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Torah lesson: you don’t get something for nothing

January 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — For late night edification and amusement, there is nothing I love better than watching infomercials. (“But wait! There’s more!”) Some of my favorites are those extolling the virtues of $19.99 exercise machines. The ads feature athletic men and women effortlessly going through their paces while the announcer informs us that we, too, can look just as good by using their equipment for only 7½ minutes a week!

I am always tempted to rush to the phone with my credit card (“in the next 20 minutes!”) when I remember that the last time I got off the couch to get a snack Judy had to administer oxygen.

She also told me the horrible truth: the buff young models in those infomercials did not really tone their bodies by exercising 7½ minutes a day on a $19.99 plastic machine. They spend half or more of each day working up a sweat in a gym. As I put my credit card back in my wallet I remembered: anything worth having always come at a price.

It took our ancestors, the Israelites, a long time to learn this lesson. In parashat Va-era Moses tells the people that God is going to redeem them from Egypt. He shared with them the word of God: “I have not heard the moaning of the Israelites…and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians.

“…But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:2-9)

The Torah tells us that the Israelites rejected Moses’ good tidings because slavery had dulled their spirits. They were overworked and depressed and refused to recognize the possibility of a brighter future. This is puzzling because the first time Moses had spoken to the Israelites of the upcoming redemption they believed him, were awestruck, and “bowed low in homage.” (Ex. 4:31) What happened to change their mind?

Rabbi Y. Nissenboim explains that when Moses first told the Israelites about the upcoming Exodus, he simply stated the fact and did not go into details. Several pages later, by the time he told them again in our parasha, many details had come out. The process from slavery to freedom would not be an easy one.

Moses had explained that Pharaoh would not make things easy and life for the Israelites would become more difficult before it became easier. Pharaoh would not listen to Moses and would give the Israelites more work to do. Plagues would then fill the land, causing damage and loss for the Israelites as well as the Egyptians. After the Israelites left Egypt they would narrowly escape death at the Red Sea. Finally, they would be given the Torah and the responsibilities that come with it on Mt. Sinai, so they wouldn’t be totally free after all.

The Israelites were not happy about all of the effort and suffering they would go through in order to leave Egypt. They wanted an instant miracle, something for nothing. But life does not work that way even when God helps us. We have to labor and invest time and energy to achieve our goals in life. The Israelites preferred staying where they were to exerting themselves.

It took the next generation to understand that anything worth having always comes at a price.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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