Chapter 1

[1] Israel

On the most fundamental, spiritual level, exile is synonymous with the articulation of Divine consciousness.

As we have mentioned previously, for God, the act of creation is essentially an act of limiting His consciousness as He assumes the role of a “thinker” and “speaker.” By “thinking,” God creates the spiritual worlds; by “speaking,” He creates our physical world.

By way of analogy: each of us knows so much that it is virtually impossible to imagine conveying everything we know to someone else; it would take an infinite number of words. It is less obvious but equally true that it also impossible for us to think all that we know; our power of thought is just as incapable of thinking about all that we know as our power of speech is of conveying it orally. If this is true of our own, limited consciousness, it is certainly true of God’s consciousness.

Thus, the investiture into thought and speech is a severe constriction of Divine consciousness; God’s consciousness “goes into exile” in order to create reality. The dynamics of this process are alluded to in the two names of Jacob, Jacob and Israel. “Israel” refers to the primary sefirah of Divine consciousness, chochmah (because the word ישראל is formed from the same letters as the words לי ראש—“mine is the head”—the head being the seat of chochmah). “Jacob” refers to chochmah as it descends into malchut, the source of the two means of expression, thought and speech (because the word יעקב can be read as י עקב—“the yud [descends into] the heel”—the letter yud signifying chochmah and the “heel” referring to malchut, the lowest sefirah). In this context, “the children of Israel” are the worlds produced by “Israel,” or God’s chochmah.

The difference between thought and speech is that thought is directed inward while speech is directed outward; we think for ourselves, we talk to others. Therefore, in order for consciousness to descend into thought, it is not necessary for it to change its orientation in any way. The spiritual worlds, existing within God’s thought, constitute no more drastic a constriction of His chochmah than that of being articulated, i.e., of being present in malchut. Malchut and the spiritual worlds that issue from it are on an equal footing vis-à-vis chochmah.

In contrast, in order for consciousness to descend into speech, chochmah must first be translated into emotion, for in order to relate to others, we have to put an emotional slant on what we know. We have to become motivated to share it with someone else. Thus, the physical world, resulting from God’s speech, cannot be an expression of God’s chochmah directly, but only of God’s chochmah as it has been first funneled into His emotions. Since the physical world results from this lowering of God’s chochmah into His emotions, the Divine consciousness informing it is on a much lower level than that of malchut.

These two stages of exile are alluded to in the two verses that describe the Jews’ descent into Egypt: “These are the names of the children of Israel coming to Egypt, Jacob and his sons…”1 and “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt…with Jacob.”2 The first verse can be read to imply that “Jacob” is reckoned with his sons as one of the “children of Israel,” while the second verse implies that “Jacob” and the “sons of Israel” are two separate entities. This is because the first verse alludes to the first stage of exile, wherein both “Jacob” (malchut) and the “sons of Israel” (the spiritual worlds) represent the constriction of “Israel” (chochmah) into expression—but do not entail any change of orientation from inward to outward. The second verse alludes to the second stage of exile, wherein “Israel” (chochmah) is now funneled through the emotions, and therefore “Jacob” (malchut) cannot be considered its “son” together with the other “sons of Israel” (the expression of God’s chochmah in the physical world).

In this context, redemption from exile is the direct experience of Divine consciousness—chochmah—without it having to be limited by being forced into the articulations of thought and speech.3

[1] These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt: As mentioned in the Overview, this verse tells us that the Jewish people held on to their Jewish identity despite the temptation to assimilate into Egyptian society. Our sages say that because they refused to compromise to the host culture on even such an insignificant aspect of Judaism, God deemed them worthy of being redeemed.

The same applies to the present exile: by holding on tenaciously to our traditions, even down to those that appear to be subordinate, we will hasten our redemption.4

This idea is alluded to in this verse. The word for “sons” also means “children,” and the word Israel (ישראל) can be seen as an acronym for the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham (א), Isaac (י), Jacob (י), Sarah (ש), Rebecca (ר), Rachel (ר), and Leah (ל). This verse can therefore be interpreted allegorically, as follows:

These are the names: We can be assured that our children will retain their Jewish identity (“names”) and be proud of their heritage if—

of the children of Israel: we raise them as descendents of our holy patriarchs and matriarchs, even though they—

came to Egypt: grow up in an environment that is hostile to Jewish values.

And when they eventually leave their exile, they will do so with the same Jewish identity (“names”) they had originally.5

[5] Then numbered seventy: The Torah lists Jacob’s descendants in two ways: by name and by count. A name reflects an entity’s unique identity in contrast to other entities in the same group. In contrast, when we count the entities in a group, we focus on their common denominator—the fact they are all members of the same group. Their individual identities disappear.

By both counting the Jewish people and listing them by name, God indicated that He loves them both for each individual’s unique personality and for their common Jewish identity, their shared, basic Jewish consciousness. By stating this fact just before the Jews descend into the bitter exile of spiritual and physical servitude, the Torah indicates that God’s love for the Jewish people is in no way mitigated by the fact that He sends them into exile; although hidden, His love for them endures nonetheless.6

As we will see,7 this dichotomy became an issue when Moses was first sent to redeem Israel.

[6] And so did all of that generation: There were, in fact, a few individuals who did live on into the succeeding generation, but they had no influence on the spiritual tenor of the times. They could not prevent the moral descent the Jews underwent after the first generation of the exile died out, so they are reckoned as having passed with that generation.

This first generation of Jacob’s descendants had been raised in the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel promotes belief in God, for its productivity depends on intermittent rain, and this encourages its inhabitants to pray for their sustenance. In contrast, Egypt is watered by the regular overflowing of the Nile. Although the Nile’s overflowing also depends on rainfall, the river’s source is far enough from the land of Egypt to give the impression that it is not dependent on heaven. The Egyptians therefore grew to depend on nature rather than on God.

As long as the generation that grew up in the Land of Israel survived, the Jews’ belief in their dependency on God remained intact. After they died out, however, this belief waned, and the Jews gradually sunk into the Egyptian perception that success in life depends on following the laws of nature rather than on the supernatural laws of God.8

* * *

The patriarchs’ spiritual effect on the world was direct; their Godly approach to life was so intense that their holiness permeated the mundane world by the sheer intensity of its radiance.

After their passing and the ensuing descent of Divine consciousness, infusing Divine consciousness into mundane reality became a difficult, arduous process. This was another consequence of spiritual exile.

The advantage of this descent is that, as we have seen, “the response from above is commensurate with the force of the impetus from below.” The Divine consciousness brought into the world through hard effort is higher than that simply emanated by a lofty soul; it permeates deeper and becomes part and parcel of reality. The effect the patriarchs had on the world, in contrast, was ephemeral. It passed with their passing.

We have seen this same contrast with respect to the lives and work of Abraham and Isaac. Here, it replays itself in a wider context: the contrast between the preparatory groundwork of the patriarchs vs. the permanent effect on reality actualized through the giving of the Torah—beginning with the exile preceding it.9

In a still wider context, the contrast between the Books of Genesis (the story of the patriarchs) and Exodus (the story of the people) is the contrast between the Divine energy with which God sustains creation and the Torah’s effect on reality. The former is constant, while the latter always infuses new, higher energy into reality.10

* * *

[6] And so did all of that generation: The souls of the patriarchs and Joseph were rooted in the world of Atzilut; those of the other sons of Jacob were rooted in Atzilut but extended down into the world of Beriah. In the world of Atzilut, God’s presence is obvious; in the successively lower worlds, it becomes successively more hidden.

Exile is the disappearance of God’s presence behind the cloud of creation’s self-awareness. In our lives, we experience exile as the voice of our Divine soul being drowned out by the noise of our animating soul and our body loudly demanding their needs and wants. The purpose of exile is that we overcome this noise by refining our animating soul and our body until they no longer overpower our Divine soul and we can hear the voice of God in our lives.

It is therefore clear why the exile did not begin until Joseph and his brothers had died. Possessing souls openly rooted in the world of Atzilut, they were the antithesis of exile. Only when they passed from the scene and the dominant consciousness was that of the lower worlds did the exile and slavery begin.11

[8] A new king: Even if it was a new pharaoh, it is inconceivable that he had not heard of Joseph—who died only a few years prior to this—and of how he saved Egypt from starvation. So in either case, this king was clearly very wicked. The difference lies in whether his primary offense was toward God or his fellow man:

If it was the same king, he sinned grievously against his fellow man, since he was personally indebted to Joseph and by enslaving Joseph’s countrymen he demonstrated exceptional ingratitude. He was defying God less, however, since he could reason that since Jacob and the Jewish people submitted to his sovereignty, God would allow him to enslave them.

If it was a new king, his primary sin was against God: since the Jews never submitted themselves to him as their king, he could not argue that Divine providence allowed him to enslave them. However, he was affronting his fellow man less in this case, since he personally had not benefited from Joseph’s benevolent statesmanship.12

[10] Lest they increase: Pharaoh himself already stated that the Jews “are becoming more numerous and stronger than” the Egyptians. Nonetheless, what truly frightened him was not this, but the threat that their power increase still further.

