Shemot | Expansion of Spirit
Updated: Apr 22
This week’s parsha is Shemot, the first parsha of the book of Exodus, which as we know deals, among other things, with one of the major events of Jewish history: the liberation from Egypt. The central character in the story of the Exodus is Moshe, the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had. This week’s parsha deals with the earlier years of Moshe’s life, beginning in Pharaoh’s palace and leading up to his role as the leader of the Jewish people.
Moshe’s life: increasing responsibility
If we track the life story of Moses, we will see an interesting pattern. He starts off as a prince in the palace. Our portion describes how 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. These shepherdesses 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. He then becomes their leader and teacher for the next forty years.
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: 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 serves as the conduit through which G-d gives the Torah to the Jewish people and he becomes the teacher – Moshe Rabbeinu – and he leads the people in the desert. He goes through all of these different phases but the common thread is a progression from very limited responsibility to greater responsibility, with each stage in his life.
Greatness of soul necessitates an expansion of self
This pattern of increasing responsibility is a process we must all go through. 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, says, conventional wisdom, every extra responsibility that we take on actually drains our 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 actualisation of the potential that was placed within it. A soul that remains up in the heavens with G-d cannot actualise its potential; it is 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.
Actualising our potential by expanding our sphere of influence
The potential inherent in the soul is actualised by taking on more and more responsibilities. As we grow up, our sphere of responsibility expands 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 they need 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.
Shouldering another’s burden
This development of the human being by 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 feel they are not alone, that you are with them.
We can only truly be with the other if we can get outside of ourselves and be aware of the people around us. 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 expanding responsibilities and becoming more of an inclusive person – a klal mentsch, as we say in Yiddish – 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 yet 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.
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 self-sacrifice that is required in order to raise a child properly, as well as 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 lifelong journey of expansion and fulfilling more and more of their potential, from marriage to children to community, to helping the underprivileged.
Thus, expanding responsibility is not about diminishing the individual. It is about fulfilment in the actualisation of the soul’s potential. 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 and 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 who has all his needs taken care of but does not know that there is a world outside the cave. Then one day he comes out and sees 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 mentsch, even more inclusive; the soul has finished the process of actualising its potential. It now has a sense of transcendence above self, transcendence above the world, and an appreciation for the ultimate truth.
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 is associated with growing pains of 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 the ultimate klal mentsch; 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 people who get married – which should be an expanding experience – but because they haven’t developed properly and expanded as human beings, 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 tension between “my” interests and “your” needs, between self and others. We expand and develop ourselves by getting involved with others and putting their needs before ours.
Growing inside, expanding outward
This is the model of Moses’ life: it starts constricted, turned inward, and then expands, turning outward. The impetus for that growth from the inside out comes from everything that G-d has given us – the Torah and the Talmud, which give us the guidance, the light and the energy to be able to expand outward. Our direct connection to G-d is the starting point, from which 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 mentschen.