The Israelites moved through four stages from slavery to freedom, teaches Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica, a 19th century chasidic teacher. Walking out of the gates of Egypt is only the beginning of the journey to mental, physical and emotional freedom. God hints at each stage through these promises in parshat Va’era:
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will remove you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I am YHVH your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.
When God says, וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will remove you,” Rabbi Yaakov teaches that God is promising to make the Israelites aware of their suffering. We know that the Israelites called out to God when they were in slavery, and God heard their cry. But while they knew their circumstances were inhumane and their souls cried out in protest, they did not grasp the extent of their suffering. Generations of slavery had numbed the Israelites to their inner experience, subduing hope of freedom, encouraging acceptance of their enslavement. Not only were their bodies bound to labor; their minds were weighted with mortar, disabled under bricks. But in order to become a free person, each Israelite had to fully understand the suffering he or she was going through. A person can only change their circumstances when they are conscious of what needs to change.
The promise וְהִצַּלְתִּי, I will deliver you, refers to the physical release from slavery. This is when the Israelites cease their work and flee, right before Pharaoh’s change of heart. In that moment, they are delivered out of making and lifting bricks, out of the reach of the taskmasters. Their bodies are their own, their work their own. This could only occur after the Israelites became fully aware of their suffering because otherwise they wouldn’t have left. To a people who had dwelled in the cities of Egypt their entire lives, the desert was unknown, uninhabited and full of dangers. As they journeyed towards the promised land, the Israelites fondly recalled the delicacies they ate Egypt, lamenting the loss of such luxuries. They had soothed their suffering with food, grown dependent on Egyptian lifestyles, and they had to tear their bodies away from such comforts on the road to freedom. Gaining autonomy over their bodies and their work was the second step towards freedom.
This step rings true for many of us. We live in a society with abundant luxuries, and we grow dependent on them even when they are not good for us. Pleasures of the body numb the complaints of the heart. We may soothe loneliness or purposelessness with food, TV, drugs or the internet. We begin to pursue a momentary release of serotonin instead of a holistic happiness. Escaping this state of slavery requires experiencing our suffering without distraction, so that we are motivated to put forth the effort to leave Egypt.
Then God says וְגָֽאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. The Israelites are already released from slavery in body and mind—what is God referring to? Rabbi Yaakov explains this promises a release “from the depths of the imprint that slavery left on you.” Imagine God’s metaphorical arm reaching deep into the inner psyche of each Israelite, pulling out the thorns that cling there, one by one. While they appear free on the outside, God knows that they are still enslaved within. This is not something that happens spontaneously, is not a moment of revelation or rebellion. This is a process that takes years, 40 years for all of the Israelites to complete. It is the process of clearing out all of the beliefs, the doubts, the apathy and the hatred that has accumulated from enslavement. Only after this process is there room to develop a new sense of identity and worth. Only then can the Israelites see the promise of the future.
Without reaching inwards, each one of us will inevitably return to our state of slavery. It is the skipping of this step which causes cycles of suffering in our lives, when we make the same mistakes again and again despite desiring a change. As we age, our own thoughts leave imprints in our minds about who we are and what we are capable of. Like our ancestors, we must root out our harmful beliefs in order to transform ourselves and live freely.
The final step, וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם, I will take you to me as a people, is God’s promise to free every Jew from the bondage of slavery, and instead bind them to Torah. God reminds us that we are part of a people with a rich tradition which guides us in living our lives. Unless all of us are free, none of us are free. We are responsible for our families, our communities, and every being in this world. Freedom, ultimately, is not just a state of mind or a state of body. It is a universal transformation that we have yet to achieve.
Through learning Torah, good works, and acts of lovingkindness we move closer to freedom. It is our purpose as a people who have journeyed out of the bonds of slavery to instill freedom in the world around us. But first, we must begin with our own enslavement. First, we free ourselves.