Parshat Beshalach 2019
In today’s parsha, the liberty of the Israelites begins. They have hustled out of Egypt after witnessing 10 devastating plagues on the Egyptians, they are on the banks of the Reed Sea and suddenly their worst fears – which they had managed to camouflage under the wonders of the plagues – erupt to haunt them. 600 chariots led by Pharaoh, are charging after them to either kill them or return them by force to Egypt. What can they do?
They complain, of course. Moishe, why did you take us out of Egypt? And Moshe complains to God (although we don’t read what he says) and God says, Why are you crying to me? Just get going!
And just like that, the 11th plague befalls the Egyptians, their army is drowned and Pharaoh, who a few days earlier had suffered the death of all the firstborns in the country – now watched the drowning of his elite soldiers.
At this point, for the first time, the Israelites bubble over with gratitude to God for all He has done for them. How great You are – ein kamocha – there is none like You.
Euphoria. Cloud nine. Now the Israelites can sail off into the sunset, toward the promised land of milk and honey, safe and secure in the strong, protective arms of God, their redeemer and protector.
Except that they don’t. Exactly three sentences after the conclusion of Shirat Hayam, we read, And the nation complained to Moshe saying what shall we drink. The problem was solved and five sentences later (count them if you want!) we read, And the whole nation of the Israelites complained to Moshe and Aharon saying, Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, sitting around the cauldron of meat, eating bread to satiety, instead of taking us out to this desert to kill off the whole congregation by starvation.
What happened? As Midrash Shmot Rabba asks: Have you forgotten all the miracles God has performed for you? The answer is: That’s not the point!
This is the converse of Ogden Nash’s little ditty back in the 1920s: Ice is nice but liquor is quicker (or candy is dandy but liquor is quicker). Here, miracles are quicker, they will earn you oohs and aahs but you can’t buy groceries with them. Or, as any politician eventually learns, it’s the economy, stupid. It’s the daily challenges of getting through the small stuff that makes or breaks you.
Yes, the people have been freed, nominally. Yes, their valid complaints for water and food are taken seriously and resolved, more than once. Miracles abound –manna every morning, water from rocks, pheasants for meat.
But even with this, the people, slaves until just a few weeks or months ago, now have to worry about things that had not been part of their daily routine. Of course their food in Egypt may have been limited but they knew where they could obtain more if necessary. Now they were in the desert. Where do you go for a Coke?
At this point, Moshe begins to reveal the true purpose of the desert for the Israelites. Indoctrination. Re-education. Brainwashing. Get that slave mentality out. Put in Torah laws and obedience to God instead. Learn about the Shabbat, that you’re not allowed to work. Not ALLOWED to work! That’s the new order of things, from your old-new God. Get used to it.
And then, just to complete the picture and further put the Israelites to the test, the Amalekites attack. I would have expected more panic here than with the food and water. But no, Moshe commands Yehoshua to get together an army and fight. He does, they do and the Israelites come out victorious. Further reinforcement of their new status as free men, a status they have difficulty internalizing.
Things that go around – come around. We see in today’s parsha how everyday challenges seem to overshadow the deep suffering of Egyptian slavery. But as Rabbi Reuven Grinvald points out, the late Israeli songwriter and performer Meir Ariel turned it around in a song he wrote in 1990 called, “We survived Pharoah, we’ll survive this too.”
Income tax, they confiscated my amplifier
VAT, they seized my transmitter
The Electric Company took my battery
The Water Authority sealed my well
I saw myself rolling into crisis, I started hallucinating
But we survived Pharaoh, we’ll survive this too.
And the song goes on to describe all sorts of other daily tragedies and crises which pale in comparison to the horrors we faced under Pharaoh, or in the Shoah. It is this experience of extreme suffering that is supposed to have given us the resilience and emotional strength to face what we should consider as small challenges (in comparison to the big stuff) and overcome them. In other words, the perspective of history is supposed to teach us: if it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s small, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
This reminds me of advice that I received when I was a teenager and feeling down for whatever reason a teenager feels down. “Don’t worry,” my friend said, “things could be worse.” So I didn’t, and they were.
But, we survived Pharaoh, we can survive anything they throw at us. It all depends on how we look at it.