Allegorically, the fact that the Jews were “numerous and strong” refers to the innate holiness within each of us, which is strong enough to subdue the material urges of our heart. By raising our Divine consciousness, we enable our Divine soul to control our animating soul and gradually refine it. As we have seen previously, the material urges of the heart are signified by the seven Canaanite nations.

Pharaoh was therefore not overly concerned with the Jews being merely “numerous and strong”—for the ongoing refinement of the animating soul did not threaten him or the evil he embodied. For just as Egypt was the prototypical exile, Pharaoh was the embodiment of egocentricity, the overblown sense of self that is the source of all other forms of evil and materiality. The day-to-day, ongoing refinement of the body and the animating soul that is accomplished by ascending the ladder of Divine consciousness does not strike deep enough to threaten egocentricity.

Therefore, what unsettled Pharaoh was the possibility that the Jews would “increase”: that they would go beyond their normal powers and attack the root of all evil—egocentricity itself. He feared that “in the event of war,” in the course of battling the seven material urges of the heart, they would “join our enemies and fight us”—they would be inspired by their struggle against evil to strike at its very root.

The plan he devised against this was: “Let us deal cleverly with them,” meaning, “let us outsmart them by preventing them from using their minds to enhance their Divine consciousness—let us fill their minds with our culture and our wisdom, to distract them from the pursuit of Godly knowledge.” The common denominator of all worldly culture and wisdom is that it promotes the ego, focusing our attention on ourselves and thus diverting our attention from God. This way, Pharaoh hoped to keep the Jews at bay.13

Jether (who would later be known as Jethro): Jethro’s original name was Jether (“he who adds” or “he who gives preeminence”), indicating how he made sure to give preeminence to his intellect over his emotions. He was gifted with keen intelligence, and he used it for philosophical and theological inquiry, and moreover, he lived by the conclusions he reached.

Unfortunately, inasmuch as God’s presence was extremely hidden in those days, his intellect led him to the pagan worship of nature. It was only much later that he eventually renounced idolatry,14 as we shall see.15

The tribe of Levi refused to work: Unlike their fellow brethren, the tribe of Levi retained their original enthusiasm for the Torah and assiduousness in its study. This saved them from being corrupted by the materialism of Egypt. Because they did not entertain any mixed loyalties, they were not impressed by Pharaoh’s rousing speeches. They were able to both recognize his ploy and to resist it. Since they did not succumb to spiritual domination, they could not be subjected to physical domination, either.

The tribe of Levi is meant to serve as an example for all of us. Even though we cannot all be Levites literally, we can still emulate their total devotion to God. Even those who earn their livelihood in mundane professions can sanctify their lives and fully utilize them to fulfill their Divine mission of making the world into God’s home.

In this regard, we can all learn from the Levites’ behavior in Egypt. They knew that compromising even a little in spiritual matters would only lead to more compromises, eventually leading to physical enslavement. There is no sense trying to placate materialistic voices within or without by giving in. Rather, by holding our ground, we will remain invulnerable to the slavery of materialism.16

[12] But the more they oppressed them, the more they increased and spread: As we have seen,17 one of the purposes of the Egyptian exile was to purify the Israelites from any evil or materiality hidden in their psyches, preparing them to receive the Torah. In order for us to appreciate and internalize the spirituality inherent in the Torah, we must purify ourselves of as much gross materiality and other forms of evil as possible.

In this light, it is not surprising that by oppressing them, the Egyptians not only failed to weaken the Jews, but in fact made them more and more prolific. The sufferings of exile only increased the power and presence of holiness in the world.18

* * *

Furthermore, just as the sufferings of the Egyptian exile purified and prepared the Jews to receive the Torah, our personal sufferings throughout our lives purify and prepare us to receive the infinite Divine revelations that await us in the afterlife.

And in a wider context: our sufferings—both as individuals and as a people, throughout our present exile—have purified and prepared us for the sublime Divine revelations that will accompany the imminent, final redemption.19

[13] With backbreaking labor: When the Egyptians saw that conscripting the Jews to build storage cities did not succeed in checking their birthrate, they added mental demoralization to the hard work in order to break their spirits, correctly believing that this would weaken them physically, as well.

First, they made the men do women’s work and the women do men’s work.20 The change in routine was unsettling, and both the men and the women found themselves ill suited to each other’s jobs: the women were not strong enough to do the men’s work, and even though women’s work requires less raw strength than men’s work, the endurance it requires was more than the men were capable of.21

Second, instead of having them build storage cities, they made them do work without purpose, simply for the sake of afflicting them. This was particularly demoralizing, for even if a person is forced to work hard, he can at least pride himself on having done the job well if there is a specific objective. But if there is no objective and the work has no end, it is both physically and mentally backbreaking.22

[14] They embittered their lives with hard labor, with mortar and bricks, as well as all kinds of work in the field: As the people gradually sunk into the Egyptian perception that success in life depends on following the laws of nature,23 they began to become lax in their Torah studies.24 Had they continued to labor in the study of the Torah, they would not have had to labor physically; they could have fulfilled the imperative of exile by toiling in their studies. This verse would then have had the following meaning:

They embittered their lives: they would have felt embittered over their lack of understanding the Torah, which is our life, and striven to understand it better—

with hard labor, i.e., by logical argumentation (the word for “hard” [kashah] being related to the word for “argument” [kushya]), and—

with mortar, i.e., by deriving new laws through a fortiori reasoning (the word for “mortar” [chomer] being related to the word for this type of reasoning [kal vechomer])—

and bricks, i.e., and by refining their understanding of the legal material until they reached authoritative legal decisions (the word for “bricks” [leveinim] being related to the word used for this process [libun hilchata]), and—

all kinds of work in the field, i.e., by citing rulings from Mishnaic sources not included in the canon of the Mishnah (such a source being called an “external” source [beraita]).25

They would have also replaced the unaccustomed labor (referred to above by the words “backbreaking labor”) with learning harder and more than they were accustomed to.

Similarly, it is possible at all times to replace worldly toil with toil in Torah study. As the sages say, “whoever takes upon himself the burden of Torah study is relieved of the burden of earning a living.”26 We may still have to work, but our work will not be a burden; it will be blessed with God’s guidance and assistance and not worry us. Rather, we will be troubled by and absorbed in the subject matter we are studying at the time.27

The purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Although the entire Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the “body” of the Torah—its legal and homiletic aspects—were given openly, while the “soul” of the Torah—its inner dimension—was concealed from the masses. When the present exile ends with the final Redemption, the Torah’s inner dimension will be openly revealed. Just as the physical exile in Egypt purified the people and prepared them to receive the “body” of the Torah, the toil we subject ourselves to nowadays in learning the revealed dimension of the Torah will purify us and prepare us to receive the full revelation of the Torah’s “soul” that will accompany the final Redemption.28

* * *

But instead of toiling in Torah, the Jews became lax in their Torah study because of the pervasive influence of the materialistic orientation of their host culture. In this context, the phrase they embittered their lives took on the meaning, “[the Egyptians] made their Torah study seem bitter to them” (for, as above, the Torah is the Jew’s “life” and source of vitality). When a person’s enthusiasm and concern is divided between spirituality and materiality, the spiritual gradually loses its savor. And when that happens, it is only a short step to full enslavement to the material.29

* * *

Moreover, God has given us infinite powers—planted in our Divine soul—to fulfill our mission in this world. If, however, we mistakenly use these infinite powers for mundane ends alone (e.g., earning a living or pursuing status or popularity), their infinite nature can make us miserable. God intended that we limit our pursuit of mundane ends, concentrating on them only as much as is necessary to provide for our needs and to lead a balanced life. When we exceed the limits the Torah places on our involvement in these pursuits, we embark on an endless chase that will never leave us satisfied. What should have been the productive and satisfying job of earning a living becomes a cruel taskmaster, pushing us relentlessly after unattainable goals.

This is alluded to in these verses: by enslaving us with “backbreaking labor,” these pursuits “embitter our lives,” i.e., they sour our involvement with the Torah and its commandments, our spiritual lives. We siphon our infinite powers into the finite, leaving ourselves unable to use them for our infinite, spiritual pursuits.

On a more subtle level, misdirecting the infinite power of our Divine souls within the context of holiness also “embitters our lives.” Each of us has a unique Divine mission, and if we allow ourselves to be persuaded to channel our powers into areas that are indeed holy but not meant for us, we also deny ourselves the exhilaration of fulfilling our Divine purpose.30

* * *

Finally, when the people began to neglect the study of the Torah and the fulfilling of God’s commandments, they eventually fell into the trap of idol worship. Their lack of enthusiasm in Torah study and the empty time their idle lifestyle afforded them left a void in their lives that they had to fill some other way, and the thrill and easy spiritual high of idolatry was eminently available in Egypt.

