I have been thinking a lot about elephants this week. I was recalling how two years ago while on my sabbatical Didi and I spent a couple of days on safari in Kenya. I remember how incredible it was the day we found ourselves sitting in this little jeep in the middle of Amboseli surrounded by families of enormous elephants, and how small and vulnerable I felt at the time.
I realized how strong and powerful elephants really are, and how if they chose they could crush just about any animal in the jungle or the plains (including humans) and if only they had the intelligence, could probably rule the world as well.
I also recalled the famous story of how they train elephants in the circus. They take them when they are still small and tie a strong rope around their necks and attach the rope to a secure pole. The baby elephants naturally try to walk away and are stopped by the rope. They pull and push and twist and turn and eventually figure out that they just aren’t strong enough to break free of their shackles so they stop resisting and just stay where they are.
The next time they tie up the baby elephants they try to break away once again, pulling on the rope to see if they can go free. When they figure out that once again it is futile, they stop pulling and settle down and stay where they are.
The same thing happens over and over until eventually when the rope is put over their heads, they no longer pull and push and try to break free because they know it is futile. That is why in captivity you can walk by a circus and see giant elephants standing passively with a rope tied around their necks that isn’t attached to anything at all.
The elephant becomes so accustomed to being held back by the rope, that merely the rope itself keeps the animal in check. If only they knew how powerful they really were. If only they realized that by the time they have grown up, even a rope “secured” to a pole would no longer be able to contain them, they would know what true freedom is. But they don’t.
Moses tells the same story in this week’s portion. God tells Moses that God has heard the cries of the children of Israel in their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt and to tell them that God will rescue them from under their burdens, rescue them from their toil, redeem them with an outstretched arm and give them as God’s people the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “And Moses spoke this to the children of Israel and they did not listen to Moses because of shortage of spirit and because of hard work.” (Ex. 6:9)
Here was God offering them liberation. Here was Moses offering them redemption, and they were so beaten down and accustomed to slavery, that like the elephants they simply couldn’t see it right before their eyes.
The Hebrew says they wouldn’t listen to Moses “mekotzer ruakh” which is usually translated as “their spirits were crushed,” or “shortness of spirit.” But I believe a better translation would be “narrowness of vision.” They weren’t able to see the liberation that was right before their eyes because they lacked vision both literally and figuratively.
Literally their eyes were those of slaves – cast upon the ground, avoiding eye contact, unassertive, not aggressive, non-threatening, without real vision. Figuratively they had been slaves so long they simply could not imagine anything better, bolder, brighter, bigger for their lives. They lost the ability to dream, to visualize their lives as free men and women, to embrace a vision of a better life and a better them.
So they didn’t, or couldn’t listen to Moses and his promise. They just couldn’t do it.
One of my frustrations in life as a rabbi is to see so many who still live like our ancestors in Egypt. They are fearful to have a vision of their lives that exalts them and could set them free. What this week’s portion teaches us is that just as the elephant could set himself free if he only chose, we can do the same for ourselves.
So often in life the real difference between slavery and freedom is vision. It is recognizing that it is ours to choose; that the chains with which we are held are mostly in our minds and not our ankles. It took the children of Israel a long time to realize what most of us must learn as well – that freedom is ours to take, hope is ours to embrace, and meaning and purpose in life is ours to envision at any moment in our lives.