This week’s parashah begins by recording our nation’s first descent into the darkness of exile. The place of this exile, Egypt, was called Mitzrayim (straits). This fittingly describes the core difficulty of exile, the feeling of being squeezed and suppressed, and not knowing where to turn or how to free oneself. While the story of our descent into servitude and its many chapters is retold, at each point a great many hints help us deal with these challenges.
In fact, the very first passage that describes the descent contains the key for how to escape it. The Book of Exodus begins, “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt” (Exodus 1:1). The Torah goes on to list Jacob and his descendants. Why was it necessary at this point to repeat the names of Jacob’s offspring? Because it was precisely and only these Tzaddikim, Jacob’s mitah sheleimah (completely holy progeny), who were able to draw down God’s Presence into the world. Because they led the descent into Mitzrayim and spiritually established themselves there, we were assured that a Godly awareness and connection could be had even in the most dreadful and gloomy circumstances.
The importance and greatness of the Tzaddikim is not limited to paving the way for us in the spiritual worlds, but actually reaches us on the most personal of levels. The Torah recounts the actions of two noble women who saved the Jewish baby boys from death, Shifrah and Puah. Rashi identifies them as Yocheved, the mother of Moshe, and Miriam, Moshe’s sister. If they were so heroic, why doesn’t the Torah say their real names?
Although Yocheved and Miriam were the ones who saved the day in this particular case, on a deeper level the Torah is hinting to the work of all the true Tzaddikim. The Tzaddikim of each generation are called “Hebrew midwives” (ibid. 1:15) because they enable us to rise to the level of “giving birth” to spiritual actions like Torah study and good deeds.
Our Rabbis explain that “Shifrah” means to beautify, since she would beautify the newborns, and “Puah” means to soothe and coo, which she would do with the crying babies (Sotah 11b). Just like the newborn child emerges filthy from the womb, often times we feel soiled and contaminated. By teaching us that we still have many good points, the Tzaddikim renew and redeem us to the point that we feel truly beautiful. And even when we are fussy, complaining and crying that we are hopeless, that we’ve made too many bad choices and life seems to have gotten the better of us, the Tzaddikim coo and cuddle us. They constantly seek to encourage and pick us up by reminding us that our every action and good thought is precious. That each little positive thing we can do is valuable and worthwhile. That we have the opportunity to be born anew and start again right now, no matter what we might have done in the past.
However, the Other Side will not concede to any of this, because it knows that the moment we realize that rebirth and renewal is God’s truth, it loses. Therefore Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil, commanded the Egyptians to murder the Jewish newborns. His strategy was for us to continue living a life of the past, filled with remorse, sadness and guilt. As long as we feel this way, we are stuck in his Mitzrayim, squeezed and persecuted.
Thankfully, we have the Tzaddikim to lead us out. May we hear their call, study and apply their advice, and connect ourselves to them in every way so that we may ascend from our personal states of exile even today. Amen!
Based on Likutey Halakhot, Techumim 6