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Moses, Martin Luther King and Obama
by Yosef Y. Jacobson
 
Moses: the Early Years
 
It is one of the most intriguing components of the Exodus story. The first leader of the Jewish people, who would set them free and molded them into a nation, grew up not among his own people, but in the palace of the man who wished to destroy them. Why did destiny have it that Moses was raised not in a Jewish home, but among non-Jews, in the Egyptian palace?
Let us offer one possible perspective.
 
Liberation from tolerance
 
The English translations of the Hebrew Bible rarely capture the multi-dimensional underpinnings behind many words in the Hebrew tongue.

One example in this week's portion (Veira) is telling. "Therefore," G-d speaks to Moses, "Say to the Children of Israel: I am G-d, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their slavery; I shall redeem you
(1)
."

The Hebrew word for "burdens" -- sivlos -- can also be translated as "tolerance." The two themes are connected, since tolerance is a form of burden carrying, of accepting a challenging reality. So G-d might be telling Moses in this passage, "Say to the Children of Israel: I am G-d, 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
(2).
 
The Genesis of Redemption
 
Here we are given a glimpse into the genesis of the process of redemption, whether it is physical, mental, psychological or spiritual.

Unfortunately, many human beings, after being subjected to dysfunctional conditions for a time, 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 no way out.

The beginning of the Egyptian redemption could only occur when the Hebrews refused to tolerate their slavery and exile. If you can still tolerate your present 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 toward liberation.
 
The Outrage
 
Therefore, the Torah, in last week's portion (Shemos), commences the story of G-d choosing Moses to lead the Jewish people out of slavery with the following words (2): "The children of Israel groaned because of their subjugation and they cried out. Their outcry because of their slavery went up to G-d. G-d heard their cries and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

The curse of the Egyptian exile consisted not only of the physical slave labor 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 a physical impediment; it also created a slave mentality within many of the Hebrews, robbing from them 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 why the redeemer of Israel needed to grow up in the Egyptian palace, not among his own people. To quote Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish philosopher, poet and biblical commentator), “Perhaps G-d caused Moses to grow up in the home of royalty, so that his soul would be accustomed to a higher sense of learning and behavior, and he would not feel lowly and accustomed to a house of slavery. You see that he killed an Egyptian who did a criminal act , and he saved the Midyanite girls from the criminal shepherd’s who were irrigating their own flock from the water the girls have drawn.” (Ibn Ezra Exodus 2:3.]
 
Had Moses grown up among the Hebrew slaves, he too would suffer from a slave-mentality and would never have the ability to fight injustice and mold a tribe into a people with a vision of transforming the world into a place worthy of the divine presence. He would never dream of liberty and posses the courage to confront the greatest tyrant of the time with a message of a living G-d desiring the commitment of free human being. Only because he grew up on a royal ambiance, did Moses have a clear sense of injustice feel the power to fight it.
 
This concept is true concerning our present exile, too. The sense and the outcry that we can't tolerate our long, dark and bitter exile any longer constitutes a critical component in commencing the process of redemption; the true exile is the narrowness and insecurity it inculcates within our minds and hearts, depriving us from our ability to think big.
 
It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s ability not to embrace the status quo which turned him into a great leader, inspiring a new era of liberty in the United States. It will be Barack Obama’s ability to think big, to dream big, to go beyond the confinements of a psychologically and morally impoverished culture, which will allow him to make people feel a true sense of inner value and empower them to become leaders and kindle the flame of goodness and hope in the hearts of others.
 
Standards Determine Destiny
 
A story (4):

In the 1950s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, walking on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, encountered two administrators of a local yeshiva (Jewish day school) gazing closely at a yellow school bus parked on the road.

When the Rebbe asked them what they were looking at, they informed him that the bus was on sale and they were thinking of purchasing it for the yeshiva. "We desperately need our own bus," they told the Rebbe.

"But this bus looks like an old shmateh," the Rebbe said. "It seems like it's on the verge of retirement. Why not purchase a brand new bus for the children?"

"If we could only afford that type of money!" they exclaimed. "The price of this old bus is something we could fit into our budget."

"Let me tell you something," the Rebbe responded. "You know why you can't afford the money for a new bus? Because in your mind, the old and run-down bus will suffice for your yeshiva. If it would be clear to you that your children need a new and beautiful bus, you would have the money to purchase it."

What the Rebbe was saying is that in many cases, your standards are what ultimately define the quality and destiny of your life (5).
 
~~~~~~~~~
 
Footnotes:
1) Exodus 6:6.
2) This interpretation also explains the apparent redundancy in the verse: "I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt" followed by, "I shall rescue you from their slavery." The two statements seem to be repetitive. According to the above translation, the first statement discusses an exodus from tolerating Egypt, while the second alludes to the liberation from the slavery and forced labor in Egypt.
3) Ibid. 2:23-24.
4) My thanks to Rabbi Y. Y.  Hadakov (New Haven, Conn.) for sharing this lovely story with me.
5) This essay is based on Sefas Emes Parshas Veira, authored by the second Rebbe of the Chassidic dynasty of Gur, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (1847-1905). This explanation in the word "sivlos," as well as the concept conveyed in this essay, are quoted by him in the name of his grandfather, the first Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rottenberg Alter, known as the Chedushei Harim (1799-1866).
 
 

 


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