Va’era – Turning the Page
Last week we read of Moses’ return to Egypt from Midian. He gathered the elders of the people and told them of his G-d given mission. This was conveyed to the people, about whom the verse states (Exodus 4:31) “And the people believed; and they heard that G-d had considered the children of Israel and has seen their oppression…”
This week we read a very different story.The beginning of the reading is the narrative of a communication from G-d to Moses, telling Moses of all that G-d will do to redeem the people and liberate them from the servitude. It is a lengthy monologue, and much of the ritual for the Passover Seder is attributed to this passage. At the conclusion of this monologue the Torah states that Moses relayed this to the people. “…And they did not listen to Moses, from shortness of spirit and hard labor.” (Exodus 6:9) The faith of the people had shattered, evidently. The euphoria experienced by the children of Israel upon Moses’ return had shriveled in the face of the bitter slavery the people continued to endure. The great hopes entertained for a moment were dashed upon the jagged rocks of harsh reality. Moses had come bearing tidings of liberation and freedom, but the result was a tightening of the noose and additional workloads. The children of Israel were disillusioned, disappointed in Moses and devastated by their return to the same routine of labor.
It is surprising that the people went from one extreme to the other – from complete belief to utter dismissal – in such a short time. The Or HaChaim briefly provides an explanation in his second interpretation of this phrase. Disillusionment. The people were in distress, and they had been in such a state for many years without a thread of hope. The coming of Moses with his message of hope, which included terminology which jogged the people’s memory of their ancestor’s promises was just what they had been waiting for. The time had finally come for their redemption. But when it didn’t materialize, when it turned out to be fool’s gold and they returned to their servitude and hard labor they resented having been given a false hope. It made it much harder to continue that which they had become accustomed to earlier. They were no longer numb to the numbing routine. It is like when your ears pop during a flight and you suddenly become aware of how loud the engines are (I seem to always be seated near an engine during a flight). Until then it didn’t bother you because your ears had shut out the sound, but once your ears regain their clarity of hearing the noise is overpowering.
But how did they become numb in the first place? How does one grow accustomed to whippings and crushing labor? Clearly we have a defense mechanism which dulls our sense of even the most sever pain when it becomes chronic. The body’s ability to adapt to any circumstance is incredible and bewildering. The fight had gone out of them long ago. This ‘shortness of spirit’ was their state of being earlier, but they didn’t register the degree of their suffering since the slavery had come upon them gradually.
While this resignation to their plight allowed them to bear their reality, it also prevented them from trying to change it. It caused stagnation, and stagnation is the greatest enemy of progress.
I read a story told by Rabbi Mordechai Rhine about the Chafetz Chaim. We all heard about the Chafetz Chaim, one of the greatest scholars and symbols of piety of the previous century. He wrote numerous famous works, including a complete elucidation of one of the volumes of the Shulchan Aruch which has been adopted by European Jewry as authoritative. One’s impression is that he was always the Chafetz Chaim, but he was actually orphaned as a child. He had studied with his father in the earlier years of his childhood, covering some 40 pages of Talmud. After his father’s passing he reviewed those 40 pages over and over. Eventually, however, he turned the page and began to study new material, using the skills he had developed through the first 40 pages. That turning of the page, that advancement to independent study of uncharted lines of Talmud was the sowing of the seed which blossomed into the Chafetz Chaim. He broke free of the shackles of stagnation when he turned that page. It was this same stagnation that imprisoned the children of Israel and robbed them of initiative and it is this same stagnation that catches us time and again when we plateau in life. We all need to learn to turn the page.