Listen to audio
This week’s parsha, Vaeira, as well as last week’s, Shemot, and the ones we will be reading over the next few weeks discuss the enslavement in Egypt, and the subsequent Exodus. The central figure in the whole episode of Egypt is Moses, or, as we say in Hebrew, Moshe. The miracles, of course, are all constructed and executed by G-d, but Moshe is the primary instrument through which the liberation takes place.
Moshe was raised by an Egyptian princess—Pharaoh’s daughter. As we know, one of Pharaoh’s decrees at that time was to kill all the newborn Jewish boys. The infant Moses was hidden in a basket in the river. One day the princess finds him and takes pity on him and raises him as her own.
It is not coincidental that Moses, who was destined to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt, give them the Torah, and lead them through the desert, was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, in Pharaoh’s palace. In fact, he carries the name Moses, Moshe, which was the name given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter. According to Talmudic tradition Moshe had many names. Yet the name the Torah uses, the name that ultimately sticks, is the name that was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter.
Many different explanations are given for this. Rabbi Mordechai Gifter of blessed memory, one of the great Telshe Rosh Yeshivas, said that G-d chose this name, Moshe, to show us His power.
Pharaoh’s astrologists had told him that the redeemer of the Jewish people was about to be born and would meet his end in water. (Indeed, there was an element of truth to this; Moses eventually did stumble on water-related matters, when he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, the result of which was that he could not enter the Promised Land.) Because of this prediction, Pharaoh decreed that all the newborn Jewish boys be drowned, to prevent the redeemer from ever leading the Jews out of Egypt. Yet G-d engineered events such that the leader of the liberation grew up in Pharaoh’s palace.
There is a famous verse in the Book of Proverbs (19:21) that reads “there are many thoughts and plans in the hearts of man, but it is the counsel of G-d that ultimately is established.” We make all kinds of plans but G-d is ultimately in control of the world and nothing demonstrates this more dramatically and ironically than the fact that Moses carries the name given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter, the name which indicates that he was raised in the palace, right under Pharaoh’s nose.
Moses’ life: increasing responsibility
There is another aspect to the fact that Moses began his life in Pharaoh’s palace. If you track the life story of Moses you will see an interesting pattern. He starts off as a prince in the palace. It says in the portion that we read last week that he goes out of the palace and sees the suffering of his brothers. He goes out further and sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave and he intervenes to save the slave. He then separates between two Jews who are fighting with each other. After that he is forced to flee from Egypt and goes to Median, where he defends a group of shepherdesses from shepherds who bully them at the well. Those women turn out to be the daughters of Yitro, Jethro. He marries Tziporah, one of Yitro’s daughters, and they have two children. He is then appointed by G-d to lead the people out of Egypt and is the instrument through which G-d brings about the liberation. In Egypt he is not really responsible for the welfare of the Jews because he has no control, they are under the control of Pharaoh. But after the people come out of Egypt he becomes their leader and teacher.
The pattern in Moshe’s life is one of increasing responsibilities. He starts off as a prince, with no responsibilities. A prince is different from a king; a king has privileges but responsibilities as well—he has to govern the country. But a prince has only privileges and no responsibilities. Then he goes out, sees his brothers’ suffering and takes on responsibilities: first he helps one person, then another. He helps the daughters of Yitro, then he gets married, then he has children. He then comes back to fight and lobby on behalf of the Jewish People to get them out of Egypt. Then he becomes the leader. Then he is the instrument through which G-d gives the Torah to the Jewish People and he becomes the teacher—he’s known as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe our teacher—and he leads the people in the desert. He goes through all of these different phases but the common thread is this: there is a progression from very limited responsibility to greater responsibility with each stage in his life. This pattern of increasing responsibility is a process we must all go through.
Greatness of soul necessitates expansion of self
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great Rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, discusses what it means to be a great person. Conventional wisdom maintains that the many important duties in life such as building a family, looking after a spouse, raising children, earning a living, and contributing to the community, are all noble tasks, no doubt, but also deplete a person’s resources. Of course a person has to develop him or herself as a human being and become a good person, through the commandments, our moral obligations, and through doing our duty in this word; but every extra responsibility that we take on actually drains our inner resources. Thus, we are constantly in a struggle between self-preservation and taking responsibility for others.
