We are at the eve of our new president’s inauguration, a time of new beginnings. How appropriate it is to begin a new book of the Torah, the book of Exodus,
with its story of freedom and emancipation from the shackles of the past.
As rabbis are wont to do, I find the ancient biblical words shouting the headlines: “A new king arose over Egypt” (Exodus 1:8). And yet, the end of that verse states that the new king “did not know Joseph,” whereas President-elect Barack Obama surely does know and has great affection for the Josephs, Cohens and Bernsteins of the world.
So let’s look elsewhere. In the middle of the pre-Exodus story, the Torah (2:23) relates that the first Pharaoh — the one who had originally enslaved the Jews — died, and a new Pharaoh arose in his place. At that point, “the children of Israel sighed deeply from the labor, and they cried out. Their cries ascended to God because of the labor.” As there’s no indication from the text how this new Pharaoh was any worse than the old one, why was there renewed pain and sighing at this juncture?
The Talmud analyzes the term “sighing” in this verse. It states that the kind of sighing that comes from bad news “breaks a person’s body in half,” right at the loins. At face value, this quote from the Talmud is baffling, and adds nothing to our understanding of the Jews’ sighs.
Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, the French medieval sage, suggests that the reason for the Jews becoming so upset upon their new king’s arrival had nothing to do with things getting worse. To the contrary, he was no worse than the last Pharaoh, but therein lay the problem. When one sees a king’s regime ending and a new, young and exciting leader stepping in to take his place, one is filled with excitement and anticipation for the future. It was very common in medieval times for a new king to empty the prison dungeons and grant amnesty to all criminals from the prior regime.
What dismayed the Jewish slaves so much was their observation that this new Pharoah was so completely unremarkable and no different from the old one. He was up to the same business as usual and lacked any innovation and inventiveness that could potentially revolutionize Egyptian society and free the Jews from their plight.
When one has been inflated with anticipation and hope, and only later realizes that all those hopes will never come to fruition, one visibly and physically sighs, just like a deflating balloon. This was the emotional state of these Jewish slaves who had invested so much in what they thought was the new and improved Pharaoh.
When the Talmud states that their sighing broke them at their loins, this is a euphemistic reference to their children. While an older slave may realize that his best years are behind him, he may still be filled with hope and anticipation for his children’s future. I may never see the Promised Land, but I take comfort and solace in knowing that my children will. Once the Jews saw that their future king was no better than the last one, their hopes for their children were also dashed. They sighed not for themselves, but for the issue of their loins, the next generation.
And perhaps this is where we should take note of our current affairs. We have all — Democrat and Republican alike — been caught up in the excitement and anticipation of a new president and new regime, and of a future society that will realize all the hopes and dreams of a new generation, a generation for whom the words “Yes we can” are a magical incantation of brighter and more peaceful days ahead. It is truly a great thing for a nation to be filled with so much hope and optimism.
But that optimism should not be so overinflated as to require a necessary deflation. Our hopes, while soaring to the heavens, must also be grounded in pragmatism and reality. While we all look forward to President Obama’s leadership and his taking our country into a new frontier of greener pastures and bluer skies, we should also be realistic in what we can expect from any individual mortal, and realize that no one can transform the universe and its cosmos overnight. Unrealistic expectations will only result in a deep sigh, one that could break us at our loins.
May God grant President Obama great wisdom and compassion to lead our nation to a brighter future.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of Community & Synagogue Services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region, and a community mohel.