From Survivors To Thrivers

Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

The beginning of Exodus picks up where the end of Genesis leaves off. After Joseph passes away and his generation is gone the Hebrews begin multiplying in the land of Egypt. It seems like the honeymoon will continue on. However, just a few verses into Exodus we read about a new Pharaoh coming to power “who did not know Joseph.” This is where things begin to turn south for the Hebrews:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. (Exodus 1:8–12)

The blessings of Jacob upon Ephraim and Manasseh had come to pass and the Hebrews had proliferated into “a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Genesis 48:16). However, fearing the growing number of these Hebrews, the new Pharaoh came up with a plan to ensure that this growing minority would not overrun Egypt. He “set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens” (Exodus 1:11). Thus began the oppression of the Children of Israel in the land of Egypt.

In this week’s portion we read several descriptions of how the Hebrews were mistreated, including the cruel decree that all of their newly born infant boys were to be thrown into the Nile. Life for the descendants of Jacob was harsh to say the least. Each day was a struggle for survival. But somehow they not only survived, they thrived. Immediately after learning about Pharaoh setting taskmasters over the Hebrews, we read, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12). After the Hebrew midwives are instructed to kill the baby boys we read, “And the people multiplied and grew very strong” (Exodus 1:20). No matter what the Egyptians did to try and destroy the family of Jacob they could not succeed. The God of Jacob had other plans for His people.

Many times we feel the crushing blows of life beating us down beyond what we can withstand. Rather than thriving like the Hebrews, we go into survival mode and our world comes crashing down around us. What was their secret and how can we move from surviving to thriving in difficult circumstances? First, we need to understand that the fundamental nature of suffering is not to destroy us, but to transform us. The Talmud offers a practical approach to understanding suffering in these terms:

Raba says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct, as it is said: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD” [Lamentations 3:40]. If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah, as it is said: “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your Torah” [Psalm 94:12]. If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love, as it is said: “For the LORD reproves him whom he loves” [Proverbs 3:12]. (Berachot 5a)

As this passage suggests, sometimes suffering is meant to cause us to repent. Sometimes it is to drive us back to the Word of God. Sometimes, however, it is simply because our Heavenly Father   desires so for an unknown good. In an oft-quoted passage, James, the brother of our Master, reminds us of this same principle:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)

Paul has a similar understanding:

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)

Paul also understands that all suffering will eventually be beneficial in the end. He reminds the congregation in Corinth, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation” (2 Corinthians 1:6). When an immense amount of pressure and heat is applied to a lump of carbon over a long period of time, it doesn’t merely crumble. It produces a diamond. The Apostles understood that suffering is supposed to produce fruit. But it is all about our mindset. Although it is extremely difficult, if we keep these principles in mind during our times of suffering we can be like the Hebrews in Egypt and be transformed from merely survivors to thrivers.