The lesson to be learned here is that the surest way to ensure that we not fall into the decadence of materialism is to be enthusiastically involved in Torah study and fulfilling its commandments.31

* * *

Actually, this verse alludes not only to how studying Torah becomes an element of our spiritual exile, but to how prayer and acts of kindness do, as well. For we are taught that “the world stands on three things: on [the study of] the Torah, on the Divine service, and on acts of kindness.”32 “Divine service” includes both the sacrificial service in the Temple and the prayer services that parallel it (and replace it when the Temple is not standing). Not only does the world in general stand on these three pillars, everyone’s individual life does, as well. Thus, going into exile means that all three take on the condition of exile:

They embittered their lives with hard labor: When we are in exile, we should feel bitter about how we are prevented or limited from living our real life—our Divine life. This bitterness provides the backdrop for our weekday prayers, in which we battle our materialist tendencies and try to overcome them. The greater our embitterment, the harder we fight to wrest ourselves from the chains of materialism. Arousing this embitterment makes prayer “hard labor” (or “hard service”), since it is indeed difficult to fight our inborn predispositions toward the luxuries and indulgences of life and find joy and exhilaration in Divinity instead. In this context, this part of the verse can be read: “[The material tendencies] embittered their [spiritual] lives [in accordance with the effort they put into prayer, their] hard labor.”

With mortar and bricks, as well as all kinds of work in the field: This refers to our exertion in the study of Torah during exile, as was explained above.

All the work they subjected them to was imposed with crushing harshness: This phrase literally reads: “all their work through which they worked on themselves with crushing harshness.” Thus, it can refer to the work we do on ourselves during exile. This refers to the third pillar of life, acts of kindness, for the most effective way of refining ourselves is by practicing acts of kindness toward others, breaking our innate selfishness.

But being kind will not refine us if we are kind to others only after we have satiated all our own needs first or if we allow ourselves to congratulate ourselves on our goodness. The Torah therefore tells us to work on ourselves “with crushing hardness.” Pharaoh tried to crush us by giving us work we were not accustomed to; we must crush our own egos by doing more good than we think we are capable of or than we think is called for. Again, the word for “with crushing hardness” [befarech] can be read as “with a soft mouth” [be-feh rach], referring to Pharaoh’s rousing, patriotic rhetoric. In our context, the “soft mouth” refers to the gentle manner of speech we should cultivate in order to reign in the explosive outbursts of our animal nature, when it surfaces as anger or jealous indignation. By staying calm, we can break our innate selfishness and make real progress toward self-refinement.33

[15] Jacob brought acacia trees to plant in Egypt: Allegorically, Egypt is the archetype for all exiles, and acacia trees (a type of cedar) signify the righteous individual—as it is written, “the righteous will flourish like a date-palm and grow like a cedar in Lebanon”34—and specifically the Jewish leader. Jacob is the archetypal Jewish leader35 who, due to his heightened Divine consciousness, always exudes the presence of the Land of Israel, even when he is physically together with his people in exile. God “plants” these leaders in every “Egypt” so they can inspire the people not to give in to the pressures of exile and, on the contrary, build a Divine sanctuary in the desert.36

Egypt Birth is the process whereby something fully-developed yet hidden is brought into revelation. Spiritual “birth” occurs when we understand something new about God and the emotional response “born” of this understanding is allowed to flower and flourish.

Just as the physical birth process is assisted by midwives, the spiritual “birth” process is assisted by spiritual “midwives.”

Our innate emotional capacities can be channeled in many ways: we can love and fear God, or we can love and fear any of the material aspects of life: food, clothing, shelter, people, prestige, money, etc.

We channel our emotional capacities into real emotions by thinking and talking about whatever we want to get emotional about. If we think about and discuss God, we will come to love and fear Him; if we focus on the material aspects of life, we will love and fear them.

Thinking and speaking are thus the two “midwives” that enable us to express our innate emotional capacity the way we choose.

When we think about a Divine idea, especially when we achieve a new understanding about God, this understanding is accompanied by a profound, sublime experience of delight. There is no delight so profound as a heightened understanding of God and how He is manifest in creation. Although the delight follows understanding, it is not an intellectual experience; it hails from a part of our souls that transcends intellect. This transcendent seat of delight is the sefirah of keter.

The midwives are therefore termed here “Hebrew [עבר] midwives” because they draw the emotions from “beyond” [עבר] the intellect.

The first midwife was called Shifra [“beauty”], referring to how Divine thought and understanding elicit a sublime delight in the exquisite beauty inherent in Divine revelation.

The second midwife was called Puah [“cooing”], referring to the power of speech, the second way we focus our emotional capacities on Divinity.

The suppression of Divine-oriented emotions is allegorically synonymous with Egypt. Egypt signifies the constriction of binah, since the word for “Egypt” [מצרים] means “constrictions” and can be read as “the constriction of [the letters] ים.” The numerical value of these letters is 50, and we are taught that there are “fifty gates of binah.”37 Binah is the mother of the emotions, as we have seen. Spiritual birth, then, is the process of overcoming the constrictions of Egypt.

Pharaoh therefore sought to prevent this “birth,” since he was the king of Egypt.38

[16] If it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live: As we have pointed out earlier,39 the feminine principle of creation is the drive to make the world into a home for God, while the male principle is the drive to renew spiritual inspiration. These two principles are sometimes at odds with each other, but ultimately complement each other. In particular, if the feminine principle is not periodically re-inspired by the male principle, it tends to sink deeper and deeper into the materiality of the world, eventually losing sight of its task and furthering the cause of materialism for its own sake.

This is precisely what Pharaoh, the avatar of Egyptian materialism, wanted. He sought to do away with the male principle and propagate the feminine principle on its own, in order to sink the world’s consciousness ever further into materialism.40

Furthermore, faced with the increasing Jewish population and concomitant increase in holiness in the world, Pharaoh felt his source of power being cut off. He knew that by killing the boys and keeping the girls alive, he would be able to siphon off Divine energy from the realm of holiness and use it for his materialistic ends. This is because evil can sustain itself in two ways:

  • by ascending to access enveloping energies (or makif) before they are drawn safely into the inner energies (or penimi). At this level, there is still no distinction between good and evil, and both can lay equal claim to Divine beneficence.
  • by descending to access the leftover dregs of the inner energies. At this level, the intensity of Divine energy is so low that evil’s unworthiness is irrelevant.

The male principle is associated with chesed, the propensity of the enveloping energies to descend into the inner energies. Pharaoh knew that if the enveloping energies would be allowed to enter the inner energies, his higher source of power would be cut off. By killing the boys, he hoped to prevent this, and at the same time force the newborns’ life-force back to its source in the enveloping energies, where he could appropriate it for his own uses.

The female principle is associated with gevurah, the power that successively decreases the intensity of the inner energies so they can enliven and rectify lower levels of reality. By keeping the girls alive, Pharaoh hoped to decrease the intensity of the inner energies enough so he could tap its lowest, residual levels.41

[17] But the midwives feared God: i.e., the Name Elokim, which signifies gevurah, God’s power to contract His Divine energy. It is this Name that enables God’s chesed to be manifest in the world, since unless chesed is dimmed, its propensity toward infinite bestowal will make it overwhelm the world with God’s beneficence. The midwives were thus afraid to contravene God’s plan of revealing His chesed properly, so they let the boys live.42

[21] He granted them dynasties: This was a fitting reward: The midwives saved the entire generation, from whom all subsequent generations of Jews are descended. Accordingly, God gave them a reward that lasted not just for the duration of their lifetimes but also for all generations.43

She also prophesied: Even though Miriam was only a young girl, she received a prophecy (a) that foretold the birth of the redeemer and greatest of the prophets, (b) that concerned not just herself, but her parents, and (c) that was given to her rather than to her mother or father. This shows that even at a young age she had already achieved an advanced level of prophecy.44

Nile When Pharaoh saw that his original scheme to keep diverting Divine energy away from the realm of holiness failed (because the midwives succeeded in keeping the Israelite boys alive), he needed to find another way to push the male life-force back into its source in the enveloping energies.45 His alternative plan was to throw the boys into the Nile.

The Nile is synonymous with the River Pishon, the first of the four rivers to issue from the “river that issued from Eden to water the garden”46 of Eden. As we have seen, Eden embodies chochmah and the “river” that issues from it embodies binah. The Pishon, being the closest river to branch off the river of binah, embodies binah as well.

Binah is the source of enveloping energies, so by throwing the boys into the Nile, Pharaoh hoped to return their life-force into the enveloping energies.47

[22] You shall keep alive and raise them as Egyptians: Thus, Pharaoh decreed that the boys be killed physically and the girls be killed spiritually. The fact that the spiritual decree is stated after the physical decree indicates that spiritual death is worse than physical death.

Allegorically, the decree to throw the boys into the Nile also alludes to immersing them in Egyptian culture, inasmuch as the Egyptians worshipped the Nile as the source of both their livelihood and their culture.

Furthermore, we will see further on that when there were not enough bricks to meet the building schedule, the Egyptians had the Jews immure their children instead.48 Allegorically, this means cementing them into the institutional framework of Egyptian civilization.

Egypt is the prototype of all exiles; in all exiles, the ruling culture urges us to raise our children in its ways, promising that this is the path to their material and social success. As in Egypt, we must resist this urge and ensure that our children grow up cherishing the Torah’s values; this is what will ensure their material, social, and spiritual happiness.49

Chapter 2

[1] A Levite man went and married Levi’s daughter: The Torah does note mention Amram and Yocheved by their own names in order to allude to the following idea:

The relationship between husband and wife in marriage can be a union of equals or one in which the wife is subordinate to her husband. In the former, the husband-as-equal is referred to simply as the “man” (ish); in the latter, the husband is referred to as the “master” (baal). Ideally, husband and wife are equals, and this was the relationship between Adam and Eve before the sin. During exile—and its accompanying reduction of Divine consciousness—the feminine principle is subordinate to the male.50 Furthermore, the union of husband and wife should ideally be a deep union of souls, rather than a merely physical, superficial union.

The nature of any Divine emanation that descends through the spiritual hierarchies into this world is determined by the arrangement and alignment of the sefirot and other channels it passes through. Our actions here below influence these arrangements and alignments, and thus affect directly the nature of the Divine emanations that reach our world.

Therefore, in order to draw down Moses’ lofty soul from its spiritual source, Amram and Yocheved had to unite in the highest way possible: a union of equals, at the level of Adam and Eve before the sin, and a union of souls rather than just of bodies.

To indicate that he related here to his wife as an equal, Amram is called simply “a man [ish].” To indicate that their union was a union of souls, he and Yocheved are called “a Levite” and “a daughter of Levi,” for the word Levi means “accompany,”51 referring to this type of soul-union.52

[1] The rest of the Jews remarried their wives: Referring to the women’s efforts to conceive and raise children despite Pharaoh’s decree, our sages state that “in the merit of the righteous women of that generation our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.”53

In the present exile, too, we will hasten the Redemption by ignoring societal pressure to drown our children in the dominant culture and instead raising a generation of Jews faithful to God’s Torah.54

[2] How good he was: As our sages teach us, this also means that Moses was born circumcised,55 indicating that his body contained no admixture of evil and therefore did not distract him with material or unholy sensual urges. He was thus fit for his holy calling from birth.56

These two circumstances surrounding Moses’ birth expressed his two qualifications for leadership. Being born circumcised indicated his unique spiritual stature and holiness. The house becoming filled with light when he was born indicated his unique ability to disseminate holiness (and even channel material goodness, as exemplified by visible light) to those around him.57

Moses’ essential goodness enabled him to focus on and draw out the good in others and prompted him to do so.58

[2] How good he was: Typically, as a soul descends through the spiritual worlds on its way to its birth in the physical world, its Divine consciousness diminishes in tandem. This is only so, however, because the soul passes through the external dimension of each world it traverses, which differs from one world to the next. In contrast, the inner Divine energy of all worlds is the same.

Moses’ soul descended via the inner Divine energy, and therefore his soul was not affected by its descent through the worlds. When he was born, his soul possessed the same Divine consciousness it possessed in its origin.59

* * *

Circumcision transforms marital relations from an exercise in self-indulgence to a mature union of souls. Cutting off the foreskin removes the barrier of self-concern that makes us insensitive to others. Spiritually, then, circumcision is the ongoing process of teshuvah, our constant return to God.

There are two types of circumcision: the elimination of our gross lusts, which we can accomplish on our own, and the elimination of our more subtle lusts, for which we need God’s assistance. In the present order, God circumcises our inner heart in proportion to the extent to which we circumcise our outer heart. In the messianic future, God will circumcise our inner heart completely.

Moses was born circumcised, indicating that God had circumcised his heart and he was born free of both gross and subtle lusts.60

* * *

Moses’ soul was thus much loftier than the souls of everyone else in his generation. In particular, he was the one who nurtured their powers of faith (emunah) and knowledge (da’at) until they matured enough to forge a proper relationship with God.

For this reason, Moses is known as “the faithful shepherd,” for just as a primary difference between humans and animals is that only humans can attain a mature belief in God and knowledge of Him, so did the rest of the people look to Moses to nurture their faith and knowledge of God.

The same is true in all generations: it is the task of the Moses of that generation to provide his generation with the tools to attain mature faith and knowledge of God.61

[5] To bathe in the Nile: Both the nullification of the Nile’s status as an idol and the nullification of the decree to kill the Jewish children (physically and spiritually) occurred as Moses was being placed in the river.

This was no coincidence. As mentioned above,62 the idolatry of the Nile was the belief in the laws of nature to the exclusion of the laws of God, and Pharaoh’s decree was to immerse the Jewish children in this misguided belief and the culture it produced. This was only possible because the Jews’ former belief in God had been weakened, and Moses’ mission was to restore it. By restoring their belief in God, he imbued them with the power to resist the idolatry of the Nile.63

[6] A boy was crying: Moses’ lofty soul made him cry over the bitterness of the exile and the fact that Pharaoh was thwarting the revelation of Godliness in the world. His crying aroused not only Pharaoh’s daughter’s pity on him, but also God’s pity on the world. This helped hasten the redemption.64

[10] She brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he was like a son to her: Pharaoh and his court knew that Moses was an Israelite infant, but they assumed that if they raised him like an Egyptian, he would become one of them. In fact, however, due to both his lofty soul and his upbringing while still a child in his parents’ home, he stayed aloof from the enticements of Egyptian culture and the social status offered him, and remained true to his people. We see here how crucial is the early education of a child.65

[10] I drew him out of the water: While dry land symbolizes the conscious mind, water symbolizes the pre-conscious mind, for all the mineral, vegetable, and animal life of the sea is hidden from view. The fact that Moses was drawn out of the water indicates that his soul was rooted in pre-consciousness. He was therefore innately predisposed toward contemplation and inner thought, focused on chochmah, the experience of flashes of insight issuing from the preconscious mind, rather than on binah, the integration of insight into the perceptual world. It was for this reason that he had a speech impediment, as well, as we shall see.66

* * *

This is why the Pharaoh agreed to let Bitya adopt Moses, even though he knew he was an Israelite baby. Pharaoh knew that Moses’ soul derived from the transcendent levels where good and evil can both lay equal claim to God’s beneficence.67 He assumed that by adopting Moses, it would actually enhance his ability to divert Divine energy for his own purposes.

His mistake was that evil can lay claim to transcendent, enveloping energy only so long as it has not been drawn into the inner energy. Once the enveloping energy has been drawn into the inner energy, it has been harnessed for holy purposes and evil can no longer lay claim to it.

When Bitya drew Moses out of the water, she was drawing him out of the enveloping energy into the inner energy. Therefore, not only did he not enhance Pharaoh’s evil; he ultimately broke it entirely and liberated the Jewish people from its stranglehold.68

* * *

On a deeper level, Moses’ soul hailed from the world of Tohu, which is an expression of chesed, as opposed to the present order of creation, the world of Tikun, which is an expression of gevurah. This is alluded to by the fact that Moses was drawn out of the water, for water is associated with chesed: chesed is the attribute of kindness, the desire to sustain and enhance life, and water is one of the most basic necessities and enhancers of life.

Moses’ mandate was to temper the severe gevurah that constitutes the natural order of this world with Divine chesed, revealed to humanity via the Torah.69

[12] So he struck down the Egyptian: Moses was being groomed for greatness in Pharaoh’s household. He nonetheless risked his life and his comfortable lifestyle in order to help his kinsmen.

Similarly, we should not hesitate to risk our own spiritual, social, or material comfort in order to help rescue our fellows who are suffering under spiritual or material bondage.70

[13] To the wicked one: Man’s purpose is to make the world into God’s home. It follows that all his limbs and faculties were given to him for this purpose. When a person uses his hand to hurt another person instead of using it to fulfill God’s commandments or perform acts of kindness, he betrays his mission on earth and may justifiably be called “wicked.” In fact, this is true the minute he raises his hand against his fellow, even though he has not yet (and might not at all) hit him, for this act itself is a misuse of the hand.71

[14] So the matter is known: Except for the tribe of Levi, the Jews had gradually fallen into idol worship as part of their assimilation into their host culture. Nonetheless, it was not idolatry but slander—a seemingly much less grave offense—that threatened to jeopardize their redemption.

This was because slander is symptomatic of a deeper shortcoming, egocentricity. Egocentricity causes people to care primarily for their own interests and prevents them from subordinating their own interests to the good of others or to the common good. Therefore, as long as there is slander, a group of individuals cannot become a nation. But this was precisely the purpose of the redemption—to make the Jewish people into a nation.

