Torah Fax

Friday, December 28, 2007 - 19 Tevet, 5768

Torah Reading: Shemot  (Exodus 1:1 -6:1)
Candle Lighting: 4:17 PM
Shabbat ends: 5:22 PM

What Do You Think?

This week's parsha introduces us to the saga of slavery and persecution of the Children of Israel in the land of Egypt . Most of us are familiar with the general picture of how the Jews were mistreated as they were forced into building cities for Pharaoh, as depicted in the Torah. There are also many nuances of slavery and oppression that were transmitted orally for many centuries as well as information that can be detected by reading between the lines that are not so familiar.
 
One such piece of information is taken from the Talmud that describes the bondage as a progressive experience. Pharaoh did not wake up one day and order the Hebrews enslaved. That would have not worked. Instead Pharaoh announced a project to rebuild Egypt that asked for patriotic volunteers to join together in building. Even Pharaoh himself participated. Besides the tribe of Levi, all the Israelites enthusiastically joined. Slowly, but surely, they were regimented into a work force.
 
When Pharaoh and the other Egyptian volunteers "dropped out" of the drive, the Israelites discovered how they were duped. They were no longer paid for their services and they had an entire apparatus of taskmasters over them who made sure they would continue to do their work.
 
It did not end there. As time progressed the oppression intensified as well.
 
This incremental approach to their slavery is reflected in the tradition of eating romaine lettuce as the preferred choice for bitter herbs at the Passover seder. Horseradish, the Talmud, says is actually the third choice for the fulfillment of the mitzvah of bitter herbs. (Many have the custom of eating both.)

But how does romaine lettuce qualify as a "bitter" herb?
 
The answer is that the root of the romaine lettuce plant, while sweet at first, becomes progressively more and more bitter the longer it is left in the ground. This is precisely how the Egyptian bondage began; at first there was Pharaoh's sweet talk but in the end, the Jews were subjected to the most depraved forms of oppression.
 
Some commentators detect another deceptive practice of the Egyptians intended to maximize the suffering of the Jews. In the Biblical text we find the following description of how they were taxed, which was actually the first thing they did to oppress the Jews:
 
"They appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and they built store cities for Pharaoh, namely Pitom and Raamses."
 
Now the Hebrew phrase for "afflict then with their burdens" can also be rendered: "afflict them with their tolerance (savlanut in Hebrew)." How does being tolerant qualify as a form of affliction?
 
The Torah anthology Likkutei BaTar Likkutei cites a commentator that explains that the Egyptians were tolerant in the way they collected their taxes. They did not pressure them to pay their taxes. The Israelites were thus in total shock when the Egyptians came to collect all the past taxes that accumulated over time.
 
In other words, their tolerance was actually an insidious device used to lull their victims into a state of complacency so as to maximize the pain in the end.
 
This form of torture is worse than just physical torture because the human being is not just a physical being. A human being is also in possession of a mind that is as much subject to abuse as the body. In fact, mental anguish is arguably as painful as physical pain. Moreover, physical pain will be reduced or enhanced based on one's mental attitude and health.
 
Indeed, the Talmud states that verbal abuse that causes mental anguish to another is more serious an offense in several respects than actually stealing from a person. "Whereas theft affects one's money, verbal abuse affects one's body. And whereas money is subject to remuneration, mental anguish is not."  
 
On a spiritual plane we can understand why mental anguish can be so devastating, in some instances even more than physical abuse and how it can significantly exacerbate physical pain.
 
A human being is a composite of a body and a soul. But the bridge between the two is the mind. Good health thus requires three things: A healthy body, a healthy soul and a healthy connection between the two. That link is one's mind. The brain is the physical organ that is most receptive to the spiritual dimension of the soul and it is the organ that channels all of the soul's energy to the rest of the body and its faculties.
 
Since the mind is the link between the soul and the body, whenever we tamper with the mind it can cause problems with the body, the soul and the connection between the two.
 
Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians used this form of torture against our ancestors as did many of our enemies throughout our history. In our age as well, as we await the ultimate arrival of Moshiach, while we enjoy untold freedoms, the assault against our minds is as pronounced as ever. And the abuse does not necessarily come from our external enemies; it can come from within.
 
To prevent us from getting out of exile, the yetzer hara – the negative impulse that G‑d implanted within all of us to counter the positive influence of the yetzer tov-the impulse for good – attacks the way we think. In the words of the prophet: "they consider darkness to be light and light to be darkness."
 
Exile conditioning has affected the way we think of ourselves, our relationships and Israel. Sometimes, we can even have our minds tainted with delusional thoughts that the "Egyptians," our enemies, have our best interests at heart, when really the opposite is true.

As Jews we must remember that exile conditions, no matter how good – nay, especially when they are good – should never lull us into accepting a life disconnected from Judaism.
 
The way to tackle the problem of our delusions is to learn how to think as Jews. To think as a Jew is to recognize that we were chosen to live in exile and inspire those around us - not to identify with it or assimilate into it. Our mission is to bring a higher form of awareness to the world around us; to be a "light unto the nations;" to spearhead the efforts to change the world, which many people identify as Tikkun Olam—repairing the world and making it more G‑dly.

 

Indeed, the words Tikkun Olam are said three times a day in the Aleinu prayer and reads in full “Letaken Olam Bemalchut Shakai - to repair the world to accept the sovereignty of G‑d."   Our mission is not simply to help the poor and downtrodden, but to give the world the wealth of our knowledge about G‑d and the role He plays in our lives. Our mission is to prepare ourselves and the world for the Messianic Age, by spreading goodness and kindness permeated with the recognition of the one G‑d.
 
How does one learn to think as a Jew? How do we ensure that our minds are receptive to our soul's influence rather than the influence of the outside world?
 
The answer is simple. When we study Torah, which is G‑d's wisdom, it shapes and molds the way we think; to think through the prism of "G‑d's eyes." Slowly but surely, our minds begin to discern what is light and what is darkness, and not to confuse the two. Torah study is not simply an intellectual challenge. It is the means through which our mind stays healthy, thereby preparing us for the imminent Redemption through Moshiach.       
 

Moshiach Matters      

The opening verses of Parshas Vayechi tell how Yaakov Avinu asked his son Yosef, "Please do not bury me in Egypt.... Carry me out of Egypt..., and swear unto me."
This teaches us that a Jew should unceasingly cry out to G‑d with the request, "Carry me out of Egypt!" It may indeed be said of him, Vayechi (lit., "He lived"), inasmuch as he studies Torah and observes the mitzvos — but exile is not his proper environment. For this reason he begs of G‑d, and even (so to speak) administers an oath to Him, "Carry me out of Egypt!" For he desires to leave this exile. 
Likkutei Sichos, Parshas Vayechi, 5747 [1987] 

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