GALUS: A SISYPHEAN PUNISHMENT
January 6, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1003, Parsha Thought, VaEira

SHORTNESS OF BREATH AND HARD LABOR

At the end of last week’s parsha, the intolerable Egyptian oppression had gotten worse as a result of Moshe’s demands of Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go.

When Moshe complains of how things deteriorated since he was sent on his mission to Pharaoh, G-d responds by stating that he has heard the cries of the people, as recounted in this week’s parsha. G-d then elaborates on the way they will be liberated and uses four different expressions that underscore the glorious and comprehensive nature of their imminent Exodus (for which reason we drink four cups of wine at the Seder).

When Moshe reported G-d’s words to the Jewish slaves: “They did not listen to Moshe due to shortness of breath and hard labor.”

When G-d told Moshe to speak to Pharaoh again, Moshe argues: “If the children of Israel did not listen to me, then how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have sealed lips!”

Rashi comments that Moshe’s argument is one of the ten kal v’chomer inferences mentioned in the Torah.  A kal v’chomer is a logical method of deduction in which we draw inferences from a weaker case and apply it to a stronger case. Rashi explains that Moshe was reasoning here: If, because of my speech impediment, the children of Israel, who have everything to gain by listening to me, did not listen to me, Pharaoh, who has everything to lose by listening to me, will surely not listen to me.

WHY DIDN’T THEY LISTEN?

Commentators, however, find it hard to understand Moshe’s logic in comparing Pharaoh to the children of Israel.  The Torah itself explains why the children of Israel would not listen to him; it was due to “shortness of breath and hard labor.” This rationale certainly did not apply to Pharaoh!

To answer this question we must first answer yet another question raised by Torah commentators.

Why would the children of Israel not listen to Moshe? The rationale given by the Torah should have motivated them all the more to listen to Moshe. They would surely have wanted to find some measure of comfort by hearing that G-d promised them that their suffering will soon come to an end. The Torah doesn’t say that they no longer believed Moshe because of the increased burden of slavery that resulted from his first encounter with Pharaoh. If that were the case, we could understand why they would not listen to Moshe: they ceased to believe that Moshe was speaking in the name of G-d. But, the Torah does not say that. It only mentioned the shortness of breath and hard labor, which should have made them even more receptive to Moshe’s message.

THE ANATOMY OF GALUS

To answer these questions we must dissect the anatomy of Galus.  The Talmud (Sukka 52b) states that exile is one of four things G-d “regrets.” Now it is obvious that G-d does not make mistakes. If He thought that exile is bad for us, why did He create it in the first place? Second, why just exile? Why doesn’t the Talmud say that He regrets having created pain and suffering even if they occur outside the venue of exile?

The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos volume 24) asks another question: One of the other four things G-d regrets is the yetzer ha’ra.   We say in our prayers that the cause of exile is “our sins.”  Why then mention both exile and the evil inclination? If the Talmud mentions that G-d regrets the evil inclination which causes us to sin, it no longer has to mention that He also regrets exile which is the consequence of our sins!

The Rebbe teaches us that G-d could have found other forms of punishment to cleanse us of our sins. It did not have to occur through exile. Thus, exile is a more profoundly objectionable phenomenon than even pain and suffering.

The question that now begs for an answer is why the pain and suffering experienced in exile is worse than just pain and suffering? And isn’t exile, with its attendant oppression and persecution, just another form of suffering?

The answer is that exile is not simply the fact of being driven off our land and forced to live under the sovereignty of other nations. The special pain and suffering of exile is that we are subjected to breathing the spiritually polluted air of exile, which is foreign to our existence and well-being. 

When G-d administers pain and suffering it is with the goal that we realize we have gone astray and should return to G-d and His commandments. If it serves that purpose, there can be some justification for the pain and suffering. However, if the pain and suffering does not have the capacity to compel us to introspection and to rectify our behavior, that pain and suffering is pointless. In truth, it is more than useless; it is cruel!

NO TO PRISON!

