“Let My People Go!” But Can they Let Themselves Go?
By: Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson – The yeshiva.net
Tragedy in Haiti
The devastation in Haiti is beyond words. Last Tuesday, more than 100,000 human flames were suddenly extinguishes by a brutal earthquake which struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In a Hiroshima-scale disaster, infants, children, teenagers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and entire families and dynasties have been destroyed in the blink of an eye.
Now is the time to act—to extend our prayers, our hearts, and primarily our bank accounts to the three million shattered survivors.
Why? Oh Why?
As I watched on the web the horrific images of rescue workers desperately trying to rescue children trapped under rubble for two days, I asked the same old question: Why? Oh Why?
For the atheist, “why” does not constitute a serious question. “Why not?” is his answer. Do we expect earth’s plates to be sensitive to the cries of parents whose children have been buried alive? If nature evolved and is governed by pure chance, it must be a-moral. Suffering, in the doctrine of atheism, makes perfect sense.
Yet notwithstanding this justification of human suffering, all of us – believers and non-believers alike – never cease to ask “why?” Why do innocent people suffer? How can 100,00 human beings perish so tragically? When natural disaster strikes and claims the life of innocents, the very core of our identity senses that something very wrong has occurred; that nature should have behaved differently. For the great Jewish mystics, this is the stamp of the Divine in the consciousness of every human being causing him or her to sense that the world is governed by moral justice. When reality smacks that belief in the face, we cry out “how?” How can a moral and benevolent Creator cause so much anguish to innocent human beings, including thousands of children? How?
[In Ivan Karamazov’s words: "Tell me frankly, I appeal to you -- answer me: Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her un-avenged tears -- would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!" (The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoyevsky).]
Never in history did G-d answer this question, the greatest of all questions and the one good argument for atheism. The book of Job, dedicated to the question of why the innocent suffer, concludes with a revelation of G-d to Job, telling him, in essence, that there is no way the human mind can create the logical constructs in which G-d’s behavior can fit. The finite and the infinite just don’t meet. When it comes to human suffering, there is no human fathomable answer. Let us not dear to explain and rationalize what can never be explained and rationalized.
A “Pact with the Devil?”
One man decided this week to play G-d and offer us an “explanation” for the unspeakable suffering in Haiti, as though any human has the power to explain tragedy. But it was not only that he said anything to explain why the Haitians deserved to suffer so, it was also what he said by way of rationalizing the earthquake. The TV preacherPat Robertson said that Haitian slaves made a “pact with the devil” 200 years ago in order to free themselves from the hated clutches of Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime – resulting in a curse that led to the destruction of much of Port-au-Prince and a massive loss of life in Tuesday’s earthquake.
Besides getting some of the facts wrong (he said that the slave revolt came during the reign of “Napoleon III, or whatever,” when the Haitian Revolution was completed in 1804 when the world famous Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821) ruled France, 44 years before his nephew Napoleon III came to power), what Robertson was referring to is a fascinating and tragic piece of history. After the French revolution, in 1794, the 500,000 slaves brought from Africa to work Haiti’s lucrative sugar and coffee plantations, were freed by decree. But Napoleon Bonaparte, seeking empire, wealth, and territory, tried re-enslave them in 1802.
But once the slaves breathed the free air, they did not wish to return to their former status as drones or fodder for empire. The French abused them badly. They were whipped and beaten mercilessly. According to many historians, Haiti had been “a hell on earth” for the slaves. “Each year, 50,000 slaves were brought to Haiti to compensate for the terrible mortality among the slaves. Order was upheld through terror and violence.
Now was their time for revolt. Toussaint L’ouverture (pronounced: too-san loo-ver-tyr) (1743-1803), a house slave whose liberal master allowed him to read and educate himself, stepped up and let a ferocious war against the colonial masters.
By 1803 Napoleon was ready to get Haiti off his back: he and Toussaint agreed to terms of peace. A few months later, the French invited Toussaint to come to a negotiating meeting will full safety. When he arrived, the French—at Napoleon’s orders—betrayed the promise and arrested him, putting him on a ship headed for France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be placed in a prison dungeon in the mountains, and murdered by means of cold, starvation, and neglect. Toussaint died in prison, but others carried on the fight for freedom.
