Parshas Shemos: A Long Silence

As we once again open up the book of Shemos, Sefer ha’Geula – the book of Redemption – with this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemos, we are abruptly thrust into the Egyptian enslavement, the cruelty and senseless nature of slave labor forced upon the Israelite slaves, the infanticide that takes place – as routine – in Pharaonic Egypt, the dehumanization and suffering of the Jewish nation.

With the death of their beloved viceroy, Joseph, along with the death of his brothers, and the passing of that entire generation, a new Egyptian king arose; one who conveniently forgot that the Israelites contributed well to the Egyptian society.  The Egyptians forgot that it was Joseph, slave-turned-ruler, who saved them from death by starvation during the lean years.  They forgot that it was Yaakov Avinu who halted the curse of the famine when he descended with his family, en masse, to dwell in Egypt.  They forgot that when Yaakov and family came, the Nile waters once again rose and overflowed with blessing.  They forgot that the Jew is hard working, committed, dedicated, honest, compassionate, intelligent, and contributes to the stability and well being of society.    

They forgot… or they chose to forget.

And so began the subjugation of the Israelite nation.  The pattern of oppression is one that we are all too familiar with: the slander and libels against the Jews (Shemos 1:9-10); the financial oppression and “Jewish tax” (1:11); the crushing slave labor (1:11); the bitterness of servitude (1:14); and finally, when all sense of humanity and compassion has disappeared, the edict to kill the Jews (v.15).  And the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah and the second, who was named Puah.  And he said to them: When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birth-stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she shall live” (v.15-16). 

Of the one hundred and sixteen years of slavery in Egypt, the Torah dedicates relatively few verses to narrating this dark period of time.  By the time we get to Chapter 3 in the book of Shemos, we are already introduced to Moshe at the Burning Bush; Moshe, who is to become the shaliach of Hashem, the messenger of G-d, who will deliver the Jews to freedom. 

One hundred and sixteen years of pain and terror, of cries and prayers, of sweat and tears, of despair and blood, retold in only two chapters, in relatively few verses? 

Why the silence? 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l powerfully comments, “Our Torah has a method of telling a story through silence.  The story of complete forgetfulness and extreme despair is related by not saying anything.  The detail behind those days of despair, of hester panim (concealment of Hashem’s face), was not recorded.  People who suffer greatly can lose track of the concept of time: days, nights, and hours become monotonous and boring.  Time becomes abstract and we cease to feel it; sometimes it goes quickly and sometimes slowly.  A slave and one who experiences fear or danger have no appreciation of time.  It becomes a collection of minutes, hours or days.  Those many days (Shemos 2:23) were many days of silence marked by the same humiliation and ridicule.  The days in German concentration camps were similar: they accumulated without any significance.  The Jews who endured Egyptian slavery and the Jews who suffered the Holocaust had this harrowing experience of time in common.”

Of his Holocaust experiences, my grandfather, Yitzchak ben Moshe Kaftan a’h, wrote, “A Shabbos after Succos, in the year 1942, the darkest year in the Jewish history, everyone already knew that there would be an auszeilung (a count), as it was euphemistically called.  My wife and I, and our 18 month old daughter, Devorah, went to an open camp, which was called ‘Pi Park’.  Several hundred Jews were already there.

“Before noon on Shabbos all of us were hurried from the barracks and we could see the long box cars usually used to transport fruit already prepared for the unfortunate Krashnik Jews.  I well remember the last ‘good day’ from my father, on the eve of that horrifying ‘black Sabbath,’ when I willingly went to the ‘Pi Park’ camp.  He said the last ‘be well’ to me and with tears in his eyes, he added: ‘Try to save yourself.’

“I did not see my father or my sisters anymore.  In the morning, when they hurried us from the barracks, 83 young Jews were chosen to work – and the older men, women and children, were gathered before our eyes and were hurried to the train station where there were already the other Jews from the city.  We saw with our own eyes how they herded everyone into the box cars.  When the transport with the unfortunates rolled past, their final ‘be well!’ wafted to us through the dilapidated openings.”

And yet, despite the silence of pain, Rashi teaches (Shemos 3:2) that G-d appeared to Moshe from within the sneh, the burning thorn bush, וְלֹא אִילָן אַחֵר – and not a different bush, to signal to Moshe – and to us – that עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה – Hashem is with us in our distress. 

For when the moment of redemption arrived, when the terrible time of hester panim turned to the time of geula, when the cries of our downtrodden and oppressed people accumulated to the highest heights of the heavens, וַיִּשְׁמַע – and Hashem heard our groans, וַיִּזְכֹּר – and He remembered His covenant with our forefathers, וַיַּרְא – and Hashem saw our affliction, וַיֵּדַע – and He knew our pain (Shemos 2:23-25). 

As dark as the darkness may be, as deafening as the silence may be, as bitter as the exile was – and is – עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה: we are never alone.  For when the exact right moment arrives, all of the Hester Panim our people have endured will turn to the glorious time of Giluy Shechina (revelation of the Divine Presence). 

And G-d said to Moshe: עַתָּה תִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה:  כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ – Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land (6:1).

May we merit the ultimate redemption, which will usher in the long awaited end of days, may it be immediate and in our days, amen.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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