Addressing your Distress
The book of Bereishit ended on a note of triumph for the family of Ya’akov. His children are reunited, and though they are living in Egypt, theirs is a position of relative privilege and Yosef remains in power. When Ya’akov dies, Yosef makes good on his1 promise and buries his father’s body in the land of Cana’an. However, when we enter the book of Shemot, the fortunes of the people of Israel are sharply reversed. With the passing of Yosef and his generation, their progeny are now enslaved and oppressed.2
Yet, almost immediately, the Torah tells us that God is aware of the suffering of His chosen people and dispatches Moshe to save them. At the burning bush God promises Moshe that not only will He save Benei Yisrael from their suffering, but He will also restore them to their ancestral homeland:
וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה פָּנָיו כִּי יָרֵא מֵהַבִּיט אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים: וַיֹּאמֶר ה' רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָיו: וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא אֶל אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ אֶל מְקוֹם הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי:
He said, “I am the god of your father; the god of Avraham, the god of Yitzhak, and the god of Ya’akov.” Moshe hid his face for he was afraid to gaze at God. God said, “I have indeed seen the suffering of my people who are in Egypt and I have heard their crying out on account of their oppressors for I have known their pain. And I will descend to save them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land, to a good and wide land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the land of the Canaanite, Hittite, Amorite, Prizite, Hivite, and Jebusite.”
R. Kalonymos Kalman Epstein,3 author of the Ma’or VaShemesh, asks two questions about this promise that God makes. His answer illuminates one of the most central principles of both what it means to serve God and what true service of God requires. He will suggest that what God is promising here is more than just physical redemption, He is also providing His people the psychological resources that they need to serve Him with joy.
The Ma’or VaShemesh’s first question is slightly technical: God speaks in the past tense, saying that He “has heard” the screaming of His beloved people and that He “has known” their pain. These verbs seem incongruous with the fact that the people are currently crying and that their suffering endures. Why does the verse speak of God’s hearing in the past tense about something that is still going on in the present?! God should have said, “I am listening” and “I do know.”
His second question concerns the nature of God’s promise to the people. Currently, the children of Israel are at the nadir of their sojourn in Egypt. They are being physically and psychologically4 tortured. What they want and what they need is to escape from slavery, yet God promises them so much more than they can even imagine. Not only will they be free from the control of the Egyptians, but they will be out of Egypt entirely. They will be a sovereign nation in a land flowing with milk and honey. The Ma’or VaShemesh asks why it is that God needs to promise them so much—and so much more than they are ready for. God could have—and perhaps even should have—addressed Himself to their immediate concern: their suffering and their safety. Then, afterwards, God could have promised them wealth, power, and happiness.
The Ma’or VaShemesh understands that God redeems His people not only to emancipate them from their slavery, but also to introduce them to a life of serving Him. To move them away from fruitless, back-breaking labor towards meaningful and spiritually rewarding service of the Divine. He therefore answers these questions through the lens of what the ideal service of God looks like.
מאור ושמש פרשת שמות
...אמנם עיקר עבדות ה' הן בתורה הן בתפילה צריך שתהיה מתוך שמחה - כמאמר הכתוב תחת אשר לא עבדת וגו' בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרוב כל (דברים כח:מז). וזהו עיקר נחת רוח לפניו יתברך כשישראל משמיעין קולם בתורה או בתפילה מתוך שמחה וחדוה…
וזהו ביאור הכתוב ויאמר ה' ראה ראיתי את עני עמי - כלומר שרואה אני את ענים שמחמתו אי אפשר להם לעבוד עבודתם לשמו יתברך מתוך שמחה והם עובדין אותי מתוך עצבות- מחמת צרת השיעבוד ואין נחת רוח לפני בזה. ואולם את צעקתם שמעתי מפני נוגשיו... שמאז קודם שנגפת אותם שמעתי את צעקתם שהיה קולם ערב עלי בעת צעקתם כהרימם קולם בהלל וזמרה מתוך שמחה. וגמר אומר כי ידעתי את מכאוביו… שאי אפשר להם שתהיה עבודתם בשמחה מצרת השיעבוד - וכן תאמר להם שאעלה אותם אל ארץ טובה ורחבה וגו' ויהיה להם רחבת ידים ואז ישמחו וירננו ויעבדוני מתוך שמחה ויהיו נחת רוח לפני.
Ma’or VaShemesh Parashat Shemot
Indeed the core of serving God whether through Torah or prayer must be out of joy, as the verse says, due to that you did not serve HaShem your God with joy and good-heartedness and an abundance of everything (Devarim 28:47). And this is the core of God’s pleasure, when Israel make their voices heard in Torah and prayer out of joy and happiness...