Years later, in exile at St. Helena, when asked about his dishonorable treatment of Toussaint, Napoleon remarked, “What could the death of one wretched Negro mean to me?”
Rabbi Schnuer Zalman and Napoleon
This unknown story is, by the way, relevant to the Jewish people. When Napoleon suddenly invaded Russia on June 23 1812 (Hitler also suddenly invaded Russia on June 22 1941), most leaders of Russian Jewry enthusiastically supported Napoleon as the man who would finally grant liberty and equality to the isolated and persecuted Jews. Some Jews even hailed him as a Messiah. There was one leader, Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad and one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and leaders, who loathed Napoleon. He felt that the French emperor’s thirst for power and self-aggrandizement knew no bounds and that his secret motif tearing down the ghetto walls was not human dignity but a desire to take over the world and to destroy the inner spiritual and religious core of the Jewish people. The Rebbe believed that Napoleon would cause mass Jewish assimilation and millions of Jews would be lost to our people and he actively supported the Czar against Napoleon.
When Napoleon advanced deep into Russia, Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, not wanting to live under his rule, fled. He passed away on December 27, 1812 (the 24th of Taves 5573), while running from Napoleon.
Indeed, when it came to the half-a-million black slaves in Haiti, the ethos of freedom was obliterated from Napoleon’s vocabulary. The fact remains that the Haitian slaves are the first to collectively and successfully overthrow their colonial masters, in this case, the French. The slaves ended Napoleon’s ambition to dominate the Americas and have paved the way for the first black republic. After the Egyptian Exodus, this is the first recorded instance in history where a nation of slaves set themselves free.
The tragedy of Haiti is that if it was a hell on earth under slavery, it did not change after the slave revolt. Africans plucked and sent to Haiti to work under the lash and suddenly freed were not a model constituency for civil society. Some of the former slaves became tyrants. Haiti went from the largest sugar exporter in the world to chaos. The plantations were deserted. The former slaves refused to work on the places they were enslaved. Haiti may have been called “the mother of liberty,” but after 200 years of independence, it remains an impoverished and troubled nation. Two-thirds of the country’s workers are unemployed, and most Haitians live on about $1 a day. Life expectancy is little more than 50 years.
The last thing Haiti needed was this devastating earthquake. It is our duty and privilege to help this crushed nation and an ode to the United States of America for contributing 100 million dollars to rebuilding the country.
A Strange Commandment
This entire tragic story clarified, for me, a deeply enigmatic passage in the Talmud.
The Biblical account of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt has been the most inspiring story for the oppressed, enslaved and downtrodden throughout history. There was a reason that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin chose a depiction of Exodus story as the Great Seal of the United States, though it did not come to fruition. More than any other historical narrative, it was Moses’ story which inspired the Founding Fathers. From the slaves of the American South, to Martin Luther King’s “Let Freedom Ring,” the Exodus provided slaves with the courage to hope for a better future, and with the ambition to act on the dreams.
The Bible relates how Moses’ first visit to Pharaoh demanding liberty for his crushed people only brought more misery to the Jews. The Egyptian leader increased their torture. The Hebrews by now would not listen any longer to the promise of redemption coming from Moses and Aaron. Now let us pay heed to one strange verse in the weekly portion, Vaeira.
So G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. [i]
G-d is charging Moses and Aaron with two directives: Command the people and then command Pharaoh. However, the verse is truly ambiguous: What did G-d command Moses to instruct the people? The message for Pharaoh is clear: let my people go. But what is it that Moses is supposed to command the people themselves, even before going to Pharaoh?
The Jerusalem Talmud (completed in the third century CE, one hundred years before the Babylonian Talmud) [ii]tells us:
וידבר י”י אל משה ואל אהרן ויצום אל בני ישראל. על מה ציום? על פרשת שילוח עבדים.
G-d instructed Moses to command to the Jewish people. What did he command the? The laws of freeing slaves. [iii]
The Talmud is referring to a biblical law recorded later in Exodus: [iv]
If a Jew sells himself as a slave, the owner must let him go after six years.
