From Bondage to Knowledge

  • Rav Itiel Gold
 
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Dedicated in memory of Henri ben Tsila z”l
whose yahrtzeit is 24 Tevet 
By Family Rueff
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Parashat Shemot, which opens the story of the exodus from Egypt, is clearly divided into two parts.
 
The first part, consisting of chapters 1-2, can be given the title: "The Deterioration." The Egyptians begin to fear the people of Israel, and therefore set taskmasters over them. The situation then deteriorates into hard labor, and from there to the more horrific decrees to kill the male babies and throw them into the Nile. The situation gets increasingly worse from minute to minute.
 
Chapter 2 might, at first glance, be seen as an exit from the deterioration, as the chapter opens with a glimmer of hope. We discover that at least one baby manages to escape his cruel fate and is saved in an ark, similar to the way that Noach was saved from the flood. This hope grows stronger as we learn that this same baby is going to grow up in the house of Pharaoh. At least one Israelite child will escape his cruel fate, and even live like a prince in a palace! The psychological strengths that he will accumulate there might later be of assistance to the people of Israel. Of course, the fear exists that he will become alienated from his people and assimilate into Egyptian society, but we learn that as he grows older, he attempts to connect to his Hebrew identity and seek out his brothers:
 
And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown up, that he went out to his brothers and looked on their burdens. (Shemot 2:11)
 
Very quickly, however, we are disappointed. Moshe’s actions on behalf of the people of Israel encounter twofold resistance. First, Pharaoh wants to kill him for his actions (Shemot 2:15). The second resistance is even more painful – the resistance on the part of the Hebrews themselves, who are not interested in Moshe’s attempts to improve their situation:
 
Who made you a ruler and a judge over us…? (Shemot 2:14)
 
This part of the story ends in the resounding despair of Moshe, who decides to leave Egypt and settle in Midyan.
 
What stands out throughout the first two chapters is the apparent absence of God, who has seemingly abandoned His people and left them under the control of the Egyptians.[1]
 
Thus, even though chapter 2 seems promising at first, there is no doubt that it can be assigned to the "deterioration" section of the parasha. Indeed, the deterioration that it reflects might even be seen as more serious than that described in chapter 1, for the hope for a potential savior has vanished.
 
Only in the second part of the parasha, from chapter 3 onwards, does the situation turn around and do the wheels of redemption begin to spin. After Moshe spends many long years in Midyan, God reveals Himself to him in the burning bush and with great effort succeeds in mobilizing him once again for the rescue operations that he had begun, but this time with Divine guidance. God enters the picture and promises that the end of Israel's bondage is within sight.
 
What causes the dramatic turn in the story? Is this an arbitrary change in the plot, or is it possible to put a finger on the point of change?
 
The Turning Point
The answer seems to lie in three verses at the end of chapter 2 that serve as a bridge between the two parts of the story.[2] Between the end of the first part, which deals with Moshe's despair of helping the Hebrews, and God's revelation to him in the burning bush, the "camera" leaves Moshe for a moment and suddenly focuses on what is happening to the people of Israel:
 
And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up to God by reason of the bondage. (Shemot 2:23)
 
The verses describe a momentary cessation of Israel's work, which allows for a spontaneous sigh and cry. No mention is made of a prayer, but only of a natural cry of slaves, who suddenly look at their situation and cry out about it. This cry reaches God and finally draws Him into the story: 
 
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Yaakov. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew them. (Shemot 2:24-25)
 
These short verses contain four different Divine responses, all of which are connected to Israel's cry – hearing, remembering, seeing, and knowing. The situation is suddenly reversed. Instead of God's apparent disregard for the suffering of the people of Israel, He connects with them, as it were, in every possible way.
 
What is so significant about that cry, which turns into the critical point that changes the direction of the story? What suddenly happened that God enters into the picture with all His might and begins to redeem His people? Why does the entire process of redemption depend on the momentary sigh of the people of Israel from the work that had been imposed upon them? If it were a prayer, we might have understood the meaning of the change. As stated, however, it was only a momentary sigh and cry of the people in their suffering. 
 
Anxiety and Action
To understand this, it seems that we must go back to the beginning of the bondage. The entire story opens with a description of Pharaoh's feelings and thoughts regarding the people of Israel. Pharaoh is described as a king who has limited historical perspective – "who did not know Yosef" (Shemot 1:8) – and is inundated with anxiety:
 
Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and it come to pass that, when there befalls us any war, they also join themselves to our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land. (Shemot 1:10)
 
A dreadful scenario plays itself out in Pharaoh's mind: Enemies of Egypt initiate a war against them; the people of Israel join forces with those enemies, aid them in their war, and then leave the land.
 
Exercising a modicum of balanced judgment might have led Pharaoh to simpler operations to counter this concern. He could have entered into an alliance with Israel, helped them assimilate into Egyptian society, or, more simply, expelled them directly from his country. Instead, Pharaoh enters a cycle of anxiety and rigid thinking concerning the people of Israel.
 
In the world of psychology, we are familiar with the phenomenon of a circular connection between anxiety and a narrow view of reality. When a person's conception is one-dimensional and rigid, any small deviation can lead to disaster. Any unfamiliar factor, such as a people that looks different, further triggers the horror scenarios. Such anxiety in turn makes it difficult to broaden one's perspective and come up with an effective solution. The anxious person may turn under pressure to increased activity – activity that is not calculated and considered, but rather from the gut. The purpose of this activity is to slightly alleviate the anxiety, not to really improve the situation.
 