It was therefore necessary to crush the people’s egocentricity, and the most effective way of doing this was to subject them to slavery. Thus, when Moses saw that his brethren were slanderous, he understood why they had to suffer the Egyptian bondage. Indeed, the bondage did eventually quash their egocentricity and they stopped slandering each other.

Actually, the fact that the Jews had fallen into idolatry and were thus morally indistinguishable from their Egyptian hosts served to highlight the fact that God chose them as His people out of His own free choice, rather than because of any merit on their part. But the fact that they had fallen into slander meant that they were not acting as a nation, i.e., that effectively they did not exist as an entity that God could choose.

True, other peoples engage in slander and this does not keep them from joining together to form a nation. But the Jewish people’s nationhood is much more spiritually-based than that of other peoples, so any lack of unity is much more detrimental to it.72

[14-15] Frightened...Pharaoh sought to kill Moses: But had Moses not been frightened, Pharaoh would not have sought to kill him.

Belief in God’s omnipotence implies belief that He can rescue us from any type of trouble—even if there seems to be no natural way out. If, in addition to believing that He can help us, we confidently trust that He indeed will help us, we thereby earn His helpful intervention in the natural course of events. As the Tzemach Tzedek put it: “Think good and it will be good.”73

Here, Moses had done two good things: he had defended the Jew from the Egyptian who was hitting him and he had rebuked the Jew who was about to beat his fellow. Since he was fulfilling God’s will in doing these good acts, he should have trusted in God’s protection and been confident that his acts would not have any negative repercussions. But because he did not trust in God’s protection, he forfeited it, and therefore Pharaoh heard about the incident and sought to kill him. Had he not been afraid—and not articulated this fear—nothing would have happened.

The lesson for us is that when we are confronted with obstacles in fulfilling our Divine mission, we should realize that we ourselves can nullify them by trusting in God to help us. Evincing such confidence does not mean that we should not take whatever natural steps are necessary to avoid trouble or solve our problems. It merely means that we should trust God to crown our efforts with success.

If He does not, we must believe—after the fact—that this is His way of lovingly cleansing us from the effects of our wrongdoings, so that they not prevent us from receiving His beneficence in this world or the next. But a priori, our confidence that God will show us His goodness and mercy outweighs any demerits we might have accrued by previous wrongdoings and will nullify the need for such cleansing.

Our sages teach us that it was in the merit of their confident trust in God that the Jews were delivered from Egypt.74 So, too, our confidence that God will redeem us from the present exile will itself hasten the Redemption.75

[19] He also drew water for us: As was explained above,76 Moses hailed from the world of Tohu, alluded to by water, and his mandate was to draw the chesed of Tohu into the gevurah of the present order of Tikun.77

[23] The pleas...rose up before God: When their suffering reached this point, they finally turned to God and began to ask Him to save them from it. God relates to us as we relate to Him, so as soon as they remembered Him and addressed Him as their father, He took note of them and evinced His fatherly love for His children. As soon as they prayed to God to deliver them, He began doing so.78

EgyptAlthough the suffering was bitter, it did not become unbearable until Pharaoh “died.” Until that point, the Jews sensed that by serving Pharaoh, they were extricating the sparks of holiness buried deep within his evil exterior. This made their suffering bearable, since it at least served some purpose.

Once they had extracted all the sparks of holiness within him, he “died”; his lifeline to holiness disintegrated and he was given over wholly to the powers of evil, death, and destruction. At this point, there was no longer any purpose in serving him, and the people felt the unmitigated suffering of the oppression. It was therefore specifically at this point that they cried out to God.

And once there was no more good to be extracted from Pharaoh, all that was left was to annihilate him, and therefore, once the people cried out to God, God called Moses to deliver the people and crush Pharaoh with the ten plagues.79

Chapter 3

[1] Moses was tending the sheep: Jethro was an intelligent person (having served as an advisor to Pharaoh and as the leader of Midian). He surely discerned Moses’ intelligence and knew about his aristocratic status, both as the son of Amram and as a prince in Pharaoh’s court. It seems strange, then, that he should put him to work as a shepherd.

One explanation is that Jethro sensed—consciously or unconsciously—that Moses was destined to lead God’s flock and therefore—intentionally or unintentionally—employed him in a way that would foster his innate leadership traits in preparation for this.

A lesson we can learn from this is that even those of us who feel that their social stature and intellectual training qualify them for advanced educational positions or the like should not eschew teaching young children, God’s “flock.” We should rather overlook our qualifications, just as Moses did. On the contrary, tending God’s flock is the best preparation for leadership positions.80

Another explanation why Moses worked as Jethro’s shepherd is that he chose to do so. Like the patriarchs, Moses preferred this type of work because it affords one the opportunity to meditate and commune with God.

Solitude and meditation are prerequisites to intellectual advance. Quiet, peaceful solitude allows the individual to focus all his mental and emotional faculties as well as all his senses on the subject he is seeking to understand. Since Moses aspired to climb the ladder of Divine knowledge as far as possible, he valued the isolation that being a shepherd afforded him.81

* * *

Moses ran after it: When Moses found the stray kid, he did not get angry or punish it for leaving the fold. He understood that it ran away because it was thirsty, not because it wanted to rebel.

This is how we should treat our “flock,” our children and students. If they stray, it is because they are thirsty for God but do not realize they can quench their thirst with the waters of the Torah. The true leader realizes the real reason his charges flee, and therefore chases after them and brings them back to the fold.82

Moses was tending the sheep of Jethro, priest of Midian. He guided the flock...to the mountain of God: The Torah reiterates that Jethro was the priest of Midian in order to show us that Moses was able to lead this priest’s flock to the mountain of God; i.e., that he was able to rescue the Divine sparks in Jethro’s control from their idolatrous milieu and draw them into God’s fold.83 In this way, he proved that he was capable of doing the same for the Jewish people.84

[2] The bush was not being consumed: Allegorically, the lowly thorn bush signifies simple, sincere folk, while learned, accomplished people are like the prodigious fruit tree. Although the simple folk are inferior in their accomplishments, their fiery yearning for God is never consummated; in this sense, they are spiritually superior to those who are aware of their accomplishments but are therefore prone to complacency.

By appearing to Moses in a thorn bush, God indicated to him that in order to be a true leader and redeem his people, he would have to recognize the intrinsic value of the simple folk. In order to receive the Torah, which binds finite man to the infinite God, Moses would have to appreciate and teach others to appreciate the unrequited yearning for God that only simple folk demonstrate so eloquently. Because God is infinite, no matter how spiritually accomplished we may be, there will always be uncharted realms for us to traverse in our journey to Him. True appreciation for the infinity of God and His Torah is therefore reflected in our appreciation of the unquenchable thirst for God evinced by unlettered folk and our desire to emulate it.

Moses understood this hint and applied it immediately to himself. Not satisfied with all his prior spiritual accomplishments, he was willing to abandon all his preconceived notions of reality in order to understand the anomaly of the burning bush. He said, “let me turn away from where I am in order to approach there.” In response, “when God saw that he had turned aside to look, He called to him from the midst of the bush.”85

* * *

The aspiration implicit in “Let me turn away from where I am in order to approach there” is the foundation of any relationship with God. It is what makes us human, i.e., beings that aspire to ascend and transcend in both intellectual depth and spiritual self-refinement. It enables us to access our innate and infinite potentials. In particular, it expresses the ambition of the spiritual seeker who has chosen to climb the ladder of Divine consciousness by focusing his intellect in solitary meditation.

Such an individual lives in a process of unending ascent: whatever level of Divine consciousness he achieves, he always aspires to ascend further. The force of this aspiration unlocks all his human potentials, strengthening his intellect, emotions, and senses. He is constantly blessed with new insight and understanding, which in turn lead him on the dialectic path toward deeper and deeper knowledge.86

* * *

By showing Moses the burning bush, God also revealed to him another aspect of the limitless nature of the Torah.

Moses knew that, spiritually, leaving the shackles of Egypt would mean transcending limited reality and connecting to the infinity of God. But he assumed that if someone would experience the infinite fire of Godly yearning he would be consumed by it, for an experience of such magnitude should logically be more than a finite being can bear. If he would not be consumed by it, it would be because he was so addicted to materiality that he was impervious to Divinity. He has succumbed to the fire of passion and lust for earthly indulgences and by rejecting God he would irrevocably seal his fate and be similarly consumed. Establishing an unbounded relationship with God would therefore seem to lead to absurd consequences: the righteous would leave the world and the wicked would be locked into their wickedness.

God therefore showed Moses a bush that burned but was not consumed. The Torah he would receive and transmit to his people would enable the righteous to balance their burning ecstasy with devotion to God’s purpose here on earth, and thus enable them to withstand the inertia driving them out of the body. It would also reveal the infinite, holy potential within even the most wicked of people, enabling them to refocus their lives at any time and transform their worldly fire into holy, Divine fire.87

* * *

From another perspective, the lowly thorn bush symbolized the Jewish people as a whole. Their intrinsic humility qualifies them to be the chosen people, for “God is high, but He regards the lowly,”88 and says, “I dwell among the crushed and lowly.”89 The fact that the bush was not consumed indicated that despite the burning travails of slavery, the people would survive intact, their innate love of God undiminished.90

* * *

From yet another perspective, the harmful, annoying, and inedible thorns of the thorn bush symbolize evil. God thus taught Moses that He is present in everything, even evil; that evil has no independent existence without God.91 This belief is essential in the struggle to overcome evil.

Nonetheless, the bush was not being consumed, because the thorn bush signified true evil, the lowest aspects of materiality, which cannot be elevated. The only way to overcome and rectify these lowest aspects of materiality is to reject them altogether. This is the general reason behind all the prohibitions of the Torah. The Torah informs us which aspects of material reality can be elevated and which cannot.92

[4] Moses, Moses: As mentioned above,93 Moses’ soul descended into his physical body via the inner Divine energy of the spiritual worlds, and therefore his soul was not affected by its descent through these worlds. When he was born, his soul possessed the same Divine consciousness it possessed in its origin. This fact is alluded to by the lack of a cantillation mark indicating a pause (pesik) between the two instances of his name. In contrast, when God called to Abraham and repeated his name, there is a pause, for as lofty as Abraham’s soul was, it was affected by its descent through the spiritual worlds.94

[5] Remove your shoes: Prior to this, Moses had reached the highest levels of Divine consciousness an individual can reach with his own intellect. God was now telling him that he could reach the next rung on the spiritual ladder only by “removing his shoes,” i.e., removing his connection to the earth—divesting himself of the limitations of human logic and opening himself up to Divine intellect. In this way, he would be prepared to tread on “holy ground.”95

[6] The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: God told Moses that, having reached the pinnacle of Divine consciousness attainable through isolation and meditation, it was now necessary to relate to God the way the forefathers did, namely, to bring Divine consciousness into the world. Moses resisted this calling, since his nature was predisposed to solitary self-introspection rather than teaching and leadership.96

[14] I shall be as I shall be: The numerical value of the word for “I shall be” (אהיה) is 21. “I shall be as I shall be” implies multiplying the two words, giving 21 x 21 = 441, the numerical value of the word for “truth” (אמת). In these words, God was giving Moses the power to reveal the difficult but deep truth about God’s providence and care during exile.97

[15] This is how I am to be recalled for all generations: In other words, we can elicit God’s revealed mercy if we ask for it while fully cognizant of the fact that He is already acting mercifully with us but our limited perspective does not allow us to recognize this. We accept Him as our Lord, as having His inscrutable reasons for allowing us to suffer and seeing our condition in the full context of His omniscience. If we acknowledge this, we can then turn to Him and ask Him to nonetheless behave toward us with revealed, self-evident mercy.

In the messianic future, when God’s mercy will indeed be fully revealed on earth, we will no longer need to acknowledge that God’s mercy is operative even if we cannot perceive it. We will pronounce His proper Name, the mercy-Name, as it is written.98

This is My Name to be concealed; this is how I am to be recalled for all generations: On a deeper level, God told Moses here that it is possible to refine and elevate the world, that the world is not just something to be shunned in order to focus on philosophical and spiritual pursuits. When God informed Moses that through the Torah and its commandments it would be possible to raise the Divine consciousness of the world, He won him over, and Moses agreed in principle to forgo his isolation and to redeem the Jews.99

[16] Say to them: Even though the Jews had sunk to a precariously low spiritual state—and were even serving idols—God did not tell Moses to rebuke them for this or warn them that if they do not mend their ways their exile will continue or get worse. Rather, God instructed him to remind them of the merit of their forbearers and announce that in this merit and in the merit of their suffering they were about to be redeemed. Only much later—when he had an alternative for them, a commandment for them to fulfill—did Moses tell them to stop serving idols.100

Similarly, we see nowadays as well that the most effective way to draw the hearts of our fellow Jews closer to God is by first showing them the beauty of their heritage and uplifting them with the promise of the redemption.101

[17] From the affliction of Egypt...to a land flowing with milk and honey: Allegorically, milk and honey indicate pleasure and delight in a person’s relationship with God.

When we are afflicted or confined, our frustration prevents us from functioning at full capacity; when we enjoy full freedom of expression, we put to use the full gamut of our abilities. Similarly, when we are in spiritual “exile,” i.e., deprived of the full use of our expressive capacities in our relationship with God (either by outside forces or by our own devotion to materialism), we have to fall back on simple faith and self-discipline to continue fulfilling our Divine mission. We may indeed accomplish things, and even reveal our innermost devotion to God in the course of doing so. But the scope of our relationship will remain limited and stunted.

When, however, we can serve God out of boundless love for Him, “a love of delights,”102 we can access our full complement of abilities, blending and developing them to express the Divine within us. When our relationship with God is thus allowed to blossom and grow, it eventually summons the innermost longings of our heart.

Thus, God describes the type of relationship (“land”) He seeks to bring his people to as “good and ample”103 and “flowing with milk and honey.”104

[22] You will thus empty out Egypt: It was not in order to punish the Egyptians for maltreating the Jews that God allowed them to impoverish Egypt when they left, for then it would not have been necessary for the Egyptians to esteem the Jews as they “lent” them their possessions. (The Jews could have simply taken what they needed, say, during the three days of darkness.) Rather, in order to fulfill His promise to Abraham, God had to make sure the Jews would feel that they were receiving their just reward, their “salary” for having worked so long and hard for Egypt. They therefore had to receive their pay with their former oppressors’ full consent and goodwill.

Allegorically, the “great wealth” the Jews took with them when they left Egypt was the power of holiness that the Egyptians had misused and thereby embedded within depraved Egyptian civilization.105 In this context, this verse may be read:

Every woman: i.e., every Jew (God’s mate), during the course of his or her stay on earth—

shall ‘borrow’ objects of silver and gold: is intended to accrue higher levels of love (silver) and fear (gold) of God—

as well as clothing: and express these in thought, word, and deed (the garments of the soul)—

from her neighbor: by extracting the holiness both from those aspects of reality with which he or she comes into occasional contact—

and from the woman in whose house she lodges: as well as from those parts of the world with which he or she comes in constant contact.

Just as taking physical treasures with them did not serve to punish the Egyptians but rather to reward the Jews for their labor, taking the spiritual treasures with them was not merely in order to liberate these treasures but mainly in order to bring the Jews themselves to a higher level of Divine consciousness.

Similarly, although every Jewish soul descends into this world (its existential exile) in order to elevate the sparks of holiness it contacts here and thereby make this world a home for God, God’s main intent is that the soul itself become more of a home for God—i.e., be brought to a higher level of Divine consciousness—through its efforts.

If we are cognizant of this, we will not be content with fulfilling our Divine mission in this world with no more inspiration than the obedience of a devoted servant. Rather, we will approach our task with the enthusiasm that comes with full awareness of its purpose: that we—together with the part of the world we can influence—achieve a higher consciousness of God through our efforts. Moreover, if we go further and truly internalize this perspective, we will adopt God’s purpose as our own, and thereby fulfill our mission with consummate enthusiasm and mindfulness.106

Chapter 4

[1] But they will not believe me: But God had told Moses explicitly that the people would hearken to him because he was going to give them a sign—the expression Joseph had told them would announce their redemption! Why did Moses not believe God and ask for an additional sign to give the people?

Moses knew that 210 years of exile had taken their toll: the people had learned to take slavery as a given and had sunk to an extremely low level of Divine consciousness (and even practiced idolatry). He therefore assumed that even though they did believe that God would one day redeem them, it would be hard for them to really believe that it was about to happen. He therefore asked God for an additional, concrete sign.107

[2] What is that in your hand: God hinted to Moses that he deserved to be hit with the staff he held even though, as we said, he did not intend to speak disparagingly of them, and certainly did not do so in their presence.

The Torah does not speak disparagingly of anyone unless there is a reason to do so.108 It points out Moses’ error in order to teach us how severe an offense it is to speak disparagingly of the Jewish people and how it is possible to make amends for doing so.

