Once Upon a Time

Friday, 12 January, 2024 - 7:05 am

The most famous stories all seem to begin with Once Upon a Time. And they all appear impossible to occur today.

The very words, “Once upon a time,” conjure the image of something legendary and perhaps beyond repetition.

But what if we could relive the ages long bygone? Would that be good or bad?


In this week’s parsha of Va’eirah the Jewish people begin the process that will lead to their liberation from Egyptian bondage. The first seven of the ten plagues befall Egypt, but the wicked Pharaoh is still reluctant to let the Jewish people go.

Eventually – after ten plagues – he urges them to leave.

This is a story so essential to Judaism that most of our Festivals revolve around it, most notably Pesach (Passover). But it isn’t only once a year that we remember the Exodus from Egypt.  According to the Talmud, “In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt.”

Now, it’s nice to recollect the challenges we faced in times of old. But, frankly, in our day and age we don’t need to worry about Pharaohs and slavery. In fact, we have more recent atrocities and challenges that haunt the Jewish people. Why should this ancient and primitive tale be the drama of our existence?

Today, some would argue, we do have current challenges, but they are more nuanced and complex.  it’s time for Jews to embrace the future rather than simply remembering the past. We should not be stuck in an identity that’s out of place with the times and current reality. Is this attitude correct?


Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his famous work Tanya, explains that this obligation is a daily requirement.  In fact, this is why the Exodus features so focally in our daily prayers.

Recalling the Exodus is a daily exercise because there is an entirely more profound meaning to departing Egypt.

Each one of us possesses a soul. The soul, a “piece of G-d,” is trapped in a physical body.  The body and soul are married to each other. Yes, the match is arranged. By G-d Himself. But it is still an odd couple. The body desires earthly pursuits and the soul relishes in the Divine.

Each time we perform a mitzvah or study Torah, the soul is released from its confinement. The body does not play the role of captor; instead it assists the soul to accomplish that which it cannot attain in Heaven. Every good deed is a moment of spiritual Exodus.

This is the inner meaning of leaving Egypt. And it’s not simply a thing of the past.

Metaphors are helpful. But, actually reliving the Exodus is the real goal. And, that requires daily effort.

In fact, it’s something we can – and must – do every day.

The more mitzvos we perform, the more free we are.

Now, that’s an eternal message.

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