Generally, the Torah, written 3300 years ago, imposed very strong restrictions on the slave owner. The owner was forbidden to show any disrespect to his slave (he can’t even have him carry his clothes to the bathhouse), and he must share with him all the delicacies he has. If the owner owns only one pillow or blanket, who gets it according to Jewish law? The slave. If the owner has only one plate of food for dinner, who gets to eat it? The slave. The Talmud put it best when it said, “if you acquire a Hebrew slave it is as though you acquired a master!” [v]
But in addition to all of this, the owner is forbidden to hold on to the slave for longer than six years. No matter how much he paid for the slave, once six years pass, he is automatically set free. (In addition, if the slave compensates his master for the money he paid him for his service, he could leave his master whenever he wishes.) So before G-d sends Moses to Pharaoh to instruct him to liberate his slaves, Moses is sent to the Jews themselves to communicate to them this particular Mitzvah of freeing slaves.
Yet this seems like a cruel joke. The Children of Israel themselves were now enslaved laborers, completely impoverished, powerless and hunted down by despot and a tyrannical regime. They have been stripped from their most basic human dignity. Their children were systematically murdered and they were beaten and abused. Yet at this point in time G-d wants Moses to command them about the laws relevant to the aristocrat and the feudal lord? Does it make sense to command a hungry, impoverished man, while he is still starving, that one day when he wins the lottery he should feed the poor?
The Jews were now groaning under Pharaoh’s yoke. What sense is there is instructing them that one day – psychologically a million light years away—they ought to free their slaves.
What is more, as the Torah states, “G-d commanded them to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” Before sending them to the Egyptian leader to liberate the downtrodden slaves, G-d first sends Moses and Aaron to instruct the Jews that one day after many many years they must set free their own slaves. What’s the connection between the two things?
Who Is Free?
The answer is simple and moving, and it is a critical idea for history.
The message the Torah is trying to convey is that freedom is a gift and you are only entitled to it if you are ready to share it with others. If you are enslaving others, you deprive yourself of the right to be free.
This is true not only morally but also psychologically.
Before Pharaoh could liberate the Jewish slaves, they must be ready to become free. You can extricate a man from slavery, but you cannot extricate the slavery from within the man, that is up to him alone. He must learn to take responsibility to create his own life and make his own decisions. He must learn the joy and dignity of freedom, of self-accountability, and of self-respect.
What is the first symptom of bring free? That you bestow freedom on others.
The dictator, the control freak, or the abusive spouse or parent, is not only an enslaver but also a slave. He is too small, too insecure, mediocre, narrow minded, to allow others to shine. He feels compelled to force others into the mold that he has created for them because he never truly embraced himself as a free human being. He lives in a cycle of psychological imprisonment, in fear lest someone else overshadow him, expose his failings, or usurp his position. Outwardly he attempts to appear powerful and successful, but inwardly he is miserable and alone, shackled and insecure.
The truly free human being is comfortable with himself or herself in a very deep place. He is aware that he has his individual calling in life, and that no one can replace his true contribution. He knows that he has a light all his own, but that others carry a light all their own and must be encouraged to share that light.
Only when one learns to embrace others, not for whom he would like them to be, but for whom they are, then can he begin to embrace himself, not for whom he wishes he was, but for whom he is. When we free those around us, we are freeing ourselves. By accepting them, we learn to accept ourselves.
Who is powerful? He who empowers. Who is free? He who can free others. Who is a leader? He who creates other leaders.
Absolute Freedom is a Recipe for Chaos
There is something more. Freedom without limits can be dangerous, because I may define my freedom as the freedom to deprive you from yours. History has proven that absolute freedom is a recipe for chaos and cruelty. Freedom must mean that I am liberated from the shackles of man so that I can surrender to the authority of G-d, ensuring that my freedom ennobles me, rather than corrupts me.
Freedom, in the Jewish perspective, is a Divine calling. G-d commands Moses to command the Jewish to be free and to set others free. Only when freedom is seen not only a privilege but also as a duty, an a commandment of G-d, are we certain that the freedom will create a civil and peaceful society based on respecting the dignity in each person.
