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Yosef Y. Jacobson
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

A philosopher went to a deserted island for ten years to contemplate the meaning of life. When he returned, he met an old colleague, who asked where in heaven's name he had been for all those years.

"Off on a deserted isle," he replied. "I wanted to know what life really is."

"And have you found an answer?"

"Yes," he replied. "I think it can best be expressed by saying that life is like a bridge."

"That's all well and good," replied the colleague, "but can you be a little more explicit? Can you tell me how life is like a bridge?"

"Oh," replied the philosopher after some thought, "Maybe you're right; perhaps life is not like a bridge."

A People Flee

The Torah portion of Beshalach commences the tale of the Hebrews fateful voyage from Egypt toward Israel (1): "When Pharaoh let the people leave, G-d did not lead them along the Philistine highway [along the Mediterranean coast], although it was the shorter route… G-d made the people take a roundabout path by way of the desert to the Red Sea."

Then, in a surprising turn of events, the Bible continues (2): "It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled. And the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, 'What have we done? How could we have released Israel from serving us?'"

There is a blatant contradiction here. The Torah opens the story by stating that "Pharaoh let the people leave" Egypt. Indeed, as we will recall from last week's portion, not only did Pharaoh consent to their departure, but the Egyptian king insisted and pleaded that they leave his country (3):

"Pharaoh rose up at midnight… He called to Moses and Aaron at night and said, 'Rise up! Go out from among my people -- you and the Israelites! Go! Worship G-d just as you demanded! Take your sheep and cattle, just as you said! Go! Bless me too!' The Egyptians were also urging the people to hurry and leave the land."

Clearly, the Jewish people did not escape. Pharaoh and his subjects sent them off with unequivocal urgency. Yet, only several verses later, the text introduces us to an entirely new story: "It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled." How could Pharaoh perceive of the people as fleeing Egypt, when he himself had begged them to leave?

A Three-Day Retreat Vs. Total Liberation

As usual, the biblical text itself hints at the solution to this question. When Pharaoh urges Moses to leave the land, he chooses his words carefully: "Rise up! Go out from among my people -- you and the Israelites! Go! Worship G-d just as you demanded!" The key phrase here is, "Just as you demanded." Pharaoh was allowing the Hebrews to leave under the conditions that Moses demanded.

Throughout their encounters, Moses never asks of Pharaoh to liberate the Hebrews completely, only to allow them a three-day vacation in the desert. The very first time Moses visits Pharaoh, he makes this point clearly (4): "The G-d of the Hebrews has revealed Himself to us. Please, allow us to take a three-day journey into the desert and let us sacrifice to our G-d."

As the drama continues, following the fourth of ten devastating plagues that befell the Egyptian nation, Pharaoh summons Moses and declares (5): "Go! You have permission to sacrifice to your G-d here in the land." To which Moses replies: "What we must do is make a three day journey into the desert. There we will be able to sacrifice to our G-d, just as He will tell us."

A careful reading of these texts leads us to an intriguing conclusion: Moses and Aaron never communicated to Pharaoh that the Jewish people craved complete liberation. They demanded merely a three-day religious retreat into the desert, following which they were presumably to return to slavery in Egypt!

Clearly, then, when Pharaoh finally consents to their release, saying, "Rise up! Go out from among my people -- you and the Israelites! Go! Worship G-d just as you demanded!" the king is consenting to Moses' demand, namely, to a three-day "holiday," in the desert. Not a day more. Pharaoh was under the impression that they would leave Egypt for three days.

Now we can make sense of the strange shift in the biblical story. When three days passed and the Hebrews did not return, Pharaoh realized that they had fled Egypt, without any thought of returning, contrary to Moses' message to him that they would be gone only for three days (6).

Why the Deception?

Yet, this inspires a simple but disturbing question. Why was Moses so deceivingly ambiguous? At the onset, when he was just approaching Pharaoh, we can appreciate a strategy of demanding a small gesture, in order to win Pharaoh's approval. However, following ten crushing plagues, after which Pharaoh rose in the middle of the night pleading with Moses to leave his land, Moses could have most certainly shared with Pharaoh the simple truth that the Jews had no plan of ever returning to his cursed and brutal country, where innocent children were drowned and men were subject to slave-labor and torture!

At this stage, after the death of every Egyptian firstborn, fearing his own death, Pharaoh was subdued (if he hadn't been, he would have refused even a three-day departure, just as he has until this point). It is clear that Pharaoh, at this stage, would have agreed to any demand of Moses. Why did Moses feel compelled to manipulate his mind?

