Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Long and Winding Road (Portion Shemot)

Change is hard.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—is a case study in the challenge of change. Moses and Aaron set out, with high hopes, to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. They confront Pharaoh with their insistent demand: “Let my people go!” Alas, Pharaoh’s response only makes things worse for the beleaguered Israelites. He deems them shirkers and doubles their already-crushing workload. The people take their anger and suffering out on their erstwhile liberators, saying to Moses and Aaron: “May God look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers.” Moses, in turn, directs his frustration toward the God who sent him on this thankless mission: “Eternal One, why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me?”

How does the promise of deliverance so quickly devolve into a toxic cycle of name-calling and recrimination? Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests, Moses’ bitter disappointment stems from unrealistic expectations of swift success. Since he, himself, is unprepared for the prolonged struggle that ensues, Moses fails to prepare the people that he is called to lead.

This encounter conveys a hard truth: when we seek positive change, things often get worse before they get better. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches, “All ascent requires descent.” What appears to be the nadir of our bondage is, in fact, the beginning of our redemption—but it is much easier to see this with the benefit of hindsight. So, too, in our own lives: genuine transformation is neither quick nor easy. We often experience dramatic downturns just before the dawning of a new and better reality.

In these situations, we need patience. It helps if we have friends and family who can coach and encourage us through the darkness that frequently accompanies the beginning of the transformation process. Realistic expectations help, too. We should expect to struggle—even as we nurture the optimism and faith that will bring us out the other end as better, freer, and wiser people.

The roads out of each of our “Egypts”—the narrow places that confine us in our own lives—pass through some deep, dark valleys.

There are no shortcuts to the Promised Land.

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