Israel’s Self-Emancipation

Va'era By :  Daniel Nevins Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Jan 16, 2010 / Israel's Self-Emancipation | Torah Commentary

There is a lot of action in Parashat Va-era, but not much of it directly involves the people of Israel. Their role is primarily to witness the increasingly violent confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. Given last week’s negative response of the Israelite elders to Moses and Aaron, this passivity is quite understandable. His early experience with Israel has demoralized Moses, for he objects to God’s renewed command this week with bitter words: “In fact, even the Israelites haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh ever heed me, and I have impeded speech!” (6:12).

Still, it augurs poorly for a people on its way to freedom to be consigned to such a passive role in their redemption. In the coming weeks Israelites will be given steadily more challenging opportunities to participate in their own march to freedom. For now, though, they seem to lack any sense of agency.

Once we are attuned to this dilemma, our eyes can discern a very subtle clause that opens the door toward Israelite involvement. Just after Moses complains about being ignored by his own people and is left stammering at their insolence, God tells Moses and Aaron to command the Israelites and Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take Israel out of the land of Egypt (6:13). There is something odd about the first object of this verse—Moses and Aaron must command the Israelites to take themselves out of Egypt? What do they have to do with their own enslavement? What power do they have to change their status? The Torah gives no hint of the content of this message.

Where the Torah is terse the rabbis are often quick to fill in the gaps, and this case is no exception. Allow me to present three different approaches and invite you to consider their implications for Israel’s role in the process of emancipation:

1. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5), Rav Shmuel, son of Rav Yizhak, says that Moses took this delicate moment to teach the Israelites the Torah’s (later) commandment to emancipate their own slaves after seven years. On its face, this statement sounds preposterous—slaves are being warned not to hold slaves? Yet this reading is buttressed by Rabbi Hila, since many centuries later, in the days of the prophet Jeremiah and King Zidkiyahu, the people of Israel would be punished for refusing to release Israelite slaves whom they had already held beyond the seven-year limit (see chapter 34 of Jeremiah). Jeremiah claims that the entire point of the covenant God made with Israel at the time of the Exodus was to release their slaves.

This first interpretation teaches us that victims often fail to internalize the moral lesson of their own victimization. They may come to think that the only injustice is that they have been enslaved, not that slavery itself is inherently wrong. Granted, the rabbis applied this moral principle only to the holding of Israelite slaves; it would take nearly two millennia before the practice of enslaving other peoples would be understood to be morally abhorrent. Still, the horror of slavery is central to the Torah and its rabbinic interpretation. Moses instructs the Israelites and Pharaoh about the commandment to free slaves. For Pharaoh the lesson is immediate, but for Israel it is no less essential. The Exodus narrative is important not only for its original circumstances but also for its paradigmatic nature—it is the covenant of freedom, and Israel must rehearse the story in order to remain true to its eternal message—that holding others captive is wrong.

2. A second explanation of God’s cryptic instruction to command Israel and Pharaoh about the Exodus is found in the early Midrash to Exodus called the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Pisha, Bo, Vehaya Lakhem). Just before our verse we read that Moses spoke to the Israelites about their redemption, but they couldn’t hear him because of their “shortness of breath and the heavy labor.” Rabbi Yehudah ben Bateira finds this apathy to be alarming. Even the most downtrodden person is pleased to get good news. How could they have ignored the good tidings of freedom? Rather, he claims that the Israelites were unwilling to listen to Moses since the price of their freedom was to abandon their Egyptian idols.

Perhaps this is the kotzer ruah (constricted spirit) that would not allow them to follow God to freedom. According to this interpretation, God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct Israel to separate themselves from idolatry. God can change their external circumstances, but Israel must make the internal transformation to the monotheistic faith. As Rabbi Haninah says in the Talmud, “All is in the hands of heaven except for reverence for heaven!” (Brakhot 33b, Megillah 25a, Niddah 16b). The hardest part of the Exodus is the internal change required of Israel. Only when Israel will agree to stop worshipping Egyptian gods (including Pharaoh himself) will they truly be free of Egypt.

3. A third interpretation of our cryptic verse is the one that is most surprising to me. In a later collection of Midrash called Tanchuma, Rabbi Ishmael reads the verse a bit differently: “The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron and commanded them to teach the Israelites [about how to behave towards] Pharaoh . . . .” Rabbi Ishmael claims that God demanded that the Israelites treat Pharaoh with respect, despite all of their legitimate grievances against him. Likewise the Talmudic Rabbi Judah the Prince referred to himself in letters to his friend, the Roman ruler Antoninus, as “your servant Judah,” and so too did Jacob address his brutish brother Esau as “your servant Jacob.”

This interpretation emphasizes the importance of respecting authority even in the heat of confrontation. Humiliating an opponent reflects poorly on a person; treating even an oppressor with basic respect demonstrates one’s own dignity and strength. The more I think about Rabbi Ishmael’s interpretation, the more I appreciate it. The hardest aspect of emancipation may be the construction of a new social self. How can former slaves transition from the servile demeanor of an oppressed people into the confident conduct of the free? Many steps are required, but dignified speech is a fine beginning.

The rabbis have even more interpretations of this verse, but I find these three to be most compelling. They respond to a perceived deficiency in the narrative, the alarming passivity of the Israelites as Moses confronts Pharaoh on their behalf. The Torah gives just a little opening, and the Rabbis push through an entire agenda of auto-emancipation (to use an anachronistic term from early Zionism). By their readings, the Exodus places demands on Israel, and not only on Pharaoh.

Which reading do you find most compelling within the Exodus narrative? Is Israel commanded to accept an Exodus-based covenant founded on the prohibition of slavery for all? Is their challenge rather to free themselves spiritually by abandoning Egyptian gods forever? Or is this the moment when they are taught how a free people behaves-with confidence and dignity, and with respect for even their oppressor?

Which of these messages is most resonant today? As we consider the substantial challenges of our own lives, how can we exercise agency? What internal changes must we complete before we can be truly free? Considering our opponents, how can we exhibit true independence and dignity even in the face of provocation? These questions are part of our spiritual inheritance. Freedom begins with an internal change, and is then expressed through behaviors of increasing boldness. May we experience this internal awakening on Shabbat Va-era, and begin to act on behalf of physical, spiritual, and social freedom for all in the days that follow.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.