Rav Wolbe says that this conventional wisdom is in fact not true. G-d places a soul in every person for the purpose of developing that soul. The soul, and the human being as the bearer of that soul, has tremendous potential which is actualised throughout a person’s life by doing good in the world, with the goal being that after death the soul returns to G-d in a state of maximum actualization of the potential that was placed within it. A soul that remains up in the heavens with G-d cannot actualise its potential; it’s in a place of perfection, of pure goodness. That is why the soul descends into the physical world so that it has the opportunity to develop itself and actualise that enormous potential.
Actualising our potential by expanding our sphere of influence
This potential inherent in the soul is actualised by taking on more and more responsibilities. As we grow up, our sphere of responsibility increases bit by bit. A baby is conscious only of its own needs: what and when it wants to eat, when it wants to sleep. A baby is not interested in anybody else. As we mature we start to understand that there are other people in the world. A three- or four-year-old can already begin to comprehend that there are other people and other needs in the world, but still has a selfish streak. If he or she needs something they need it now and there is no negotiating. Thinking of others doesn’t come naturally to a child. As a child gets older, though, the process of moving from childhood to adulthood is a process of expanding, of becoming a bigger person.
In the vocabulary of Judaism and its philosophers such a person is called an Ish HaKlal, a person of the klal or in Yiddish we say a klal mensch. Klal means inclusive, including lots of others. As we go through life we become more and more aware that there are others around and we expand our sphere of responsibility to reach out to them. As we expand our realm of influence our soul becomes more developed and is actualising the incredible potential that has been placed within it by G-d.
Shouldering another’s burden
This development of the human being taking on more and more responsibilities was exhibited by Moses. As part of his development he first needed to see the suffering of others. The Talmud cites the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (6: 6), which says you have to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro, you must carry your friend’s burden. The meaning is not just to help another person, but to shoulder the other’s burden and actually carry it with him. The message that needs to be conveyed to a person who is in a difficult situation is that he is not alone. It’s not just a matter of physically helping others—which of course is very important—but rather that they need to feel they are not alone, that you are with them.
You can only truly be with the other if you can get outside of yourself and be aware of the people around you. This is the process of maturing from a self-absorbed child to an adult who is aware of others. And this is the process Moses went through: going out and seeing his brothers’ suffering, helping his brothers, defending the defenceless against oppression, getting married, having children, and coming back to redeem the Jewish People.
Spiritual growing pains
Each stage of development, of becoming more of a klal mensch with expanding responsibilities, comes with pain because the soul is growing and stretching. When the soul comes into the world it is relatively limited, it is contracted. It is filled with potential which hasn’t been actualised. The soul has to expand so that the person becomes more inclusive of others. That is why every stage comes with growing pains, because the soul is expanding all the time to include more and more people.
The process of marriage is about constant expansion of responsibility, thereby actualising the potential within and developing it even further. Marriage requires us to take into account another human being and a whole different set of needs. This is an expansion of soul, an actualisation of potential.
Similarly with raising children: every parent knows the amount of self-sacrifice that is required in order to raise a child properly and also the great rewards that come with it. The pain of self-sacrifice is really about the expansion of self to include the child who is now in the parents’ realm of influence. A person goes on a life-long journey of expansion and fulfilling more and more of their potential, from marriage to children to community to helping the under-privileged.
Thus, there is a paradigm shift: expanding responsibility is not about diminishing the individual. It is about fulfilment and the actualisation of the potential in the soul. It was for this purpose that we were brought into the world. This is the life process that Moses goes through; constant expansion of self. He starts off as a prince who only has to worry about himself, living a life of privilege with everyone looking after him. Then his responsibilities expand: he starts to look at the suffering of his brothers. He is nosei b’ol im chaveiro, as the Talmud describes, he shouldered the burden of his brothers, literally and figuratively. Then he gets married and has children, and then he comes back to get the people out of Egypt. He leads the people, teaches them Torah, looks after them in the desert, constantly expanding his responsibilities. This is the making of a great person.
