This week, we read of Moshe’s trials and the challenges he faces in trying, with God’s help, to liberate B’Nai Yisrael. There was the stubbornness of Pharaoh, of course, and his unwillingness to obey his upstart step-son. But even before dealing with the King, Moshe must convince his own people that there was hope, there was redemption on the very near horizon. Moshe has grave doubts about whether he can do it. Why?
The Torah tells us that God spoke to Moshe saying that he would bring the people out of Egypt. The exact wording is:
וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם
Now, Sivlot is generally translated as “burdens”, but it has another meaning in Hebrew, “patience”, Savlanut. If we use this alternate translation, the verse would read, “I will deliver you from being patient with Egypt. Last week in SHEMOT B’Nai Yisrael criticized Moshe and Aharon for having agitated Pharaoh by calling for their freedom. They had become so used to slavery that they were not willing to make any sacrifice for freedom. Slavery had become an acceptable way of life for them. This is similar to people who are incarcerated and begin to define their lives as inmates. They are said to have an institutional mentality. We even hear of some inmates who get in fights just before they’re going to be released; it’s their way of trying to remain in their familiar prison setting. The Jews certainly qualified for this sort of “institutionalized” thinking. And this is not the last time they beg to stay slaves. Because we have seen a few cycles of the Torah, we know that in a few weeks, we will be recounting the people’s reminiscences of their days of servitude, remembering the good old days, when we had fish, squash, melons, leeks, cucumbers, onions and garlic!
Moshe’s first challenge, then, was to overcome the tolerance of enslavement. We, as Americans raised in a country where liberty is most highly prized, can understand how tragic it is when people who have been deprived of basic human rights do not even perceive a problem.
Moshe was a leader who went forth to the people, among the people, inspiring them to reject slavery as a way of life. He first had to have them feel their deprivation before he could, with God’s help, effect a change. So this tells us that strong leadership really means three things: first, helping people to realize that their lives are not what they should be; second, showing those same people that they can have a better life and what that might look like; AND, finally, convincing the people that they are strong enough to accomplish that. When the people are especially “stiff-necked,” like b’nai Yisreal, that’s not an easy thing to do!