Our סדרה continues the story of G-d’s plagues against the Egyptians to force the release of the Jewish People. First, the land of Egypt is struck with locusts, and the country’s crops are destroyed. Then, חושך hits the land, but not your run-of-the-mill plague of darkness:
וַיְהִי חֹשֶׁךְ-אֲפֵלָה בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים. לֹא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו–שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וּלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר, בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם.
And it was a “thick” darkness over the Land of Egypt, for three days. A man wasn’t able to see his brother, nor could he rise from his place for three days. But all of the Jewish People had light in their settlements. (שמות י:כב-כג)
Rashi elaborates on the conditions of the darkness and the reasoning behind this type of plague:
ויהי חשך אפלה שלשת ימים וגו’ – חשך של אופל שלא ראו איש את אחיו אותן שלשת ימים. ועוד שלשת ימים אחרים חשך מוכפל על זה, שלא קמו איש מתחתיו. יושב אין יכול לעמוד, ועומד אין יכול לישב. ולמה הביא עליהם חשך?,פירוש שהיו בישראל באותו הדור רשעים, ולא היו רוצים לצאת, ומתו בשלשת ימי אפלה כדי שלא יראו מצרים במפלתם ויאמרו אף הן לוקין כמונו…
And it was a “thick darkness” for three days– such a thick darkness that men could not see each other for three days. For another three days, there was an even more “heavy” darkness that men didn’t leave their places- those sitting down couldn’t stand and those standing couldn’t sit. And why did G-d bring darkness? It is explained that there Jews of that generation that were wicked and didn’t want to leave Egypt- they were killed during these three days of extra-thick darkness so that Egyptians wouldn’t see their deaths and say ‘even the Jews are being killed in these plagues…’ (רש”י י:כב)
So, we see that according to the Midrash, a plague of super darkness was chosen as a cover for a more important operation- weeding out the wicked Jews, the ones who didn’t want to leave Egypt. G-d needed to remove the non-believers from His nation before He could take them out, but any public Jewish death would undermine all of the other מכות, as the Egyptians could claim that G-d’s miracles were not meant to punish only them. By creating a plague of darkness, G-d metaphorically killed two birds with one stone- He showed His strength to the Egyptians to scare them into letting the Jews out of Egypt, and He also removed the Jews who would not leave, which would cause a huge חילול השם, before they could cause any problems. Truly a win-win situation.
Reading Rashi’s commentary here, it is clear that Rav Yitzchaki has a very negative view of the Jews who did not want to leave Egypt- he explicitly calls them רשעים (or פושעים, according to some texts, which is even more serious). But us, readers of the Torah, have a more serious problem. The Jews had been subjugated in Egypt for several hundred years, culminating in their terrible slavery. With all of the miracles and punishments going on in Egypt, it should seem obvious that it’s time to leave. One would also think that an enslaved people would be happy to leave for freedom at any opportunity. So, why would there be any Jews who question this? How could any Jews even begin to think that they should refuse to leave Egypt, against all of the divine signs and punishments?
My uncle, Milton Stern, once shared with me an interesting perspective on Jewish slavery in Egypt: In the words of the Torah, the Jews’ internment in Egypt is called “סבלות מצרים.” When G-d took them out of Egypt, He tells Moshe that He removed them from “סבלותם.” The Hebrew root ס-ב-ל translates into ‘suffering’, but is also the basis of the word סבלנות, a not-so-commonly known used word in Israel for ‘patience.’ Modern Hebrew’s connecting of these two words harkens to a deeper connection between them. When one is forced to suffer for a long time, his need for redemption and salvation, initially a strong pang, eventually fades to a weak, constant buzz. After a while, as one becomes used to his new surroundings and pain, the immediate need for salvation fades entirely and turns to patience, for he realizes that he won’t be leaving any day soon.
The danger of patience is that once one reaches that stage, it is extremely difficult to leave it. Case and point is the Jews’ experience in Egypt. Their extended slavery turned into “סבלות מצרים,” and they began to lose hope of ever being saved, getting used to the terrible conditions of their life in Egypt. When Moshe appeared with G-d’s might behind him, most awakened from their suffering and heeded the call to get ready to leave. Others, unfortunately, were too far gone- they were so used to their uncomfortable existence in Egypt that they were too afraid to leave there for the unknown of Canaan, even with a divine promise that life would be better and more meaningful there. When faced with the decision between the unknown future of following G-d home to Israel or the known life of slavery and certain death in Egypt, these misled Jews chose to stick their “סבלות מצרים,” and sealed their own fate.