The ultimate expansion of consciousness: the soul returning to G-d
The final stage of growth, says Rav Wolbe, is actually death, a very painful process indeed. Even if a person passes away peacefully and after many years, his or her transition to the next world is painful; the transition from a world of constriction to a world of expansion is the ultimate growth.
Rav Wolbe quotes from Rabbeinu Tam, one of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages, who contrasts this world with the next and says that a person living in this world is like someone living in a cave underground. They have all of their needs taken care of but don’t know that there is a world outside the cave. Then one day they come out and see a whole big world of blue skies, seas, and trees. The magnificence and the sheer freedom of being in the “real” world, the expanded consciousness that comes with it, is something which could never have been conceived of inside the dark cave.
Rabbeinu Tam says that this world is like a dark, constricted cave. When we make the transition out of the body the soul becomes even more of a klal, even more inclusive, because it now has a sense of transcendence above self, transcendence above the world, and an appreciation for the ultimate truth in the real world; the soul has finished the process of actualising its potential.
If a person has lived a good life then death becomes part of that growth process. Any growth process of a person becoming more expanded, more of a klal mensch, is associated with growing pains coming from the soul being stretched into greater consciousness. Each stage of life becomes more difficult and that is associated with pain. One of the great achievements of life, says Rav Wolbe, is to die well. The pain of death is the ultimate growth process, where the soul has finished its development and is now going back to G-d. As it leaves the physical body it becomes more of a klal. It sees the broader perspective, having transcended beyond self.
Maturity means moving beyond self
Unfortunately, there are adults who behave like children because they haven’t matured beyond self. This process of development and maturing is not something which happens automatically; it is a process that we have to work on. Thus you may find a person who gets married—which should be an expanding experience – but because they haven’t developed properly as a human being they haven’t expanded, and they remain selfish. This in turn damages the marriage, sometimes irreparably. Having children should be an expanding process. Sometimes it is and sadly, sometimes it isn’t. At each stage of life we have to be constantly developing and expanding who we are, transcending beyond self and being aware of what is going on around us.
The more responsibility we take on and the more we reach out to those around us, the more we are developing the soul within us. As such there isn’t this tension between my interests and others’ needs, between self and others. We expand and develop ourselves by getting involved with others and putting their needs before ours.
Being connected above and below
Rav Wolbe explains that part of the way that a person reaches out to others and influences them is dependent on the person’s own self-development. He quotes from Rav Moshe Cordovero, one of our great philosophers, that a person constantly looks up and looks down, up to receive inspiration and guidance from G-d and down to help others around him.
In order to be able to reach out to others, we have to be strong in ourselves, through our connection to G-d, the study of Torah, prayer and the commandments, which give us the energy to be able to reach out to others and increase our realm of responsibility. The more responsibility one shoulders, the greater is the expansion of self, of actualisation of potential. Responsibility means shouldering the troubles and concerns of others, and helping as many people as possible by spreading one’s influence for the good.
Growing inside, expanding outward
It all starts with who we are on the inside. Rav Wolbe cites from the Talmud which states that this was the way of Samuel the Prophet: first, he had an impact on himself and his household; then, on his neighbourhood; then, on his city; and then on everybody else. This is the model for how we take on responsibility and how we change the world. Judaism’s model for changing the world is not a top-down, linear model nor a bottom-up linear model. It is an inside–out, spherical model, where the development grows outward from the inside. As we develop we expand outward to include more and more people in our sphere of influence. The ripples go outward as a person becomes more expansive, more inclusive, more of a klal mensch.
This is the model of Moses’ life: starting constricted, turned inward, and then expanding, turning outward. The impetus for that growth from the inside out comes from everything that G-d has given us; the Torah, the Talmud, which give us the guidance, the light, and the energy to be able to expand outward. When we are filled with a direct connection to G-d, we can develop from that point of truth. From that starting point we can then move out to become greater and greater people.
This is the lesson gleaned from Moses’ life story. Greatness is the expansion of self, when we are filled inside with a direct connection to G-d, and then expand outward to include others, increasing our responsibilities and becoming klal menschen.
Vaeira – Moving Beyond Self (Edited Transcript)
Listen to audio