Friday, January 11, 2013

Parshiyot Shmot and Va'yera: Lessons in Determination

Parshat Shmot begins with the listing of the "70 souls" coming down to Egypt. It briefly mentions Joseph's passing, and continues to tell us about how the new Pharaoh, who "didn't know Joseph," and perhaps didn't care much to remember him (Rashi), was afraid that the Jewish people would join Egypt's enemies in case of an all-out war with her enemies.

We're told about Pharaoh's decree to kill Jewish baby boys with the hope that the girls would intermarry and assimilate into Egyptian society. We witness the selfless behavior of Shifra and Pua, the two righteous birth-maidens.

We witness the bitter reality the Jewish people are faced with: they're living in exile, far from their homeland, far from their "natural" habitat where they have the capacity to thrive on a national level. They're oppressed and forced to perform back-breaking manual labor of building the Egyptian cities Pitom and Ra'amses. With time, they sink lower and lower, but never do they hit "rock bottom." They always remain G-d's chosen people thanks to the covenant between Hashem and Avraham.

Next, there's the story of Moshe, his three-month weaning at the hands of  his mother, Yocheved, his miraculous delivery from the hands of death, his childhood years in Pharaoh's household, and how he eventually goes out into "the world" to "see his brothers' oppression."

Moshe acts on pure instinct when he kills the Egyptian--or does he? Is there something talking to him; telling him to act the way he does? Is there some divine message that's part of who he is? A message, perhaps, ingrained in his very being telling him to fight oppression, to stand up for justice, to lead his people? Is this the same force that allows him to believe in Hashem's divine plan; allows him devote his entire life to the cause of liberating the Jews and leading them to Cana'an?

When the day after killing the Egyptian and burying him in the sand, Moshe encounters the wicked Jew beating up his fellow slave, and intercedes on behalf of the (supposedly) innocent Jew, he's asked if now too, he will end up killing the wicked man just "like (he) killed the Egyptian," and "he realizes (the thing)" in other words (according to Rashi) he realizes that the Jewish people aren't yet ready to leave Egypt; that they've been oppressed so much that the oppression itself has become ingrained in their personalities. It's become second-nature to them.

This is the slave mentality that, I believe, is still prevalent amongst Blacks in America. They simply cannot escape this syndrome. It's part of who they are. This is the reason for the Black Panthers, it was the entire philosophical basis for Malcolm X's teachings, and it's the reason for self-hating blacks like Farakhan and Jesse Jackson who cannot escape their past and are embittered by the unbending reality to preach hatred to their brainwashed brethren.

But there are also those amongst the black community today who want to change things; who want to cooperate with whites and work together to create a better future for their kids. Perhaps President Obama is one of these people. I'd like to believe he is.

What I'd like to focus on in Parshat Va'yera is Moshe's perseverance in the face of a hostile Egyptian society that would like nothing less than for him to let them continue oppressing the Jews. I realize a lot has been made of Pharaoh's stubbornness. After all, he's given one chance after another to let the Jews leave Egypt, each time reneging on his promise. But Moshe is even more stubborn. Yes, G-d leads him and shows him what he's supposed to do, and how's he's to do it, but at the end of the day, it's human will that rules the day, as has always been and always will be the case.

Moshe is a tremendously stubborn human being. He personifies this quality as a leader as well. It's actually quite funny that on one of the occasions that the Jewish people demand that he leads them back to Egypt where they can have some good, ol' ribs and pork chops, Moshe calls them an "am k'shei oref," a stiff-necked people. Moshe, himself, has the overwhelming attribute of "bending but not breaking;" of being strong enough to overcome all obstacles he encounters.

This quality is also evident in Hashem (we're told to emulate the ways of G-d and this is one of His qualities). This is made evident when Moshe resists His command to lead the Jews out of Egypt at the outset of Va'yera. Hashem continues prodding Moshe. He ends up proving His point by turning Moshe's staff into a snake. Moshe, for his part, has enough faith and courage to grasp the tail of the snake (symbolizing Egypt...H/T Yishai Fleisher)

On a national level, we Jews, personify the concept of self-determination. It's in our blood and it's what brought us back to Israel after almost 2,000 years in the diaspora. It's what our founding fathers: Herzl and Zhabotinsky preached to a generation of Jews with a slave mentality who were stuck in their old European traditions; unwilling to look beyond the walls of their shtetl. And no wonder: we're the direct descendants of Moshe Rabbenu, the "modest" of all men, but also a national leader unwilling to have his spirit broken.

In the spirit of our return to our homeland, and the in-gathering of exiles that we've witnessed with our very eyes, I wish all my brothers and sisters a שבת שלום ומבורך

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