By Rabbi Yisroel Newman
English TRANSLATIONS of the Bible rarely capture the multi-dimensional underpinnings behind many Hebrew words. One example in this week’s portion (Vaeira) is telling. “Therefore,” God says to Moses, “say to the Children of Israel: I am God, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their slavery; I shall redeem you.”
The Hebrew word for ‘burdens’ (sivlot) can also be translated as ‘tolerance’. The two themes are connected, as tolerance is a form of burden carrying, of accepting a challenging reality. So God might be telling Moses in this passage: “Say to the Children of Israel: I am God, and I shall take you out from (under the burden of) tolerating Egypt.”
I shall, in other words, liberate you from the condition of tolerating the Egyptian bondage. Unfortunately, many people, after being subjected to dysfunctional conditions, learn to somehow tolerate it and accept it as the innate composition of their life
. This can be worse than the condition itself, since it guarantees surrender and paralysis. The start of the Egyptian redemption could only occur when the Hebrews refused to tolerate their slavery and exile. If you can still tolerate your state of exile, if you can come to terms with your enslaved mode, your journey of redemption cannot commence.
The sense of frustration with your status quo, the feeling of grief over your life’s obstacles, may be a profoundly painful experience, for it exposes the truth that your life, your relationships, your inner identity may be a mess. But, paradoxically, it is at this moment of absolute frustration that you have begun the voyage towards liberation. The curse of the Egyptian exile consisted not only of the physical slave labour and the horrible oppression of the Hebrews. It also inculcated within many of the Hebrews an exile-like mentality.
The abuse was so profound that many of them learned to see their misery as their exclusive and inherent reality, and to accept their lives as such. They became accustomed to the darkness and ceased to sense the extraordinary degradation of their situation. This may be one of the reasons why, when Moses presented the promise of redemption to the Jewish people, “they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work” (Exodus 6:9).
The hard work was not only physical; it also created a slave mentality within many of the Hebrews, robbing them of the ability to foresee a new vision for their lives. As long as the Jewish people did not experience absolute outrage against their situation, they could not undertake the challenge to transcend it.
This is also true about our present exile. The sense and the outcry that we can’t tolerate our long and bitter exile any longer constitute a critical component in starting the process of redemption.
• Yisroel Newman is a rabbi in New York and can be followed on Twitter @askrabbiteddy