By: Rabbi Herzl Hefter
And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with a high hand.
When the children of Israel left Egypt, they faced a choice; to maintain a posture of victimhood fueled by desire for revenge or to look inward and forward so that their authentic identity could unfold and develop.
Onkelos deviates from the straightforward meaning of the Torah text by translating “a high hand”, be yad ramah, as reish galei –” heads held high.”
The key to understanding the differing connotations of “a high hand” as opposed to “heads held high” is in the Targum Yonatan on the same verse. He translates “with a raised hand overcoming the Egyptians”.
The high hand is raised against Egypt.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz (1800 – 1851) explains that, in contradistinction to the raised hand, the head held high indicates that the freedom which the Israelites experienced was “not against others with pride and a feeling of superiority rather they felt as free people without fear of any man”.
Our ancestors experienced their freedom not in opposition or response to their former oppressors. It is very tempting to adopt a stance of victimhood. Self-righteousness is very satisfying in an odd sort of way. Together, self-righteousness and victimhood seem to grant the moral high ground. In fact, adopting a posture of victimhood and allowing it to fashion the personality can be very destructive. Too often the victim turns into the victimizer. The abused becomes the abuser. Undoubtedly, the Israelites suffered terrible injustices at the brutal hands of their Egyptian masters. However, to adopt the role as ‘victim’, when the post slavery era did not justify it, would in a sense perpetrate the slavery. They would continue to be obsessed with Egypt.
The halacha insures that we will never forget our travails in Egypt. R. Mordechai Yosef is teaching us that it is essential to come away with the correct lesson. Freedom is to live in fear of no man.
Rabbi Herzl Hefter