When the Torah names a place, the name describes not only a geographic location, but also a state of mind, and a spiritual set of circumstances. In this context, Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, serves as a paradigm, teaching us what exile is, and demonstrating the essence of the spiritual challenge which our people have confronted throughout history.
Mitzrayim relates to the Hebrew word meitzarim, meaning “boundaries,” or “limitations.” Material existence confines and limits the expression of G-dliness in the world at large, and the expression of the G-dly spark within our souls. This is exile, an unnatural state. For the true reality that the world was created to be a dwelling for G-d, and that a person’s soul is an actual part of G-d is concealed. In such a setting, a person becomes absorbed in the daily routine of his life. Spiritual values if he considers them at all are interpreted according to his own world view.
Moreover, exile naturally perpetuates itself. Our Sages relate that not one slave could escape from Egypt. Similarly, any setting in which a person lives creates an inertia that resists change. To borrow an expression from our Sages: “A person in fetters cannot set himself free.” Since every person’s thought processes are today shaped by the environment of exile, many find it difficult to see beyond that setting.
-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Seeing and Believing”
Commentary on Torah Portion Va’eira
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVI, p. 52ff; Vol. XXXI, p. 25ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, 5743;
and Sichos Chof-Vav Nissan, 5751
Have you ever wondered how Aaron, the brother of Moses, was able to escape the land of Egypt in order to join his brother in Midian (Exodus 4:14)? After all, Aaron was a slave. Certainly there were people watching him while he toiled under his harsh labors. Certainly there were guards at the border of Egypt to make sure slaves didn’t just wander out. Moses had a very difficult time escaping and was almost killed in the process. How did Aaron leave with such apparent ease?
I don’t know if the slavery of Israel in Egypt is the way Rabbi Touger explains. After all, we see in this week’s Torah Portion that Moses and Aaron tried time and again to get Pharaoh, king of Egypt to release Israel, and time and again, Pharaoh refused, even after temporarily agreeing in order to end each plague. If Israel had basically enslaved themselves through their own limited spiritual awareness, why couldn’t they free themselves by just getting up and walking out? It would have been pretty difficult for even the entire army of Egypt to stop two or three million people if they decided to do something in a united fashion.
OK, Rabbi Touger’s analysis is more midrash and metaphor than historical fact, but it does teach us something about the nature of exile, slavery, and human nature. Often, we can be “enslaved” to something that is extremely unpleasant and even damaging and we beg God to release us from our captivity. Yet all the while, it is within our power to release ourselves. All we have to do is become aware of our freedom of spirit, take off our chains, stand up, and walk out of the “land of Egypt.”
But is it that easy? Rabbi Touger doesn’t seem to think so.
And yet, although man may not be able to free himself, G-d refuses to allow exile to continue indefinitely. The first step of redemption is a direct revelation of G-dliness. Since the fundamental characteristic of exile is the concealment of G-d’s presence, the nullification of exile involves a clearer revelation of G-dliness. This will shake people out of their self-absorption and open them to spiritual awareness.
This is the message of “Parshas Va’eira”. “Va’eira” means “And I revealed Myself.” The root of Va’eira is the word “re’iyah”, meaning “sight.” Va’eira refers to something that can be seen directly. This theme is continued throughout the Torah reading, which describes seven of the ten plagues open miracles which had a twofold purpose, as the Torah states: “I will display My power,… I will bring forth My hosts from Egypt…. And Egypt will know that I am G-d.”
So, it’s not that easy but we do have a roadmap in the realization of a revealed God. We can’t free ourselves from our own exile in “the land of sin,” but fortunately, God is not willing to allow us to suffer indefinitely. He will intervene on our behalf, sometimes even when we don’t want Him to. We may want to stay in our sin, in our specific problems, in our booze, in our drugs, in our depression, in our anger and frustration, maybe because we’ve lost hope. It’s at those times when God will come in and shake up our “status quo” and we might not feel too comfortable about it. While the plagues were aimed at Pharaoh and the Egyptians, what were the Israelites feeling? While they didn’t suffer the consequences of the plagues, were they worried about what would happen to them next? We see in future parts of the Torah how the Israelites, when encountering challenges along the road to Israel, rebelled against God and even longed to return to Egypt, as if slavery were better than freedom.
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. –Numbers 11:4-5
Was the food given to slaves really so superior to what they got from God, or were they really having a difficult time separating themselves from a lifetime of servitude and the “comfort” of having Egyptian masters? It’s hard to imagine, but sometimes people who have been in prison for many years, once released, will commit a crime, just to go back to the relative “security” of the penal system. A person who has turned to God and found freedom from sin and degradation may abandon a life of holiness and return to their former world, even though they know they’ll suffer pain, hardship, and even potentially death. It’s hard to give up what we are familiar with, even when what we have become accustomed to hurts and degrades us.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt isn’t just a story of a population of slaves being redeemed in order to serve God and inherit the Land of Promise. It’s the story of personal and corporate redemption from slavery to sin and exile of the spirit in a place not inhabited by God. God can do all of the “heavy lifting”, defeat the plans of our “slave masters” (who are often ourselves), and open the door to freedom, but we must be willing to remove our chains, stand up, and walk out of prison and into freedom. Then, we must be willing to tolerate the “insecurity” of being free and have the courage to explore a life that is new with the presence of God. Our enemy in this endeavor doesn’t have to be some external, supernatural force. Most of the time, it’s the person we see whenever we look in the mirror.
The potential spiritual growth of a man about to be married who wants to be uplifted is certainly significant. When he marries, all of his sins are forgiven. The Chasam Sofer, zt”l, writes that a groom is compared to the tzaddik of the generation throughout the entire week of sheva berachos. Who can tell to what heights he can reach if he puts in the spiritual work necessary during these special days?
The Lev Simcha, zt”l, gives us an idea of what the spiritual potential of a chosson is like. “Our sages say that a groom is compared to a king. In Sukkah 52 our sages say that the tzaddikim see their yetzer hara as a mountain. And in Arachin 6 we find that a king has the power to uproot mountains. If a chosson workshard enough on this, he can literally uproot his yetzer hara!”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” –Matthew 17:20
God gives us the power to move mountains. These may not be the snow-capped mountains we see in winter, that we ski upon, or that possess trails into the pine covered wilderness. These may be the mountains of the evil we have nurtured within us and that weigh us down, preventing our spirit from taking flight as does the eagle.
You may still feel as if you’re in jail, trapped behind a locked cell door. But stand up and look around. You’ve been Sitting on the Keys.