When he was grown, Moses left Pharaoh’s palace and witnessed the sufferings of Israel.
The Hebrew word for sufferings is sivlotam. The Kotzker Rebbe ties this word to savlanut, meaning patience. That is, Moses saw that the Israelites were no longer protesting against their sufferings – they had become patient with them and accepted them.
They had developed the true character of slaves from years of oppression, believing this was simply their lot. It was time to end exile when Israel no longer could feel the sting of exile.
It is unsurprising that the Kotzker Rebbe, who had such a deep understanding of the accommodations and compromises that human beings make, and an impatience to accept them, would fix on this aspect of oppression. The Belzer Rebbe made a similar comment when he said that the true exile was from themselves; once you accept that you deserve to be a slave you are separated from the truth of your own soul.
Perhaps Moses saw a troubling acceptance on the part of the Israelites. But we can turn to another hassidic master for a different account of what Moses saw.
The Sfat Emet wrote that Moses “saw into their troubles.” What did he see? Quoting the verse from the Psalms (103:7) “God announces His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel,” the Sfat Emet believed that Moses saw into the future. The sages tell us that one who is present for the community’s pain will also merit seeing the community’s consolation.
What precisely was the pain? Here there is a certain confluence between the three interpretations. It was not simply the pain of forced labor. Exile, the Sfat Emet explains, is a kind of hiding. Just as for the Kotzker and Belzer rebbes, exile hides the true nature of the human being who desires to be free. Because exile is hiding, the antidote is revelation. Revelation makes clear that which would otherwise remain hidden.
WHAT THE Sfat Emet reads in the Israelites plight can be generalized to all suffering. One way of understanding suffering is as a concealment of the good that would otherwise be present, since God’s goodness suffuses the world. Yet it can be derailed by darkness. When human beings act cruelly they are blocking the flow of the divine into the world.
Hester Panim, the hiding of God’s face, a phenomenon mentioned in the Torah (see Deuteronomy 31:16-18) is another way of expressing what the commentators above made clear: as we can be in exile to ourselves, we can force God to be in exile from our lives. Part of the suffering of Egypt was the Israelites distance from their souls, which was also their distance from God. Moses was God’s matchmaker, to reunite the people and God once more, and to end the double exile.
The sages refer to Sinai as a huppah, because there the reuniting took place. Every soul was at Sinai, for not only was God found there, but so was the true nature of each individual. The suffering was ended not because pain was over – there will always be pain in life – but because it became possible to remove one’s own contribution to the pain that life brings.
If you know yourself and have a close enough connection to your Creator, then you will still know pain and anguish in this life, but you will not contribute to it by self-estrangement or aloneness in the cosmos. Revelation leads to connection.
For the great hassidic commentators, external events lead us to understand what takes place in the soul. Slavery, exile, hiddenness and redemption – these are not processes confined to a certain time and place. As we watch the drama of the Exodus unfold, just as we acknowledge in the Passover Seder, we are watching something that is unfolding, daily, in our lives and in the world.
Moses saw a truth that endures: if the Israelites come to truly know themselves, their lives will inevitably change.
The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David: The Divided Heart. On Twitter @rabbiwolpe.