Dedicated by Alan Warner.

Essay Vaeira
Fed Up with Feeling Fed Up?
Redemption Begins When I Stop Tolerating the Lie

Moses’ Early Years

It is one of the most intriguing components of the Exodus story. The first leader of the Jewish people, who would set them free and mold them into a nation, grew up not among his own people, but in the palace of the man who wished to destroy them.

Why did Providence have it that Moses was raised not in a Jewish home, but among non-Jews, in the Egyptian palace?

Liberation from Tolerance

The English translations of the Torah rarely capture the multi-dimensional underpinnings behind many words. One example in this week's portion (Vaeira): "Therefore," G-d speaks to Moses, "Say to the Children of Israel: I am G-d, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their slavery; I shall redeem you."[1]

The Hebrew word for "burdens," sivlos, can also be translated as "tolerance" (as in “lesbol,” to bear, or “savlanut,” which means patience).[2] Tolerance is a form of burden carrying, of accepting a challenge. If this is correct, then G-d is communicating a powerful message: "Say to the Children of Israel: I am G-d, and I shall take you out from tolerating Egypt." I will liberate you from your patience, from tolerating the Egyptian horrors.[3]

The Genesis of Redemption

This is a critical moment, because it is the genesis of redemption—physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Many of us, after being subjected to dysfunctional conditions, learn to acclimate ourselves to the bleak reality. This can be worse than the condition itself since it keeps me stuck in my prison.

The beginning of the Exodus could only occur when the Hebrew slaves refused to tolerate the horrors they endured. If I am not fed up with being weak and bullied, with being a victim of addiction or fear, my journey of redemption cannot commence.

It is not easy. Learned helplessness runs deep. Denying or repressing the depth of the dysfunction is a way of numbing myself to the suffering. I must be able to feel the pain of my alienation from self to be able to begin the voyage toward liberation.[4]

The Outsider

This is why the redeemer of Israel needed to grow up in the Egyptian palace, not among his own people. To quote Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish philosopher, poet and biblical commentator): [5]

“Perhaps G-d caused Moses to grow up in the home of royalty, so that his soul would be accustomed to a higher sense of learning and behavior, and he would not feel lowly and accustomed to a house of slavery. You see that he killed an Egyptian who did a criminal act [beating an innocent Hebrew to death], and he saved the Midyanite girls from the criminal shepherd’s who were irrigating their own flock from the water the girls have drawn.”

Had Moses grown up among the Hebrew slaves, he too would have suffered from a slave-mentality lacking the courage to fight injustice and devoid of the ability to mold an enslaved tribe into a great people with a vision of transforming the world into a place worthy of the divine presence. He would not find within himself the strength to dream of liberty and confront the greatest tyrant of the time. Only because he grew up in a royal ambiance, did Moses have a clear sense of the horrific injustice and feel the power to fight it.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s ability not to embrace the status quo which turned him into a great leader, inspiring a new era of liberty in the United States. As our own country faces today such divisiveness and extremism on the Left and the Right, we need to ask ourselves if we have not reverted to our “reptilian brains,” and cannot see anything larger than what we are being indoctrinated with by people driven by hate and bias? Can we stop tolerating being told all the time what to think, and labeling people in extreme ways just because they do not fit into the narrow paradigms that we created to define morality and justice?   


Just as this was true in Egypt, it is also true today. We have been in exile for close to two millennia. But the greatest danger is when we come to tolerate it, when it seen as normal.

The beginning of our redemption is in our awareness that our exile is unnatural and cruel. Can we learn to begin thinking with the broadness of a redemptive model? Can we cry out sincerely about our individual and collective pain of alienation?

Standards Determine Destiny

 A little story.[6]

In the 1950s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, walking on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, encountered two administrators of a local yeshiva (Jewish day school) gazing at a yellow school bus parked on the road.

When the Rebbe asked them what they were looking at, they said that the bus was on sale and they were thinking of purchasing it for the yeshiva. "We desperately need our own bus," they told the Rebbe.

"But this bus looks like an old shmateh," the Rebbe said. "It seems like it's on the verge of retirement. Why not purchase a brand-new bus for the children?"

"If we could only afford that type of money!" they exclaimed. "The price of this old bus is something we could maybe fit into our budget."

"Let me tell you something," the Rebbe responded. "You know why you can't afford the money for a new bus? Because in your mind, the old and run-down bus will suffice for your yeshiva. If it would be clear to you that the children need a new and beautiful bus, you would have the money to purchase it."

What the Rebbe was saying is that in many cases, your standards are often what ultimately define the quality and destiny of your life.[7]


[1] Exodus 6:6.

[2] Sefas Emea Vaeira 1871, 1876, in the name of his grandfather.

[3] This interpretation also explains the apparent redundancy in the verse: "I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt" followed by, "I shall rescue you from their slavery." The two statements seem to be repetitive. According to the above translation, the first statement discusses an exodus from tolerating Egypt, while the second alludes to the liberation from the slavery and forced labor in Egypt.

[4] Thus, the Torah, in last week's portion (Shemos), commences the story of G-d choosing Moses to lead the Jewish people out of slavery with the following words: "The children of Israel groaned because of their subjugation and they cried out. Their outcry because of their slavery went up to G-d. G-d heard their cries and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." The curse of the Egyptian exile consisted not only of the oppression of the Hebrews; it also inculcated within many an enslaved mindset. The abuse was so profound that many of them learned to see their misery as innate.

This may be one of the reasons why when Moses presented the promise of redemption to the Jewish people, "They did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work" (Exodus 6:9). The hard work was not only a physical impediment; it also created a slave mentality.

[5] Ibn Ezra Exodus 2:3. Though Moses was a Levi, and the tribe of Levi was not subject to hard labor, they were nonetheless still enslaved, they were part of a nation of slaves to one degree or another. The decree to murder the Jewish male infants applied to the tribe of Levi too. Prisoners who are not subject to slave labor, are still in prison.

[6] My thanks to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Hadakov (New Haven, Conn.) for sharing this lovely story with me.

[7] This essay is based on Sefas Emes Parshas Veira, authored by the second Rebbe of the Chassidic dynasty of Gur, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (1847-1905). This explanation in the word "sivlos," as well as the concept conveyed in this essay, are quoted by him in the name of his grandfather, the first Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rottenberg Alter, known as the Chedushei Harim (1799-1866).

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