Pharaoh may set you free physically. But that would not suffice to create a free nation. Former slaves can become the new tyrants. Before Moses went to Pharaoh he had to come to his own people and inculcate them with this message: You will be worthy of freedom only if you are committed to free others. You will experiencefreedom only if you bestow it upon others.
There is another category of people and precious children who are restricted, confined, imprisoned, and enslaved by life’s circumstances. I am referring to children with special needs. To the outsider, they seem to be ‘prisoners’ of their own bodies, of their physical handicaps, and like slaves, they seem to be the unfortunate victims of insurmountable circumstances.
But once again, Torah revolutionizes our perspective. Judaism teaches that, just like everyone else, have perfect and liberated souls, because the soul can never be shackled. Our great duty in life is to help these beautiful souls to shine and share with us their incredible light.
15 years ago, Chabad founded an enormously successful organization known as The Friendship Circle, with now 80 chapters across the US. It did not begin with a board of ten major Jewish philanthropists, but by a young couple of shluchim, Levi and Bassie Shemtov, ambassadors of Chabad in Detroit. The Friendship Circle creates lifelong friendships between children with special needs and typical children and teenage volunteers. Today, there are 11,000 teenage volunteers servicing the same amount of handicapped and mentally challenged children.
The greatest gift we can give a ‘special child’ is to see past their physical imprisonments and peer into their shining soul – which is untainted and pure. And the greatest gift that we can give a typical teenager is to allow him or her to reveal their own soul by connecting them to a special child. The teenagers involved have become transformed and open to far more learning and a greater appreciation and sensitivity to life and people. The program has spread like wildfire all over the country.
Friends, we now each have a unique opportunity to effortlessly help this amazing organization. Chase Bank sponsored a contest for over 500,000 U.S. charities to compete for votes on Facebook. After the first round, only the top 100 most-voted-for charities remained. I am very proud that one of the remaining 100 was The Friendship Circle of Michigan, “the mother of all Friendship Circles around the country,” the only Jewish organization left in the contest. The next round of votes begins tonight, and the winner will receive one million dollars.
This would be the first time a Jewish organization, one that has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of youngsters, to receive such an award. We need your votes!
I encourage you all, after Shabbos, to go on Facebook and vote. Please ask your friends to do the same.
For special children too—let freedom ring!
In Russia, 1967, after some thirty years without possessing a siddur, a prayer-book, my grandfather, Lev ben Moshe Halevi, was fortunate to purchase one for $180 dollars, his entire lifesavings. The Communists had banned the use of prayer-books and all other religious articles. My mother, ten years old at the time, still remembers how her family struggled financially the next two years.
Yet that lone blue siddur became the fulcrum of our family and community life, and was used daily for the next twenty-five years. My grandfather would go to the park and pray; upon returning, he’d hand the siddur to my grandmother, and she’d leave to the park and pray. Then she’d pass the precious book to the neighbors and they’d go to the secluded spot and pray. Each Shabbat, the siddur was used by fifty people, one by one. Luckily, no one was caught. When my grandfather passed away, my mother gave this beautiful siddur to me. It is one of my most priceless possessions. I do not yet know how to pray from it, as it has no vowels, Russian or English translations, but I am learning.
My family’s story is a difficult one. Both my parents are children of survivors of the Rîbniţa Ghetto. The Romanian forces ordered my paternal great-grandfather to dig his own grave, and then shot him. My grandfather, eleven years old, was forced to bury his wounded father lest they murder his mother, sisters, brothers and cousins. Until this day, he has nightmares.
When I was five years old, my maternal grandfather sat me down upon his lap and said, “Morty [my Russian name is Maksim and Hebrew name, Mordechai], I am going to tell you a secret. Do not tell it to your mama and papa, or to your brother. It is a secret just for you, and only you.” Being a five-year-old, I was extremely excited. Amazingly, I kept the secret until I came to the USA. I was too afraid to tell anyone, as I was pushed around in school for being a Jew.