Clearly, Moses felt that for some reason, it was necessary that the Jewish departure from their Egyptian exile occur without the approval of Egypt. If Pharaoh would agree -- under impossible pressure -- to the Hebrew liberation, the mission would have been flawed. Pharaoh needed to be deceived and betrayed. Why?

The Psychological Story

The answer to this question lay in recalling that the biblical story of the Egyptian exile and exodus, like all biblical stories, is more than a historical or political tale about physical bondage and liberty that transpired 3300 years ago. It is also a psychological and spiritual drama about the inner dynamics of slavery and freedom, and as such, serves as a metaphor for the timeless quest for emancipation in the heart of every human being.

The Hebrew term for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means barriers, constraints, obstructions, representing all the forces that obstruct a person from becoming who he or she really is. Every one of us professes our own inner "Mitzrayim," those voices or powers that hold us down from living a truly meaningful and profound life. It may be anxiety, fear, addiction, arrogance, loneliness, despair, insecurity, laziness, dishonesty or envy. It may stem from negative life experiences, such as a dysfunctional family, broken relationships, health problems, mental challenges, financial defeat, or, heaven forbid, loss of loved ones. These challenges, among many more, can bring about a state of psychological exile, in which we remain stuck in the quagmire of torment, paralysis and hopelessness, never discovering our inner calling and potential.

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, symbolizes "the king of obstructions (7)" -- that inner voice or power ensuring that we do not leave our inner Egyptian exile; that we continue to cling to our enslaving patterns, habits, inclinations and behaviors.

In contrast, the Biblical story of exodus embodies the human potential to liberate itself from physical, mental and spiritual slavery. It captures our power to transcend the barriers that obstruct the heart's inner glow; our ability to encounter a beacon of freedom beneath the stratums of the psyche; our courage to discover our inner power and dignity.

The Great Mistake

Yet here is the big question, how much inner harmony must one achieve in order to obtain psychological freedom? Must you first gain the full consent of your inner "Pharaoh's," of your inner demons, in order to be set free? If there is a part of your psyche that never consents to your liberation, should you still make the attempt? Can such a fragmented condition be defined as freedom at all?

Many individuals abandon their battle for inner freedom, since after all of their toil they never rid themselves from the "opposition." Freedom, in their minds, equals complete inner integration, a kind of psychological utopia, in which every bone of their body and chord of their psyche embraces the path of a free life, free from all evil, ugliness, pain, anxiety and struggle. Since they never reach this state, they surrender to a life of "quiet desperation" (in Thoreau's famous expression), filled with inner conflict and strife.

Judaism, in its noble insistence that every person is capable of genuine freedom, postpones this absolute vision of emancipation to the Messianic era. In the here and now, Judaism teaches, redemption necessitates not the obliteration of all negativity and darkness within the human heart. Freedom requires not a spirit free of fluctuating moods and dispositions, for that is usually not feasible. Disassociation from the path of addiction, promiscuity, selfishness and emptiness, even prior to the sublimation of these forces, constitutes an authentic expression of human triumph and emancipation. The experience of escaping evil, even without transforming it, is a feat worthy of profound celebration.

The Hebrews of the biblical generation were not completely transformed souls. Their inner "Pharaoh's" resisted their liberation. They did not rid themselves from the voice urging them to remain in exile. The physical, concrete story of their exodus, involving the betrayal of Pharaoh's consent and the deception of his mind, closely reflected the spiritual story of their exodus, one in which there is always a demon who will explain to you why you ought to remain an addict.

Freedom is the ability to celebrate the fact that notwithstanding all of the inner battles compelling you to remain in the abyss, you profess the vision and courage to fight for Truth. Human liberty is not about holy people doing holy things; it is, rather, about unholy people doing holy things (8).

E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.org   


1) Exodus 13:17.
2) Ibid. 14:5.
3) Ibid. 12: 30-32.
4) Ibid. 5:3.
5) Ibid. 8:21-23.
6) This answer is indicated in Mechilta and Rashi to Exodus 14:5.
7) This powerful term was coined by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson (1880-1950) in a Chassidic discourse of 1950 (the last one he published during his lifetime). Sefer Hammamarim 5710 p. 134.
8) This essay is based on Tanya (by Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812), chapter 31.

Posted on April 19, 2005
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