What is that makes galut (exile) one of two central narratives in the Torah – the other being the story of breisheit (creation)? It is because galut – and the subsequent redemption – is the story of us, of you and me, in every moment of everyday. It is the story of Hashem’s promise for the Jewish people, something that we strive to realize in our own lives. Parshat Va’eira opens with Hashem’s declaration to Moshe that he is Our God and that he will bring us out of the Land of Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Moshe relates these words to Bnei Yisrael. The Torah writes that “they did not listen to Moshe, because of shortness of wind and hard work.”1 Rashi comments on this to say that “anyone who is under stress is short of wind and breath and he is unable to breath deeply.”2
Bnei Yisrael did not hear Moshe when he came to rescue them from their suffering because they were short of breath? This – along with Rashi’s commentary – discloses to us a deep understanding of the nature of galut. We breath deeply because it calms us, it returns us to the present, it helps give us perspective. The nature of our time in Mitzrayim (Egypt) was that we were subjected to such crushing labor that we had not even a chance to catch our breaths. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Pollonye references the Arizal when he says that the galut in Mitzrayim (Egyptian Exile) represented our da’at b’galut (da’at in exile).3 Da’at is our higher consciousness. It is our awareness. It is our ability to see ourselves within the larger picture, detached from the desires and complaints of our egos. Through da’at we become aware of the Oneness behind everything, of the tremendous love and truth behind the facade of physicality. We are all born whole, born “enough,” born with love. We often distance from this truth as we grow. This is why the act of t’shuva (repentance) literally means “return.” It is a return to what we know deeply to be true.
When we are in galut, we only see separation, division, us versus them. The Torah teaches us how to live in this world yet connect to the Oneness beyond the physicality. To be in galut is to forget that existence is about transcendence. Instead, today, we experience galut when we believe in a system that distances us from what we know deeply to be true. Our world today tells us that our wholeness is conditional – to be “enough” we must earn money, achieve power, acquire fame. To live in galut is to succumb to this voice of our ego and spend our entire lives chasing after what will give us momentary pleasure, the illusion of safety, and the appearance that we are above the other. It is our very essence that is exiled when we can’t breath deeply.
What is it that was so terrible about Pharaoh’s decree in Parshat Shemot that the Jews would no longer be provided with straw to make their bricks, yet still had to meet their brick quota?4 It wasn’t simply that the work became harder. Rather, this was psychological torture. With this decree, Pharaoh conveyed that their work was essentially meaningless. If obtaining bricks was the goal, Pharaoh simply would have raised the quota – thus fulfilling both objectives: manufacturing more bricks and inflicting more pain on the Jews. But rather, through this decree he reminded them: your work is meaningless; its entire purpose is to bring you suffering. There is no purpose to your pain. This too was the nature of the work in the death camps during the Holocaust. Galut is to have such little control over one’s own life that one’s slavemaster can inflict one with meaningless work simply because he/she can.
Rav Doniel Katz teaches that Mitzrayim comes from the Hebrew word tzar, meaning constricted, narrow.5 Tzar is the opposite of da’at. Yet the word mitzrayim is plural, for galut is not simply to lose one’s da’at. Rather, galut is to lose even the awareness that one has lost perspective. It is to be underwater and forget that there is even air above. Bikkhu, a Buddhist monk I studied with in Myanmar, once related a story about how one can walk all day in the hot sun and forget that shade even exists. Only when one encounters the cool shade of a tree does one remember there is a different way. One eventually returns to the path and the sun, but at least one now has the memory of shade and seeks it out. Mizrayim is walking in the sun without even realizing shade exists. That is galut. This is how our ancestors suffered.
