increased Jewish
suffering! Did he not have cause for complaint, even to G-d?
On the other hand, hadn't G-d warned Moshe that he would fail the first
time? If so, then why was Moshe so upset? The answer was, "Reject my plea,
yes!" Moshe complained. "But use it as an excuse to make their lives more
miserable ... we never spoke about that! You call that redemption?!" Moshe
"Yes," G-d could have said. "Let me give you an analogy. Let's say, Moshe,
you wanted to build a house, but you didn't have enough money to do so. So
what are you going to do?"
"Borrow from the bank, I suppose."
"Right. Now, let's say you wanted to borrow $20,000 to build that house,
and I lent it to you, interest-free of course, to be paid back after 20
years. That's about $83.33 a month. However, after 10 years of making
monthly payments, you decide, 'Enough with these payments! I want out!'
What do you have to do? Do you simply stop making the payments?"
"No, that would be stealing. I would have to pay you the balance of
whatever I still owed you."
"Exactly, Moshe. Now how much would you have to pay me at that time? Up
until then you would have been making monthly payments of $83.33. But now
you still owe me ..."
"Ten thousand dollars ... I would have to pay you back the balance of $10,000 ..."
"At one time ... right Moshe?"
"You see Moshe, the Jewish people, to complete the process to nationhood
should really stay in Egypt for 400 years in total. However, they're
sinking so quickly spiritually that if I leave them in there much longer,
there'll be nothing to redeem at the end of the 400 years! But I can't just
wipe away the debt ... G-d forbid! That wouldn't be good for them or for
creation! So, I have to exact a lump sum from them, now, so that they can
go out of Egypt 190 years earlier. In other words, Moshe, don't lose heart.
You will see, and so will they, that you were an instrument for freedom
after all, though you have triggered increased suffering in the meantime."
Having heard this, Moshe had no trouble following G-d's every instruction,
b'simcha, from that point onward.
They [Moshe and Aharon to Paroah] said, "The G-d of the Hebrews happened to
meet us; let us go, I ask you, for three-days journey into the desert, and
sacrifice to G-d, our G-d ..." (Shemos 5:3)
"Three days journey"? Did Moshe really mean three days? Hadn't he known
from day one that a major and permanent redemption was at hand, and that
the Jewish people were going out for good? Why did he, well, for lack of
better terms, lie to Paroah? Was he afraid of Paroah? Was he afraid that if
he told Paroah the truth, that he wouldn't entertain the possibility of any
kind of freedom? Even after all the plagues, and the utter destruction of
Egypt, Paroah had still been under the impression that the Jews had planned
to come back after their three-day excursion into the desert. In fact, he
only pursued them once he realized that they had gone for good.
Perhaps the answer to Moshe's approach (which came from G-d) lies in
Paroah's own words:
"Behold! The Nation of Israel are more numerous and powerful than we are.
Let's deal with them wisely ..." (Shemos 1:9)
Wisely, Paroah? Don't you mean deviously?
Wisdom is usually a trait attributed to nice, smart people with good
intentions ... you know, the kind of people who look for solutions to
sticky situations in a truthful way. That does not sound like Paroah at
all! You may call it being "wise," Paroah, but G-d calls it being
diabolical, and measure-for-measure, you're going to get it right back. And
he did. How does that expression go, "He who laughs first, laughs last."
However, we shouldn't laugh to hard ourselves, because there is message in
this to everyone:
You can fool some of the people some of the time, but G-d, none of the
time; and the way you deal with Him, is the way He will deal with