Rabbi Berel Wein
The Torah leaves us basically unprepared for its description of the events that are recorded for us in this week’s parsha. When we last left the family of Israel at the conclusion of last week’s parsha of Vayechi, the Jews found themselves comfortable, affluent, protected, and settled well in the land of Goshen. The Torah does not describe to us the process by which this situation so radically changed into becoming a slave state for the Jews. It only tells us of a new king who didn’t know Yosef and, for reasons not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, became a hater and persecutor of the Jews. The Torah seems to indicate that this is almost a natural state of affairs – to be expected. The Egyptian exile begins on a high note, deteriorates into abject sorrow and attempted genocide and ends with miraculous redemption. The Torah does not dwell upon any motives for the occurrence of this pattern of events. What did the Jews do wrong? Why was the Pharaoh such a hater? What were the economic or social factors of the time that allowed for such a dramatic worsening of the Jewish position in Egypt? The Torah addresses none of these issues. It is almost as if the Torah wishes us to understand that these things happen blindly in human history. And, particularly in Jewish history, that the attempts of historians and sociologists to explain these irrational events and behavior patterns are really useless. As has been often pointed out, all subsequent Jewish exiles – Babylonia, Spain, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Muslim Middle East – all seem to eerily conform to this original Egyptian template. As usual, the Torah leaves us with more questions than it provides answers for. In effect, that is why the Torah is called the Book of Human Life. We are also unprepared to recognize the savior of Israel in the person of Moses.
We are told how he was miraculously saved from the crocodiles of the Nile by the daughter of the Pharaoh and raised in the royal court. He sympathizes with the brutalized Jewish slaves, defends them, and is forced to flee from Egypt. We hear nothing regarding Moses for the next sixty years until he reemerges as a shepherd in Midyan, married to the daughter of Yitro, the local religious chief who, at this time, is still a pagan. Hardly the resume that one would expect for the leader of Israel, the greatest of all prophets and the teacher of all human kind. Where did his holiness and greatness stem from, how was it developed, who were his mentors and what were his experiences over those long decades of separation from his people? The Torah gives us no clue or answer to these questions. It effectively points out that greatness oftentimes comes from unexpected sources and from people and leaders who operate outside of the usual establishment circles. All of life is a mystery and certainly the Jewish story remains in its base an inexplicable one. This sets the stage for everything else that will now follow in the Torah. It is why the Jewish people, when accepting the Torah pledge to G-d that “we will do and then perhaps try to understand,” if we wish to understand first, we will never come to do. The Divine hand guides us, but it is never subject to our rational thoughts and explanations.