Toward Shabbat – Va’era, The Journey to Freedom

Our Parsha Va’era gives us many deep insights about the nature of freedom, and leaving our servitude, our move from our ‘Mitzraim’ (the place of restriction) to the land of Israel (our place of freedom). Our verse states: “And I WILL BRING YOU OUT from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will SAVE YOU from their bondage (6:6).” This verse seems repetitious because if the Jewish people are taken out from under the burdens of Egypt, undoubtedly, they are saved from their bondage. So, the Kotzker Rebbe suggests that there are two necessary steps to complete liberation. First, the slave must be set free physically, then his slave mentality must be cast off. One who is freed physically but still mentally subservient is not actually free. (You can leave ‘Mitzraim,’ but has Mitzraim left you)? The word ‘Sivlot’ (burdens) may be derived from the word ‘Savalanut’ which means acceptance, tolerance, or patience. During their stay in Egypt, the Jews had gradually accepted the rulership and mores of Egypt. They had lost their special identity. That which had been considered as oppressive had now become their accepted burden. So, G-d tells Moshe that G-d’s supreme power would redeem the people not only from their physical affliction but from their mental and spiritual bondage as well. For true freedom does not merely mean physical liberation from a master, but the ability to choose and make proper decisions free from the fear and inhibitions inherited from an alien culture.

How could it be that despite their bondage and hardships, the Hebrews did not really want to leave Egypt at this point as our Sages suggest? It would seem that in our psyches we unfortunately have this proclivity toward ‘Obedience to Authority,’ (Milgram) where we can easily yield our power to an outer authority (even a despotic, autocratic one) as a result of our lack of clear core values. Due to our insecurities, it would seem that at times we would rather follow a tyrannical leader, rather than make responsible choices on our own. Moreover, psychologists have pointed out the insidious dynamic of ‘identification with the aggressor,’ where when we have lived in abusive circumstances, we take on the characteristics of the abuser in order to feel protected and able to survive. Freedom brings with it anxiety, choices, the unknown rather than the sure habitual lifestyle, directed by strict authority. The pressure to conform to the authority of the leader increases when a whole group follows the strict norms of the group (‘groupthink’) and then it takes great courage to deviate from the group norm. The ostracization becomes too great a burden to bear, and the choice of conformity and abandoning one’s freedom often emerges.

The road to freedom (inner and outer) is long and full of obstacles, and there are no short cuts. It does not come because of an overnight revolt of the oppressed masses, a one-time act. Often, the suffering masses do not even want to recognize the fact that they are being oppressed, perhaps as a coping mechanism to allow for survival. But it also may be a result of the challenge of growing up and facing responsibilities and new choices, the unknown which brings greater fears than the oppression they experience, and they can rationalize and accept the status quo as tolerable. Redemption comes about through many stages, the final one because of a deep commitment, and a conviction that somewhere far away, a land is waiting for them, expecting them to come.

The Torah points out four stages of the liberation, expressed in four different terms found in chapter 6 verses 6-9. V’hotzalti, V’hitzalti, V’goalti, V’lokachti.’ “I will bring out, deliver, redeem, and take you (6:6-9). First, I will BRING YOU OUT from under your burden. I will have your consciousness raised to realize that being in exile is an unbearable burden from which you must go out. As pointed out, the Hebrew word for burden is ‘Sivlot’ which is close to ‘Savlanut, ‘patience.’ Only when a people run out of patience with the status quo and feel that its condition of helplessness is intolerable is it ready for the second stage, which is the delivery from actual bondage. Mental freedom is thus a prerequisite for physical freedom.

Moreover, a freedom-loving people does not sweat and exert itself to build magnificent palaces for others but dedicates its efforts to its own needs. Hence G-d’s promise, ‘I will DELIVER you from their bondage.’ That is followed by the 3rd stage in the process of redemption. ‘I will REDEEM you with an outstretched arm.” A proud self-sufficient people will stand up resolutely for its rights as an independent nation. And only then when they are free, self-reliant, and independent, are they ready for the fourth, and final stage: “I will TAKE you as my own people.”

One of the requisites in the movement toward freedom is the ability to LISTEN to your inner place of freedom, to the Soul within. The verse says: Moshe claims, “The children of Israel have not listened to me(6:12).” The Sfat Emet says that listening requires emptying the mind of distracting thoughts. Our inability to empty ourselves from our fears and illusions so that we clear out our minds and hearts to hear the call of the ‘Soul,’ without any distracting thoughts delays our journey to freedom, to the ‘Promised land.’ The Torah’ has been given to Israel to provide a voice that can lead us to a higher calling when that is commensurate with that which we know in the deepest part of our hearts and minds. We recognize this calling when we are not distracted. It is a powerful voice, that cannot be distracted by temporary distracting chatter. But we have to hear it, so as Jews we say everyday, “Shma Yisrael, Listen O’ Israel the Lord is calling You, Open your heart.” The Voice has never stopped but we must listen, we must clear out a space to hear this powerful voice and not be distracted by secondary distractions. Idolatry is anything that keeps us from hearing the divine voice, and we then become enslaved to secondary interests. Our involvement with secondary interests occupies most of our attention and inhibits our ability to receive the deeper Voice of the soul. Studying Torah, Praying with concentration brings us back to the Voice. Since Torah has been given to us earlier in our history, we must rediscover the voice from within ourselves; through a lifestyle which surrounds us with engaging mitzvot, Torah study, prayer, and good deeds. This leads us to a freedom of connection to soul and to a higher calling rather than to the slavery of outer materialistic proclivities. The power to hear the Voice of G-d’s “I am” as Moses did requires powerful concentration. It is to recite the Shma with powerful energy and concentration; it is to go out into the green field and feel the miracle of creation; it is to allow the waves of the ocean to meet us with all the power that derives from the Creator. Both the sound of the waves and the silence of the trees whisper to us that there is something majestic in the blessing of our existence. The power of silence and openness, and the power of intense prayer can transform us from the slavery of our everyday distractions to the higher call of the soul.

Pharaoh’s strategy was very cunning and successful. Our people could not hear the Call of the Soul “Because of the pressure of their hard labor (6: 9-12).” Sforno says: “They could not settle their minds to contemplate.” In order to know truth, we must have time to ponder and absorb our experiences. Pharaoh did not give the Israelites time for this deepening contemplation. This was the pressure that was laid upon them. Pharaoh wanted to kill the very faculty of thought, of meditation and spiritual activity, says Ramchal. In the sheer flurry and chaos of everyday hard labor and set routine, our people would not have the time nor the peace for this inner exploration that is so necessary for the experience of freedom. When we become submerged in the details and many responsibilities of our labor so that our life goals and plans are obscured, the part occupies us at the expense of the whole. We ‘become our work’ and lose sight of the fact that we are more than our work. Yes, our work can be holy and a blessing but we must also remember that we have unique identities that encompass something larger than our work. Pharaoh trapped us and we needed time to imagine who we truly are as children of G-d and what we are meant to express in our world that is soul edifying and gift giving. This is our movement from slavery to freedom.

Let us take time on Shabbat to make space for contemplating where we are on the continuum of slavery and freedom. Are we achieving the balance necessary to integrate both work and leisure to a defined goal that utilizes our talents and bestows these gifts to our world. Are we fulfilling our destinies. Have we truly left Mitzraim? Our Parsha teaches us that this is the time to enter or continue our journey toward freedom, so that we can identify the unique gifts that G-d has placed within us, embrace them, and share it with the world who awaits our blessing. Have a great Shabbat!

Peace and Love,
Rabbi Mel