“Parsha to the Point” – Beshalach 5776

Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16

Rabbi David Stav 

(Translated from the Hebrew original)

Along with the Exodus of the Jewish People from Egypt came some of the most resounding wonders and miracles in all of the Bible, from the Plague of Blood, which gorged the Nile River with blood, preventing the Egyptians from drinking out of various sources of freshwater, to the Plague of the Firstborn, which struck every Egyptian household, leaving a trail of shrieks of anguish and sorrow in its wake. Between these two calamities, the Egyptians suffered from all kinds of tragedies that we would only wish upon our very worst enemies.

Into this backdrop steps God, who, after having taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt and performed all of these miracles, is confronted, as it were, with a terrible dilemma. The first part of the mission was a great success: Pharaoh has acquiesced and has freed the slaves. The second phase is the journey to the Land of Israel – and therein lies the problem. After two centuries of enslavement, the Israelite nation is unaccustomed to wars, and when making its way to the Promised Land, the same nation may encounter hostile peoples, like the Philistines, who might torment it by setting out on devastating raids. If that were to happen, the People of Israel might reconsider the whole idea, and go back to Egypt:

“Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt” (Shemot / Exodus 13:17)

Consequently, God changes the itinerary, and leads the nation through the desert, towards the Sea of Reeds. Once they arrive, a new terror awaits them: Pharaoh has reconstituted his strength, and expends his every effort to harness whatever is left of Egyptian motivation toward pursuing the Jewish People.

This sequence of events brings two questions to mind.

First, God had performed so many miracles – couldn’t he just perform one last miracle, “for old times’ sake”, and make the Philistine menace evaporate into thin air? In just a week’s time, He had split the Red Sea, and in the space of a year, He had managed to perform ten miracles. Couldn’t He have rained boulders from the heavens, getting rid of any possible threats from Philistines or Canaanites?

Our own people aren’t immune from critical questions, either: after experiencing all of the miracles and signs – blood, frogs, lice, and so on. How, then, could the Jewish people remain skeptical of its ability to vanquish the nations of the Earth? Is a nation of hundreds of thousands of people really going to cower in front of a few hundred charioteers?

It turns out that a nation can easily be wrested free of servitude with a few miracles and plagues, but changing human perceptions is a far more difficult task. Israel could be taken out of Egypt – but it is much more difficult to excise the “Egyptianness“ that took hold of the nation.

In our case, “Egyptianness” is a feeling that is evoked every time the intimidating cry of a ruler or a tyrant breathes fear into our hearts. It is accompanied by a lack of confidence in our ability to create real change in our world, without worrying about what others might think. “Egyptianness” is when people give in to their age-old habits, and feel powerless to call them into question.

Habits associated with slavery, which became entrenched in the nation over hundreds of years, are not a phenomenon that can be uprooted in an instant, or through some devastating strike. It seems as though even God Himself can’t change it, unless we, humans, wish it were so.

However, it seems as though God, too, was in no hurry to make such changes, and isn’t convinced that wonders and miracles are necessarily the solution to any problem. Direct strikes may not be the correct solution, or even the desired solution. It might be that, when taking a holistic view, it becomes apparent that the right thing to do is to take the winding pathway, as opposed to marching towards war. It may be better to leave issues of bravery and military might for another day.

Human society constantly thirsts for instant solutions – in the here and now. Who wouldn’t want the Iranian threat to be by-gone history? Instead, we only hear about economic sanctions or other steps that seem all too slow to be effective. We would love to solve the problem of the shortage of affordable housing in Israel right now. Or the issue of sharing the military burden equally. However, when we look at these issues in-depth, we realize that there are no magic solutions that can solve them instantly. (Well, maybe there are, in Hollywood.)

Sometimes, a direct blow and a clear-cut, protracted struggle are the correct way to go. However, in most cases, as we learn from human history and our own personal pasts, coping with hardship is a process that needs to take root and blossom. If we let it do so, we can deal with various situations in a far more effective way, and strike at the very roots of our problems.

Shabbat Shalom

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