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During those many days the king of Egypt died, the Israelites groaned because of the work, and they cried out. Their outcry… went up to G-d. G-d heard their anguish, and… remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2:23-24).
These verses relate that whilst Moses was in Midyan, the conditions of slavery for the Israelites in Egypt reached unbearable levels. The Ramban says that this was because it became clear that the new Pharaoh was no better than the old one, and the suffering Israelites lost their last straw of hope.
However, the Or Hachayim points out that their cries were cries of pain, not prayer or repentance. Nevertheless G-d heard and He responded to them, even though they seem to have forgotten Him. As the Midrash (Ex. Rabba 1:34) states, despite their own wickedness, G-d showed mercy towards them because of the great deeds of their ancestors - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The problem with the above sources is that they go against human nature. People under great stress will either turn to G-d for help or else feel angry towards Him because of their suffering. Neither reaction took place here. There seems to have been a breakdown in tradition. Their not turning to G-d in either a positive or negative way would strongly suggest that generations of slavery had wiped out their own contact with their roots, namely the Patriarchs and their close contact with the Almighty. If that was so, why does the Midrash refer to them as being 'unworthy of being saved because they were wicked'? The current generation did not have from whom to learn…
This reality seems to be implied by the Prophet Ezekiel. In thundering in wrath against the degeneracy and faithlessness of the Israelites at the time of the Destruction of the First Temple, he described the helplessness of the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. He showed how, hundreds of years later, they were ungrateful to G-d who had turned them into His people out of His love for them. Ezekiel recounts the birth pangs of the Israelites as a nation born in slavery:
As for your birth, on the day you were born… No eye pitied you… (to) have compassion upon you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were loathed... When I (G-d) passed over you, and saw you weltering in your own blood, I said to you - when you were in your blood, Live! Yes, I said to you when you were in your blood, Live! … And when I (G-d) passed over you, and looked upon you, behold, your time was the time of love! I spread my clothing over you, and covered your nakedness; yes, I swore to you, and entered into a Covenant with you, says the L-rd … and you became Mine. Then I washed you with water; indeed, I thoroughly washed away your blood from you, and I anointed you with oil… (Ez. 16:4-6,8-9)
Ezekiel saw the Israelite nation at that time as an abandoned baby. G-d picked up and cared for that neglected and injured infant. He took it away from its cruel predators, nursed it to health, and adopted it as His. But - in support of the above question, it would be hardly fair to call a baby wicked - however much trouble it gave to its parents…
A possible direction towards answering this question lies in seeing Ezekiel's comparison of the Israelites with a naked baby as a criticism of the spiritual state of the Israelites at that time. This is amplified below.
The Israelites were like a naked baby because by then they had lost contact with their traditions - to such a degree that they now longer felt any contact with the Almighty, the G-d of their fathers. They had to start all over again. The reason that had happened at the time of the generation of Exodus is because they had allowed themselves to adopt the slavery mentality. As the Radak (to Ez. 16:8) explains, by the time the Israelites had reached this stage the were 'naked' in having forgotten the legacy of Abraham, to which G-d referred to with the words:
For I (G-d) know him (Abraham), that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the L-rd, to do justice and judgment (Gen. 18:19). When a person is constantly occupied in the same routine two things are likely to happen to him. Firstly, he sees his whole life in terms of his occupation - whether that is pleasant or highly uncomfortable. There is no room for anything else in his life and he cannot imagine things being any other way. Secondly, he loses contact with his roots and his tradition, to such a degree that they are so irrelevant to his current lifestyle that he does not impart them to his children. It takes great effort and sense of purpose to keep tuned in to one's roots when under constant oppression.
That was the spiritual challenge of the generation of the Exodus at the time the new Pharaoh came to power. The Israelites failed in that they had not passed on their 'illustrious roots' to the next generation. Their roots meant nothing to them: their concern was day-to-day survival as slaves under the Egyptians. They would not imagine life being anything else. Thus they were so far from G-d that they did not even think of crying to Him when they were on the verge of despair. They sinned by allowing the Egyptians to control their minds as well as their bodies. They adopted the slavery mentality. In emerging from it they were not only physically, but also spiritually going through a new birth. This has an important lesson today. We pray three times a day that G-d will build the Temple 'speedily in our days… and there we shall serve Him'. Yet when the great opportunity comes, how ready are we to build the Temple and serve Him there? Like the Israelites in Egypt at that time, we are so removed from those parts of tradition that it is hard for us to view Torah Judaism being centered at a newly built Temple. May it be suggested that we are so far away from the Temple tradition that many would feel ambivalent towards the prospect of it starting again - at any rate, during their working careers? Judaism over the last two thousand years has had to adapt itself to the Exile situation. Many individuals are so comfortable with it that, deep down, they do not wish for any change - despite their praying for it three times each day. They have adopted the Exile mentality. Moreover, halachically, we find the commandments characteristic of Judaism to be very demanding - namely the detailed laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, forbidden speech, prayer, and in Israel, Shemitta. How would we adapt to the extremely involved and ever present laws of purity and impurity, as well as those of the offerings? That is the lesson we can learn from the Israelites. Few if any Jews today are in slavery, but many of them are so rutted in their routines that they cannot, or do not, wish to relate to the prospect of spiritual change by learning their long lost traditions. This is one of the challenges to this generation - to abandon the Exile mentality and sincerely try to discover the long neglected Torah teachings in anticipation of the building of the Temple - may it be speedily in our days.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon: From the Prophets on the Haftara
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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