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Challenge, Growth, and Transition

Challenge, Growth, and Transition

Shmos; Exodus 1:1 - 6:1


Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, 843ff; Vol. XVI, p. 36ff;
Vol. XXVI, p. 301ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 240ff

Confronting Challenge

On one hand, people shy away from challenges. There is a danger of failure were there not, it would not be a challenge and no one likes to fail. On the other hand, we seek challenge, for confronting a challenge lifts us out of the doldrums of ordinary experience.

Similar concepts apply with regard to our Divine service. G‑d does not want our Divine service to be merely routine. And so, He presents us with challenges. Some of these challenges are limited in scope, and some are more daunting, forcing us to summon up our deepest resources.

This is the nature of the challenge of exile. During the Era of the Beis HaMikdash, the open revelation of G‑dliness inspired Jews to serve G‑d with heightened feeling and intent. In the era of exile, by contrast, G‑dliness is hidden, and we are presented with many obstacles to our observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. We can no longer rely on our environment to deepen our feeling for G‑dliness. Instead, our focus must become internal. In this manner, exile arouses our deepest spiritual resources,1 and strengthens our connection to G‑d.

The Paradox of Exile

These concepts are reflected in our Torah reading, which describes the successive descents experienced by the Jewish people in Egypt. As long as Yosef and his brothers lived, the Jews enjoyed prosperity and security. But with the death of the last of Yaakov’s sons came forced labor,2 the casting of Jewish infants into the Nile, and other acts of cruelty. Even after Moshe brought the promise of redemption, the oppression of the Jewish people worsened, to the extent that Moshe himself cried out:3 “Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people.”

Nevertheless, the Torah reading also tells how the Jews cried out to G‑d, awakening His attention.4 In response, G‑d conveyed the promise of Redemption and His pledge that, “when you take this people out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d on this mountain,”5 i.e., G‑d committed Himself to give the Jews the Torah. This revealed the possibility of a higher and deeper bond with G‑d than could have been reached before.

The Story of a Name

These two polarities are reflected in the name of the reading, Shmos, which means “names.” There are two dimensions to a person’s name. On one hand, it represents the external aspects of one’s being, as apparent from the fact that a person’s name is necessary only insomuch as he relates to others. For himself, he does not require a name. Moreover, several individuals with totally different personalities can share the same name, demonstrating that, on the surface at least, a person’s name does not describe who he or she is.6

Nevertheless, as the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya,7 a name represents an entity’s nature and life-force. It is a channel that allows this inner nature to be expressed.8 This is not merely a theoretical concept; it affects a person’s day-to-day conduct. We see that when a person is called by name, he turns to the caller with attention. For many people, no sound is dearer than that of their own name. Moreover, we find that when a person faints, it is often possible to rouse him by merely whispering his name in his ear.

To relate these observations to the concepts of exile and redemption: As long as what is revealed is merely the external dimension of the Jews’ name, it is possible for them to be subjugated by worldly powers. But when the essence of the Jews’ name, Yisrael, is expressed, there is no potential for exile. For the name Yisrael indicates that we “contended with G‑d and with men and prevailed.”9

This points to the fundamental difference between exile and redemption. For exile does not represent a change in the essence of our relationship with G‑d. From His perspective, even in exile we are “[His] children, and to change [us] for another nation, [He] cannot.”10 And with regard to the Jewish people, on the verse,11 “I am asleep, but my heart is awake,” our Sages comment:12 “Although I am sleeping in exile, my heart is awake for the Holy One, blessed be He.”

What is the difference between exile and redemption? Whether “our name is being called” and we are responding, i.e., whether this relationship is openly expressed or concealed.13

Destiny and Direction

There is nothing random about the cycle of exile and redemption; it is a Divinely ordained process. G‑d desired that the Jews reach higher peaks of Divine service, and so He structured the challenges of exile to compel us to express our deepest spiritual potential. And He gave us the ability to overcome these challenges.

This is alluded to in the Torah’s mention of the names of the tribes at the beginning of the reading. Our Sages explain14 that this is an example of how deeply G‑d cherishes our people. “Since they are like stars, He called each of them by name.”

In Torah law,15 we find the principle: “An important entity can never be nullified.” By repeating the names of the Jewish people,16 the Torah emphasizes how important they are to G‑d, and ensures that their existence will not by nullified by exile.

The Torah mentions, not the name of our people as a whole, but rather the names of each of the tribes, for each tribe represents a different approach to Divine service. In doing so, it endows not only the essence of the Jewish people, but also our various individual approaches, with the strength to endure exile, and grow through this experience.

From Exile to Redemption

The cycle of Jewish exile and redemption is significant for the world at large. The purpose of creation is to establish a dwelling for G‑d.17 This dwelling is fashioned by the involvement of the Jewish people in different aspects of worldly experience. During exile, the Jews are scattered into different lands and brought into contact with diverse cultures. As such, as the challenge of exile brings the Jews to a deeper connection with G‑d, it also elevates their surroundings, making manifest the G‑dliness which permeates our world.

The saga of exile and redemption is not merely a story of the past. On the contrary, heralds of the final transition from exile and redemption are affecting all dimensions of existence today. To borrow an expression from the Previous Rebbe:18 “Everything is ready for the Redemption; even the buttons have been polished.” All that is necessary is that we open our eyes, recognize Mashiach’s influence, and create a means for it to encompass mankind.19

More specifically, the reference is to the level of yechidah, the dimension of soul which is absolutely one with G‑d. This level is revealed through the challenges of exile.
See Shmos Rabbah 1:4. Rashi’s notes to Exodus 6:16.
Exodus 5:23.
Ibid. 2:23-24.
Ibid. 3:12.
And yet a person with insight can see how an individual’s name tells volumes about his character. In that vein, Yoma 83b relates that Rabbi Meir could deduce a person’s character from his name.
Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 1.
Likkutei Torah, Behar 41c.
Genesis 32:29.
Kiddushin 36a; Rus Rabbah, Pesichta 3; see also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, p. 3 and sources cited there.
Song of Songs 5:2.
Zohar, Vol. III, p. 95a; see Shir HaShirim Rabbah on the verse.

This concept also gives us insight into the nature of redemption: redemption does not require the creation of anything new, but the revelation of a potential which already exists.Similarly, this idea points to the manner in which we can endeavor to bring this potential into expression by all Jews. What is necessary is to call the person by his name Yisrael, and to give him an opportunity to reveal who he is. Since he is a Jew and by nature “desires to fulfill all the mitzvos and separate himself from sin” (Rambam, Hilchos Gerushin 2:20), he will respond, expressing his inner nature.

Shmos Rabbah 1:3 (quoted by Rashi in his commentary to Exodus 1:1) explains why the names of the tribes are repeated in this Torah reading after having been mentioned in the Book of Genesis.
Zevachim 73a, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 110:1.
See also Pe’ah 7:1 (and Rambam, Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 5:23), which states that no entity with a name is ever considered forgotten. The fact that its owner gave it a name indicates its constant importance in his eyes.
Midrash Tanchuma, Bechukosai, sec. 3. See Tanya, chs. 33 and 36.
Sichos Simchas Torah, 5689.
Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, N.Y., 1992), p. 112-113.
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