We learn from here an important lesson in impatience. While patience is an important value in Western society, Rambam teaches that all Jews must pray for and anticipate redemption every day. Once Jews begin to get used to their suffering and settle too much into their known life in the exile, they unfortunately begin to lose focus of the importance of redemption so that when faced with the decision between life and death, they may choose the latter. סבלנות is truly not a virtue in this context.
With this in mind, it was extremely difficult and painful for me to read the following in last week’s Hamodia:
Are Rabbanim encouraging people to stay in France or to emigrate?
It depends which Rabbanim. The official Rabbanim of the French government are quicker to encourage aliyah, but the Rabbanim in the chareidi sector are very hesitant. Most Jews in France are not prepared spiritually to deal with life in Israel and we are scared for their ruchniyus. If someone is growing all around and he wants to make aliyah, that’s a different story. But our experience has shown that most people who went just because they were scared to stay here ended up losing their connection to Yiddishkeit and becoming totally secularized.
In the above excerpt from an interview between Hamodia staff and Rav Dovid Levy, a French Mara D’atra, a p’sak emerges discouraging religious Jews to flee the danger of France in the face of the much greater danger of becoming secularized in Eretz Yisrael. While there are seventy different true “faces” of the Torah, and we cannot even begin to appreciate the crisis that French Jewry is facing right now, it is clear that whichever rabanim are advising Jews to remain in France are suffering from the same “סבלנות syndrome” as those Jews killed in מכת חושך were.
Even before the attacks earlier this month, life as a Jew in France was not easy- Anti-Semitic graffiti, slurs and violence have caused most Jews to stop wearing kippot in public and Kosher establishments have been hit very badly with threats, robberies, and, as we saw two weeks ago, shootings and hostages. While the מכות in Paris were mainly against French Jewry and not gentiles, our brothers there must learn from the divine signs and get out of there before it is too late. סבלנות may have caused them to get used to the terrible life conditions in France, but, in the face of the horrifying deaths in the Paris, the answer is not to stay put. There is no reason to think that it is better to die than risk our spiritual lives- moving to Israel would risk secularization, but staying in France may very well guarantee certain death. This may well have been the mindset of the Jews killed in מכת חושך, and while I would not necessarily use Rashi’s strong descriptions of “רשעים” and “פושעים” here, it is clear this is not correct.
In fact, the only relevant comparison to the p’sak of these so-called charedi gedolim would be their European predecessors in the early Twentieth century who advised Jews to stay away from Zionism to avoid secularization. While their effort did save the neshamot of many religious Jews, it ended up killing them when Nazi Germany took over Europe and began systematically slaughtering these gedolim and their misled students. Many, like Rav Teichtel, who saw the error of their ways too late, could not help but fault the gedolim who put religious pressure on European Jewry to stay, telling them, as their French successors are now, that it is better to stay put and face certain death than to risk secularization. (Ironically, this statistically has a lower chance of happening in Israel than anywhere else in the world, especially France, one of the European capitals of Jewish assimilation).
A famous story is told about Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook zt”l, former head of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, as he spoke to a student who was getting ready to leave the yeshiva to go learn in an academic institution in New York. Rav Kook asked the American student why he decided to leave, and he responded that it is too difficult to live in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Zvi Yehuda pushed back and asked how his soon-to-be former student feels about the serious assimilation there. The talmid responded that there is also assimilation in Israel, as well as terrorism and other dangers- “there is yisurin (suffering) here and there is yisurin there”. Rav Kook very famously responded; “The yisurin here in Israel are birth pains, but the yisurin in the diaspora are the pains of death.”
The terrorism in France now is symptomatic of the same death pains that Rav Kook warned his student about. The Jews of France, much like their Egyptian predecessors, have a difficult decision to make- either to awaken from their “סבלנות,” accept the divine signs that it’s time to leave, and get out of there, or to stay put and not face the unknown of life in Israel. The charedi gedolim of France, and by extension, their constituents, must internalize the distinction that Rav Kook made- they must realize that while Israel’s secularization is painful, it is also like birthpains, the terrible pain right before something beautiful emerges. France, on the other hand, represents the terrible pain that signals the end of an era- improvement is not on the horizon in any way. Now is the time to leave France, before it succumbs to death and Judaism there is gone for good.
While very few of my readers have any connection to French Jewry whatsoever, I would nonetheless like to call on all to put pressure on religious Jews in France to ignore the call of the charedi gedolim to stay put and instead listen to the true Torah, to the commandment of “ובחרתם בחיים.” It’s not too late yet- now is the time to escape “סבלנות syndrome” and leave the Diaspora for a religiously fulfilling life in Eretz Yisrael.