Torah for the Times

Friday,January 4- 22 Tevet , 5773

Torah Reading: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 -6:1)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:23 PM

Shabbat ends: 5:28 PM

Who Knows Four?



The “Head” Verse

The book of Exodus introduces us to the saga of Egyptian bondage and the Exodus through which we became a nation. And, although the book begins with the bondage, the book in its entirety is referred to as “the Book of Liberation” (or “Exodus”). This indicates that even the part that deals with bondage contains the seeds for the liberation. And it stands to reason that this theme of liberation is especially alluded to in the opening verse. The beginning of a book is much like the head/brain of a body that contains the life force of the entire body. Accordingly, the “head” or opening verses of Exodus should contain the information that will shed light on on the Exodus.

And since the Exodus from Egypt is seen by our Sages as the paradigm for the future Redemption, the opening verse can therefore be seen as the key to understanding what we must do now to activate the process of liberation.

The first verse reads: “And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man came with his household.” What message does this verse contain that is the key to understanding the process of Redemption? At first glance this verse is rather prosaic; serving only as an introduction to the names of Jacob’s sons discussed in the following verses.

The Four Virtues

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) states that there were four factors that were responsible for the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt: a) They did not change their names; b)They did not change their language; c) They did not slander one another; d) They were moral in their behavior.

These virtues empowered them to withstand the pressures of exile and to ultimately be the key to their liberation. And if we carefully scrutinize this introductory verse we can find hints to all four of these virtues.

The word Shemos-names, which is the name of this week’s parsha and of the entire book of Exodus, stresses the fact that the children of Israel maintained their names. As the Midrash states: “They entered Egypt with these names and they left Egypt with these names.”

The fact that they are referred to here as B’nei Yisroel, the children of Israel, and not Bnei Yaakov, the children of Jacob, alludes to their national identity. They were not just a family but a nation. What was it that made them a nation? It was their common language.

In truth, their description as “the children of Israel” actually suggests two unifying features:
First, as was stated, they spoke the same language. We have already learned in the Tower of Babel narrative that the division of humanity into disparate nations occurred when they could no longer speak the same language. The fact that the children of Jacob are designated here as belonging to one nation— “the children of Israel”—suggests that they were one nation with one language.

Second, they are referred to here as the sons of Israel and not sons of Jacob. The name Jacob is associated with subterfuge, a necessary albeit unsavory tool which sometimes needs to be used. Thus we find that Jacob had to resort to guile to receive the blessings form his father, although he was entitled to them by virtue of his purchase of the birthright from Esau. Israel, by contrast, implies directness and nobility; being a master of one’s life.

The foregoing difference between Jacob and Israel can also be applied to language. To refer to the children of Jacob as “the children of Israel” exemplifies the nobility of language of the Jewish people even in Egyptian exile. There was no slander and divisive language.

And finally, when the Torah states in the opening verse that “each man came with his household” the implication is that the integrity of the family was intact. They did not degenerate into the corrupt mores of the Egyptian people who were steeped in immorality.

Identity, Perspective, Essential Unity, Mastery

To better understand these four virtues and how they relate to Redemption we ought to reflect on their underlying character.

The virtue of not changing their names suggests that their identities were intact. The worst part of slavery is arguably the loss of identity. A slave is just chattel; the property of his master no different from his house or his animal. Even the most benign form of slavery is still slavery, wherein the slave has no identity.

However, even when someone strips us of our legal identity and denies us the ability to be who we are, it is crucial that we do not accept that for ourselves. Frequently, people who lose their identity internalize that loss and embrace the identity of their captors. This is known as the “Stockholm Syndrome” where the hostage accepts his role as an extension of his captor and ceases to consider himself an independent human being.

The fact that the Jewish people did not change their names was their way of not accepting the status that was imposed on them. They were never truly slaves and therefore they were capable of being liberated.

