In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel shares how he and others managed survive in the concentration camps: by finding ways to live with purpose. He had just completed a manuscript for publication when he was arrested. He tells how disappointed he was when the coat he was wearing was confiscated from him in Auschwitz. The manuscript was hidden in the lining. In return, he was given the worn rags of another prisoner who had recently died. He reached into the pocket, and what did he find?
One single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a coincidence[, he asks,] other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper. (p. 119)
Over the course of the next several years, Frankel’s “deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped [him] to survive the rigors of the camps…”
Drawing upon his experience as a survivor, Frankel asks the fundamental question of how we live lives with meaning? In seemingly hopeless situations, how does a person embrace hope?
As the Book of Exodus opens, the Israelites have been enslaved for generations. They are groaning and sighing, and apparently have given up on the possibility of freedom. But God hears their cries, and remembers the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
When Moses goes to them the first time, they are skeptical. After he appears before Pharaoh with his initial demand to “let my people go,” Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload.
In Parashat Vaera, God again sends Moses to carry the message to the Israelites that they are about to be freed. “Get ready to be redeemed!”
Moses says and does exactly what God tells him, but he does not get the response that he is hoping for. “They did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage.”
Moses then turns to God, exasperated. “If the Israelites would not listen to me, how can I expect Pharaoh to take me seriously, and I am of uncircumcised lips!”
It seems that the Israelites and Moses also have some learning to do. The commentators struggle to understand why both the Israelites and Moses are not responding enthusiastically to God’s message of freedom.
Rashi understands the Israelites’ “shortness of breath and hard bondage” literally. They are working so hard that they are incapable of mentally processing Moses’ fairly simple message of hope.
Other commentators see the Israelites’ situation as being more spiritual and psychological. Kotzer Ruach, “shortness of breath,” could also be translated as “shortness of spirit.” In other words, the Israelites are depressed, and their depression renders them incapable of considering the possibility that there could be an end to their suffering. Using Victor Frankel’s terminology, they have not yet made the choice to embrace a cause to live for.
Moses’ strange expression, “I am of uncircumcised lips,” has perplexed commentators for millennia. Robert Alter points out that it is a mistake to see it merely as a colorful way of saying, “I have a speech impediment” or “I am not good at public speaking.”
Rather, Moses is declaring that he is not fit “for the sacred task.” He feels that he is spiritually unable to do what God has asked him to do. That is, to be God’s mouthpiece, both in performing miracles before Pharaoh, and in leading the Israelites to freedom. Moses does not think that he is up for the job.
The Torah tends to be critical of people who do not have faith in God’s ability to redeem them. But I can see where Moses and the Israelites are coming from. They are being asked to do something that has never been done before. So it is understandable that they might be a little hesitant about getting their hopes up.
Hope is closely related to fear. Indeed, hope is a response to fear. Holding us back from hope is the fear that deliverance may not come, and something terrible awaits us on the other side.
The Israelites are understandably afraid. What if Moses fails? What if Pharaoh increases their tasks even more? It is better to continue in the despair that they know, rather than embrace the possibility of a redemption that they are unlikely to see.
During Passover, we remember these events. Our core goal is to fulfill the admonition to “See ourselves as if we personally went out from each Egypt.” We tell stories of personal deliverance, of family members being rescued.
But we must remember that before we dared hope for deliverance, we experienced moments of fear and despair. It takes a great act of courage to hope. It takes a willingness to embrace the freedom to choose a cause to live for.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankel writes
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (p. 109)
When Moses first appears to the Israelites, neither they nor he have embraced the freedom to choose their own attitudes. The story of Exodus is the story of their eventual embrace of this fundamental freedom, which can be exercised no matter what outside influences they confront.
That is the question that we strive to ask ourselves each day, no matter what external forces may be waiting for us. How will I embrace the fundamental freedom to choose my attitude?