Parshas Va’era: The Painful Road to Freedom

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Va’era, Hashem promises that the Israelites will be freed from Egypt.  Hashem commands Moshe to speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם – And I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt;

וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם – And I will save you from their hard work;

וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים – And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgements;

וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם – And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be a G-d to you (Shemos 6:6-7). 

Chazal teach (Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:1) that the four cups of wine that are drunk on Layl Ha’Seder are k’neged arbah ge’ulos – correspond to these four terms of redemption.  כוס ישועות אשא, ובשם ה׳ אקרא – I will lift the cup of salvation, and call in the Name of G-d (Tehillim 116:13).  When the Jew experiences salvation and redemption, he directs his thanks to Hashem, Who has saved him!

And yet, despite the Divine promise of the imminent redemption, the pasuk (verse) tells us that slaves were less than enthusiastic:  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – and Moshe spoke thus to the Children of Israel; and they did not listen to Moshe, from shortness of spirit and from hard work (Shemos 6:9).

Imagine the scene.  After two hundred and tens years in Egypt, and one hundred and sixteen years of slavery, the redeemer appears in the fields alongside the laborers, he stands along the banks of the Nile River which has been reddened with Jewish blood, he joins the people on the pyramid building sites, under the whip of the taskmaster, and he announces that the redemption is at hand!

And the people all but ignore his grand promises of a better time, a hopeful future, and an idyllic life.  They are simply broken in spirit (קֹּצֶר רוּחַ), and in body (וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה). 

Sometimes, the nisayon (life test) is too painful, too bitter and too crushing –  וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת-חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה, בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים, וּבְכָל-עֲבֹדָה, בַּשָּׂדֶה – and they embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and with bricks, and with all work of the field (1:14) – that in the moment, it is hard to believe redemption will ever come.  It is impossible to imagine that there is a solution to this suffering, that there is an end to the slavery, that there is an answer to our pain! 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “Genuine geulah (redemption) always comes suddenly, unexpectedly, at a time when people are ready to give up hope.  Sometimes historical situations keep deteriorating; people pray and cry, begging for mercy – but there is no answer to their prayer, only silence.  At that moment, when the crisis reaches its maximum and threatens the very existence of the community, when people begin to give up, the geulah suddenly comes and takes them out of the land of affliction. It comes in the middle of the night and knocks on the door when no one expects it, when everybody is skeptical about it, when everybody laughs off the possibility of redemption.

“…When the crisis reached its climax and the Jewish people were on the verge of complete assimilation and disappearance, Moshe came.  At the beginning, he was very far from successful; apparently, the plagues did not convince the Jews that redemption was near.  They did not expect Divine revelation that night.  Indeed, this is the most important feature of geulas Mitzrayim.  The redemption from Egypt consisted not only of the fact that our ancestors went from slavery to freedom, but, more importantly, that this redemption and the revelation of the Almighty were a surprise to them.  This is the nature of geulah” (The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening, p.99-100). 

Though they could not listen, Hashem redeemed them as He swore He would.  And suddenly, this broken people found in themselves a new spirit, and marched after Hashem into the barren desert, come what may.  זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה – So says Hashem, I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown (Yirmiyahu 2:2). 

Miriam Peretz writes, “Our history is stained with blood.  Even in the time of the Maccabees, the best of our sons died, and mothers sat shiva.  But when you are able to rise above the personal pain and see the continuity of history, you understand that now it’s your son’s turn, your own turn.  For this reason, I never explored the question of ‘why’ – not the first time I buried a son, and not the second time either.

“To be honest, that’s not strictly true.  During the first few days, I did ask why.  It’s impossible not to.  After Eliraz (1978-2010) fell, I imagined that G-d’s computer was stuck on the Peretz family, maybe something in the system had gone wrong.  It wasn’t normal for death to strike me yet again.  I had already paid the price.  I had already given Uriel (1976-1998), and Eliezer had died of a broken heart following his first son, so how could it be?

“A few days passed and I realize that this question wasn’t leading me anywhere.  With time it took on another tone: what did this suffering intend to tell me, what were these travails meant to teach me?  This is the big inquiry of my life.  It still hasn’t ended… I’ve learned to value the small things in life, and every second becomes a precious moment that will never return.  I imagine myself drowning in a sea of pain that chokes me and threatens to overcome me, but still fighting to hold my head above the water, still singing my son, Miriam’s song” (Miriam’s Song, p.344-345). 

Despite our pain and the often-times shortness of spirit and breath, despite the wonderment… will redemption ever come?… Our people is one who never gives up, who always holds onto our faith, who is willing to follow G-d into the barrenest of deserts, as we march to a hopeful future. 

May we merit that the fifth promise of geula, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, and I will bring you to the Land (Shemos 6:8), comes to fruition immediately and in our days. 

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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