By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow
In Parshat Va-eira at Exodus 6:5-8, God makes five promises to Israel. He tells Moses to proclaim to B’nei Yisrael: “I will 1) free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and 2) deliver you from their bondage. I will 3) redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will 4) take you to be my people and I will be your God. … And I will 5) bring you into land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession.”
What is the meaning of each promise?
First of all, becoming free from the burdens of slavery simply means emancipation. There is also a deeper level of freedom. In “Torah Treasury,” Rabbi Moshe Lieber writes that one must “view enslavement as unbearable and to rebel psychologically against it.” The Hebrew word sivlot, burdens, could be interpreted as savlanut, tolerance. “As long as one is not disgusted and ‘fed up’ with” enslavement, “he (sic) is not ready” for liberation.
The second promise — deliverance from bondage — means breaking free from “the psychological mind-set of being a slave, which might persist even after you have been physically liberated.” (Etz Hayim, p. 352) The lingering effects of having lived as an oppressed people can last for an indefinite period.
According to one aggadah, when the Israelites were caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea of Reeds, one group of Israelites advised Moses, “Let’s return to slavery in Egypt. Perhaps the Egyptians will permit us to live.” God delayed entry into the Promised Land for the people of Israel because they devalued themselves after the 10 spies reported that they looked like grasshoppers in contrast to the giants that lived in the Land of Canaan (Numbers 13).
Their self-esteem remained at rock bottom because they had been so submissive during the long years of slavery. They did not think that they were up to fighting formidable foes.
An example in our time comes from the experience of the Holocaust. Ezra Dagan was an Israeli actor cast as the rabbi in “Schindler’s List.” Dagan wanted to get the personal feel of the Jews who had been in Auschwitz. He went to visit a friend whose father was a survivor. When Dagan arrived at his friend’s home, his father was taking a meal.
Dagan was amazed by how fast the old man was eating everything on his plate. “Does your father always eat at so frenzied a rate?” Dagan asked. The friend responded, “I never noticed it but you are right. It must be a lifesaving lesson he never unlearned from his years in Nazi labor camps” (Noam Zion and David Dishon, ”A Different Night”).
The third promise — God’s act of redemption with an outstretched arm and extraordinary chastisements — is a foreshadowing of the plagues and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army at the Sea of Reeds. The Hebrew verb for redeem is ga’al. It is a verb used in the context of family feuds in Tanakh. This is the biblical equivalent of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. If you do something to a member of my family, I am going to pay you back by doing the same to a member of your family.
God’s redemption at the Sea of Reeds is another punitive part of the story of the Exodus, paying the Egyptians back in kind for the cruel bondage with the plagues and with the drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds. The sages were uncomfortable with the gruesome devastation of the plagues and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.
The discomfort they felt is still present in Judaism when we read the Passover Haggadah. As we call out the names of the plagues one by one, we dip our forefingers into our wine cups and take out a drop of wine and flick it off the finger at the mention of every plague. The purpose of this custom is that we diminish our own joy of being liberated from slavery because of the loss of Egyptian lives.
The fourth promise — “I will take you to be My people and I will be your God” — prefigures the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. The biblical language used to describe the relationship between God and Israel is the same as that used in the Bible to describe marriage. God “takes” Israel the way a man “takes” a wife. There is a reciprocal devotion in this relationship: As God takes Israel, God becomes Israel’s sole deity. The Torah metaphorically is the ketubah.
The fifth promise is bringing Israel to the Promised Land. In 1950, Rabbi Menahem Kasher published his Israel Passover Haggadah. In it he proposed the drinking of the fifth cup to represent the establishment of the state of Israel and requested that the chief rabbinate officially institute drinking the fifth cup at the Passover seder. The chief rabbinate dismissed his request on the grounds that the fifth promise has not yet been fully realized. Thus the cup of Elijah is the stand-in for the fifth cup, as we await the days for the complete safety of our people in Israel and for our communities throughout the world to free of anti-Semitic activity.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is retired, but continues to teach in various venues in metro Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.