He continued, “Morty, I will teach you the holy Torah, the sacred scroll of our people passed from generation to generation. Those who know it lead happy lives filled with mitzvot that only the bravest knights undertake. Those who don’t are lost in the enchanted forest in search of the knights.” He then paused and continued, “Do you want to know the secret?”
“Yes, Grandpa, I do,” I replied with unrestrained excitement.
He then declared, “Will you keep this a secret until you feel ready to express it?” I assured him that I would.
He kissed my cheeks and said, “Morty, every morning when you wake up, I want you to look at the mirror and strike your heart three times. While you are striking your heart, recite, ‘I was born a Jew [strike heart]; I was raised a Jew [strike heart]; and I will die a Jew [strike heart]. When you finish, I want you to raise your hands towards the sky and proclaim, ‘And the rest will come later.’ When you go to bed, I want you to cover your eyes and repeat the same routine.”
After making sure that I understood, he said, “This is the Torah of our people.”
We shook hands, kissed and hugged each other, and the deal was sealed. Every day (and I still do it to this day), I would practice my grandfather’s routine without thinking twice.
When I came to the USA, I went to the Jewish day school in my city. My parents worked three jobs each to afford the tuition, but they never complained. However, though I went to the Jewish day school, I was often absent from my Jewish classes in order to study ESL. So I went through three years of Jewish day school and learned close to nothing about Judaism.
One day, my ESL teacher got sick, so I joined the Torah class. I was totally lost and not paying much attention. The rabbi realized my mind was elsewhere, so he called on me and said, “Mordechai, do you already know the Torah? Is that why you aren’t listening? You hardly come to my class… at least now, take advantage of the opportunity, and learn Torah with us.”
I looked at him and said, “Rabbi, I know the Torah like I know the back of my hand. I’ve been reciting the Torah for the last seven years, twice a day.”
The rabbi responded, “Really, tzaddik? Why don’t you do it right now?”
I stood up, adjusted my shirt, and began to reveal the “secret” my grandpa taught me. Needless to say, the students began to laugh, but the rabbi was stunned. He asked me to repeat it, and I did. By this time, the students were laughing their hearts out. I started to cry. I felt that they were making fun of the holy Torah. The rabbi asked the class for silence, and instructed me to repeat the routine again.
Through my tears, I saw the rabbi approach me. He hugged me and said, “Mordechai, when do you say this? And why do you say it like this?”
“This is how Jews recite the Torah,” I said.
He replied, “No, Mordechai only the brave Jew recites the Torah like this.”
I went home later that day, and I asked my grandpa to explain the Torah he taught me all those years ago. After explaining what has transpired in school, my grandpa placed me before a large mirror and said, “Morty, look at the mirror and tell me what you see.”
“Myself,” was the reply.
He said, “Look. What is on your head?”
I looked up, saw my kippa, the skullcap I’d forgotten to remove after the Torah class.
“Morty, how many times were you beaten up for being a Jew?”
“How many times were you hospitalized because of your injuries?”
“Twice,” I said, recalling the stitches I received when a a piece of iron was thrown at my head and a rock at my knee cap.
He kissed me and replied, “Morty, every day you strike your chest indicating that they – the anti-Semites – may break your bones, but your heart will always beat for G‑d.”
He continued, “How many times have you heard that Communism, Socialism, Liberalism, Capitalism, Christianity or Islam is better than Judaism? By covering your eyes at night, you are indicating that the nations may blind you with their philosophies, but at the end of the day your sight will always be aimed towards G‑d. And as for your hands raised to the sky, if you don’t understand this now, you will know when the right time comes. For the rest will come later.”
Armed with new knowledge, I went back to the rabbi and told him everything. He said, “Mordechai, you know more Torah at 12 than I know at 28, and I studied in Jewish schools all of my life.”
After graduating the day school, I went to public school. Since I knew almost nothing about Judaism, I simply put it on hiatus. It was only two years ago that I slowly started to return to Judaism. Now, thank G‑d, I pray three times a day, wear my kippa always, and keep the Shabbat. I may not yet study Mishnah or Gemara, but I know Jewish and Israeli history, philosophy, and Jewish Eastern European literature (I even teach it). And as for the rest – “the rest will come later.”
