Toward Shabbat: Tzav

My favorite Pesah joke is the oldie but goodie that goes like this:

How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Only one…but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

I know what you’re thinking: how is that a Pesah joke? And you’re right, it doesn’t look that way on the surface—but if we take a close read of the Exodus narrative in the book of Shemot (Exodus), we’ll find some pretty deep insights into the psychology of redemption that align with this old knee-slapper.

Reading the biblical text attentive to the particularities of language, we find that the redemption from Egypt does not begin until some variant of the following words appear: ענוי/inui (suffering or oppression), עבדות/avdut (servitude or enslavement), and גרות/gerut (alienation or being a stranger). This language parallels that which God uses when foretelling the destiny that awaits Abraham’s descendents in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-14). Strikingly, the language of suffering and slavery appears multiple times early in the first two chapters of Exodus; the language of alienation appears only once (Exodus 2:22). Yet this word marks the turning point in the story: Only at this moment does God hear the cries of the Israelites, recall the covenant with the patriarchs, and then reveal Godself to Moshe—finally setting the redemptive process in motion. What’s more, throughout the rest of the Torah, we are instructed to recall our experience as strangers in Egypt just as often as we are reminded that we were slaves in Egypt.

It would seem that the Torah sees gerut—alienation—as central to our experience in Egypt, and as a necessary precondition for leaving Egypt. But why? Why does God originally specify, in Genesis, that the people will experience gerut? And in Exodus, why do we need to see this term appear in the text before God intervenes?

My teacher Rabbi David Silber suggests that while enslavement and oppression can be objectively identified by an outside observer, the feeling of estrangement or alienation is a subjective condition: Only I can determine if I feel the mental discomfort of alienation, and this self- awareness signals a psychological readiness for change, for freedom from the oppressive condition of slavery. Indeed, for most of the story, the Israelites don’t pray for redemption or express a desire for their situation to be different (and it’s not because they are slow to complain, as we’ll soon find out!). It is only after the language of gerut appears in the text that the Israelites cry out to God, who then hears and responds. The lightbulb finally wants to change.

In my own life, this reading of the story has helped me through periods of feeling alienated or confined. It has led me to view these painful states as an indicator of self-awareness and readiness for change. Of course, nothing is that simple. No one—not the Israelites, not me, not the lightbulb—can just cry out that we are ready for redemption, and then have it happen. Many factors impact our ability to change and the possibility for our suffering to be alleviated.

And yet this has been a useful line of thinking for me, especially this past year, when there has been so much anxiety and unease in our environment. I have had many moments of literally feeling like a stranger—in my own city, in my own apartment, in my own body—and so I’ve asked myself how this sense of estrangement can be a catalyst for my spiritual growth and personal redemption, how I can use it to identify and address the behaviors and patterns of thinking that lead to suffering. We’ve also seen glimpses of this self-reflection in our society, as we have asked ourselves what we must learn and how we must change from the experience of the pandemic and from all the pain, loss, and disconnection it wrought.

I pray that this Passover be one of personal, national, and global awakening, where we use moments of pain to spur our steps forward in our own evolution and toward a redeemed world.

Shabbat shalom and hag kasher v’sameah.