Aptly, in this week’s parsha, Pharaoh calls his necromancers to prove to Moshe (and likely the Egyptians) that what Hashem can do he can do better. When Hashem brings frogs upon the Land of Egypt, the Torah writes that Pharaoh summons his sorcerers to do the same. “The necromancers did the same through their incantations and they brought up the frogs upon the land of Egypt.”5 Interestingly, these sorcerers did not remove the frogs from the land, but rather, seemingly brought more frogs, simply to prove they could. This did not solve the problem, it exacerbated it. Is that not the nature of a constricted mindset? We are more interested in being right, in proving our power and importance, than we are in solutions, than we are in happiness, in peace, and in removing the plagues from within our midst. That is the mindset of galut.
How does this happen? Rabbi Bernstein7 writes that the Chasm Sofer says that the Jews enter into slavery because “they multiplied profusely…and the land was filled with them.” The sages comment that “the land was filled with them” was not a positive statement. The sages say this indicates that the Jews arrived in places they should not have been.8 I understand this to say that the Jews lost their connection. They disconnected from their souls. They arrived in places that were not their own. They forgot their true selves and fell into the trap of molding themselves to the pattern of the land in which they lived. So begins slavery.
Hashem saw our suffering and promised us that He will deliver us to Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen teaches that Eretz Yisrael is Eretz (I will run) Yisrael (Straight to Hashem).9 Eretz Yisrael is rahava (expansive).10 Freedom from galut is a return to an expansive consciousness, to connection with Hashem, to life with perspective and meaning. It is to see ourselves beyond the confines of what others will think of us and what society tells us we’re supposed to value. It’s a return to ourselves, a dedication to what is truly important.
To be human is to struggle between these two perspectives: galut and da’at. We spend our lives in the world and are bombarded, especially today, by messages that we are not enough, not okay, not happy, unless we have x (insert: money, sex, fame, things, recognition, honor, etc). We are told that our worth is determined by how much we achieve, how much we acquire. We work ourselves to death in pursuit of these things until we cannot catch our breaths, until we forget that there is anything beyond our bank accounts and our Instagrams. To change, we must do two things. First, we must recognize that we are in galut and we must observe how that manifests itself in our lives. Then, we must practice calming the voices of our slave masters and identifying and returning to our own voice, to Truth. Then we must chase after our truth with as much energy and faith as we chased after money. Rav Steinsaltz writes quite appropriately, “so long as one accepts as a given the framework of the existing reality, he will never be able to recognize the possibility of redemption. The existence of exile and the possibility of attaining redemption are, thus, bound up with the fundamental question of how the individual views the reality of his life.”11
We read the Exodus story every year because we all struggle in our own personal exiles. We struggle to see beyond ourselves: to live with love and truth and perspective. We get caught up in all the traps of the world, of modern society, of our egos. We begin to believe that happiness and peace are just around the corner instead of realizing they are within us now. But Hashem does not forget about us. He tells Moshe: “I have remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, ‘I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their servitude.’”12 Hashem is there always to rescue us from galut. It does not happen in a day. It is the struggle of a lifetime, but there is no more worthy cause to fight. For while we are in galut nothing in this world can save us. We must transcend, transcend and remember that the pleasure of connecting to our souls is a much greater pleasure than how many likes we received. May we all merit this year to walk forward courageously out of Eretz Mizrayim.
I’ll end with this beautiful quote by Rav Kook:
“True freedom is when a person or nation is driven by an exalted spirit to stay true to the inner essence and divine image within. One then feels that one’s life is motivated by a greater purpose that is aligned to one’s true self. On the other hand, one who lives a life that does not relate to one’s inner character is filled with the spirit of slavery. One is then driven by that which is good and pleasing to whomever one views as authoritative.”13
A thank you to Rabbi Bernstein, Rabbi Doniel Katz, and Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen for their enlightening and meaningful lessons.
- Shemot 6:8
- Rashi: Shemot 6:8
- Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Pekudei
- Shemot 5:7
- The Elevation Project
- Shemot 8:3
- Journeys in Torah
- Midrash Shemos Rabbah
- Shemot 3:8
- Talks on the Parsha by Rav Adin Steinsaltz
- Shemot 6:6
- Orot Hare’iyah by Rav Kook, translated by Rabbi Schwartz in The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook