The Exodus, The Jewish People, and Resilience: blog thoughts from Dr. Esta Miran
EXODUS: GOD’S GUIDE ON DEVELOPING RESILIENCE
By Esta Miran, Ed.D.
(Esta Miran, Ed.D. works for Dr. Michael D. Miran, Ph.D., Psychologist PC. She has published extensively in the area of Creativity.)
The story of the Exodus has always boggled my mind. On the one hand, God is promising the Jewish people freedom from slavery. Then God actively manages the journey to freedom by obstructing the effort. God sends Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh asking “Let my people go.” Then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites from slavery. This happens again and again. How can we make sense out of Exodus? God explains that he wants to show Pharaoh, the Israelites, and all Peoples His “miraculous signs and wonders.” God wants to “display His Powers.”
Actually, I would consider other ways that God could show us his miracles. Why doesn’t God just not harden Pharaoh’s heart? God is going out of his way to make freedom from slavery difficult for the Israelites. My vision would be that the Israelites would, at leisure, pack up their things, prepare for the journey, and then just leave. To me this seems like the easy and best way. In my heart of hearts, I would like God to demonstrate miracles and His Powers by establishing World Peace. God continues to test the Jewish people. Enough with the tests; I want God to give the grade, and the grade should be an “A” which is peace and prosperity for the Jews everywhere, and specifically Israel. The Jewish People have earned it.
How can I make sense out of the difficulties and tests, which God puts the Jewish People through? These difficulties continue from generation to generation. Could it be that God wants the Jewish People to become better, stronger, and more resilient? Is it possible that God does not want the Jews to be weak and scared? God does say in Exodus that he wants the Jews to present themselves as strong. Could we understand Exodus as God taking the Jewish People on a journey from weak to strong, from downtrodden to resilient?
This article will examine the Story of the Exodus as it relates to God’s guide to the Jewish People on building resilience. In Exodus, God teaches Jews how to become resilient. God takes a people who are slaves and weak, and empowers them to fight successfully against the most powerful nation in the known world at that time, Egypt.
THE CHOSEN PEOPLE
So many Peoples have come and gone. The Jews remain as a force in this world. Again and again we hear from our friends, and even more so from our enemies, that the Jews are the Chosen People.
It certainly does not mean that God chose us to ride a Magic Carpet through the centuries and millennium. The irony here is the “Chosen People” might appear to mean blessed for an easy life. But the easy life concept clashes with the reality of life for the Jewish People.
Jews have lived through difficult times. This is not debatable. It might appear that Jews are chosen to suffer, because so much suffering has befallen the Jewish People. Personally, I would have preferred that as God’s Chosen People, we would have easy safe lives as a People and as individuals. I would prefer all my wishes granted for prosperity, health, accomplishments of my goals, and joyful living. Instead the Jews have taken a perilous journey through history. The struggle of the Jewish People gives me pause to wonder about God’s ways. I do not feel that I can possibly second guess God, but I do wonder how God’s Chosen People have had it so difficult, to suffer both as individuals and as a People?
As I read Exodus, I see a bigger picture, a broader goal, and more compelling transformation of the Jewish People. I see a guide to individual Jews and the Jewish People becoming resilient. The Jewish People are God’s Chosen People. I believe that God wants the Jewish People to be strong, resilient, prosperous; and most important, to survive as the Jewish People. God has chosen the Jewish People to follow his commandments, and the Jewish People have chosen to follow God’s commandments. It is a reciprocal relationship, win/win for all.
RESILIENCE AND THE JEWS
A key characteristic of resiliency is “smarts”, strength, persistence, and courage. The Jews need to be strong and courageous, and they need to be smart to solve many difficult problems.
Resilience and problem solving skills reinforce each other. Jews have to problem-solve just to survive and thrive. The political landscape is shifting now, and has always been shifting for the Jews. The world is complex, and there are many factors to consider in order to live and prosper. Judaism places a high premium on problem solving, and that premium extends beyond political to many other intellectual, medical, and business spheres of knowledge.
Resiliency is not a trait that a person is born with. It is a process of “becoming” more resilient over time. Resiliency is learned through mastering struggles and achieving goals. It is a lifelong learning process. Core to Torah learning is self improvement, as a lifelong process; and core to resilience is studying the Torah.
Overcoming obstacles builds resiliency. Jews face obstacles, experience defeat, learn from mistakes, bounce back, become they are more determined, willing to build their strength, and make the world a better place. Building resiliency is a feedback loop. The more Jews meet challenges and master them, the more resilient Jews become. The more resilient that a Jew is, then the more able the Jew is to confront obstacles and challenges, effect change, and achieve goals. Meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles builds self-esteem and self-confidence.
A major fact in resiliency is community and family support. Each Jew is part of the Jewish People, a community. The sum is greater than its parts. Jews have strong family ties. Comfort and strength come from the family. Judaism is a family and community religion.
A strong value system emerges as a key factor in building resiliency. People are better able handle severe adversity, trauma and threat, if they have strong moral and intellectual set of beliefs. The Torah provides the Jews with a set of God given laws and commandments. Jews believe in what they are doing, and hold strong when others would give up. Jews have a moral compass that is the basis of leading a good life. The stronger the values, then the more empowered are the Jews. Being a Torah Observant Jew is empowering.
Resiliency is a protective factor in facing severe trauma and unbearable tragedy. Resiliency is a major force in recovering from overwhelming catastrophe, and achieving well being. Throughout history, Jews have faced major ordeals. Yet the Jews have recovered from these catastrophes to be a strong and productive People.
Resilience comes from facing your fears and flaws and mastering your weaknesses. In Exodus, God commands the Israelites to present themselves with strength. Jews, as individuals and as a People, have been able to do the impossible. Giving up is not an option. Charging forward with whatever the demands of the situation is the Jewish way.
How did Jews become resilient as individuals and as a People? It is not easy to become strong, smart, and resilient. God did not make the journey from slavery to a strong Jewish Nation easy. Jews are to seek and find meaning in difficult and frustrating situations as well as traumatic events. The seeking after God’s meaning trains ever deeper levels of reasoning and emotional understanding. God provides the path and the Jewish People take the journey. The difficult journey builds the necessary resilience to take on challenges and do the impossible; builds the smarts that Jewish People need to thrive and survive, and achieve at the highest levels of intellection accomplishment.
EXODUS TEACHES RESILIENCE
Moses goes to Egypt, faces tremendous difficulties and with God’s help frees the Israelites from slavery. The real story is the process of God building a strong Jewish Nation. Resilience is the critical dynamic in this story.
Moses is not strong. Moses feels that he is just an ordinary man; flawed, inarticulate, and he stutters. God comes to Moses and asks him to go to Egypt, speak to the Pharaoh, and ultimately free the Israelites from slavery. How can Moses take on such an extraordinary task? Moses protests to God that he cannot go to the Pharaoh, and that Pharaoh will not listen to him. Moses leaves no doubt that he is not up to the challenge, that he is not the man for the job. Moses has an uphill battle, for he has a personal weakness in that he cannot speak well. Here is a man who has difficulty finding words and speaking the words, and God wants him to go up against the most powerful man in the known world, the Pharaoh. God wants Moses, an impaired speaker, to confront the powerful Pharaoh and win freedom from slavery for his People.
Finally, Moses accepts what appears to him as an impossible challenge and gains the personal strength and courage to attend a meeting with the Pharaoh. In life, every small act of courage leads to inner strength. Accepting small and large challenges is a transformative process. There is a practice element here in ultimately succeeding.
The path to gain resilience is not an easy one. Moses first meets with the Elders. Moses shows them God’s miracles, and says that he is going to Pharaoh to request the Israelites be liberated from slavery. This is the easy part. Nothing is sacrificed and the demand on the Elders is zero. The Elders say go for it. Here is the beginning of God’s guidance in gaining resilience. Yes, it is easy in the beginning.
God tells Moses that he knows that Pharaoh is not going to allow the Israelites to leave unless he is forced to. Moses goes to Pharaoh and makes God’s request to free the slaves. Unfortunately, Pharaoh is not obliging. Pharaoh is vindictive and makes life harder for the Israelites. It was hard enough to be a slave, but now the Pharaoh has become abusive and is retaliating. The work becomes harder and harder. And so Israelites rethink this issue of freedom. They want things to be as they were. They are weak, and do not want to change the situation. They were adapted to living under slavery, and they had accommodated. From here, God begins the process of helping them gain resilience that is needed to meet the challenges of gaining their freedom.
Gaining resilience is not a smooth path, but rather a rocky road. During difficult times, Jews question and doubt. The very process of questioning and doubting leads to identifying problems, and trying to solve these problems. Some of the solutions in the process of problem-solving are wrong and setbacks. In the face of clear mistakes and setbacks, Jews are persistent and use the feedback from the mistakes to make better decisions. God is very forgiving of mistakes in problem-solving.
Repeatedly, there are examples in Exodus where it appears to be easy for the Israelites. Then there are no complaints. When times get hard, the Israelites retreat to weak behavior. Throughout the Exodus, they confront Moses and complain during the hard times. Moses and the Israelites are making decisions. Some of the decisions are fine, while others have negative consequences. What is important is that they are taking actions. If they did nothing, then they would not achieve their freedom.
So it is in our real world. The consequences of taking action can be good or devastating. The alternative, of denying the problem and not making a plan or taking action, is always a losing proposition. This fact goes to the core of the soul. How do Jews bring themselves to meet challenges and take action, which can have horrible consequences? The enslaved Egyptian Israelites who are scared, had to make a big decision such as leaving Egypt and small decisions of managing everyday living in the desert. We have to make decisions big and small, and all our decisions have consequences. This is the human condition. God is training the Jews to become resilient! God is helping all of us gain personal strength and meet the challenge, whatever it takes.
God says that he is going to take the Israelites from slavery to freedom. The concept worth exploring is that God takes people who have been slaves and feel weak victims, and He guides them in the development of personal strength so that they can experience a sense of being a strong survivor. It is with God’s help that they move from a mental state of victim to empowerment.
God tells Moses that it is not going to be easy. It is not easy to confront evil and fight for the good of all, to fight for fairness and justice. Moses must find the courage within himself to speak with the mighty Pharaoh, the mightiest man in the known world. Just requesting an audience is daunting. God wants Moses and the Israelites to feel strong, so God asks them to do very challenging tasks. Accomplishing these tasks builds self-esteem and resilience.
Then come the plagues, and each plague is more destructive and painful for the Egyptians. God sends Moses to the Pharaoh each time asking for Pharaoh to free the slaves and threatens the next plague. It is not so easy for Moses and Aaron, and Moses and Aaron must persevere. With each visit to Pharaoh, the stakes are raised for Pharaoh. The first plagues put the wealth of Egypt in jeopardy. Egypt is the breadbasket of the world. Each plague destroys crops. As in any battle, there is a lot to be lost, and Egypt is losing a lot. The Pharaoh says one thing to Moses and Aaron in the meetings, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and then Pharaoh does the exact opposite.
Increasing the stakes increases the potential loses. The final plague is death to the first born Egyptians. This death touches every Egyptian. Moses tells Pharaoh what is about to happen in the plague. At any point during the negotiations, Pharaoh could have capitulated, and let the Israelites leave Egypt and worship their God. God is teaching the Israelites to negotiate and win. There are reasonable negotiators who can envision terrible consequences, and then compromise. Pharaoh is not one of the reasonable negotiators. Pharaoh and the Egyptians experience the Plague of Death, and it is devastating to the Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Jews have been in situations where they have had to negotiate with intransigent and uncompromising leaders, the equivalent of Pharaoh. The message to the Jews is to be persistent, and not to give up - nor give in. God teaches another important lesson, and the lesson is that immoral and unethical leaders will go back on their word. These leaders are not to be trusted.
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, again and again. In these negotiations, Pharaoh would agree to let the Israelites leave, and each time he would go back on his word. Each time Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, they were upping the ante. So too with negotiating with a strong evil opponent, Jews must persist. God directs us to read and study the Exodus each year. The story of the Exodus is our guide on how to gain resilience. It is a powerful message on fighting and winning. We study the process and can relate God’s teachings to our modern life.
God has the Jews separate the Pesach holiday from the rest of the year. We must eat only Matzah. Learning is a multidimensional experience. We learn with our intellects and through our behavior. The behavior supports our intellect and our intellect supports our behavior.
God gives the Jewish People direction on how to live their lives. It is empowering to have a strong value system with principles of conduct. Accepting the commandments brings the Jews together as a community. Members of the community support each other, and the community grows strong. There is power in numbers.
God directs the Israelites to sacrifice an animal and put the blood on the doorposts. Those who do identify their homes as Israelite homes, will have the “Angel of Death” pass over their homes. God requests that Jews circumcise every male. God commands that Jews tell the story of Passover to their children. Finally, God wants male Jews to put God’s words on their arm and between their eyes. God did not make it easy to be Jewish then, or for that matter now.
I do not believe that God needed each Israelite to identify their home so that God would know to pass over their homes. No, I believe that God wanted them to gain the strength to publically identify as Israelites in Egypt and then in each generation. A cogent and forceful realization is that being Jewish is the choice of each Jew in every generation. Each Jew must identify as a Jew. Jews have to put a sign on their doorpost. Jews have to follow the Laws of the Torah. It is not easy to be Jewish. Being a Jew is not a passive process, but an active challenge.
Pharaoh is defeated. His losses are too great to go on. Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave Egypt. End of story – no. End of difficulties – no. End of risk – no. Beginning of new challenges – yes!
God once again hardens Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh changes his mind. He goes after the Israelites with a force of his entire army. The Israelites are terrorized and fear annihilation. They reason that it would have been better to stay in Egypt rather than be annihilated. God commands them to “stand firm” and not be afraid. Indeed God recues them with the parting of the Sea so that they can move forward to safety. As Pharaoh’s army follows them, the Sea wall returns, and Pharaoh’s entire army drowns.
Jews have survived throughout the millennium. Here is where God teaches the Jews that they must logically think through problems, and adapt to new circumstances and dangers. Resilience is about facing the new challenges and dealing with them. The landscape of danger may have changed, but the danger has not disappeared. The desert is ahead, and there are many dangers in the desert that the Jews must face.
At times, Jews descend into a state of catastrophic thinking, become panicky and weak. During their journey through the desert, the Israelites complain bitterly. They are hungry and thirsty. Throughout the journey in the desert to the Promised Land, there are many obstacles. And so the people complain. They are weak and only beginning to gain strength. God is forgiving.
What is so compelling is God’s response. It is almost as though God expects them to fall apart under stress, and then to regain their courage and resilience. When fighting an upstream battle, God anticipates there will be fatigue, and that the people will fall short of His expectations. God guides them in becoming ever stronger.
In every generation, the core to being Jewish is following God’s commandments. It the responsibility of each individual Jew, and the Jewish People as a whole to preserve, cherish, and enshrine God’s commandments. What is the promise; what is the benefit; and what are the rewards for the Jewish People?
LESSONS FROM EXODUS FOR MODERN TIMES
In span of my lifetime, Jewish people walked into Hitler’s gas chambers to certain death. The Jews were victims and very weak. Victims have no power to defend themselves. The span of my life has reached the other end of the spectrum. It is not only the Jews, but the whole world view the Israeli Army as one of the best in the world. It is because the commandos are the bravest, the military technology is the most powerful, and military intelligence is “smart” intelligence. Over my lifetime, I have seen transformation of the Jewish People from weak to strong, from victim to victor.
I was born as the World War II was ending and the State of Israel was declared. Declaring the State of Israel was not the end of danger for the Jewish People. It was the beginning of life and death wars. You can understand the next 60 years of Israel as God building resilience in the Jewish People.
Israel was to be a safe haven, a place to feel secure and be prosperous. Coming from a Zionist family, my family taught me that having a State of our own was the answer. I expected security from all the countries that expelled the Jews, the pogroms, and Hitler’s Death Camps. I was taught “never again”. Such safety and security was not to be for the Jewish People.
Israel is in peril now, and has been in peril from day one-the Declaration of the State on Israel in 1948. Israel is in a dangerous neighborhood. Finally, all our enemies agree on one thing and one thing only. Israel’s borders should be at the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea, but only after all the Jews are killed. In other countries Jews face dangers as well.
How do we reconcile being Chosen by God and the suffering of the Jewish People?
I think back to my Hebrew school days where I was taught that Jews were chosen to carry a heavy burden for the privilege of studying Torah and observing God’s commandments.What if God chose us to be resilient? What if God gave us the Torah as a guide in developing personal strength? What if God wants us to be able to overcome adversity, oppression, and victimization? What if we are to be “a light unto the Nations?”
A deeper reading of Exodus is that God guides us on developing personal strength and resiliency. We can persist and overcome adversity and oppression, and achieve security and a sense of well-being.
At the end of the day, personal strength and resilience are God’s teachings in Exodus. Would you like to be more resilient? What lessons from Exodus can we apply to our lives?
Let us go back to my original conundrum, the puzzle that I could not understand, the enigma that perplexed me. God tells Moses to take Aaron and go to Pharaoh and ask Pharaoh to “let my people go”. Pharaoh agrees in the meeting with Moses and Aaron. Then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh changes his mind and will not free the Jews from slavery.
This contradiction is not really a contradiction. Rather all of Exodus can be understood in God’s teaching and training the Jewish People to be resilient.
It is what God does not say, about security and resilience, which is most important. God does not say that He will make the current world secure for the Jews. No, God says that each Jew has to search for security from the depth of their soul; and each Jew, as well as the Jewish People as a whole, must be strong and resilient.
Components of resilience include good problem solving, persistence, and perseverance. These traits train intelligence, self-confidence, and communication skills. It is no surprise that Jews are on the front-line of innovation. Jewish contribution to world civilization is profound. The Jewish People are God’s Chosen People to create a better world - to heal the world, Tikkun Olam.