“Mesmerized by the Subtle Slavery”
(updated and revised from Va’eira 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, G-d assures Moses that the Jewish people will be redeemed from the Egyptian slavery. Yet, each time Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, the Egyptian monarch hardens his heart. Our parasha concludes with an account of the first seven of the ten plagues that strike Egypt.

In reality, parashat Va’eira is a response to the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Shemot. In parashat Shemot, Moses and Aaron 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 straw had been given them. The low point in Moses’ leadership comes when Moses and Aaron leave Pharaoh’s palace and are confronted by the Hebrew slave officers, who curse them out, saying, (Genesis 5:21) “May G-d look upon you [Moses and Aaron] 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, Moses becomes quite agitated and cries out to G-d (Exodus 5:22): ?לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי , “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, telling Moses not to worry, (Exodus 6:1): “Now you [Moses] will see what I shall do to Pharaoh. כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ, 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 the people 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 plagues that have struck Egypt 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 in fact infatuated with Egypt. After all, it was the home of great architecture, of the incomparable pyramids, great music, cuneiform, papyri, opera and theater. It’s not easy to walk away from a relationship with such a highly cultured environment, especially if the alternative is a wilderness, and a long trek to some unknown “Promised Land.”

It is likely that the Torah in this interchange is communicating a profoundly resonating truth. Civilizations, especially so-called highly-cultured civilizations, have a subtle ability to enslave its citizens, to mesmerize them with ideas, and to ensnare them with dazzling intellectual concepts and the blandishments of lavish materialism.

Judaism, on the other hand, 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 a subtle advertising campaign to wear mousse in one’s hair, or to sport 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 an obscenely well-compensated career and be hoodwinked into believing that career is more important than the privilege of, let us say, developing personal relationships with friends and neighbors, performing acts of charity for those in need, or raising and nurturing children. As we see in America today, often because of our frenetic lifestyles, well-intentioned people have little time to properly nurture their children, let alone, to establish real friendships or to get to know their neighbors. Consequently, we have very much become a generation unable to establish significant friendships or meaningful 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” or have “hit bottom,” is often very 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 you be blessed.