In our busyness, we forget to ponder moral concerns

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

In this week's parashah we can learn a significant lesson about the enormous difficulties involved in an honest pursuit of truth. Too often an objective search for ultimate truth demands a degree of courage on our part because the discovery of truth always brings consequences. Blissful ignorance may at times appear more appealing.

The outright refusal to follow evidence, even overwhelming evidence, to a logical conclusion has been described as "cognitive dissonance." This occurs when a person decides that a particular conclusion is necessary or very desirable or convenient — or because he or she has so large a stake in it. Our minds often tend to perceive all evidence, logical or not, as leading to the conclusion we deem necessary. We may become incapable or unwilling to even process information that might lead to a different (less desirable) conclusion.

There are times, however, when we honestly try to ascertain the truth, but we only probe to a certain depth, preferring to rest in "shallow waters." We lack the passion or the commitment to follow the path to its end point of discovery. More often we simply lack the necessary conditions to do so.

An example of "cognitive dissonance" can be seen this week in Vaera when Moses and his brother Aaron appear before Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to demand freedom for the Jewish people. Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. Pharaoh's magicians manage to duplicate this "trick." Aaron's staff, however swallows their staffs.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel in Chachmah Umussar (Vol. I, Page 223) explains that although it would seem that Pharaoh's magicians, in effect, accomplished the same feat as Aaron, the assertion of Aaron's superiority is made crystal clear and undeniable. Aaron's staff swallows all the others not while they were in their changed state as serpents but while they reverted to their original state as staffs.

This was a feat that the magicians were unable to replicate. All suspicions of sorcery on Aaron's part were banished. Only the hand of G-d could have brought about this miracle. Yet, notwithstanding all of this, Pharaoh and his court refused to consider the logical explanation of the miracle they had witnessed. Instead they chose to stubbornly set themselves against Moses and his mission.

To have acknowledged it was G-d Himself who was demanding freedom for His people and to have submitted to His will would have placed an enormous burden on the Egyptian economy, which would have lost its army of slaves. It would have created an intolerable upheaval in Egyptian society. So the Egyptians chose instead to stick to an alternative conclusion in spite of a total lack of logical support for this position. An example of this half-hearted search for truth also appears in Vaera.

When the Jews heard from Moses that their redemption was imminent, at first they believed him. Then Pharaoh increased their suffering by demanding the same daily quota of bricks, but he no longer provided the raw material to make them. After this incident, the Torah tells us, "And Moses spoke to the children of Israel but they would not listen to him because of the pressure of their hard [and increased] labor" (Exodus 6:9).

How can we understand their reluctance to listen to and believe the good news as related to their terrible suffering? Generally long suffering produces the opposite effect, with victims pouncing on any evidence that salvation is around the corner. To understand this reaction we must focus on the words, "Because of the pressure of their hard labor."

On this the Sforno comments, "They could not settle their minds to contemplate." In order to know truth, one must allow oneself time and equanimity in which to ponder, analyze and absorb one's experiences. For this kind of introspection, Pharaoh did not allow the Jewish slaves time. This was the "pressure" that was laid on them.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in his Misillat Yesharim explains that Pharaoh's order for heavier work came about not only out of political considerations, such as his fear of revolts if the Jewish slaves had free time to brood. It also came out of a desire to eliminate in this slave nation the very faculty of thought, of meditation, of spiritual activity. He attempted to do this through the pressure of their daily toil. Pharaoh's increased pressure, and the slaves' lack of time to examine the significance of their experiences, resulted in a lack of faith in Moses and his mission.

This plan is not unlike our own "evil inclination," which daily strives to prevent us from thought and from taking to heart the moral lessons we receive each day. In the flurry and chaos of normal living, we may leave ourselves neither time nor wherewithal for quiet meditation, robbing ourselves of conditions necessary to arrive at the truth.

We are in constant danger of becoming submerged in the details so that the plan is obscured. The part occupies us at the expense of the whole. May we always strive with great strength to create an environment for ourselves in which we may indeed struggle with honesty, objectivity and courage to come to know the ultimate truth.

Shabbat Shalom.