And this is the explanation of the verse, God said, “I have indeed seen the suffering of my people—that is to say, “I see their suffering on account of which it is impossible for them to serve His Blessed name out of joy and [instead] they serve Me out of sadness, because of the strain of the enslavement. And there is no pleasure before Me in this.
However, I have heard their crying out before (lit. on account of) their oppressors. For before you struck them I heard their crying out and their voice was pleasant to me at the time of their crying out, when they raised their voice in joyful praise and song.” And the end of the verse states, “For I have known their pain… that it is impossible for their service to be joyous because of the strain of slavery. So you (Moshe) should say to them that I will bring them up to that land, to a good and wide land that they will have leisure (lit. expansive hands) and they will rejoice and be glad and they will serve Me out of joy which will be My pleasure.”
According to the Ma’or VaShemesh, though the Jewish people were enslaved and oppressed, they continued to serve God and perform whatever ancestral traditions they had received from their parents.5 However, the quality of their service was lacking in that they were unable to serve God with joy. God speaks of the crying out of the Jewish people in the past tense because He is nostalgic for the days before the slavery when the Jews had the leisure, and therefore the ability, to pray and study and make joyful noise. God’s promise to Moshe about the Jewish people is not only about their physical state, but about their spiritual state by extension. God needs to promise the people that they will enter into the psychological space of security and leisure that the land of Israel represents. Only then will they be able to serve God with the joy that God Himself enjoys and takes pride in, which is the proper way to serve Him.
The Ma’or VaShemesh’s insight here is a departure from earlier and contemporary traditions which argue that serving God with joy depends on one’s perspective on the mitzvot. The Maggid Mishneh,6 the 14th century commentary on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, is representative of the view that the joy or gladness in performing mitzvot and serving God depends only on internal and intrinsic factors:
מגיד משנה - הלכות לולב פרק ח, הלכה טו
אמרו: ושבחתי אני את השמחה (קהלת ח:טו) - זו שמחה של מצווה (שבת ל, ב). ועיקר הדבר הוא, שאין ראוי לו לאדם לעשות המצות מצד שהן חובה עליו והוא מוכרח ואנוס בעשייתן, אלא חייב לעשותן והוא שמח בעשייתן, ויעשה הטוב מצד שהוא טוב, ויבחר באמת מצד שהוא אמת, ויקל בעיניו טרחן, ויבין כי לכך נוצר לשמש את קונו, וכשהוא עושה מה שנברא בשבילו, ישמח ויגיל, לפי ששמחת שאר דברים תלויה בדברים בטלים שאינן קיימים, אבל השמחה בעשיית המצוות ובלמידת התורה והחכמה היא השמחה האמיתית. וזהו ששלמה בדרכי מוסרו שיבח שמחת החכמה ואומר: בני אם חכם לבך ישמח לבי גם אני (משלי כג:טו).
Maggid Mishneh - Hilkhot Lulav 8:15
“They said, And I praise joy (Kohelet 8:15)—this is the joy of mitzvot” (Shabbat 30b). The crux of the matter is that it is not fitting for a person to do mitzvot because it is incumbent upon him and he is compelled and forced to do them, rather [he should perform them] because he is required to do them and doing them makes him happy. And he should do the good because it is good and choose truth because it is truth, and [then] their burden will be light in his eyes. And he will understand that this is why he was created—to serve his Creator. And when he does that for which he was created, he will be happy and rejoice. For the happiness of other things is dependent on empty things that don’t last, but the joy in doing mitzvot and learning Torah and wisdom—this is true happiness. And this is what Shlomo7 said in his book of wisdom when he praised the joy of wisdom: My son, if your heart is wise my heart rejoices as well (Mishlei 23:15).
The Maggid Mishneh understands that the happiness you experience in the performing of mitzvot depends on your evaluation of them; if you think they are valuable then you will find them meaningful and it will make you happy. In essence, your happiness is dependent entirely on your perspective. This understanding is also echoed in the thought of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav,8 a later contemporary of the Ma’or VaShemesh, who suffered from melancholia throughout his life. Many of his teachings are about the way that sadness can interfere with Divine service and what must be done to bring ourselves into the state of joy that inspires closeness to God.
