Spiritual exile and redemption — we are all meant to be free

Spiritual exile and redemption — we are all meant to be free

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi James Gibson

Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1

Commenting on our parshah, the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) wondered why the Israelites had not cried out to God from the beginning of their bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt.  Their outcry is recorded only after the death of the old Pharaoh who had enslaved them in the first place.

The Sefat Emet wrote:

“My grandfather … commented that until the king died they were so deeply sunk in exile that they did not even feel it. But now the process of redemption began, and they became aware of their exile and started to sigh.”

He goes on to posit that there are different levels of redemption from exile.  Most of us, the Sefat Emet teaches, are on the middle rung of this ladder:

The middle rung [comprises] those who are prisoners in exile; they are unable to broaden out that point of divine life that is within them.

What is important for the Sefat Emet is that we see ourselves in the Torah.  The narrative is not only about what happened to our ancestors, but what is happening to us here and now.

He writes: That which is true of the people as a whole is true of each individual person as well.

The other two rungs he describes are for the humble, i.e., the righteous.  They already know they are in chains, but could free themselves if they wanted.  So why don’t they?

The Sefat Emet teaches that they remain in our midst to sustain us, the community.  They are our teachers, our beacons of light, even if we toil in darkness.

And the others?  They are the poor.  He calls them poor, not because of their lack of resources, but because they have no clue that they are in need of salvation.  He says that theirs is the greatest need.

And just as we are tempted to assign ourselves to one of these levels, the humble, the middle or the poor, the Sefat Emet opens our eyes to the real truth behind his teaching:  All three levels exist in each and every one of us.

It is up to us to recognize the form of bondage from which we might suffer. To be free, we must acknowledge it aloud and make the effort to escape from it.

To what are we in bondage?  Overwork?  Obsession with ourselves, or our health?  Helicoptering over our kids, even after they have left the nest?  Being consumed with our finances instead of enjoying them or even sharing them?  Or maybe we are slaves to worry, anxiety or desires we know we cannot control?

The Sefat Emet reminds us through the very beginnings of the Exodus story that each of us was always meant to be free, not just our people as a whole.

And where are we to find redemption?   Our tradition offers many paths.  Find a book, a class, a rabbi, a chevruta (study partner), a spiritual mentor.  Take on the discipline of regular Jewish prayer in your life.  Embrace the need of our community as your own.

We are all meant to be free.  It is our task to confront the pharaoh within even as Moses challenged the ruler of Egypt so long ago.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)