By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים
And I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.
We keep hearing about tolerance. Be accepting of other people, of differences. Diverse cultures need to find ways of coexisting on a planet that keeps getting smaller. But there are times when too much tolerance can be detrimental. Like when the Jews were slaves in Egypt. “And I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt” is the promise the Al‑mighty told Moses to pass on to the Jewish People in this week’s parashah.
One of my holy ancestors, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (widely known by his work Chiddushei HaRim), once reinterpreted the Hebrew word for “burdens” — sivlot — to mean “patience,” as in savlanut in modern Israeli Hebrew today. What he meant was that before the Children of Israel could be freed from Pharaoh, G‑d had to first free them of their own inner bondage. Years of slavery and drudgery had left the Israelites so oppressed and so hopeless that they had sunk into a terrible tolerance, accepting their situation as final and irreversible. Depression had taken its toll on the Jewish psyche, and they were in no position to leave Egypt. They felt so low, so downtrodden, that at that stage freedom was unimaginable.
Some of us are too tolerant of intolerable situations and so long-suffering that we ourselves become insufferable. Before G‑d can take us out of our personal Egypts, we need to banish the “suffering servant” mentality from our own heads.
Some years ago, I was doing marriage counseling for a couple who were having domestic troubles. During one of our sessions, the wife confided that she would never suspect her husband of being unfaithful. When I asked her why, she said, “He’s too lazy, listless, and lethargic. He would never have the energy to even attempt an affair. He has no ambition. He never gets angry no matter what I do. I can scream and shout, abuse him, send him to the doghouse, and he never says boo! I can feed him bread and jam for dinner every night and he will never complain.”
It reminded me of the story of the shtetl shlemiel whose wife had her girlfriends over and wanted to demonstrate to them how she was the master of her home. So she called over her husband and started giving him all sorts of little chores around the house. “Shlemiel do this,” “Shlemiel do that,” “Shlemiel come here, go there.” The timid little man did everything as commanded. Then for her grand finale, the shrew says, “Now Shlemiel, I want you to crawl under the table and stay there until I call for you.” So Shlemiel dutifully obeys. After ten minutes, she calls for him to come out from under the table. At this point our shlemiel decides to assert his manhood and defiantly declares, “I’m not coming out from under the table just because you told me to. I will stay here as long as I please. I will show you who is the boss in this house!”
I remember when we were busy doing alterations on our home, and I was convinced that the new tiles in one of the rooms didn’t look straight. When we had a site meeting with the builder and the architect, I asked the architect to give us his opinion. He said I was right but that, unfortunately, this was the standard of workmanship today, and it was acceptable. I couldn’t believe my ears. Why should I have to accept inferior work? It was plain to see that the tiles and the ceiling were not lining up! Sadly, we live in a world of mediocrity, where society — including the very professionals who should be safeguarding those standards — has become tolerant of that mediocrity.
It pains me when I see many Jewish organizations in our community lowering the bar of professionalism and accepting inferior standards on so many levels. We seem to be plagued by a morass of mediocrity. We should always strive for excellence and insist on the highest standards — whether at work or in the synagogue. Patience and tolerance are virtues, but we have become too tolerant.
In order to become truly free, we must first remove the shackles of servitude from our own mentality. We must stop being so patient and accepting of all that is oppressive in our lives — whether it be slavery, exile, discrimination, antisemitism, or mediocrity in general. We can become masters of our own destiny if we want to. But the first step on the road to our own personal exodus is to lower our threshold for tolerance and break out of the prison of patience.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.