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WORDLY WISE
A weekly column examing Hebrew words in the Torah portion

by Michael Gros
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer

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In this new column, we will try to uncover some of the inspiring messages hidden within Hebrew words, names and numbers related to the Torah portion or the time of year.

Imagine a conversation at an Egyptian building site 3314 years ago:

"Hey Shmuel?"

"Yeah, Chaim?"

"Did you hear about this upstart leader Moses? He announced to the Jewish leaders yesterday that he would go to Pharaoh and convince him to let all the Jews go free!"

"Yeah, what a hoot! Don't believe what you hear. No slave has ever escaped from Egypt, so how could this Moses lead us all out?"

When Moses told the Jewish people that he would lead them out of slavery, the response was less than enthusiastic. The Jewish people had been slaves for so many years that they had no idea what freedom meant.

Still, the despondency of the Jews is surprising. After all, God had promised Abraham that the Jews would be slaves in Egypt, but that eventually He would lead them out. So, why were the Jews now skeptical? Did they think that God did not have the ability to take them out? The answer to these questions can be found if we look closely at the word “Egypt,” translated in Hebrew as “Mitzraim.”

When the Torah describes how the Jews traveled to Egypt, it uses the word Mitzraimah (to Egypt), instead of the more common term LeMitzraim. Mitzraimah is spelled with two letters mems, both of them open. (If you look at a normal mem, you will see that there is an open space at its bottom). The Sifsei Cohen, a classic Torah commentator, explains that the open mem at the beginning and the end of the word Mitzraimah indicates that when the Jews traveled to Egypt, it appeared that the exit and entrance were both open.

After the Jews became slaves in Egypt, they saw that the entrance was still open, but the exit was sealed shut and there was no escape. If you analyze the word Mitzraim, which the Torah uses to describe Egypt after the Jews became enslaved, you will see that it also has two letter mems. The first mem is open but the final mem is closed (final mems take a different form and are closed).

The many harsh years of slavery in Egypt wore down the resolve of the Jews and led them to give up hope of salvation. Psychologists call this tendency "learned helplessness." An animal will try to escape from a painful situation, but once it sees that this is impossible, it will submit to the pain and will cease its attempts. This was the feeling of the Jews in Egypt, the slave mentality. The Jews believed that escape was impossible, even when Moses arrived to take them out.

This idea can help us answer another question in the Torah portion. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God commands Moses to bring the Jews out from Egypt. God says:

"Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: 'I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt. I shall rescue you from their service, I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.'" (Exodus 6:6)

Why does God first promise to take the Jews out of Egypt, and only then promises to rescue them from slavery? Shouldn't it have been the other way around? The immediate problem was the harsh slavery, so it would seemingly make more sense for God to first free the Jews from slavery, and only then to take them out of Egypt.

Egypt was like a prison camp, because everything in Egypt reminded the Jews of slavery. If they remained in Egypt, even as free men, they would always believe that escape was impossible. Therefore, it was necessary for Moses to assure the Jews that God would first take them out, and once they left Egypt, they would finally feel like free men.

No matter what situation we are in, even if salvation seems impossible, we must never give up hope and must always remember that God can save us.

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This weekly column is dedicated in memory of Dan Miller.

Michael Gros is a graduate of Emory University. He currently lives in New York where he studies at Yeshiva Madreigas HaAdam and works as a writer and editor.

You are invited to read more Parshat Vaera articles.

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