If this was true in Moses’ time, it is certainly true nowadays. When the Torah was given, the Jewish people became “a treasured people,”109 “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”110 Since then, the Jewish people have sanctified God’s name countless times and have been purified by their exiles. Therefore, if a Jew is lacking in his observance of the Torah, it cannot be because there is anything wrong with him; it can only be because his evil inclination has temporarily gotten the better of him or because he was not raised in an environment that fostered a positive regard for religion. For all these reasons, all Jews are of inestimable worth and it is altogether out of order to speak disparagingly of any of them.111

[4] And grasp its tail: God here showed Moses how to rectify the sin of slander. The tail, the hindmost part of the animal, indicates lowliness and humility. By humbling our ego, we eliminate the haughtiness that makes us see others’ faults. Cleansed of its negativity, the staff turned back into a staff, and in fact became “the staff of God”112 that Moses used later to perform miracles.113

[10] For I stammer: Moses was exceedingly humble, as will be amply demonstrated as the story of his life unfolds. Here, we see that he was so humble that he viewed his own humility as a fault. Because he was humble, and therefore preoccupied with absorbing the lessons of life he felt he so sorely needed to learn, he assumed he would not be able to convey anything to others. His internal focus had adversely affected his ability to speak.114

* * *

Although Moses initially suffered from a speech impediment, we see that as he grew into the role of the leader, he developed into the most eloquent of speakers. This is because the very cause of his speech impediment—his intense absorption in his own search for God and concomitant self-refinement—brought him to the selfless devotion to God and His people that drove him to speak when the time came.115

[10] For I stammer: Moses’ soul originated in the world of Tohu,116 which is characterized by Divine consciousness that is too overwhelming to be articulated (i.e., “light” that is too powerful to be expressed in “vessels”). He understood that he would not be able to articulate any Divine revelation he would experience, and therefore was unfit to communicate God’s message. This handicap would disqualify him from leadership both with regard to the redemption itself, which would require him to address Pharaoh, and with regard to the purpose of redemption, teaching the Torah to the people.

God therefore told Moses, “Who gives a man a mouth…Is it not I, God?” In other words, God told him that inasmuch as He Himself created the worlds of Tohu and Tikun (the world in which the “vessels” are strong enough to contain the “light”), He can override their mutual exclusivity and allow someone like Moses, despite his transcendental consciousness, to articulate himself in the context of Tikun.117

[13] Whom You will send: According to our sages, Moses was suggesting that God send the Messiah.118 Why, he asked, doesn’t God send someone who will finish the job?

Moses understood that God knew that he could not be the ultimate redeemer, yet nonetheless wished to send him. His complaint, then, took this into account and was justified.

Our sages therefore teach us that, at least allegorically, God acquiesced: Moses would be both the redeemer from Egypt and the final redeemer.119 Although Moses and the Messiah are two separate people, they share each other’s traits. Moses, primarily a teacher, hereafter evinced kingship. The Messiah, primarily a king, will also be a teacher.

Normally, these two traits call upon different psychological qualities. In order for someone to teach, he must be aware of his superiority over his students. In order for someone to rule—properly, that is—he must make himself a selfless, transparent conduit of the Divine power invested in him. Moses asked God to fuse these two traits into one.

Similarly, every Jew is God’s emissary to redeem his portion of the world, and therefore possesses a spark of both Moses120 and the Messiah.121 In order to fulfill his mission, he must evince both the teacher’s initiative and creativity and the king’s selfless devotion to his mission.122

* * *

By refusing the mantle of leadership, Moses demonstrated that he was worthy of it. Leadership requires Divine assistance, and someone who agrees to be a leader limits the power at his disposal to his own, limited potentials. By first sincerely refusing to lead, the future leader articulates his awareness that in order to lead successfully he must rely on God’s infinite powers.123

[13] Send whom You will send: Once God promised Moses that he would be able to articulate himself in the context of Tikun, Moses began to think in terms of doing this. But he was immediately struck by the fact that the sefirot of Tikun function harmoniously together, which is not the case in the world of Tohu. Seeing this, Moses felt humbled before the rest of his generation, whose souls descended from the world of Tikun. He felt unworthy of being their leader, and again declined.

Although Moses was correct about the advantage of Tikun over Tohu, he lost sight of the fact that the reason why the sefirot of Tohu do not interact is because their “light” is so intense. It was specifically because he embodied the unbounded Divine consciousness of the world of Tohu that he was uniquely suited for the role God called him to fulfill. Redemption is dependent on expressing the consciousness (“light”) of Tohu in the context (“vessels”) of Tikun.124

[20] The donkey: The Torah takes the trouble to tell us that Moses took his family back to Egypt on this miraculous donkey because this is how God answered Moses’ request that He send someone else to redeem Israel. As we saw above, Moses had two reasons to demur: (1) he hesitated to rise to a higher position than his elder brother, and (2) he knew that, in any case, he would not bring the people to their final redemption, and therefore thought that the exercise was fruitless.

To answer these complaints, God had Moses ride the donkey that Abraham had readily saddled to fulfill His command, indicating to him that he, too, should fulfill God’s command without hesitation. The fact that this donkey was also the one that the Messiah will ride indicated that Moses should regard the redemption from Egypt not as a failed attempt to reach the ultimate redemption but as a necessary phase in it. Furthermore, by emphasizing that the Messiah will be revealed riding specifically on a lowly donkey, God was telling Moses that his humility (in wishing to defer to Aaron) was in fact his prime qualification for the role of redeemer.125

* * *

Allegorically, the donkey alludes to the material world, for the word for “donkey” (chamor) shares the same root as “materiality” (chomer).126 Just as a donkey enables a person to travel much farther and carry more than he could by himself, the material world enables the soul to accomplish much more than it could without it. Nonetheless, the a priori nature of the material world is to obstruct Divine consciousness and, therefore, great care must be taken in how we become involved with it.

With regard to Abraham, the Torah only tells us that he saddled the donkey, implying that neither he, nor Isaac, nor those accompanying them actually rode on the donkey.127 In contrast, although Moses did not ride the donkey himself, he had his wife and children ride it. Finally, we are told that the Messiah will ride the donkey himself. The progression in how Abraham, Moses, and the Messiah used the donkey thus reflects the three stages in our elevation and purification of the material world.

In Abraham’s time, before the giving of the Torah, materiality could at best be controlled and tamed so as not to interfere with the pursuit of holiness.128 Material things or pursuits could be harnessed temporarily for holy purposes, but could not themselves become holy. Abraham therefore only put his wood and knife on the donkey, indicating that materiality at that point could only be used as an instrument for holiness.

In Moses’ time, after the purification process of the exile and as the Torah was about to be given, it became possible to sanctify materiality by imbuing it with Divine consciousness. Thus, although Moses himself could not yet ride the donkey, he could put his wife and children on it. As we have seen before, the “feminine” side of our personality is our drive to reveal Divinity in the physical world and, in this context, our “progeny” is the heightened Divine consciousness we propagate by revealing Divinity. With the giving of the Torah, it became possible for Divinity to transform materiality from an obstacle into a vehicle for Divine purposes.

In the messianic era, materiality will be consummately refined. Fully stripped of its negative context, it will be able to propel the soul beyond its innate capacities of awareness into consummate consciousness of God’s essence.129 Even our “masculine” sides, our drive for abstract holiness, will be able to “ride the donkey,” to be fulfilled through material things.

* * *

Analogously, these three stages exist in every individual’s personal spiritual development, particularly vis-à-vis his ability to elevate and refine materiality. In the early stages of our spiritual development, we need to subdue our inborn material orientation, preventing it from acting as an obstacle to our holier pursuits. As we mature, the Divine consciousness generated by the Torah we study and the commandments we perform begins to permeate our materiality. We can begin to use materiality for holy purposes (for example, we can eat, sleep, earn a living, etc., with the intention to thereby have the means to study the Torah and perform the commandments). In this way, we fulfill the sages’ instruction that “all your deeds should be done for the sake of heaven.”130 Finally, as we refine our materiality, our material experiences themselves are transformed into vehicles for experiencing Divinity. In this way, we fulfill the verse,131 “Know Him in all your ways.”

* * *

In fact, the prophets use two images to describe the advent of the Messiah. In one, he is “poor, riding on a donkey”; in the other, he comes “with the clouds of heaven.”132 We may reconcile these images by applying them to the two facets of the Divine revelation that will accompany the messianic Redemption. Using materiality “for the sake of heaven” will reveal “the clouds of heaven,” the innate spirituality within creation. Knowing God “in all your ways” will reveal the Divinity that is “riding on the donkey,” the transcendent consciousness of God’s essence.133

Moses took the staff of God in his hand: Even though, as we see throughout the story, Moses gave Pharaoh the honor due him as a king and spoke respectfully to him, he made no compromises in his demands concerning the people’s spiritual and physical needs. He spoke with “the staff of God in his hand,” with true Jewish authority and determination.

The lesson for us here is that whenever we are confronted with an “Egyptian king,” someone who seeks to impose upon us elements of a lifestyle that are antithetical to Jewish values—even if this is done solicitously or innocently—we must recognize the inherent danger in succumbing to such pressure. In the end, this Pharaoh will tell us to drown ourselves (or our children) in material culture. We must therefore respectfully but resolutely insist on living according to the Torah’s values.134

[22] My preeminent son: By referring to the Jewish people as His son, God implied that (a) He would be angry with anyone who harms them, the same as a father would be angry with anyone who harms his child,135 and (b) the love between Him and them is as essential as that between a father and a son. No matter how depraved the people may have become, God’s love for them always remains intact. And conversely, every Jew feels as close as son or daughter to God; this feeling may sometimes fall dormant, but it can always be awakened.136

* * *

Sometimes, God expresses His love for His people by calling them His “little son.” This is because a parent’s love for his infant child is pure. It is not obscured by any appreciation the parent may have for his child’s acquired qualities or achievements. It is an expression of their essential connection, the parent loving the child simply because it is his child.