ליקוטי מוהר"ן ח"ב - תורה כד
וְהַכְּלָל, שֶׁצָּרִיך לְהַתְגַּבֵּר מְאד בְּכָל הַכּחוֹת לִהְיוֹת אַך שָׂמֵחַ תָּמִיד כִּי טֶבַע הָאָדָם לִמְשׁך עַצְמוֹ לְמָרָה שְׁחֹרָה וְעַצְבוּת מֵחֲמַת פִּגְעֵי וּמִקְרֵי הַזְּמַן וְכָל אָדָם מָלֵא יִסּוּרִים עַל כֵּן צָרִיך לְהַכְרִיחַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ בְּכחַ גָּדוֹל לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד וּלְשַׂמֵּחַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יוּכַל וַאֲפִילּוּ בְּמִלֵּי דִּשְׁטוּתָא.
Likutei Moharan II, Torah 24
And the principle is that a person needs to overcome with all of his power and be happy constantly. For the nature of a person is to draw oneself to a dark humor and unhappiness because of various wounds and life-events. And every person is full of suffering. Therefore he needs to force himself with great strength to always be happy and to gladden himself in whatever way he can, even with silly things.
Though Rebbe Nahman understands that forces outside of one’s control can contribute to a person’s unhappiness, he fundamentally asserts that being happy is a choice that one must make. A person must take the reins of their own mood into their own hands and force themselves into constant joy.
The Ma’or VaShemesh’s perspective takes into account that it is not always possible for a person to decide to be happy, to force oneself into a mood of joyous satisfaction. When the people of Israel were suffering the indignities of slavery, the backbreaking labor and the lack of self-determination, they were not happy. And God did not expect them to be happy or to become happy through the sheer force of their own will. God understands that their ability to serve Him with joy depends on their external circumstances and that improving the conditions of their lives was something that the people were unable to do on their own. God would need to send Moshe to redeem them.
The Ma’or VaShemesh takes the blame off of the people and places it on God. If God wants us to be happy then He needs to improve our lot. The Ma’or VaShemesh understands that the boundary between one’s physical, psychological, and spiritual lives is porous and one can’t be expected to simply transcend everything that pulls them down. God sees that we need to be happy in order to serve Him, so He takes it upon Himself to understand why we are not happy and to do something about the material conditions of that unhappiness.
The Ma’or VaShemesh’s forgiving attitude should inspire us in two ways. The first is that he allows us to be broken, to be affected by our sorrow. He doesn’t insist that we “snap out of it” and do what it takes to convince ourselves that we have everything we need in order to serve God with joy. Instead he says that there will be times that we will be forced to serve God without joy. Our mood will not always be perfect and we will not always be pleasant, and God understands. God has no expectation that we will be invulnerable or immune to what life brings us and the difficult times that we have to get through.
And his teaching also inspires us to attack the root of the problem instead of the symptoms. If you have a friend who is depressed because she doesn’t have a job, don’t tell her that she should be happy with what she has, that everyone goes through tough times. Instead, help her land an interview. Work with her on her resume. If you know someone who feels lonely because he doesn’t have a partner, try to find him someone to love, make time in your schedule for him and make room for him at your table. Acknowledge that your friend is lonely because he is alone. It is easy to tell people that we are thinking of them and that we wish them the best, but the Ma’or VaShemesh teaches that to follow God’s example here requires more. We shouldn’t content ourselves with encouraging others to feel better, we should apply ourselves to making their lives better as a consequence of which, true happiness will come.
1 He may also have been thereby fulfilling God’s promise to Ya’akov that He will be with him in Egypt and will bring him back home to Cana’an. Though Ya’akov does not choose to go home in his lifetime, the safe return of his bones to his ancestral burial place could be seen as the return that God had assured. See Bereishit 46:4.
2 Shemot 1:6-14.
3 1751-1823, Poland.
4 See Shemot Rabbah 1:11. There are two psychologically manipulative moves that the midrash records. First, it suggests that the enslavement began with “peh rakh” gentle speech, implying that Benei Yisrael were tricked into slavery or were misled as to the true nature of the work. The midrash also explains that Pharaoh would have men do the work of women and women do the work of men, which the midrash assumes would be demoralizing and harmful to the Israelites’ sense of self, though we might critique the gender-essentialist assumptions underlying this interpretation.
5 There is some midrashic debate as to whether or not the Jews were assimilated in Egypt. The Zohar Hadash (Yitro 31a) argues that Benei Yisrael were steeped in the impurity of Egypt, whereas Pesikta Zutrata Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a states that Benei Yisrael maintained a distinct and holy identity.
6 R. Vidal of Tolosa 1283–1360, Spain.
7 According to Rabbinic tradition, King Solomon, Shlomo HaMelekh, is the author of Kohelet, Mishlei, and Shir HaShirim.
8 1772 –1810, Ukraine.