The essayist and novelist David Foster Wallace once shared the following parable: Two fish are swimming through the ocean. They passed an ‘old timer,’ who says to them, “Hey boys, how is the water today?” They continue to swim, ignoring the old timer’s greeting. A few minutes later one of the fish turns to the other, perplexed. “What in the hell is water?” The parable points to the capacity of all creatures to unconsciously adapt themselves to whatever environment in such a way that the world is perceived as given. The world could not be anything but what is presented to us- nothing more and nothing less.
However, what happens when the water becomes polluted or toxic? Over time, even generations, the fish adapt to an environment fundamentally unhealthy, until at one one stage, the water becomes so toxic that they simply die. The very notion that the ocean is compromised is only realized over the course of generations. In any specific generation, fish simply live or die in the water which is given to them. For that particular fish, it cannot be anything but the way things are.
This analogy of fish in the ocean is an apt metaphor for each of us, because while we like to think we are individuals that determine our own fates, our fates are inextricably linked with the environment around us. We adapt, or more accurately, cope with the world which is given to us, even if that world is as toxic as the ocean. If there is any place which represents a toxic environment, it is the Torah’s portrayal of the crucible of Egypt, which not only broke backs, but destroyed souls and spirits. It is a world in which people may survive for a while, but certainly cannot thrive.
In our week’s parashah, Moses comes to the elders with a clarion call of liberation. After centuries, God remembers their suffering. He performs signs before them, and at least initially the people are heartened. “The people believed and heard that God remembered the Children of Israel and that He saw their affliction; and they inclined their heads and bowed” (Exodus 4:31). For the first time in generations, they began to believe again. They believed that the promises and stories transmitted from generation to generation were indeed true. They may have worked for Pharaoh, but they are children of God, and this elusive God now has remembered them and heard their suffering.
This hope was short lived. Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh, demanding that the people be allowed to worship God for three days in the desert, and even to this modest demand, Pharaoh objects. Moses and Aaron are nuisances, he says, distracting them from their role. The people do not serve God, but they serve Pharaoh and his taskmasters. To quickly impress upon them this fact, Pharaoh doubles the workload, imposing not only the making of bricks, but the collecting of straw. Whatever hope is quickly extinguished; to hope for anything else is dangerous.
The people are naturally furious at Moses and Aaron, but if one reads the narrative, God explicitly tells Moses at the burning bush that the situation will first get worse before it gets better. In next week’s parashah, Moses returns to the people, assuring them that they indeed will be liberated, but this time the message is completely ignored “from shortness of breath and hard labor,” m’kotzer ruach Va’avoda kashah (Exodus 6:9).
It is abundantly clear to what ‘hard labor’ refers, but what is ‘shortness of breath’? On the one hand, Rashi is correct in asserting that slavery was so oppressive, so onerous, that they could not catch their breath, let alone listen to Moses. But this shortness of the ‘breath’ can also be translated as a ‘shortness of the spirit.’ The Targum Onkelos translates the term as the anguished nature of their spirit. Similarly, the Ibn Ezra says the duration of the Egyptian exile was such that it made them incapable to hear Moses’s message.
The Shem Mishmuel, the second Sochatchover Rebbe (Poland,1855 –1926) states that just as one can have a shortness of breath in the physical universe, so one can have a shortness of spirit in the spiritual universe. “The power of Egypt was such that it confused their perception of self to the extent to which they could not properly focus their thought and meditate upon who they were.” Similarly, in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, he argues that the power of Egypt was such that Pharaoh was able to deconstruct the whole notion of a Divine self, a tzelem elokim (the Divine image). The slavery in Egypt therefore was both a physical enslavement and an existential crisis. Trauma and life events can be so overwhelming that they create a spiritual malaise which prevents us from seeing anything more than our next meal. We are reduced to a mindless beast, here today and gone tomorrow.
Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (USA, 1903-1993) in his essay Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah, similarly argues that the deepest slavery is the slavery within (Tradition Spring, 1978, 19:2, pp. 55-72). Before there can be prayer, an assertion of “I am in need,” there needs to be an acknowledgement of self-hood altogether; there needs to be an existential awareness that a person has a story to tell. Slavery is not simply physical oppression, but a constriction of self in such a way that there is no notion of anything but what is in front of him. Yesterday, is like today, which is like tomorrow. They are incapable of hearing a redemptive call; to hope in the promise of redemption is to have the capacity to project oneself into a different, more noble future. Kierkegaard in his essays opines that the deepest level of suffering is the suffering which is so encompassing that one cannot even fathom they are suffering in the first place. They lose the capacity to see they are in crisis at all. This is the state of the Jewish people when Moses announces their redemption the second time.
Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzraim, which literally means constriction. Egypt is a place in which not only bodies are constricted, but also souls. The oppression of Egypt creates a warped sense of what is ‘normal.’ The tragedy of course is that human beings are not laborers or beasts of the field, but in the words of the Psalms are ‘but little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor” (8:6). Only a soul which has been so constricted, so abused for so long, can hear Moses’s message and not react. It would be as absurd as telling a fish that it could live on land. The ten plagues are not intended merely to break the will of Pharaoh, but to awaken the people to the fact that the world given to them is not the world which can and will be.
In our generation we have been blessed with technology and wealth that only could have been imagined in the last century, and yet we are facing a crisis of depression and mental health of epic proportions. The environmental toxins dumped into our environment are only matched by the vitriol and hatred poured into the public sphere. Social media, far from bringing people together, has dehumanized people into digital memes, or simply consumers of a market economy of whatever one wants to promote. We are driven to distraction, and our sense of self seems to be determined by all the voices around us, drowning out the cries of the inner heart. Yet, this world in which we live is so pervasive that it is hard to even remember a different time or a different way of being. We are living in an era of spiritual constriction.
God’s call to Israel of redemption, of another way, is not a call to a people living a long time ago. The Torah is meant to call to us in our own time with our own challenges. The book of Exodus which we open this week is known rabbinically as the sefer geulah, the book of redemption. Where are we in our lives? Where are we heading? What are the forces from which we need to free ourselves? To answer these questions, the first step is to know that we suffer in the first place. That suffering creates the self-awareness needed to begin the journey. Our parashah and next week’s parashah are not simply about political liberation, but the liberation of the heart. That message is as true for us as it was for them.
 Adapted translation of a remark on this verse in his sermons from 1913.