The Art of Looking Back
Parshas Va'era begins with a guarantee from Hashem that he would take the Jewish People out from “Under the burden” that the Egyptians were putting on them. The Be’er Yosef makes a powerful point based on one letter in the Torah.
The verse says: "Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G-d. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians."
Now, I am sufficiently scarred from my school days to have basically sworn off any Hebrew spelling or grammar nuances, but this one is quite simple. And the lesson is worth it.
Rabbi Salant points out that in the first mention of the word “labors” it is spelled with one less letter than in the second mention (one has the letter vav and the other does not). The spelling works either way, but the second word, representing the suffering the Jews, is written in a fuller way. It seems strange that the same words written so close to one another would have two different spellings.
This is the end of the grammar. I promise.
The creative and brilliant Rabbi Salant was a man of such insight into the human psyche. I have found so many of his discussions to be spot on. He explains that the nature of a difficult life circumstance is often such that we are completely unaware of the full extent of the difficulty at the time we experience the event. Many different psychological issues bear this out. For example, one who experiences a trauma often finds himself feeling okay in the immediate aftermath. At the time of the trauma he may have very little insight into what an effect this will have on his later emotional health. Many who are depressed are not fully aware of the extent of the social isolation that they are slowly creating around themselves. And many who are crushed by anxiety don’t fully recognize the extent to which they have gone to arrange their lives in a way that avoids all possibilities of anything anxiety inducing. It is often (though not always) only later that a person who has left the darkness of their predicament can look back and realize what a dark place they were in. The contrast gives us insight into our previous darkness. Sometimes it’s because the descent downward was subtle and not recognizable. Other times like with a sudden trauma we might be too shocked to fully engage with the event.
Rav Salant explains that this is what Hashem was telling Moshe. The first line is what Moshe was told to tell the Jewish people. Tell the Jewish people that I am removing them from their current suffering. This word of suffering is missing a letter, as if to say that their current awareness of their suffering is not fully accurate. The second line is a retrospective line. After I free you, G-d says, you will know that it was I who took you out of the great pain you were in. Hashem was instructing Moshe that for now, all they can hear is that Hashem will remove them from their current predicament- they are aware of the dissatisfaction of being slaves but they can only relate to that on a very physical level. Slaves don't have personal rights and that's something they’d like to restore. That's about all Moshe can promise them now. But Hashem says that when they are later reflecting, sometime in the future, about the redemption that Hashem had brought upon them, at that point they will have had the time to be able to reflect. They likely will have realized that their emotional state had been in disarray. They likely will look back and see how their spiritual state had devolved almost to a point of return.
In other words Hashem is saying that right now you can just tell them I will take them out of suffering they are aware of, but I am also guaranteeing- in order to make this hellish experience something they can grow from- that upon looking back, they will have that insight to realize how low they had fallen in all areas of their lives.
We are almost a year into the pandemic and my greatest fear is that we forget what human interaction is. What normal is. We are likely aware of ways in which we have suffered through this, but the scary part is that there are probably parts of ourselves that we have lost and don’t even remember.
It is my hope and prayer, and deep belief that just as Hashem reminded the Jewish people of all that they had lost after taking us out of Mitzrayim, so too will we be blessed with the memories of what we had before this pandemic, the relationships we cherish, the social interactions we relied on and the spiritual rhythm we were in touch with. Hashem should give us the insight to remember our previous stature and the courage to reclaim that which we have lost in all areas of our lives.
Rabbi Sonnenblick can be reached at email@example.com.