Our parashat hashavua (“parashah of the week”) finds us far from home and ancestral memory; we are in Egypt, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But “there arose a king who did not know Joseph” (still a Jewish way to say “things are going to get worse now”), and our comfortable, protected status as guests of the crown ended. In a shockingly short time, we were enslaved, and the Egyptians who had been our neighbors became our willing persecutors. If this sounds familiar, it is because this story has happened to us more than once, most recently in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
The fall from prosperity into slavery and persecution begins very early in the book Shemot (Exodus), within ten verses of the beginning of chapter 1. Late in chapter 2, in the middle of our parashah, just at the beginning of the reading for the second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read:
And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned by reason of the bondage. (Shemot, “Exodus”, 2:23)
Why, the commentators ask, is it written only here that the Israelites cried out because of their suffering? What took them so long? One early modern commentator offers:
“Until this point, the Children of Israel were so deeply sunk in their galut that they could not even sense it. But now, when the first budding of their redemption began to emerge, they could begin to feel the depth of their suffering.” (Hiddushei ha-Rim, “Innovative Interpretations by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Rothenberg, 1789-1866).
According to Jewish tradition, G-d responded as soon as the Israelites cried out for relief. Why not earlier? we might ask in outrage: is this not a form of blaming the victim? I should have to scream before someone helps me?
No: rather, one has to realize that one is suffering before one becomes ready to accept the help that was already there, and available. When you are immersed in suffering, you do not believe in the reality of escape. Perhaps your thinking is that you do not deserve it, or that it’s not so bad, or that it’s too embarrassing to admit.
Galut, “exile”, is most painfully exile from oneself, and from G-d. The worst kind of suffering is that from which we do not believe there is relief. And the most important blessing we can be to each other is to do what Jews have always done when confronted with exile of any kind: stay together, help each other, and remind each other that it is when we can see and react to our galut that we begin to be able to heal it.
What suffering might you become aware of? what relief is already nearby, if you are ready to admit your pain? Go ahead; reach out for it, and in so doing may you realize your own strength to help others toward it as they help you. As we recited according to the minhag (custom) for finishing Bereshit last week and and getting ready to read the next book of our Torah: hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen each other.”