Parashat Shemot: Silent tears

The Midrash says that when Adam was exiled from Eden, the Almighty granted him two gifts to ease his pain: the Sabbath and the tear.

The sacred Zohar presents a very strange etymology for the name of our Freedom Festival, Pessah (literally, the Pascal lamb): it is derived from the two smaller word elements pe-sah, "a mouth which speaks," and this is why telling the story is such an important part of how we celebrate the first night's Seder. What does a "speaking mouth" have to do with our freedom? Secondly, the Israelite response to the death of the Pharaoh who oppressed us was, "And the children of Israel sighed from their work-burden" (Exodus 2:23). Why "sighed"? Why not "rejoiced"? Thirdly, the first "taker-outer" or redeemer in the Exodus account was the daughter of Pharaoh, who took Moses out of the Nile (moshe means the one who takes out). The Bible describes her discovery of the "Hebrew baby" in a rather curious fashion: "and she opened the ark and saw the small child and behold the lad was crying; and she said, he is from the Hebrews" (Exodus 2:6). Would it not have been more logical for the text to have written, "And she heard the small child crying"? Cries are heard, not seen. Furthermore, why change the noun in mid-stream from yeled (small child) to na'ar (lad)? It would seem that yeled consistently would have been the preferred usage. Moreover, how did she know the baby was a Hebrew from the sound of his cries? When I visited the Soviet Union in 1970 on a mission for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I heard the following joke from a number of contacts: A visitor from America asks a refusenik, How is the Jewish education in Russia? "I can't complain," he answers. And how is the availability of religious articles in Russia? "I can't complain," he says, And how is your standard of living in Russia? "I can't complain," he repeats. Then why are you so anxious to leave Russia for Israel?, asks the astonished American. "Because there at least I can complain," he responds. The Piasesner Rebbe (known as the Eish Kodesh), a Hassidic lover of Zion who was martyred in the Holocaust, explains our textual difficulties by reminding us that anti-Semitic despots often forbade Jews to even cry out. During a children's round-up (Kinderaction) when Nazi officers would make house-to-house searches for youngsters to be sent to the extermination camps, parents would hide their children, stuffing their mouths with rags to prevent crying; when families were escaping in the middle of the night, mothers would clamp their hands over their babies' mouths for the same reason. More often than not, the babies would be left dead, suffocated. As a result of the desperation of their situation, Hebrew tots would learn how to cry without emitting a sigh or a sob, so as not to call attention to their existence. This is how the Eish Kodesh interprets the Egyptian princess's understanding that it was a Hebrew baby she had discovered; he had already been trained to weep soundlessly, like a much older lad. Similarly, this is the explanation for the textual reading, "…the King of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from their work-burden…" (2:23). The servitude continued, Hebrew male babies were still cast into the Nile, so there was no cause for rejoicing. But at least in one respect there was a leniency: at least the Hebrews could now cry out, could express their pain without having to suffer extra punishment. Undoubtedly the greatest pain of suffering derives from a situation which precludes even the possibility of expressing one's hurt. The Midrash teaches that when Adam was exiled from Eden, the Almighty granted him two gifts to ease his pain: the Sabbath day, and the tear. In crying there is at least momentary relief, and in the Sabbath there is the hope and promise of ultimate Redemption. And so the Sacred Zohar suggests that we begin our celebration of freedom - the paradigm for our Redemption - by speaking out. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.