Our Torah reading for the week presents a very unflattering view of the Jews in Egypt. Moshe Rabbeinu begins our parsha with an inspirational speech about God’s plan for the nation: Tell the Israelites: I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from the slavery of Egypt and rescue you from bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and justice. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, who redeemed you and brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore with an oath I would give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance, for I am the Eternal (Shmot 6:5-7). But the Jews refused to listen or, according to some translations ‘hearkened not’ (verse 9).
This four stage plan (‘bring you out’, ‘rescue you’, ‘redeem you’ and ‘take you’) for total freedom deserved a better hearing. But the Jews were unable to pay attention. I’ve had similar problems with classes I’ve taught, but I never had such good material.
The Torah’s explanation for the Jews inability to listen is KOTZER RUACH and AVODA KASHEH. These two terms are translated in many ways, a sampling: anguish of spirit and from cruel bondage; impatience and despondency, and because of their forced labor; broken spirit and hard labor; working so hard that they were not patient; discouraged because the slavery was hard; irritation and anguish from the hard work. It goes on and on. We will explore a number of rabbinic takes on these terms.
Let us begin with the literalists. The Rashbam suggests that these expressions described the disappointment that the redemption was a process and not immediate. When Moshe first came, they did believe and hearken (4:31). The Chizkuni explains that the Jews were afraid to accept Moshe’s speech because their situation was worsening. When Pharoah increased their labor they also believed his words that Moshe spoke DIVREI SHEKER (false things, 5:9).
Then there are those who accuse the Jews of ‘Diaspora Psychosis’; they didn’t want to leave Egypt and its great cities Memphis, Luxor, Thebes or Memphis TN, for that matter. The Mei Shiloach describes how the Jews ‘are unable to hear, let alone comprehend, the promise of redemption’. The Targum Yonatan suggests that the AVODA KASHA was AVODA ZARA, idolatry. To these commentaries, the Jews were simply not yet ready for GEULA.
Other opinions make fascinating attempts to compare the situation of our enslaved ancestors to modern concerns. They couldn’t pay attention to Moshe because of No Time to Think Syndrome! That would be similar to our modern 24/7 distractions from ubiquitous screens riveting our attention and preventing us from spiritual growth. I’m sympathetic to these attempts because I used to deliver sermons and often the Torah texts were supplemented by readings from the New York Times. We rabbis often message with an eye to the news cycle.
However, ultimately, I really prefer (at least this year) scenarios which are more timeless, neither unique to Egypt nor 2024. I’d like to suggest two.
Rav Jonathan Sacks Z”L proposed that the suffering Jews actually were representing a philosophically cogent approach to life, which became normative Jewish philosophy. Rav Sacks submits:
They were busy trying to survive. Moses had failed to deliver in the past. They had no reason to think he would do so in the future…In other words: if you want to improve people’s spiritual situation, first improve their physical situation. That is one of the most humanizing aspects of Judaism.
He goes on to propound that other religions are ‘Religions of Acceptance’. Rav Sacks explains that other religions declare:
There is poverty, hunger and disease on earth because that is the way the world is; that is how God wants it. Yes, we can find nirvana or bliss, but to get it you must escape the world, by meditation, drugs or trance, or by waiting for the joy in the world to come. Religion anesthetizes us to pain.
On the other hand, he avers, Judaism is a ‘Religion of Protest’. If that be the case, I was very religious in the 60’s! In this approach, the Jews were perfectly in order to ignore Moshe. As much as I like the message, to me it doesn’t fit the context. I strongly believe that the Jews were being criticized.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Z”L put forward another timeless viewpoint:
Why did Bnei Yisrael not listen to Moshe? After all, his message was one of support, consolation and redemption, and his words were meant to influence the nation. Despite all of this, Moshe’s words failed to impress the nation; their response was apathy: “…because of shortness of spirit, and the hard labor.” Indeed, the situation was harsh, but surely something of Moshe’s message should have penetrated.
I love this idea! Our greatest enemy is apathy, or the ‘whatever’ syndrome. As Jews we must always be passionate. We can always condemn shoulder shrugs, even if the perpetrator is in an objectively onerous situation.
Rav Lichtentstein avers:
Thousands of years have passed since the Exodus, but our generation, too, needs to take the message of our parasha to heart. We must transmit the message of redemption to the entire nation…A person who is not imbued with a sense of Divine providence which accompanies us and the redemption which awaits us, will not be able to transmit the tradition further. We need to overcome the condition of “shortness of spirit” – to strengthen our spiritual awareness and thereby to transmit the message of redemption onwards and outwards.
As much as we feel sympathy and compassion for our ancestors under the Egyptian lash, we must expect a greater reception for Moshe and his message. We can’t let our empathy for their situation dull our demand that news from a trusted source of imminent redemption be heard and heeded. Apathy may be our greatest adversary. Remain passionate and vigilant; it may hasten the GEULA! Please, God, now would be good.