Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children,’ published by Ariella Books, Berlin.
(photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)
“When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt’” (Exodus 13:17).
Are you exhausted? Passionate as we may be for our faith and our Jewish state, there are moments when the onslaught of stories about anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and the difficult episodes in Israeli politics leave us battle-weary. Parshat Beshalah explores these feelings and God’s response to his exhausted people.
At the end of last week’s parasha, we read of the Torah’s ideal: the Jewish people secure in its homeland, faithfully celebrating the Festival of Freedom. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that at this stage our future seemed assured. The people’s faith had been fortified by miracles, they bore arms and God was at their helm – perfect conditions for their journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel.
But somehow, the Israelites were unready for their mission. When God took them out of servitude, he did not lead them on the most direct route for “if they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”
Why on earth would the Jewish people choose to return to Egypt, the land of oppression? The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers a fascinating theory.
Focusing on the fact that the Torah states, “When Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt” (ibid.) – rather than when God took them out of Egypt or simply when the Jews left Egypt – he suggests that once Pharaoh capitulated to God and allowed the Jews to leave, many of them had a surprising reaction. They reasoned that, now that their slavery was over, there was no longer any reason to leave. After years of suffering, a comfortable life in Egypt seemed far more attractive than wandering in the desert. It was only “when Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt” that they realized they had no option but to leave. Still, their reservations remained, their condition was unstable and there was every chance that they would give up and return to Egypt.
If some people were reluctant about the journey to forge a Jewish nation, others were overenthusiastic.
According to the midrash, the tribe of Ephraim were so eager to return to the Land of Israel that they miscalculated the time of the Exodus, breaking out of Egypt 30 years before the appointed date. It was a bad move.
They were attacked and defeated by Philistines, who left their unburied corpses strewn across the desert.
God feared that if the Jewish people saw these gruesome remains, they would panic and retrace their steps back to Egypt. God also mourned for these casualties, and He did not want to risk His people seeing the results of war, so He took them via a different route (Exodus Raba 20:11).
It’s natural for a people traumatized by persecution to have difficulties adapting to their newfound freedom.
But couldn’t God meet these challenges? Why didn’t he intervene to enhance their stamina so they could get on with the journey to Israel? To understand this, let’s turn to the work of American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002). He explored people’s relationship to pleasure by imagining a machine that could release everyone from their worries, simulating constant contentment.
Nozick argued that despite the attraction of a blissful existence and the fact that some people look for the occasional high, most of us would not sacrifice our freedom for this artificial happiness. We don’t want others to control our thoughts; we want to work things out for ourselves.
Similarly, the Rambam (Maimonides) argued that while God can manipulate people, He chooses not to. Faith coerced is phony faith. This is not what God wants. He may occasionally tweak nature with a miracle, but He does not mess with our minds. This is why He took the people a long way though the desert, giving them space to adjust to their new freedom and develop their faith (Guide for the Perplexed 3:32).
But Jewish life is not only about being stoic in difficult times. Abarbanel says God recognized that the Jewish people were entitled to see a fair resolution of their story. This is why he led them via the Red Sea. As they reached the coast, with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, they were scared, stressed and quarrelsome, but the miraculous crossing and the punishment of their pursuers raised their spirits. Together, they celebrated with singing and dancing, proclaiming, “This is my God and I will praise him, the God of my fathers and I will exalt him” (Ex. 15:2).
At this stage, they were still in a desert, they had not yet received the Torah, they were far from the Promised Land and future battles lay ahead. Like us, they found themselves in a state of incomplete redemption.
Still, they recognized that they had much to be thankful for. In this moment of appreciation, perhaps because of it, every one of them experienced prophecy and revelation (Mechilta).
My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, points out that this week’s festival of Tu Bishvat (new year for trees) is a kind of spring festival in the middle of winter. We celebrate the first sap rising in the trees, the beginning of the formation of fruit and a little almond blossom, even though, as yet, there is little to show for it.
Redemption is not complete. We still face difficulties, but there is so much to celebrate. In our appreciation of what is, we develop confidence in what will be. This faith brings us greater happiness and draws us closer to God. ■ The writer is the British United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi.