Vaera 5779


Liberation’s Moral Demand – Vaera

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we go into the depths of the process of the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt for many years, lacking basic rights, considered the bottom rung of society. When Moses appeared before Pharaoh, the process started heading toward the yearned-for goal of leaving Egypt.

During one of the stages of negotiations that Moses held with Pharaoh, we read the following verse:

So the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them concerning the children of Israel and concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.
(Exodus 6, 13)

The linguistic acrobatics in this verse cannot be ignored. The simple meaning is that G-d commanded Moses and Aaron to go to the children of Israel and to Pharaoh so that they should all – Pharaoh and the children of Israel – take the children of Israel out of Egypt. This is, of course, an impossible explanation of this verse. Indeed, commentators tended to explain it in different ways with the mission to the children of Israel being separate from the mission to Pharaoh.

The Jerusalem Talmud explained this verse in a surprising manner:

“And he commanded them concerning the children of Israel – What did he command them? Concerning setting slaves free.”
(Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana, chapter 3)

The Talmud is saying: The commandment given to the children of Israel was no different from that given to Pharaoh. Moses approached Pharaoh with the directive to set the children of Israel free and liberate them from slavery; and Moses approached the children of Israel as well with a similar directive – that in future, they should set their slaves free at the time determined in the Torah – the “yovel” (50th) year.

Why was it important to command the children of Israel to set their slaves free already now, even before they themselves were liberated from slavery? The answer to this is clear: For a person to have compassion for another, he must be in a similar situation and experience the distress himself. Only then can a person fully empathize with what someone else is going through and act accordingly.
The Jewish nation had not yet left Egypt. Actually, they were still suffering under the strain of ancient Egyptian rule. But already now, G-d makes sure to mark the direction that the nation’s long and winding path with take. Thoughts of independence and freedom, of deep national pride – they must not be disconnected from the moral vision set by the Torah’s commandments.

The Exodus from Egypt, which we will read about later in this book, was not meant only to liberate the miserable nation. It was meant for a loftier purpose – to establish an independent nation that will serve as a moral/spiritual beacon for all of humanity. This goal could not be achieved in a day or two. This had to be a long route that has still not ended. The Jewish nation, whether it is in its own land as a sovereign state or dispersed in the diaspora living under foreign rule, must be a nation with a message for humanity, a message of redemption.

It was important to start inculcating this message even before the nation itself began its own liberation process. When the children of Israel were still slaves in Egypt, they had to know that in the future, they could not totally enslave their brothers. They could not do what the Egyptians did to them.

A story is told of Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisel, the rabbi of the city of Lodz in Poland in the 19th century, that during the cold winter months, he would make the rounds among the rich residents of the city to collect donations from them to heat the homes for the city’s poor. It was his custom not to enter the homes, but to stand at the entrance of the house to talk to the homeowners about their poorer brothers who had no wood with which to heat their homes. When asked why he did this, he answered: “The satiated finds it hard to comprehend the suffering of the hungry. For the rich to feel the cold that the poor suffer, I have to get them out to the entrance of their homes so that they feel the stinging cold and open their hearts to assist their poor brothers.”

Thus, we can say, the children of Israel were commanded to set slaves free even before they themselves were liberated from slavery, so that they would internalize the slave’s suffering from their own experience.

This moral vision that the nation was obligated to actualize is still our responsibility to implement. Our national memory of being enslaved in Egypt accompanies the Jewish people to this day. It is a demanding memory, one that carries with it a moral obligation: Let my people go!

All Torah weekly sections