THOUGHT FOR PARSHAT VAERA 5780
BY RABBI CHAIM FACHLER
Our sages instruct us, once a year on the Seder night, to attempt to relive the experience of our ancestors who suffered the bondage of Egypt and the eventual Exodus, as vividly described in this week’s, last week’s and the next couple of week’s Parshiyot. But personally, I don’t think that can actually be achieved.
Over the last couple of days, dozens of world leaders have been here in Israel commemorating 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Those of us who were spared the horrors of the Holocaust can never really fully understand what it must have been like for those who lived through those dreadful times. Even people like my late father, who at the age of 15 was mercifully saved by coming to England on the Kindertransport, suffered his entire life because he like so many others never saw his parents ever again. As for those who miraculously survived the actual death camps and death walks, their lives were forever affected in a way beyond description. I dare say, that only Holocaust survivors can truly and accurately fulfil the instruction to relive the Haggada narrative - if it isn’t or wasn’t too painful remembering their own suffering.
These are the thoughts that come to mind when studying this week’s Parsha, especially when trying to picture the scene where Moshe attempts to convince the slave nation of Hebrews that salvation is nigh. The Torah states “And the Children of Israel did not heed Moshe, because of shortness of breath and hard work.”
We need to remember the context of this occasion. In last week’s Parsha, after Moshe begrudgingly accepts the role of “saviour,” he indeed comes to his people, and initially they believe in him and in his brother Aharon. It’s only after the failed audience with Pharaoh, which resulted in a sudden intensity of the already hard labour, that – quite understandably – the people were much less inclined to believe the promises of these so-called emissaries of HaShem.
Let’s see how some of the commentators address this specific issue.
Judith’s illustrious grandfather, Rabbi Eliya Lapian, suggests that their problem was a lack of perspective. He writes: “It is possible to be so entrenched in a situation that one cannot imagine anything different. Bnei Yisrael wanted their freedom. But this desire was tainted by an inability to truly envision the reality of their freedom. They believed Moshe’s words and miracles, but then they got home and thought about it. It just didn’t seem possible. So, after the straw set-back, when Moshe tells it to them again, they are sceptical.”
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is less generous towards the Jews. He claims that their problem was impatience. The Jews may have desired to be free, but could not wait for a process to unfold. They wanted immediate gratification. Impatience breeds fear, stress and discouragement. When results do not come as quickly as we would like, we give up. This is the “Shortness of breath” (Kotzer Ruach) that the Children of Israel suffered from in Egypt. It all sounded great when Moshe first described it, but it didn’t happen quickly enough. Pharaoh struck back. When Moshe describes it again, it is a four-stage process. That’s three too many, and the Jews are too impatient to listen.”
The Netziv’s approach is more pragmatic. He explains that the enslaved people simply couldn’t stop their work and waste time they didn’t have in order to listen to Moshe. According to the Netziv, the people made a very straightforward and understandable decision. They could either listen again to Moshe, or continue working. In their mindset, work took priority, if only to avoid even more hardship and certain beatings if they were caught idling.
This sounds very much like the recordings of so many Holocaust survivors when they described their experiences.
As we read the Parsha, we should be more able to attempt to envisage the more recent sufferings of our people at the hands of the Nazis and their many eager collaborators, and thus appreciate even more the extent of the miracles that allowed our parents to escape or survived these atrocities, and give birth to us and all future generations.