Weekly Torah Commentary — Va’eira January 20, 2012

The Biblical account of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt has been one of the most inspiring stories for the oppressed, enslaved and downtrodden throughout history. The narrative of the Exodus has provided countless peoples with the courage to hope for a better future, and to act on their dream.

After Moses’ first visit to Pharaoh demanding ‘Let My people go’ the Egyptian monarch increased their torture. The Hebrews didn’t want to hear anything more about the promise of redemption. Now look with me at the next verse, a seemingly strange verse in the weekly portion, Va’eira:

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.

G-d is charging Moses with two directives: Command the people of Israel and then command Pharaoh the king. The message for Pharaoh is clear: Let the children of Israel out of Egypt. But what is it that Moses is supposed to command the people themselves?

The answer to this question is profoundly simple and moving, and is vital to the understanding of freedom from a Torah perspective.

Before Pharaoh can liberate the Jewish slaves, they, themselves, must be ready to become free. You can take a man out of slavery, but it is an entirely different matter to take the slavery out of a man. Externally, you may be free; internally you may still be enslaved.

What is the first and foremost symptom of bring free? That you learn to give freedom to others.
The dictator, the control freak, or the abusive spouse or parent, does not know how to give others freedom. He (or she) feels compelled to force others into the mold that he has created for them. Uncomfortable in his own skin, he is afraid that someone will overshadow him, expose his weaknesses, usurp his position or make him feel like an “extra” in this world. He may appear powerful, but inwardly his power is a symptom of his own inner misery and insecurity.

Only when we learn to embrace others, not for who we would like them to be, but for whom they truly are, can we begin to embrace ourselves, not for whom we wish we were, but for exactly who we are. When we free those around us, we are freeing ourselves. By accepting them, we learn to accept ourselves.

He alone is powerful who empowers others. He alone is free who can free others. He alone is a true leader who creates other leaders.

I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” So let us ask ourselves, do we know how to celebrate the soaring success of our loved ones and acquaintances? Do we encourage them to spread their wings and maximize their potentials? Are we able to allow others to shine without feeling ourselves diminished?

Anyone can be set free physically. But former slaves can easily become present tyrants if their release from slavery is only physical and not mental and emotional. If the inner attitudes of the mind and heart don’t change, removing the external bondage of slavery does little good. People who were abused often become abusers themselves. It is what they know about life so the cycle goes on.

The first Mitzvah the Jews had to hear from Moses before he could appeal to Pharaoh to let them go was this: Hashem, your G-d, wants Pharaoh to set you free but only you can set yourself free from within. Freedom is a gift from on high, not just for you, but that you should also pass it on to others. You will only be able to do that if you set your own soul free, leaving the past behind and moving on with your whole heart and soul, not just your body.

In Tune with Torah this week = resolving to accept our loved ones and friends exactly as they are – right now – and loving them without reservation; giving our children and grandchildren the “right” to fail if necessary and still know that they are loved. A wise man I knew years ago said something I’ve never forgotten: to deny a man the right to fall is to deny him the right to grow. May we all grow through our own past mistakes but having learned the lesson, move on to greater and greater maturity in life.

Shabbat Shalom

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