However, one can be free in terms of his or her essential identity, but still embrace the nomenclature and thought process of slavery. It sometimes happens, unfortunately, that one of our fellow Jews can adopt the language of the culture in which he lives. And though that person might be proud of his Jewish heritage, he or she may still think in non-Jewish terms. Maimonides writes in a letter that one could use the Holy Tongue for vulgar and non-Jewish themes, whereas a secular language can be the vehicle for the conveyance of holy teachings. Not changing our language is more about not changing the way we think about matters. The Chassidic scholar, Rabbi Zalman Posner, authored a book entitled: “Speak English, but Think Jewish,” echoing Maimonides’ sentiment that the essential thing in language is the value system behind it.

To cite a few examples: A rabbi, some think of as the Jewish equivalent of the minister; the synagogue as the Jewish parallel of a non-Jewish house of worship; Chanukah as the Jewish version of the non-Jewish winter holiday etc. And nowhere is this distortion more evident than in the subject of Redemption and Moshiach, which some Jews conceive of in non-Jewish terms.

Thus, not changing their language means that they not only maintained their Jewish identity, but also their conception of Jewish ideas; their thought processes remained Jewish.

Inherent Unity

However, we could still be in exile if we are fragmented and in conflict with one another. Our unity denies our enemy the ability to crush and enslave us. We are more powerful united not only because our ideas and values are superior to our oppressors, but we also enjoy a quantitative edge over them. Our adversaries are never truly united, for each one is driven by his ego that conflicts with the other oppressor’s ego. Their unity is a contrived and temporary one. As soon as they reach their goal, they split into warring factions. Coalitions of evil do not represent true unity.

By contrast, when the Jewish people act with love and respect toward one another, exemplified by the absence of slander amongst them, it is a reflection of an inner harmony and unity that truly endows them with greater numbers because they are not disparate forces as their enemy is.

However, even when we are proud Jews, we speak Jewishly and we are united, we can still be in exile when the purity of our family life is compromised. When one becomes a slave to his or her passions or one’s morals are loosem that person can lose his status as an inherently free person. Not succumbing to the immoral influences around the Jews in Egyptian bondage demonstrated that they were inherently free people even as they were in exile. Moreover, when the family unit is strong it can withstand the pressures of exile

The Four Cups of Wine

It may be suggested that these four virtues—representing four manifestation of inner freedom that empowered them to ultimately be freed—correspond to the four cups of wine we drink at the Seder. These four cups, the Talmud tells us, correspond to the four expressions of Redemption that the Torah employs in next week’s parsha. It may be suggested that these four expressions relate to the four areas that must be cultivated for us to be redeemed: We must know who we are; speak and think in Jewish terms; recognize our inherent Jewish unity and gain mastery over our desires.

In contemporary terms, not changing our names means more than having and using our Jewish names. It also means that we should know that our most essential identity is that we are Jews. While we can alter virtually anything else that identifies us—such as our political views, our affiliations etc.—we cannot alter our essential identities that we are Jews.

This realization must be followed by recognizing that as Jews we have to think about everything in Jewish terms. To achieve this “brain transplant” we must study Torah, which has the capacity to condition us to think Jewishly and view everyaspect of our lives form a G‑dly perspective.

The third element that leads to Redemption is unity. Notwithstanding our legitimate differences, we are inherently one and connected to the Jew that is most distant from us, geographically, emotionally, intellectually and even religiously. We are truly one people! And as one people there is no force in the world that can prevent us from marching towards the final Redemption.

And the fourth and final aspect of Redemption is gaining control of our own animal soul. Moshiach is described as “riding on a donkey.” The Hebrew word for donkey also means “materialism.” The Maharal explains that Moshiach gains mastery over his material interest. This means that to cultivate the internal Moshiach—which is the catalyst to reveal the external Moshiach—is by exercising control over our inner “donkey.”


Moshiach Matters

As is well known, the concept of Redemption came into being with the Exodus from Egypt, and it was then too that a conduit was opened for the coming of the future Redemption. Since the same downward flow of Divine energy is aroused afresh every Passover as it was at the time of the Exodus, it is obvious that every Passover the radiance of Moshiach is aroused and afresh.(From Exile to Redemption)