Friday, January 5, 2018

Parashat Shemot: Speech

A Message for Parashat Shemot 2018
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The story of yessiat Misrayim is structured around Moshe’s constant conversations with Pharaoh. Time and again he approached Pharaoh with the fruitless demand of freedom for Am Yisrael. Why did he do so? Whereas the Torah made clear that the purpose of the plagues was to punish the Egyptians and show God’s might, the importance of Moshe’s repeated encounters with Pharaoh was never explained. What role did his many discussions with Pharaoh play in the grand scheme of yessiat Misrayim?

Let us first take note of a surprising reality that is reflected in the Torah’s description of Am Yisrael at the beginning of Parashat Shemot:

…And Bnei Yisrael groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their plea from the bondage went up to God. And God heard their moaning. (Shemot 2:23-4)

Am Yisrael employed a strange means of expression at that time. Instead of talking, they groaned, cried out, and moaned. The hard work of slavery had seemingly paralyzed their human ability to speak.

Indeed, the kabbalists describe the nation’s spiritual status at that time as one of galut ha-dibur – “exiled speech.” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explained this reality as a direct effect of Am Yisrael’s servitude. He wrote:
The slave lives in silence…He has no message to deliver. In contrast with a slave, the free man bears a message, has a good deal to tell, and is eager to convey his life story to anyone who cares to listen.
R. Soloveitchik furthermore explained that the Torah’s repeated obligation to tell the story of yessiat Misrayim to our children comes in direct contrast to our slavery. It is the proof of our freedom.[1]

Moshe’s many conversations with Pharaoh, then, were stark representations of Am Yisrael’s freedom. His ability to bring forth a voice, to speak about a future and to vocalize his wishes were the fundamental signs of Am Yisrael’s liberation. Moshe was able to accomplish a task that had until then been impossible for the nation of slaves: speak.

Although it has been several thousand years since our slavery in Egypt, many of us still live in the sad state of spiritual slavery. We do not speak. Driven by fear or self-doubt, we never express our true hopes, beliefs or ambitions. By structuring the story of our national redemption around Moshe’s countless speeches to Pharaoh, the Torah urges each of us to find our voice – and sound it.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 65.