From The Exodus To The Present Day, The Torah Shows Us That Communal Freedom Rests Upon The Personal. Enslaved Minds Neither Merit Nor Are Capable Of Sustaining A Free Polity.
Amid scant gunfire from the Arab Legion, the first paratroopers that penetrated the walls of the Old City in the Six Day War found the Jewish Quarter absolutely silent. The young Israeli soldiers, in their 20s in 1967, had never seen the Western Wall, the prominently remaining portion of the exterior retaining wall of the Temple Mount, renovated by Herod 2000 years ago. These boys had altogether scant familiarity with the labyrinthine alleyways of old Jerusalem, closed to Jews during the twenty years of Jordanian occupation.
Anxious, scared, and ambitious, the soldiers desperately sought the ruins of the Western Wall with a limited sense of direction and with nobody on the streets to guide them. Suddenly, they happened upon an unarmed Muslim man, whom they surrounded. The Muslim man was terrified, and reasonably so. The anxious chayalim assured him that they meant him no harm, and that all they wanted were directions to the Wall. This man, wearing traditional Islamic dress, kindly obliged and the rest is history.
Who was the Muslim man who dared walk the streets of a warzone? In the ensuing decades, historical researchers located Mahmoud Daud Suleiman
Interestingly enough, Mahmoud Daud was born in Queens, NY and had changed his name from Mark David Schlieffer. He was Jewish. Raised by Jews alienated from tradition, he was provided only a vacuous Jewish identity and never learned a deep spirituality which might accompany a profound Torah education. This unfortunate condition naturally created a spiritual seeker who went to The East to find Islam. Mr. Suleiman had been simply running an errand when the soldiers found him at the right place and in the right time.
This true story, often retold by Rabbi Sholom Gold of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, demonstrates that it is possible for a Jew to be involved in a seminal event in history and not even know it! This is the result of the exile of the Jewish mind. A Jew can be so removed from his Torah, his Nation, and his Land that he loses all perception of his or her role in the world.
The Kabbalists and the students of the Holy Baal Shem Tov explain that this is the essential message of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus and the Passover holiday relate to both the redemption of Jewish national consciousness as well as the physical extraction of the nation from a condition called slavery in a place called Egypt.
In the Friday-evening song Lecha Dodi, with which Jews greet the Sabbath, we sing “Korva el nafshi g’alah” – which the Baal Shem Tov translates as “My [own] soul’s redemption will be closer [than that of the Jewish People at large.]” He means that a Jew’s personal spiritual and emotional redemption is preeminent and precedes the Jewish national redemption. Moreover, the spiritual freedom of the individual is a prerequisite for his or her ability to enjoy the fruits of geopolitical messianic deliverance and the metaphysical power vested in a restored Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
Every Jew must achieve a certain degree of salvation from the exile of the mind before the Soul of Souls can effect national salvation with a Davidic king. If a Jew receives a Physical Temple without leaving the Egypt of the Mind, he or she will wander Jerusalem like Mahmoud Daud, an exiled soul in a liberated city.
We see this concept illustrated in the narrative of the Exodus. The Holy One told Moshe to have the departing Israelites ask the Egyptians for gold and silver. It was an outrageous and audacious request; the triumphant former slaves are to ask the broken and helpless Egyptians to empty their homes of gold and silver as a parting gift. Many commentators see it as back wages for the years of slavery, or at the least, an additional affliction meted upon the Egyptians. However, this final request is indicative of far more than offered by these simple explanations.
When the Israelites actually ask the Egyptians for their gold, silver, and garments in Exodus 12, the Torah uses a grammatically unusual word “va’yashilum” to describe the fulfillment of the request. “Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, AND THEY WERE GRANTED – and Egypt was emptied.” “And they were granted” is vague. Who or what, exactly, does the verse indicated was “granted” as the Israelites left? Is this strange conjugation talking about the Israelites asking the Egyptians or about the Egyptians fulfilling?
Talmud Berachot 9b broadens the debate and says that the grammar implies that the party indicated by the word “va’yashilum” was coerced into acting against its natural will. Now, if we say that this verse refers to the Egyptians, it reads naturally and makes the most textual sense. Certainly, the Egyptians granted the request, but against their will. Who willingly sees off over a million slaves with impoverishing gifts after suffering the ten plagues?! This reading makes sense.
The Talmud wonders: how can anyone argue for a reading in which the Jews are the party acting against its will? They are pampered by the Almighty, showered with valuable parting gifts of gold and silver as they leave hundreds of years of bitter exile! Why would asking the Egyptians for this amazing tribute constitute a burden contrary to their natural will?! Remember, in this version of events, the Egyptians are willingly giving these gifts either as a “good riddance” payoff or in recognition of the awful magnitude of the turn of events. If so, why are the Jews the ones being forced against their will to take the amazing gifts?
The Rabbis answer this question by stating that the Jews didn’t want the burden of schlepping all that heavy gold and silver. For them, it would be an abject wealth, impractical for the impending trek through deserted Sinai Wilderness. Therefore, the Israelite men had to be forced to go door to door to receive their gold and silver bounty.
The great pre-war chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook explains this Talmudic discussion in his Ayin Ayah commentary. He says that the Jews were forced to collect their gold and silver because they were the victims of a slave mentality. Slavery erodes the cognitive faculties of the mind. When a person is emotionally subjugated, he cannot recognize a good thing even when it is literally presented on a golden platter.
The Israelites emerging from Egyptian slavery were so broken by bondage that they could not fathom a single use for immense sums of gold and silver. They could not fathom using gold and silver to build a Tabernacle-Mishkan for the Divine Presence because they could not fathom the concept of building anything at all for God. Slavery creates a spiritual myopia that hinders an assessment of value and required coercion for the Israelites to collect the gold.
However, this was just the men! The women were far freer in this spiritual analysis. The women danced with tambourines after the salvation of crossing the Sea. Midrash Yalkut Shimoni asks why the women had tambourines: there was no time for the dough of their bread to rise, but there was time to secure musical instruments for the road?!
The answer is that the women anticipated salvation. They had the ability to foresee redemption and planned according by packing tambourines. In fact, the Talmud explains that the entire redemption from Egypt was in the merit of the Jewish women. When Pharaoh decreed that all male babies would be drowned, the men despaired and avoided siring children. The women spent extra time making themselves extra attractive to coerce the men into marriage and procreation. Women are tough; the Jewish women showed clear thinking and undaunted optimism in the face of the murderous decrees of Egypt, just as they packed tambourines for the Exodus.
The Jewish People needs Redemption. This is not simply a salvation from the current which inspire the predictable daily choir of ‘oy veys’ on social media. The Jewish People needs spiritual clarity. That clarity is the difference between a Jewish soldier seeking the Western Wall and a Jewish soul in a dishdasha estranged by assimilation and the destruction of tradition and identity in the age of ideology. The mind leads the body and we prayerfully demand that our personal souls be opened and elevated soon, so that the corporate body of the Jewish Nation can “man up” and prepare for the Redemption Song and the Temple To Come.