The signs that God gives Moses: his staff turning into a snake; his hand becoming covered in white scales and then returning to its normal state; and turning water into blood, are meant as a means for Moses to convince the Israelites of God’s power and intention to free them from slavery. But we learn that when Moses tells the Israelites that God is going to free them, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.”
In Midrash Tanchuma, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi considers this to be a sign of their physical abilities. Over the years they had been so badly beaten and injured while working that many of them had physical limitations, which would keep them from leaving Egypt. The people didn’t believe they physically had it in them to make the journey; they doubted their abilities.
In addition to the doubts of their physical abilities the people had a psychological bondage that they had to break as well. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha points out that the people had learned to tolerate the work that they were forced to do and the abuses they endured. They had become so used to their condition that they didn’t see it out of the ordinary.
We all have our limitations. The question is whether or not those limitations keep us from succeeding. Do we give in to them or do we rise above and find a way to achieve goals that we set? In the conclusions of both the Midrash from Tanchuma as well as the teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunim we learn that God recognizes the limitations of the people and thus works to get the process started.
We have the opportunity to face this issue twice a year; once now in the yearly cycle of Torah Reading and once at Passover. I would even suggest that the period of reflection surrounding the High Holidays and the counting of the omer also serve this purpose. Breaking free from our own bondage is so difficult that our tradition gives us many opportunities to focus on it. These times are also times of community. They are times when we can lean on others to find the support needed to make the break.
Let us be the support that others need and let us seek out the help we need to break free. Let us be Moses and bring signs that others need to convince them that they can do it and that now is the time. Let us bring Godliness into the world and get things started.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)