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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Va'era 5775 "A Matter of Perception"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” (Albert Einstein)

A man once came to a psychiatrist for a consultation. “Doc,” the man began, “I live in a beautiful mansion, located on a spacious two hundred acre countryside. I have a housekeeper, a gardener, a maid, a private chauffeur, and two luxury limousines.”

The psychiatrist was becoming impatient. “I don’t need to hear about all your wealth. Why did you come here?” The man smiled sheepishly, “I was just getting to that. You see, I only earn $200 a week! Do you think you can you help me?”

“G-d spoke to Moshe…. I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: ‘I am G-d, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; and I shall rescue you from their service; and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be for a G-d to you…”[1]

The Medrash[2] notes that the four expressions of redemption that G-d utilized corresponded to four nefarious edicts that Pharaoh decreed against the Jews. In commemoration of those four expressions of redemption we drink four cups of wine at the Seder on the night of Pesach.

Ramban explains that each expression of redemption corresponded to a different component of the redemption. “I shall take you out” referred to G-d’s promise that He would take them out from the land and they would no longer have to bear the brunt of the servitude.

“I shall rescue you” referred to the fact that the Egyptians would no longer rule over them at all. When the Jews would leave they would have absolutely no obligations to their former captors.

“I shall redeem you” referred to G-d’s infliction of severe retribution and judgment upon the Egyptians. It would continue until the Egyptians cried out in desperation, ‘Here is Israel for you. Set them free as redemption for our souls!’ Ramban adds that the metaphoric “outstretched arm” alluded to the fact that G-d’s arm would remain outstretched unremittingly against the Egyptians until they sent the Israelites out.

Finally, “I shall take you” referred to the nation’s arrival at Sinai where they received the Torah.”

Seforno offers a similar explanation[3]. However, he explains that the expression, ‘I will redeem you’ refers to the Egyptians drowning in the sea. It was specifically then that the Jewish nation began to view themselves as a free people and not as a band of fugitives.

Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l questions why the third expression/level of redemption was necessary. If the servitude had ceased and the nation had left the physical confines of the country, why was there a need for the decimation of the remaining soldiers in the Egyptian army? Furthermore, why did G-d harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh pursued the Jews, despite the fact that his country was in a state of smoldering ruins due to his obstinate refusal to liberate them sooner?

In addition, Seforno’s explanation that the Jewish people did not feel free until the Egyptians were destroyed is enigmatic. The Jews knew that they descended from worthy lineage and that they were destined for greatness. If the Egyptians no longer had any dominance over them why would the Jews continue to feel any sense of subservience to them?

Rabbi Leibowitz answers that the human mind does not always work in tandem with reality. The truth is that were it not for that final miracle, which brought about the utter obliteration of the Egyptian army, the Jews would have indeed continued to view themselves as slaves. The reality is that even after a slave is freed it takes a significant amount of time before the slave can rid himself of the slave mentality.

This is true about people generally. It is incomparably more difficult to effect a physical change than it is for one to change the manner in which he views himself.

The Jews were intellectually aware of their pedigree and their destiny. However, after two centuries of being at the bottom of the totem pole, they could not undo their distorted psychological perceptions of their identity. The Egyptians did not merely enslave the Jews physically. They also succeeded in causing the Jews to view themselves as an underprivileged caste of untouchables.

G-d ensured that the Jews witness the physical decimation of the Egyptian army to ingrain within their hearts and minds that they no longer maintained any connection with their former tormentors. Not only were the Egyptians forces destroyed, they had also been humiliated and disgraced.

Rabbi Leibowitz asserts that without the level of “I shall redeem you” and G-d’s Outstretched Arm, even consequentially receiving the Torah at Sinai would have been insufficient to remove their skepticism of their newfound privileged status. The third level of redemption, “I will redeem you”, symbolized the concretization of their psychological redemption.

Rabbi Leibowitz concludes that it is important to realize just how difficult it is for one to change his perceptions and views, especially views one has maintained throughout his life. Human nature is to cling to one’s opinions and views, at times even after realizing that they are erroneous. The Jews surely wanted to view themselves as a free people. But even after witnessing miracles and many supernatural occurrences, they still could not fully accept what they were already intellectually aware of.

This idea has important educational implications. There is much worthy talk about the need for self-esteem. However, positive self-identity is never fostered through mere speeches and constant reassurance. Self esteem is the result of accomplishment, recognizing one’s abilities, and struggling through challenges and meeting with some level of success. It is the result of recognizing and utilizing one’s potential.

The irony is that, at times, individuals who seem to have much reason to feel good about themselves do not. Even when they have succeeded in accomplishing and meeting goals and expectations, they continue to struggle to see themselves in a positive light. Immediately after the exodus the young burgeoning Klal Yisroel had to contend with this internal struggle as well.

The Mishnah[4] states, “Beloved is man for he was created in G-d’s image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in G-d’s image… Beloved are the people of Israel… It is an indication of greater love that they are described as children of the Omnipresent…”

It is one thing to be privileged. It is another thing to recognize and appreciate that privilege.

Our contemporary challenge seems to be the converse challenge that our forefathers faced in Egypt. They had a hard time accepting the notion that they were a free nation, and we have a hard time remembering that we are still in exile. The two millennia that we have spent in exile have bred a national identity crisis. Many of the Jews in Germany prior to World War II viewed themselves foremost as Germans, until that notion went up in the smokestacks of Auschwitz. They then realized that they weren’t German Jews- Germans who happened to be Jews, but Jewish Germans – Jews who happened to be living in Germany.

The Kotzker Rebbe commented that it is far easier to take a Jew out of exile than it is to take the exile out of a Jew!

When Moshiach arrives he will not only herald a time of blissful Divinity, physical exodus, and newfound spiritual awareness, but also a period of “redemption”. The redemption from Egypt included the eradication of fallacious identities and a simultaneous newfound sense of mission. It was the realization that we had possessed greatness all along, but it had been masked by a façade of servility. The imminent final redemption too, will include a resurgence of our national awareness of who we are and of our elite destiny. In a world of democracy we must remind ourselves that we are still far from home.

“I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm”

“Like the days when you left Egypt I will show you wonders; I am G-d[5]

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[1] Shemos 6:1-7

[2] Shemos Rabbah 6:4

[3] Also see Seforno’s commentary to Shemos 14:7

[4] Avos 3:18

[5] Michah 7:15

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