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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Becoming a People of Faith

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on January 15, 2015)
Topics: Va'era

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Moshe tells the children of Israel that he is coming as God’s messenger to take them out of the bondage of Egypt and to bring them to the land of Canaan. To Pharaoh, however, a different message is given: Send out the people for three days so that they can celebrate to God in the wilderness. It seems impossible that Pharaoh will ever willingly agree to permanently free the people, so a more reasonable request has to be made, allowing him to choose to do the right thing of his own free will. Hence, the stated purpose to Pharaoh is not freedom and possession of a land but merely a festival to God.

But there is more to it than that. For while it is clear why Pharaoh was not told of the goal to return to Canaan, it is unclear why the people were not told of the more religious goals of the Exodus. Our parasha is the first time that these goals are stated clearly:

And I appeared unto Avraham, unto Yitzchak, and unto Yaakov… And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan… and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and you shall know that I am the Lord your God… And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I did swear to give it to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Lord. (Shemot, 6:3-8)

Consider all the points made in this passage: there is a covenant with the forefathers that continues now and that defines the relationship between God and the people; the people will know that there God exists and is their God; the people will be freed so that they will be able to be God’s people in the land that is their inheritance from their forefathers and from God.

These are the lofty national-religious goals of the Exodus. But this is not what the people were originally told. If we look back to the original vision at the burning bush, the primary message is one of freedom from oppression and material well-being: “And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and spacious land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:8). It is true that God tells Moshe that the people will worship at this mountain, and it is true that Moshe asks God how to respond to the people who will ask for God’s name, and that God identifies Godself as the God of their fathers (3:12-16). But the purpose of all this is to persuade the people that Moshe has indeed been sent by God; it is not to define a religious purpose for the Exodus. Thus, even the statement, “the God of your forefathers has appeared to me,” ends with, “I will bring you out of the oppression of Egypt… to a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:16,17).

The emphasis on the freedom from slavery rather than some spiritual goal is understandable. Oppression and slavery are inherent evils, and the highest priority of freeing them is to relieve their suffering and eradicate these evils. This in itself is a spiritual mandate. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said, “Yenems gashmius iz dein ruchnius” – another person’s physical needs are for you a religious mandate. So this must be the first stated goal of the exodus. But why is the next message not the religious one for the people – that this will be a fulfillment of the covenant and that they will come to live as God’s people?

It seems that the people are not ready to hear this. As famously described by Abraham Maslow, we have a hierarchy of needs. When our most basic needs – food, shelter, and safety – are not being met, we cannot attend to any higher-level needs, such as those for love, belonging, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence, or the desire for a higher, spiritual purpose. The people were only prepared to hear the message about their material needs and desires. It is thus not surprising that, at this early stage, God is already telling Moshe that the people will despoil Egypt and leave laden with gold and silver (3:22-23). This is a message that will resonate. The religious message could come later.

But this won’t last. The focus on some future material success does not give the people the inner-strength to withstand their current hardships, especially when things begin to get worse. As long as the promise is not realized, the immediacy of the current harsh reality will overshadow any promised future. And this is exactly what happens. Pharaoh increases the demands, the beatings increase, and the people attack Moshe. You have only made things worse, they say to him, so who needs you?

The solution to this problem lies in realizing that Maslow was not totally right. Even people in privation can focus on something beyond their physical needs, and it is often exactly this that gives them the resilience to withstand great hardships. This is the primary teaching of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: the key to persevering amidst even the most horrific of circumstances is not to focus on what one most immediately needs but to identify and immerse oneself in a higher purpose.

This is why Pharaoh increased the workload on the people – to ensure that they would not busy themselves with “vain words” (5:9). If they are laboring ceaselessly, he reasoned, they won’t have time to cultivate a vision that will feed and strengthen their spirit. He believed that the people were saying, “Let us go sacrifice to our God” (5:8), that they desired not milk and honey, but God. It was this that was so threatening, for such a goal would fill the people with a sense of purpose, with ideas that could foment a rebellion and give them the fortitude to withstand any opposition. Popular rebellions only succeed when people are willing to lay their lives on the line, believing that they are fighting for something greater than themselves. Barring any Divine intervention, this was Pharaoh’s greatest worry.

Pharaoh succeeded in keeping the people down. The people were now toiling endlessly. They had no time to think about any religious purpose, and in fact they had never been supplied with one in the first place. It is now, in our parasha, that there comes the attempt to do just that.  Moshe is told to reveal to the people what this is all about. It is about covenant; it is about God; it is about being God’s people in the Promised Land. But this spiritual vision also falls on deaf ears: “And they did not listen to Moshe, for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage” (6:9).

After all the years of enslavement and the resultant deadening of the human imagination and spirit, a religious vision was not something that the people were capable of. It is one thing to be free and then be enslaved. Such a person can hold onto or cultivate a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. But to create this almost ex nihilo for those who were never in control of their time, their destiny, or any degree of self-directed purpose, is almost an impossible task.

The redemption from Egypt could not be a popular rebellion; it could not be a redemption from below. It could only be a redemption from above, from God, and also through Moshe, a person who did not grow up as a slave and who could truly possess and sustain this religious vision.

Moshe, for now, will have to turn his attention away from the people. From this point on his interactions will be solely with Pharaoh. It is only at the end of all the plagues, when the moment of redemption is almost upon them and they can begin to dream, that the people can be reengaged and begin to become an active part in their own redemption. It is then that they will take the paschal lamb and begin to imagine a future in the land of Israel, passing on their traditions and religious history to their children.

This will be a long process. There will still be much backsliding; the people will need to work constantly to sustain this higher purpose to withstand the privations of the desert. They will have to learn to focus on the promised land of Canaan and not on the fleshpots of the land of Egypt. They are about to begin a long and arduous journey, a journey to becoming a people of faith.

Shabbat Shalom!