The book of Shemos (Exodus) has, until this point, been a story of the formation of the Jewish people as a people with its own identity, and their mistreatment and enslavement in Egypt. This week witnesses the beginning of the process of redemption. The story of our redemption from Egypt is universally known and celebrated. The plot seems quite straightforward – we were oppressed slaves. G-d came and performed earth-shattering miracles which clearly indicated He ran the world and would decide the fate of the Jewish people, the culmination of which was the splitting of the sea when we became free from the shackles of slavery. Yet the sequence of events doesn’t quite fit this picture…
If this was G-d’s spectacular ‘sound and light show’, a manifest demonstration of His total dominance over all of the ‘forces’ in creation, wouldn’t there have been more straightforward ways to do it? The process of redemption, from the first plague until the splitting of the sea, was an extremely drawn out process of a whole year! In fact, by the end of this parsha nothing concrete has actually been achieved at all; despite a series of plagues which have decimated the Egyptian infrastructure and destroyed the sense of security of the nation, the Jewish people remain firmly entrenched in Egypt, with no immediate prospects of freedom. Obviously G-d could have brought about the freedom of the Jewish people instantaneously with one crippling plague. It would seem that somehow this process of redemption had to be a slow and gradual one to provide true freedom. Why was this so? To understand the necessary gradualism of the road to freedom, we must re-analyse the nature of the initial slavery and what exactly this freedom attained was, which we celebrate and attempt to recreate every year at Pesach.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is not a story our physical freedom from forced labour. It is also (and in fact primarily) a story of our psychological and spiritual liberation from an alien and immoral worldview. In Egypt we were not just enslaved physically. We were also heavily influenced by the Egyptian philosophy and culture. The Jewish people were so heavily assimilated and immersed in the ways of their Egyptian masters that had we spent any further time in Egypt we would have ceased to be identifiable as a separate and identifiable people. Had the freedom from Egypt been delayed any further it would not actually have happened at all. In fact the splitting of the sea was not the point at which we became truly free. The process was only truly completed 50 days later when we received the Torah. At this point we had truly been liberated in every sense in that we now had the freedom to live as a unique people with a unique worldview and mission statement. Given this understanding of the nature of the enslavement and subsequent liberation process, it is very clear why the road to freedom had to be a long one. The process of becoming free entailed a process of re-examination and re-definition on an individual and national level. The Jewish people had to totally alter their mindset and worldview.
The prevalent culture of Egypt was totally antithetical to the moral framework defined by the Torah. Such a process – of self-analysis and change – could not possibly be a meaningful and lasting one if it had occurred over night. True and lasting change takes serious effort and time. For anyone bound up with Egyptian culture and practices to have attempted a radical shift of all of their priorities and life goals in a moment would have been totally baseless and therefore devoid of true content. It could not possibly have endured in any meaningful way. For this reason, the only true path to freedom was a gradual one. This lesson is a crucial one for us. Often we may be driven to make changes in a certain area of our lives which will involve changing old habits and mindsets. Though it may be tempting to apply those changes instantly and without delay, to do so will only destroy one’s chances of truly succeeding. For example, a seasoned chain smoker who decides to give up smoking will almost certainly fail if he tries to implement his decision on the spot. Rather, he needs a sensible and gradual approach to achieving his goal, which will almost certainly take a considerable amount of time. The same is true of spiritual growth. Whilst we are always striving to move forward, we must also keep one eye on reality. Attempting to be someone we are not, does not help us develop into our most perfect selves. The process, like that of the liberation from Egypt, must be a purposefully gradual one, where each new stage is integrated and consolidated in a real way before moving on to the next stage. Only then is true and enduring success possible.
 It is no coincidence that the formation of our identity as a people and our persecution occur simultaneously. It is an unfortunate reality, borne out by much of Jewish history, that it is often only through persecution that we do become forged as a unified people.  There were certain key anti-assimilation practices that the Jewish people did maintain, such as giving children Jewish names. Ultimately it was these few acts which retained any sense of identity among a people otherwise totally submerged in the dominant culture. Please contact me if you have any feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org