My grandfather’s words ring true.
Our Parshah begins with Moses once again being commanded by G-d to speak to Pharaoh that he let the Jews leave Egypt. Strangely enough, Moses demurs. The reason for his hesitation is summed up in one sentence: “If the children of Israel did not listen to me then how will Pharaoh listen to me, and I am a man with a speech impediment (literally: uncircumcised lips.)”
Commentators raise the question: When Moses was first asked by G-d to be the liberator of the Jews, at the Burning Bush, Moses argued that he had a speech impediment and was therefore not fit to lead the Jews. Yet G-d assured him that he would succeed and that Aaron would be his spokesman. Why did he now bring up the same argument?
The key to answering this question lies in contrasting the terminology Moses used in this week’s Parshah with the terminology he used above. Earlier, at the Burning Bush, Moses speaks of himself being “slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In this week’s Parshah, however, Moses describes his speech impediment as “uncircumcised lips.” Why the change?
Upon deeper reflection, one may suggest that the speech impediments of which Moses spoke were twofold and that there is a difference between being “slow of tongue” and having “uncircumcised lips.” The former impediment is physical in nature, while the latter is expressive of a spiritual defect.
Initially, when G-d asked Moses to speak to Pharaoh and the Israelites, he humbly submitted to G-d that he lacked the physical ability to speak clearly and eloquently. “Why choose me,” was Moses complaint, when there are other more competent speakers. However, when G-d told him that Aaron could be his spokesman, Moses could no longer protest. Aaron would do the talking and Moses was convinced that Aaron would be effective.
However, in this week’s Parshah, after Moses speaks to the Israelites and they refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, he was concerned that there was a more serious problem than just having a physical speech impediment. Moses was now concerned that he lacked more than just clarity and eloquence in his speech. In his humility, he imagined that he lacked the ability to touch other people and to move them. Moses’ reference to having “uncircumcised lips,” did not refer to his physical handicap-for that was remedied by having Aaron be his spokesman-but rather to his inability to pierce through to the hearts of his fellow Jews. In his mind, Moses felt his words were dry and uninspired and could not penetrate.
To understand this, we should refer to the famous pronouncement of our Sages: “Words that emanate from the heart, enter the heart and have their desired effect.” Moses, thus reasoned, if one’s words do not come from the heart – if they are insincere and perfunctory – they will just bounce off their intended recipients.
Thus when Moses saw how he was not getting through, and the Children of Israel were not listening, Moses attributed this to his own spiritual deficiency. Moses was convinced that it was his fault-due to his “uncircumcised lips.” The term uncircumcised is used Biblically in relation to the heart, as in “an uncircumcised heart,” where the connotation is that one’s emotions are blocked. When used in relation to lips, it can be interpreted to mean that the crucial emotions that are necessary for one’s words to have any impact were not coming through his lips.
Perhaps, Moses thought, that the lack of feeling on his part was actually having the opposite effect and undermining the words that Aaron spoke for him. G-d assured Moses that he would succeed. All Moses had to do, G-d told him (Chapter 7, verses 1-2 and Rashi), was to deliver the message one time, verbatim, as he heard it from G-d. Aaron would be the interpreter to express the message in terms that would be understandable to Pharaoh.
One lesson we learn from this episode is that when it comes to teaching and transmitting the beliefs and values of Judaism, one must combine the method of Moses with the method of Aaron. It is imperative that we present the teachings of Judaism, unembellished and edited, but then follow it up with words of elaboration and commentary.
More specifically, this lesson can be applied to the way in which we are to tell our fellow Jews that Moshiach is coming to redeem the Jewish people and the entire world from the state of exile. To get the message across, we must use the double-pronged approach that G-d employed prior to the exodus from Egypt: One must employ the Moses-Aaron approach. First, one ought to transmit the message simply, unadulterated. One must quote the Torah sources that point to the significant times in which we find ourselves and how we find ourselves on the threshold of Moshiach. We must then apply our oratorical and pedagogic skills to make this claim intelligible and acceptable.