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Parashat Shemot: Galut and Geulah – Intertwined Processes

Excerpted from The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms of Leadership by Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, co-published by OU Press and KTAV

Galut and Geulah: Intertwined Processes

Parashat Shemot deals with galut Mitzrayim, our exile in Egypt, and at the same time begins to relate the first steps toward our geulah, our liberation. A closer look into the parsha illuminates for us that galut and geulah are not separate, discrete events. Both are processes that occur over long periods of time, and are linked together and overlap in multiple, significant ways.

The parashah opens with the genesis of the oppression of the Jews in Egypt. A new Pharaoh now occupies the throne in Egypt, and he immediately develops a deadly paranoia regarding the Jews. He bemoans not only their rapid demographic growth, but also their growing success in Mitzrayim: “vayirbu vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od, vatimalei ha-aretz otam.” The Klausenberger Rebbe interprets the latter part of that verse to mean that the Jews had successfully penetrated every sector of Egyptian society.

Pharaoh’s response is immediate and comprehensive: the enslavement of the Jewish people through harsh and backbreaking labor. This introduction to the long episode of enslavement – the galut Mitzrayim – is condensed into only six verses at the beginning of the parashah. Only several verses separate that account from the Torah’s description of the birth of Moshe, his discovery in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, and his upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace. Then, just a few verses later, we read, “Vayigdal Moshe, vayetzei el eḥav, vayar b’sivlotam,” Moshe matures and seeks out his brothers. He sees and empathizes with their suffering.

Moshe demonstrates his connection with his enslaved brethren by killing an Egyptian who was beating a Jew; as a result, he is forced to flee Egypt. In Moshe’s exile in Midian, God appears to him in a burning bush and persuades him – overcoming Moshe’s great humility – to undertake the mission to liberate the Jews from Egypt.

This is the first demonstration that galut and geulah are not separate and distinct events, but a process in which they are interlinked. Geulah is not confined solely to the termination of galut. The process of geulah is initiated by God through the identification of the Jewish people’s future leader, stimulating in him a psychological disposition for his mission, and finally recruiting him and providing him with the tools and motivation to undertake that mission. The initiation and first steps of the geulah process occur almost simultaneously with the onset of the darkness that descends upon the Jewish people in Mitzrayim.

The second half of the parashah provides an even better example of this principle. Following God’s instruction, Moshe, with his brother at his side, visits with the zekenim, the leaders of the Jewish people in Egypt, and convinces them and the people that the liberation from Egypt is forthcoming. “Vaya’amen ha’am,” the people declare their faith in Moshe and his mission.

Recruited by God and now encouraged by the response of the elders and the people, Moshe, accompanied by his brother Aharon, appears before Pharaoh’s court. “Ko amar Hashem . . . shalaḥ et ami,” Thus has God spoken, let My people go. Pharaoh’s response is defiant: Who is this God that I must follow His orders? Indeed, Pharaoh responds by increasing the labor the Jews must accomplish. The Egyptian overseers instruct their Jewish counterparts to increase the quota and speed of production of the Jewish slaves. The Jewish overseers angrily confront Moshe and Aharon after their meeting with Pharaoh. They complain that instead of relieving them as promised, they have caused their situation to become even more desperate than before.

The Torah here relates two remarkable responses to this dire turn of events. Moshe returns to God and asks, “Why have you sent me on this alleged mission of liberation?” “Ume’az bati el Pharaoh . . . hera la’am hazeh, vehatzel lo hitzalta et amekha,” since my mission, You have not only not liberated the Jews; You have, in fact, worsened their situation.

God responds, “Ata tir’eh asher e’eseh l’Pharaoh ki v’yad ḥazakah yishalḥem,” Pharaoh will ultimately liberate the Jews, and you yourself will witness it. As I indicated earlier, galut and geulah are intertwined processes. God indeed instructed Moshe to visit Pharaoh and demand of him the liberation of the Jewish people. But liberation, explains Rav Uzi Kalchaim, is not a linear process, not always ascending. It is instead a curvilinear process, with ups and downs, some steps forward, followed by retreats – some steps backward.

Liberation can be compared to childbirth. There is never a set time for a child’s birth. Much depends on the condition of the mother and the child. If the child is not fully ready for birth, he or she remains in the womb for a longer period of time. What God is advising Moshe is that the time is not yet fully ripe for geulah. The Jews are not ready, not fully prepared for their redemption. Some further actions are required on their part. Those changes will surely come. “Ata tir’eh,” you yourself will lead that liberation – when the conditions that we will together foster and create will fully warrant their liberation.

Geulah, as I have suggested, is not a distinct event set in time, but a process – intimately linked with both the circumstances of our galut and our creating the appropriate conditions to prepare for our own liberation.

As it was in Egypt then, so too in our exile today.