Shmot D’var: Stopping to Taste Freedom
“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out, and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)
Out in the wilderness, Moses stumbles across a burning bush that was consumed. From the bush, God instructs him to go back to Egypt and tell Pharoah to let his people go. Pretty straight forward telling of the story, right? What appears simple, however, is a bit more involved. Let’s explain.
The king who dies in our verse is the ruler referred to in Exodus chapter one, “A new king arose over Egypt who knew Joseph not.” This is the Egyptian king who pressed the Hebrews into bondage and later instituted against them genocidal policies (including tossing male newborns into the Nile).
This king dies. The Israelites’ groaning and crying of Exodus 2:23 therefore stems from something that took place under the reign of his successor, soon after the new king assumed control.
Hiddushei HaReem takes a crack at it: “While the (first) king was alive, the Israelites were so enmeshed in Galut that their slavery didn’t weight heavily on them. When that king dies, their load is lightened such that they begin to appreciate the bitterness of Galut. They begin to groan under the weight; these groans were the beginning of the redemption.”
A couple of clarifications of the Reem are in order. First, the term Galut connotes “a lifestyle not in keeping with God’s intentions,” i.e., slavery. Second, the Reem’s observation that their load was lightened seems to allude to the ancient practice of new kings upon coronation to allow a brief respite from toil. This respite was intended to endear the new king to his subjects and slaves.
Exodus 2:23 then, implies that, while the first king lived, there was never respite from the toil of slavery. So unremitting was their toil, the Israelites lacked the opportunity to gain even a mental perspective of an alternative. When the old king dies and the new king subsequently gives them a brief respite, now, for the first time, they can imagine freedom. Now, when their toil resumes, they begin groaning (and soon after, crying out). Reason being, they have had the experience, however brief, of not being under the constant burden of slavery.
That new perspective ushers in a singular, historic moment: the moment of the beginning of redemption. But the key is this: only after they had tasted freedom, can they truly appreciate the depth of their misery. Only now are they ready for freedom.
One needn’t be held in slavery, to be oppressed by certain burdens. Some examples: The drudgery of a job we don’t care for; habits we aren’t able to break; a poor attitude about our surroundings; a bleak outlook on life — just to name a few situations which can hold one in a kind of slavery. And those burdens may be so unremitting that we’ve simply accepted them, learned to live with them, perhaps even said to ourselves “there’s no way out; that’s just the way things have to be.”
What if there were a way out?
It would have to begin with a respite of sorts, like the respite afforded our ancestors in Egypt at the beginning of the new king’s reign. In fact, such a respite exists. We call it Shabbat. Consider: the Friday evening Kiddush calls Shabbat “zekher l’tziyat Mitzra’yim,” a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt. How is Shabbat a memorial to the Exodus? The answer lies in the commentary of the Reem: a short period of rest during the miserable depths of slavery in Egypt provided the perspective that elicited the groans and cries that rose up to God, alerting Him that the Israelites were ready for freedom.
Thus the case for observing Shabbat. It’s difficult, if at all possible, to address things that weigh on us when we are so busy we can’t even stop to notice. With no opportunity to stop and temporarily lighten our load, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to become aware of exactly what burdens us and how miserable it makes us. Only by stopping to taste freedom can we begin to look for ways to break free of our own bondage. Without a groan and a cry, we are stuck in slavery.