Here, however, God expresses His love for His people by calling them His “eminent” child, indicating His appreciation for their accomplishments. This is because ideally, our achievements should enhance our consciousness of our essential connection to God, not obscure it. We should strive to mature intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally because of our simple, filial devotion to God’s will. In this way, we demonstrate our desire to permeate all aspects of our lives with this devotion. By retaining this essential, childlike bond with God even while exercising our own prowess, God’s pure parental love for us will remain undiluted—and even be enhanced—by our accomplishments.137

Chapter 5

[2] I do not recognize God: As we mentioned previously, the Divine Name Havayah (translated here as “God,” with small capitals) refers to the transcendent aspects of God, to God as He exists outside the context of creation. In contrast, the Name Elokim (translated here as “God,” with lower case letters) refers to the immanent aspects of God, that is, to God the Creator, to the aspects of God that are discernable or can be deduced by observing created reality.

Pharaoh did indeed believe in the immanent aspects of God, but he knew nothing of God’s transcendent aspects. He knew that God created the world and established certain rules as laws of nature, one of which is that the strong should overpower and rule the weak. Since the Egyptians were stronger than the Jews, Pharaoh felt that it was their God-given right to rule over them. He could not accept the possibility that there was an aspect of God that transcended nature, that could override the laws of nature and declare that the strong should release the weak from their rule, even against their will, simply because this is the right thing to do.138

Another way of viewing this is that Pharaoh was a deist: he believed that God created the world but then abandoned it to the forces of nature, which are henceforth immutable.139

God therefore sent Moses to perform miracles and plagues before Pharaoh, to show him that God is not limited by the laws of nature.140

[3] Let us therefore make a three-day journey: Even though he intended for the Jews to leave Egypt permanently, Moses asked Pharaoh’s permission for just a three-day journey. He did this in order to demonstrate Pharaoh’s cruelty: after two hundred and ten years of slavery, he would not agree to even three days of vacation. The cruel plagues with which God would punish the Egyptians were therefore not excessive, but rather a fitting punishment for their own, excessive cruelty. Even later, when Pharaoh agreed to let the Jews go, he kept rescinding his permission. Only after the last plague did he see that there was truly no alternative but to let them go.

Furthermore, Moses did not technically lie, since he never said that the people would return after three days. The implication was that after three days, he and his people would decide whether or not they would return. This explains why the Egyptians saw the Jews take all their possessions with them for this supposedly three-day excursion and did not question them about it.141

[4] Get back to your own chores: Pharaoh was a wise man. He realized that every nation needs its elite class devoted to preserving its cultural identity and lore. He therefore did not object to Moses and Aaron learning and even teaching the Torah to the other Jews. He objected to their upsetting the status quo, by which the Jews were enslaved both because the Egyptians were more powerful than they were and because their Divinely-ordained sentence of four hundred years of slavery had not yet ended.

The essence of the Exodus, however, was to demonstrate that the Jewish people are not bound by the laws of nature, and therefore Moses and Aaron did not accept Pharaoh’s reasoning.

The lesson for us here is that those who are fortunate enough to be relatively free from the cultural enslavement of materialistic society should never succumb to complacency. As long as there are those “enslaved” to materialism, we should not hesitate to defy the conception that religion belongs to a clerical elite or only to special occasions. We must seek to free everyone from the bonds of material slavery and allow the Torah to permeate all aspects of life.142

* * *

Moses, Aaron, and the rest of the Levites assuredly had their own domestic affairs to attend to, as Pharaoh correctly assumed. Pharaoh erred only in assuming that the Levites considered these to be a “chore” and were therefore looking for some escape. In truth, the Levites took care of their private affairs willingly and capably.

The lesson here is that even someone who, like a Levite, has dedicated his life to studying and disseminating the Torah, fulfilling its commandments, and encouraging and enabling others to do likewise, should not shirk his domestic responsibilities. If he is lax in these, it probably means he is lax in his main work as well. Rather, he must do his share of helping around the house and, if he is a parent, educating his sons and daughters. Let him take his example from Moses and Aaron: although they took the time to run their households properly, this did not keep them from fulfilling their mission to bring God’s word to Pharaoh.143

* * *

Allegorically, there is a Pharaoh within each of us: just as Pharaoh ruled the greatest civilization in his time, the Torah exhorts every Jew to consider himself the “ruler of the world,” i.e., to accept responsibility for the destiny of all reality.144 In this context, we must look at ourselves and ask, “Am I being lazy? Do I consider my mission in this world my normal ‘workload’ or ‘hard labor,’ a ‘chore?’ ” Furthermore, we must ensure that we fulfill our daily quota of accomplishment, relying neither on yesterday’s laurels nor tomorrow’s opportunities.

How can we demand this of ourselves? When we avail ourselves of the “Moses and Aarons” of the generation that take us out of Egypt, out of our personal limitations. This is why the theme of the Exodus is incorporated in our daily prayers—to remind us daily that yesterday’s accomplishments are today’s Egypt, and we must always strive for greater accomplishments in the realm of holiness from day to day.145

[22] Why have you mistreated this people? Although the forefathers suffered, they never questioned God’s justice. Moses, however, did. This is because the forefathers mainly related to God emotionally, while Moses related to God more intellectually. Although the emotions—love, fear, mercy, etc.—can be guided by the intellect, they can also override it if they are strong enough. When one person loves another strongly, he can remain devoted to him even when doing so becomes illogical. Similarly, when we are emotionally bound to God, anomalies in His behavior toward us do not challenge our faith in Him.

Thus, even though the forefathers used their intellect to relate to God, their strong emotional ties with Him made any incongruities in His behavior toward them inconsequential. In contrast, although Moses also had emotional ties with God, the preeminence of his intellect made his people’s suffering an issue that had to be resolved; until it was, he could not proceed in his Divine mission or progress in his relationship with God.

As we shall see, God’s reply to Moses’ question was that it was time for him to integrate the emotionalism of the forefathers into his relationship with God.146

* * *

On a deeper level, Moses was not casting any aspersions on God’s justice, but was seeking to intellectually understand it. It was the same when he asked God what His Name is;147 he was not questioning God’s justice, just asking to understand it.

Together with the rest of the Jewish people, Moses had inherited his faith in God from the patriarchs. This inherited faith was indeed very strong, as seen from the fact that it withstood hundreds of years of exile and slavery. But in order to be redeemed from Egypt and receive the Torah, the people had to reach a still more profound level of faith. It was not enough for their relationship with God to be a cultural inheritance from their ancestors; they had to make it their own. For only when a person internalizes his faith and makes it his own can it permeate his whole being and inform all aspects of his life.

Ironically, the way we transform our inherited faith into our own possession is by questioning the faith bequeathed to us by our cultural heritage. Not through questioning out of doubt or for the sake of questioning, but in order to truly understand the underpinnings of this faith. If we neglect to do this and base our religiosity solely on our inherited faith, we are likely to eventually question this inherited faith out of doubt.

Moses embodied the quest to internalize faith, and this is what he sought to accomplish for the Jewish people. As we saw above,148 God selected Moses for the task of redeeming the people and transmitting the Torah to them because he had shown himself to be a caring shepherd, concerned for every one in his flock. This trait enabled him to devote himself to teaching the Torah to the people, to help each individual reach the highest level of Divine consciousness he or she could.

This is why Moses addressed God as though he was indeed questioning His justice—even though in truth, he wasn’t. By phrasing his question this way, Moses undertook to solidify the faith of even those Jews whose faith was so weak that they could question God’s justice.

As we shall see,149 in response to Moses’ question, to his desire to understand God’s ways, God told him that the purpose of the exile was to enable the people to reach a higher level of Divine consciousness than they could by relying solely on their inheritance from the patriarchs.150

Chapter 6

[1] God said to Moses: God’s response to His justice being questioned was that Moses should have learned from the example of Abraham. Although all the patriarchs had undergone tests of faith, the situations of Abraham and Moses were particularly analogous in that in both cases—

  • God had promised something and then appeared to renege on His promise. After promising Abraham progeny through Isaac, He told him to slaughter him; after promising Moses that He would redeem the Jews, He sent him on a mission that only intensified their suffering. In each case, the promise raised the hopes of fulfillment; this made the pain of disillusionment all the more intense.
  • The future of the entire Jewish people was at stake.

Therefore, Moses should have learned from Abraham’s example in this case.

As stated above, Moses only appeared to question God’s justice. The answer to Moses’ real question—his plea to understand something of God’s justice so his faith and the faith of the people could be internalized—comes at the beginning of the next parashah.151