“Becoming Accustomed to the Burdens”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, the Al-mighty responds to Moses’ complaint that his mission to Pharaoh had failed. Moses claims that not only did his confrontation with Pharaoh not improve the Israelites’ situation, but, in fact, it had made things worse. G-d tells Moses that He has heard the cries of the Jewish people and has remembered them. He instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel that G-d will soon take them out of Egypt, that He will save them, and redeem them, that He will take them to Him for a nation, and bring the people to the land that G-d swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The four languages of redemption that G-d employs in his response (Exodus 6:6,7) “v’ho’tzay’tee,” “v’hee’tzal’tee,” “v’ga’ahl’tee,” “v’la’kach’tee,” I will take them out, save them, redeem them and take them for Me as a nation, are represented at seder tables throughout the world by the four cups of wine. The fifth language of redemption, Exodus 6:8, “v’hay’vay’tee,” I will bring them, is symbolized at the seder by the cup of Elijah. Since G-d has not yet brought all the Jews to the land of Israel, and our redemption is not complete, the fifth cup is “not yet” official.

Many of the bible commentators are anxious to know exactly what caused the Al-mighty to determine that this particular moment was precisely the appropriate time to free Israel from bondage. Three notable commentators offer three divergent reasons.

Rabbi Jacob Moses Charlop (1883-1951, Rabbi of the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood in Jerusalem and close associate of Rav Kook) suggests that Jewish people who dwell in the diaspora are given a special ability to endure suffering. However, when the people lose that ability, it is a sign that the time of redemption has arrived. After Pharaoh had decreed that the Hebrew slaves would no longer be given straw, the Torah graphically describes the officers of Israel who confront Moses and Aaron as they come out from Pharaoh’s palace, and express their terrible disappointment. Berating Moses and Aaron, they say (Exodus 5:21): “Yay’reh Hashem ah’lay’chem v’yish’poht, ah’sher hiv’ahsh’tem et ray’chay’noo b’ay’nay Pharaoh oo’v’ay’nay ah’vah’dav, la’tet cheh’rev b’yah’dahm l’har’gay’noo.” May G-d look upon you and judge, for you have made our very scent abhorrent in Pharaoh’s eyes and the eyes of his servants, to place a sword in their hands to murder us! This was surely an indication that the Israelites had lost their ability to tolerate the sufferings of the exile, and that the time of redemption had come.

The Kotzker Rebbe suggests that when G-d tells Moses and Aaron to inform the people that He will take them out of the burdens of Egypt (Exodus 6:6), He is actually telling the people that the first step to freedom must be rebellion. Only when the people reach the point where they despise the exile and can no longer tolerate the suffering, only then will redemption come. It is the act of rebellion that gives birth to redemption.

A third interpretation, offered by Rabbi Simcha Bunam, suggests that, even though the labor that Pharaoh placed upon the Hebrew slaves was crushing, the people had grown so accustomed to the pain and had learned to tolerate the suffering that they virtually saw suffering as natural. It was at that point that the Al-mighty said, now that the Hebrews no longer sense the bitterness of their circumstances and the grave danger they face, I can no longer delay the redemption. Therefore, He announced, “I will take them out from under the burdens of Egypt.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunam’s interpretation of this verse should resonate with many of us. Over the past several decades, new definitions of morality and ethics have become popular in society. This has resulted in quite a few good people becoming inured to many profoundly decadent values that are thoroughly inimical to Torah and Jewish tradition. Additionally, because of the broad proliferation of media and the abundance of information, we have become overwhelmed by what we hear and see, and are often rendered indifferent.

Thousands of people may perish in a single day in Darfur, and we pay no attention. Millions of people may starve on the Africa subcontinent, and we pay no heed. Almost 50% of the population of some African countries are infected with the HIV virus, and we continue our daily chores as if nothing unusual is happening. Women are cavalierly abused, children are brutally mutilated and workers are schemingly exploited throughout the world. In our own United States, health insurance is financially out of reach to so many citizens, yet we remain unmoved.

Why, at just this point, had the time come for G-d to free Israel from bondage? Because the Al-mighty felt that the Hebrews were becoming accustomed to their burdens, that they had basically reached the point of no return, and that if this situation were to continue, the people would soon be irredeemable.

The same may be true of the many good people who are being misled by the values of contemporary society. We dare not let society and society’s mores take away our humanity, blind us from behaviors that the Torah tells us are morally and ethically unacceptable, just because everybody is doing it. Contrary to the popular song, things can be wrong, even though they feel so right! And the only way to know that they are wrong is to anchor ourselves securely to the guideposts that G-d has given to the world through His Torah.

One of the most powerful definitions of a Jew that resonates with me is that a Jew is a person who is never satisfied with the status quo, is always in tension with the environment, and is always trying to improve it. If we truly are Jews who are uncomfortable with the way things are, then the Children of Israel, young and old, will be able to break the bonds of oppression, and help G-d redeem us from this bondage, to lead us to the ultimate redemption.

May you be blessed.