“The Subtle Slavery”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, G-d promises Moshe that the Jewish people will ultimately be redeemed. Again and again Moshe and Aharon confront Pharaoh. Each time Pharaoh hardens his heart, and our parasha concludes with an account of the first seven of the ten plagues that strike Egypt.

Parashat Va’eira, however, is really a response to the end of Shemot, last week’s parasha. In parashat Shemot, Moshe and Aharon confront Pharaoh for the first time and ask him to release the Jews for a three day religious celebration in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses, and spitefully increases the burdens on the Hebrew slaves, who must now collect straw and produce the same number of bricks as had been produced when the straw had been given to them. The low point in Moshe’s leadership comes when Moshe and Aharon leave Pharaoh’s palace and are confronted by the Hebrew slaves, who curse them out, saying (Genesis 5:21) “May G-d look upon you [Moshe and Aharon] and judge, for you have made our very scent odious in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to place a sword in their hands to murder us.”

Upon hearing this, Moshe becomes quite agitated with G-d and says (Genesis 5:22): “La’mah zeh sh’lach’tani?” Why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name he did evil to this people, and You did not rescue Your people.

G-d responds to Moshe, and tells him not to worry (Genesis 6:1): Now you [Moshe] will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, “Ki v’yad cha’za’kah y’shal’achem, u’v’yad cha’zakah y’garshem may’ar’tzo.” For through a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand will he drive them from his land. While G-d predicts that Pharaoh will send out the Jewish people with a strong hand, He also says that Pharaoh will chase them out of his land.

What is meant by the word “chase”? It could very well be that Pharaoh will be so desperate after the tenth plague that he will literally chase the Jews out of the land, so that the evil that has been befalling him and his people will finally come to an end.

On the other hand, it could indicate as well that, despite the rigors of labor and the backbreaking slavery that the Jews endured, the Jews were not particularly keen on leaving Egypt, and that Pharaoh had to literally chase them out! It is even likely that despite the daily tortures, the Jewish people were basically infatuated with Egypt. After all, it was the home of great architecture, the pyramids, great music, cuneiform, papyri, opera and theater. It’s not easy to walk away from one’s relationship with such a highly cultured environment, especially if the alternative is a wilderness, and a march to some unknown “Promised Land.”

It is likely that the Torah, in this interchange, is communicating to us a profoundly resonating truth. Civilizations, especially so-called highly cultured civilizations, have a subtle ability to enslave their citizens, to mesmerize them with ideas and ensnare them with intellectual dazzlement and abundant materialism. Judaism has always maintained that there must be absolute values in the world, for without these clear and unimpeachable values, everything becomes relative. It’s one thing to be seduced by some subtle advertising campaign to wear mousse in one’s hair, or buy wire-rimmed eyeglasses. These values and customs are rather innocuous. But, it is quite another thing to allow oneself to be “hijacked” by the dream of having an obscenely well compensated career and be hoodwinked into believing that career is more important than the privilege of, let us say, raising children. As we see in America today, often as a result of our frenetic lifestyles, we have little time to get to know our children, let alone our neighbors. Consequently, we are very much a generation unable to establish significant friendships or deep relationships. Are we free, truly free, or are we slaves?

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh literally had to chase the Jews out of Egypt, not only because Egypt was the country they knew as their home, but because Egypt embodied values from which they were not prepared to separate.

Truth be told, it’s not easy for “admirers” and “worshipers” to recognize when admiration subtly becomes slavery. Drug addicts, alcoholics, habitual gamblers find that first step of recognizing that they’ve gone over the top is always the most difficult. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why each year our Torah teaches us the story of Egypt–-in order to encourage us to pause for a moment, take stock of where we’re at, and make the necessary adjustments.

We pray that we may all soon be liberated from our own personal slaveries. May the world realize and know that the only legitimate “ultimate” commitment to which one may be prepared to give both body and soul–is the worship of the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.