Parshat Va’era: Light at the end of the tunnel

In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Moshe Rabbeinu appearing in Egypt and turning to Am Yisrael.

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Moshe Rabbeinu appearing in Egypt and turning to Am Yisrael, the nation of slaves enslaved in hard labor, with a surprising utterance said in the name of G-d: “I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you… And I will take you to Me as a people… I will bring you to the land…and I will give it to you.” (Exodus 6: 6-8) Let’s try to imagine this situation. A Jew is toiling away at hard labor as an Egyptian tyrant stands over him, abusing him and hitting him at every opportunity. This is how he lives day after day for years. This same despairing Jew does not know any reality other than this. His father and grandfather before him were slaves in Egypt as well.
Suddenly, along comes a stranger who was born in Egypt but lived his whole life in a faraway country, and informs him that soon he and the entire nation are about to be freed, redeemed, leaving Egypt and getting an independent country.
Could there be a happier message than this one? In our day, we would call this sort of thing “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
We have a future, the Jew starts thinking; there is hope for this demeaned nation, a Divine promise that this nightmare will end.
Surprisingly, though, the Jewish nation does not receive this news happily. It doesn’t even listen to Moshe’s words.
Why? Is it not human nature to grab the rope thrown out to extricate you from a desperate situation? Our sages answered this question using their picturesque language: Rabbi Yehuda ben Betira said: Could there be a man who is informed of good news and is not happy? You are having a son, your leader is leading you to freedom, and he is not happy? If so, why does it say “And they did not hear Moshe’? (Mechilta, Parsha 5) If we read the verse carefully, we will note that the Torah refers to what caused the nation to ignore the incredible news that Moshe conveyed: “Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.” (Exodus 6: 9) With these few words, the Torah reveals to us the depth of the nation’s humiliation in Egypt and the negative power of slavery.
The nation was in a “black hole” that was so terrible that it no longer had the emotional wherewithal to accept the message of redemption. The Jew to whom Moshe turned with the Divine message of liberation turned to him in anger, declaring: “How can you talk to me about liberation? I still have work to finish today, and if I don’t finish it I could get punished.”
The Jewish nation’s situation was that bad. The darkness was so thick that even when the light appeared at the end of the tunnel, the miserable slaves preferred to close their eyes and stay in the dark. This is why the nation’s situation is described by our sages as though they were immersed in 49 gates of impurity, so much so that they were almost at the bottom of the spiritual abyss.
Sometimes it seems that each of us is in this sort of tunnel. One is bogged down by health problems, another immersed in financial woes, and yet another in the constant search for the right partner. Life is full of difficulties and challenges that we could sink our entire personas into, and even when we find out that there is a solution somewhere on the horizon, we find it difficult to accept it as the real thing, as a fact that could become reality.
This is where the role of faith comes in. A man of faith recognizes that the entire world, from the movement of the sun, the moon and the stars and up to the question of whether or not today will be a happy or sad one is all run by a directing hand, by a G-d who wants what is good and provides us with the privilege of choosing good.
This man acquires the emotional ability to believe that the day will come when things will be good. The difficulties will be solved, the problems will disappear, and a rosier, promising future will come to each one of us – if we only believe that it will.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.