This might explain why Jewish law never included imprisonment as a standard punishment. Its only use was to protect society from a type of criminal whose freedom would allow him to commit more crimes.

If the sanction doesn’t bring the criminal to atonement then it is simply punishment for the sake of punishment. That would be cruel, and the Torah, which is designated as a Torah of kindness, could not countenance it. Prison, in the overwhelming majority of cases, does not rehabilitate the person; it merely subjects the person to pain and profound alienation from family and society. Punishment that actually causes one to degenerate further and fall deeper into the moral abyss and denies the prisoner the opportunity to be productive, coupled with physical pain and suffering, is nothing short of a major crime on the part of the society that condones it!

FIRE!!!

To better understand the odious nature of Galus one can use the following analogy.

One of the most destructive forces in the physical world is fire. When a house is on fire, G-d forbid, the most dangerous aspect of it is not the fire but the fumes it generates. As long as a person trapped in the house remains conscious, there are ways, albeit, in some cases extremely difficult, to find an escape route. If, however, the fumes cause the person, who might already be asleep, to descend into an even deeper slumber, it can be deadly.

What makes this threat qualitatively different from all other threats to a person’s life is that normally, when a person is confronted with danger, human nature will trigger the person to react; the adrenaline starts flowing and the process of salvation goes into full gear.

When the threat, however, lulls the potential victim into a sense of security and unconsciousness, the danger is greatly magnified. This perilous situation presents a two pronged threat: first, it is directly harmful and second, it robs the person of his ability to take defensive measures.

GALUS: LOSS OF OUR DEFENSE MECHANISM

We can now understand why of the four things the Talmud states that G-d “regrets” the first one mentioned is exile. While there are other ominous threats to our existence, we are still alert to them and have defense mechanisms to counter them.  Galus is an exception to that rule. Galus is like the deadly arrow that can pierce the body armor of the victim.

Galus is not just living outside of our homeland; it compels us to breathe unholy air and inhale toxic fumes. Tragically, even those Jews who are fortunate to live in the Land of Israel now are subjected to the “second-hand smoke” emanating from Galus.

This is why the Talmud ranks the undesirability of exile greater than the other regrettable phenomena.  While all types of negativity cause us to falter, adversity often possesses a silver lining and can be the greatest motivator for our turning a new leaf and doing good. Not so much exile. Notwithstanding the positive things that emerged from our stay in exile, its negative effects, chiefly its power to put us into a state of spiritual unconsciousness, far outweighs its benefits. We therefore implore G-d, at least thrice daily, to bring an end to the exile that He Himself “regretted” having created. 

ARGUMENT REEXAMINED

We can now understand why the children of Israel were not receptive to Moshe’s relaying to them the promise of Redemption. They were so overcome by the fumes of exile that they couldn’t do what was necessary to get out of it. Had they been subjected to any other form of suffering they would have been keen to hear about their salvation. The spiritual effects of Galus are pernicious. They desensitize the victim to the point of numbness.

Moshe thus argues that if the children of Israel, who possess a sensitive soul bequeathed by their Patriarchs and Matriarchs, have become so anesthetized, how much more so the pagan Pharaoh, who epitomized the Galus mentality—indeed, he was its very embodiment—he could not be receptive.

G-d, however, did not accept Moshe’s argument. Instead He started the process of miracles and plagues. These were not intended simply as punishments for the Egyptians; these miracles rather represented G-d’s “blowing” in new and purified air into the atmosphere and driving away the toxic fumes of exile. As a result the Jewish people became more sensitive to the energy of Redemption. Even Pharaoh, had G-d not hardened his heart, would have been more receptive.

THE PURIFYING EFFECTS OF MIRACLES

We are living, as the Rebbe taught us, on the very cusp of Redemption. While the world is still living in a toxic environment, physically and spiritually, the Jewish people have received tremendous miracles particularly in the last few decades. The Rebbe emphasized our need to rejoice in, and publicize, these miracles, which are G-d’s instrument of purifying the atmosphere of the desensitizing effects of Galus and introduce the healthy and life-sustaining air of Redemption.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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