Do and then Understand
The Torah leaves us basically unprepared for its description of the events
that are recorded for us in this week’s parsha. When we last left the family
of Israel at the conclusion of last week’s parsha of Vayechi, the Jews found
themselves comfortable, affluent, protected and settled well in the land of
The Torah does not describe to us the process by which this situation so
radically changed into becoming a slave state for the Jews. It only tells us
of a new king who didn’t know Yosef and, for reasons not explicitly
mentioned in the Torah, became a hater and persecutor of the Jews.
The Torah seems to indicate that this is almost a natural state of affairs –
to be expected. The Egyptian exile begins on a high note, deteriorates into
abject sorrow and attempted genocide and ends with miraculous redemption.
The Torah does not dwell upon any motives for the occurrence of this pattern
of events. What did the Jews do wrong? Why was the Pharaoh such a hater?
What were the economic or social factors of the time that allowed for such a
dramatic worsening of the Jewish position in Egypt?
The Torah addresses none of these issues. It is almost as if the Torah
wishes us to understand that these things happen blindly in human history.
And, particularly in Jewish history, that the attempts of historians and
sociologists to explain these irrational events and behavior patterns are
As has been often pointed out, all subsequent Jewish exiles – Babylonia,
Spain, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Moslem Middle East – all seem to
eerily conform to this original Egyptian template. As usual the Torah leaves
us with more questions than it provides answers for. In effect, that is why
the Torah is called the book of human life.
We are also unprepared to recognize the savior of Israel in the person of
Moses. We are told how he was miraculously saved from the crocodiles of the
Nile by the daughter of the Pharaoh and raised in the royal court. He
sympathizes with the brutalized Jewish slaves, defends them, and is forced
to flee from Egypt.
We hear nothing regarding Moses for the next sixty years until he reemerges
as a shepherd in Midian, married to the daughter of Yitro, the local
religious chief who, at this time, is still a pagan. Hardly the resume’ that
one would expect for the leader of Israel, the greatest of all prophets and
the teacher of all human kind.
Where did his holiness and greatness stem from, how was it developed, who
were his mentors and what were his experiences over those long decades of
separation from his people? The Torah gives us no clue or answer to these
questions. It effectively points out that greatness oftentimes comes from
unexpected sources and from people and leaders who operate outside of the
usual establishment circles.
All of life is a mystery and certainly the Jewish story remains in its base
an inexplicable one. This therefore sets the stage for everything else that
will now follow in the Torah. It is why the Jewish people, when accepting
the Torah pledge to God that “we will do and then perhaps try to
understand,” if we wish to understand first we will never come to do. The
Divine hand guides us but it is never subject to our rational thoughts and
Rabbi Berel Wein