“If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree.”
There are many similar sentiments all over the Internet — this idea that there is nothing holding us back. We can change. We can travel. We can quit our dull jobs and start the careers we’ve always dreamed of. I appreciate the idea—the belief we need to take charge and responsibility.
Yet Torah tells us we are like trees.
“The righteous one flourishes like the palm; as a cedar in Lebanon he grows,” (Psalms 92:13).
Torah is an etz chaim—a tree of life.
Tu b’shevat is later this month—the birthday of trees or the new year for trees. It’s a time when we Jews plant trees. And so, we Jews are aware that trees can move. We see it and take part in it each Tu B’shevat. Seeds blow on the breeze and will grow where they fall. Some seeds will be better cared for and will bloom. Others will fall on rough soil or in a dry land and may sprout, but will find it difficult to thrive. Even larger trees can be transplanted, but only with help.
The original message simplifying the ability to change does us a disservice. This is only empowering for those with the means and support to move and change. For so many, our situation, finances, education (or lack thereof), and so many other factors make that impossible.
For the Israelites in Egypt, even though they suffered greatly, they lacked the ability, the resources, and the leadership to change. It took one who was granted excessive privilege to help them change their situation and take them out of Egypt.
In Shemot, this past Shabbat’s Torah parsha, Moses, a Jew, has been born to Yocheved and is sent away where he is raised as Pharaoh’s grandson. Pharaoh’s daughter finds and raises him. Torah tells us,”…and he became like her son.” (Exodus 1:10)
Eventually, Moses becomes a leader who leads the Israelites out of slavery and Egypt. The Jews, although they suffer in the harsh conditions, are not initially willing to leave. After Moses and his brother Aaron, at G-d’s urging, go to Pharaoh to ask him to release the Jews, he instead increases their workload. Bricks must be made, but whereas, in the past the slaves were provided with straw, now they must gather their own and continue to produce just as much. The Jews blame Moses and Aaron for interfering and causing the change. Moses promises deliverance and instead causes more trouble.
The Israelites are miserable and overworked, but they don’t leave. They fear any more talks of leaving will only cause more trouble.
Though the Jews are in a horrible situation, they are stuck. None of their fellow slaves is in a position to cause any change. Moses listens to G-d and later returns to Pharaoh, who, after a series of increasingly dramatic events, does let the Jews leave. He later changes his mind, and seas part, and later movie adaptations feature Charlton Heston as our fearless leader, but that’s another story for another day.
Moses is a Jew, but he is not an ordinary Jew. He is raised in the palace as the grandson of the Pharaoh. He is granted far more advantages than any of the other Jews. He is a Jew, but he is raised as an Egyptian prince.
The Jews didn’t like where they were, yet they could not leave. They may not have been rooted to the ground, yet they also weren’t able to move. They didn’t have the necessary skills and information. It was only with the leadership of Moses, granted privilege far above what his fellow Jews had known in Egypt, that they are able to finally move.
It’s useful to remember Moses and the plight of the Jews. When we’re tempted to declare how simple it is to change or how happiness is simply a decision, remember the suffering in Egypt. Realize that one person’s experience is not universal. Some people can follow their dreams. Some people who find themselves miserable in the snow can make the decision to vacation somewhere warm. Some people who dread going to work can quit and open the business they’ve always dreamed of. Yet some people are so overwhelmed with illness that they can barely get out of bed. Some people wait in line for hours in the cold for a hot meal because it’s the only one they will get that week. Some people work two or three jobs just to earn enough to scrape by.
Change is an option for some and an act of tikkun olam for others. We should resist the urge to flippantly declare that happiness or change is a choice. Torah shows us that even for our fellow Jews, that was not the case. We didn’t simply make the decision to change our situation. Our situation put us at a disadvantage.
We must be careful to not only identify with Moses, the privileged leader, but also with the Israelites who were stuck and suffering. There is a balance to be found in this story. We can recognize and use our privilege to help others. We also must fully consider the situation and suffering of others.
Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories and someone who’s best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.