This is the time of year when we Jews read the story of “Yetzi’at Mitzrayim,” the Exodus from Egypt. (It is part of our yearly reading of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses.) The experience of slavery in Egypt and God’s wondrous redemption is central to the mission of Judaism, and, as such, it is full of lessons. I would like to share three.
First, seemingly small actions can make a big difference. In Exodus 1, we read about the pharaoh’s attempts to prevent a future deliverer. He orders the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the newborn boys. These lowly midwives refuse the imperial command and bring both boys and girls into life. They are subtle about it, however. Instead of defying the pharaoh to his face, they make up an excuse: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have already given birth” (Exodus 1:19). These two brave women defy the immoral command and save many lives. Their effectiveness might be limited — they cannot free the slaves and do away with the oppression, but they can do something. Their example is one for us to remember. Small things can make a big difference in the lives of the people who are helped.
Second, God gives us time to repent. Why does it take 400 years before God frees the Hebrew slaves? One answer is that God keeps hoping for a human solution. The Midrash suggests that God is hoping that the Israelites will free themselves, but there is also the interpretation that God is hoping for someone in the many generations of oppressing pharaohs to realize the evil of their ways and repent. A similar thought is found in the Canaanite presence in Canaan. God gives them the land and lets them live there as long as they behave. However, once they start acting immorally, God gives them time to fix things themselves. This is why, God explains in Genesis 15.16, the Israelites have to spend four generations in slavery: “The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Their sins are building up, but God keeps hoping that they will realize their evil and repent. God wants them to avoid divine punishment. This is a lesson for us to remember when we are misbehaving and not getting caught. Wrong is still wrong; sin is still sin. It may take a while before our evil catches up with us, but eventually it will. Better to stop our sinfulness now — while there is still time to improve.
Third, patience is important. It takes 400 years of slavery before God effects the redemption from Egypt. Four hundred years! Though our tradition speaks of the suffering, the main message is that eventually God saves us. Eventually — after lots of waiting. It would be wonderful if the problems of our lives could or would be solved instantaneously, but the nature of reality is that some problems are not amenable to immediate fixes. We need to be patient — not inactive or undemanding, but patient. Patience is a psychic attitude that realizes that change and improvement can sometimes take a while. When we can take the long view and practice patience, it makes the intervening waiting time better.
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Though we have read the story of the Exodus many times before, lessons and insights remain. It is worth our continuing attention.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.