Pharaoh tries to quiet his anxious thoughts through action – a quick enslavement of the people of Israel. He does not stop to consider reality from a broader perspective. Had he stopped for a moment, he might perhaps have seen the people of Israel in a different light. Maybe he would have "known Yosef," or maybe he would have thought of simpler solutions.
 
This is the nature of anxiety. It leads to a proliferation of rapid and uncalculated actions, which in the end actually increase the likelihood of the feared disaster.
 
It seems that Pharaoh also tries to get the people of Israel to act in accordance with a pattern similar to his own – multiple actions at the expense of sound thought. Just as he avoids facing reality and prefers to act, he expects that the people of Israel will behave in the same manner. When the people of Israel are engaged in Sisyphean work from morning until night, they will refrain from knowing and thinking, just like him. This explanation is explicitly stated later on:
 
Let heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein; and let them not regard lying words. (Shemot 5:9)[3]
 
Hard labor is the solution for silencing thoughts. The more practical activity there is, the less the brain and the mind can work. Routines are more likely to continue and creative solutions will not emerge.
 
In the first phase of the enslavement, the people of Israel follow the path adopted by Pharaoh and are drawn into activity. As is common in situations of danger and stress, they engage in survival actions, and indeed they enjoy success:
 
But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. (Shemot 1:12)
 
The people continue to multiply and garner strength, the midwives save the male infants, and a woman from the house of Levi saves the child born to her. The boy, Moshe, also takes positive action – the killing of the Egyptian and the rebuke of the Hebrew who was smiting his fellow. All of these actions are performed to change reality through actual deeds.
 
Everyone is working against everyone else, but they all fail. Pharaoh fails to stop the strengthening of Israel, and they in turn fail to improve their situation. Even Moshe's actions do not lead to improvement, but only to despair and alienation from his people.
 
We are witnesses to a trap that is difficult to get out of: anxiety – rigid thinking – actions. Is there a way out of the trap?
 
Stopping to Think
Despite the difficulty, there is an escape route from the cycle of anxiety and action. Liberation from the cycle requires stopping and pausing. Cessation of activity allows for a rethinking of reality and for a chance to get out of the trap.
 
Indeed, the people of Israel succeed in stopping for a moment from their automatic activity, responding with a sigh and a cry. At long last, this cry opens up new possibilities. God enters the picture. Unlike a king who "did not know Yosef," suddenly, "and God knew." God waited, as it were, for the people of Israel to stop their activity for a moment and to make room for something else to happen.
 
            A cry against injustice is basically a type of belief statement, a statement that this should not be the situation, that it should be better. Even if it is not a real prayer, a cry assumes that there is an addressee who is liable to hear it and to change the situation.
 
This stands in contrast to the usual pattern of survival, in which there is no room for a cry about the situation, but only for automatic and immediate action to ensure survival. When belief in another, better reality appears, there is room for God to enter. 
 
The rest of the story is aimed entirely at creating a more significant cessation from work. Moshe's basic request is for a break of only three days, a break that will allow a closer encounter with God: 
 
Let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to the Lord our God. (Shemot 5:3)
 
This request is addressed first and foremost to Pharaoh, who in the first stage once again claims ignorance:
 
I know not the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go. (Shemot 5:2)
 
Later, it is repeatedly emphasized that the purpose of the plagues is to cause Pharaoh to broaden his knowledge so that it includes recognition of the presence of God: "To the end that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth" (Shemot 8:18). This demand is directed also at the people of Israel: "And you shall know that I am the Lord your God" (Shemot 6:7).
 
The entire story of the exodus thus contrasts the "hard labor," which blocks the encounter with God and His entry into reality, to the liberation, the cessation of activity that allows for knowledge of Him. Beyond the struggle on the surface, which is designed to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt, there is a deeper struggle throughout the story. This is the struggle between running to anxiety and survival-driven activities and the ability to stop, pause, and expand one's knowledge – an expansion that allows one to turn to God and to act in a free manner, even within the narrow confines of reality.
 
From now on, the people of Israel will continue to carry to the world the tiding of rest, which grew out of the struggle to leave Egypt:
 
Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work… And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Devarim 5:12-14) 
 
Israel's message of rest appears in various mitzvot, centered on Shabbat, the Sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year. It is a call to rest from activity, which allows us to step out of our fixed patterns and see reality in a different light. This is a critical psychological ability – the ability to be in the experience of being and not just in the experience of doing, the ability to converge inward, to relax and to think creatively. Only in this way can one meet God and bring Him into the reality of life, as happened with that sighing cry of the enslaved people, which changed the course of history.
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 

[1] The only mention of God in this part of the parasha is found in the somewhat obscure verse: "And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses" (Shemot 1:21). Even if this verse contains an echo of Divine providence, it is marginal to the story and relates exclusively to Shifra and Pu'ah, and not to a broader relationship between God and His people. Moreover, the reference to God here uses the name Elokim, which expresses more distant providence.
[2] According to the Masoretic division, these verses are set off by an "open parasha" before them and a "closed parasha" after them, indicating that they constitute a separate literary unit. The degree of detachment from the previous story is different from that of the story that follows. While there is total detachment from the "chapters of deterioration" (reflected in the "open parasha"), there is a certain connection to the "chapters of redemption" that follow (as reflected in the "closed parasha"). This seems to indicate that the Mesora as well sees these verses as a unit that is separate from the "chapters of deterioration" and one that serves as an introduction to the "chapters of redemption," as they begin to bring about the change.
[3] These seem to be the words of his son, for the Pharaoh who first enslaved the people of Israel died in the meantime (Shemot 2:23). But he, like his father, maintains the same attitude toward Israel, and these words therefore reflect also the thinking of the father, the architect of Israel's bondage.