Shemot: In Search of Speech

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Score a Goal in Soccer
27 Dec 2007

In soccer, the ultimate indignity is scoring a goal – for the other team. In a roughly equivalent parallel and a somewhat more significant circumstance, a paranoid Pharaoh ends up serving as the protector and adopted grandfather for Moshe Rabbeinu, the redeemer of Israel; the man who is singularly responsible for Pharaoh’s and Mitzrayim’s downfall. So why takeh, does God do that? One can posit that Divine sarcasm is precisely the point. Perhaps the Master of the Universe is teaching us that we are k’chomer b’yad hayotzer, silly putty in the Divine kiln and we better get with the program. Ibn Ezra (Shemot, 2:5) and the Zohar (Va’eira 25b) find yet a deeper notion in this incredible irony.

We know precious little about Moshe Rabbeinu. In scene one, we are told of the incredible circumstances of his birth and the courage of Princess Bityah. Scene two transports us to Moshe the Gadol, who through three vignettes of strife (an Egyptian beating a Jew, Jew fighting Jew, Midianite men intimidating Yisro’s daughter) reveals his stellar character by displaying his compassion and hatred for injustice. In the third and final scene, Moshe is at the s’neh, the burning bush, and Hashem negotiates with Moshe to be the redeemer of the Jewish people. Why Moshe is chosen is essentially left to the midrashim and our commentators.

Tucked away between the last two scenes is a curious set of verses (cf Shemos 2:23-25). The king of Egypt dies, The Jews cry out to Hashem because of their labor. And Hashem listens to their cries and knowingly remembers the covenant He made with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. To the quick surveyor, these verses seem wholly unremarkable. Jews pray and Hashem answers. We’ve seen that before – but much needs to be studied here.

Consider that by this point, the Jews have been in Mitzrayim for a minimum of 170 years (but more likely over 200). All of a sudden they cry from their back breaking labor!? It seems so strange. Was there a particular brick that sparked their epiphany, one which propelled their prayers? After so many years, why do we now find the appearance of the Jewish voice? This problem is alluded to by Rashi and others – but listen to the puzzling words of the Zohar.

When Moshe came to the Jewish people the voice returned.כי אתא משה אתא קול …

Somehow it is Moshe davka, the enigmatic interloper from the royal palace who pries open the Jewish mouth. How so? Rav Soloveichik (“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” – Tradition, 1978) explains:

The slave lives in silence, if such a meaningless existence may be called life. … What is responsible for the dumbness of the slave? The lack of a basic experience, namely that of suffering or distress, which is perhaps the most central aspect of the human I-awareness. Suffering is not pain. Though colloquially the two words are used as synonyms, they signify two different experiences. Pain is a natural sensation, a physiological reaction of the organism … a built-in mechanical signal that warns man whenever his physical existence is menaced from within; Pain … is not restricted to humans: the beast is also exposed to and acquainted with pain. Suffering or distress, in contradistinction to pain, is not a sensation but an experience, a spiritual reality known only to humans (the animal does not suffer). This spiritual reality is encountered by man whenever he stands to lose either his sense of existential security (as in the case of an incurable disease) or his existential dignity (as in the case of public humiliation). Whenever a merciless reality clashes with the human existential awareness, man suffers and finds himself in distress.

The animal is exposed to pain; so is the slave. When the slave meets with pain he reacts like the animal, uttering a sharp, shrill sound. However, the howl of the beast, like the shriek of the slave, lasts a moment in the darkness and hush of the night. In a split second all is silent again. There is no aftermath to the pain-sensation of the animal or the slave; there follows no complaint, no request, no protest, no question of why and what. The slave does not know suffering, lacking, as he does, the very existential need-awareness which generates suffering. He is never in distress because he has no human needs. The needs of a slave are, like his shriek, not human: the etiology of his needs is exclusively biological. The, absence of suffering mitigates the sharpness of pain. Former inmates of concentration camps have told me that they had, with the passage of time, become inured to any pain or torture, as if they had been totally anesthetized. They were dumb beings. They not only stopped speaking, but ceased to emit coherent sounds, as well.

And so it was with Bnei Yisrael. After experiencing indignity upon indignity, the Jews lost their voice, becoming numb to their plight. Their internalization of the Mitzrayim experience was such that they had almost completely lost their identity.

Before Moses came there was not even a single sound. No complaint was lodged, no sigh, no cry uttered. Only an agonizing un-human shriek would penetrate the weird silence of the night. The slaves were gloomy, voiceless and mute. … Torture was taken for granted. They thought this was the way it had to be. The pain did not precipitate suffering.

Along came Moshe Rabbeinu, who went out to his brothers (cf. 2:11) and saw their suffering. He knows that this is not the way it should be. At great personal risk, he stands up and responds. The average Jew began to ponder – who is this Moshe? They realized he’s fun unzerer – he’s one of ours. He’s the way we should be.

Moses, by defending the helpless Jew, restored sensitivity to the dull slaves. Suddenly they realized that all that pain, anguish, humiliation and cruelty, all the greed and intolerance of man vis-à-vis his fellow man is evil. This realization brought in its wake not only sharp pain but a sense of suffering as well.

The Jew began to reflect: What has happened to us? How far from being the spiritual heirs of Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov have we strayed! Why have we been silent all these years? This reflection yields a sense of existential awareness and finally a cry to the God of their patriarchs – who of course “remembers”. Now that Mitzrayim has left the Jew, the Jew can begin to leave Mitzrayim.

As we inch our way into the 21st century, are we still in Mitzrayim?

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.