Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 4th Sh’vat 5775, 24th January 2015
One of the themes that appear in the story of the exodus time and again, especially in today’s parsha is haste. חיפזון in Hebrew. The Israelites were told to take the paschal lamb and hold it in abeyance from the 10th the 14th of the month at which time they were to slaughter it, daub the doorposts and lintel with its blood and then eat the lamb that night at the ready: belts belted, shoes shod, staff in hand – in haste it shall be eaten.
And then there is the matza, the ultimate symbol of haste. No time to leaven, no time to swell and take on some softness – the matza is flour and water, baked for hasty consumption. Even today, making matza has an element of haste – 18 minutes, no more, from mix to box.
But it was not only us. It was the Egyptians as well. Pharaoh is aroused from his night’s slumber by a wailing the likes of which had never been heard in Egypt, as every house had been visited by death. In a panic, he calls for Moshe and Aaron. In a rush he tells them to get out. The Egyptians, scared out of their minds, urge the Israelites to leave immediately, quickly, no time to waste, before something even more dreadful happens. You want to borrow some gold, silver, clothing? Sure, take take take. And get out. What, you’re not gone yet?
That’s the way it is. The Israelites are in Egypt for two (or four) hundred years, some of which go by very slowly, and suddenly, in come Moshe and Aaron bearing a vision of freedom and the situation changes almost overnight. Plague follows plague until Pharaoh is finally convinced of the diminishing returns of keeping his Israelite slaves. (The Egyptians realize this much earlier.)
But interspersed in this story of haste is a more leisurely narrative meant for the generations to come. This is what you shall do later. This is what you shall tell your children. This is what you shall don (tefillin) to symbolize the might of the Lord that you have witnessed.
In other words, Moshe, at God’s command, is laying down the groundwork for long-distance survival. There are mitzvoth coming left and right. There are orders and commands of what to do and not do, how to do, to be observed down to the last detail. And then, all this is fodder for raising our children to remember and identify with the great moment of liberation that we – our ancestors – experienced in Egypt. We are to relive the episode, telling it to the children and inviting them to feel a part of the event.
When we think of the plagues we generally feel that the Egyptians received what they deserved. There definitely is a certain amount of schadenfreude in the Haggada, where the rabbis vie to enumerate more and more plagues brought on Egypt (ten? No 50. No 200. No 250). There’s also the other, more humane side too. A midrash in Shmot Rabbah tells of Egyptians who believed that this final plague would come to pass and brought their firstborns to neighboring Israelites, asking them to hide the children, so that perhaps the angel of death would pass over them too. It didn’t work – those firstborns were also killed. But we understand from the midrash that there were Israelites ready to take in Egyptian children to try to save them, just as there were Europeans who took in Jewish children to save them in World War II. What goes around comes around.
The exodus was also a boon to some non-Israelites. The erev rav – the rabble, people who saw an opportunity to get out of whatever bad karma they were in and find a better one – joined in and later created problems.
This is the nature of revolutions, of status-quo-shattering events. People get shook up, the hierarchy is pitched and blown, truths are disproved and new orders are established. From what we have observed in the last two years of the Arab Spring, and what we have seen since the 1960s when dozens of new nations were created, the chances of success are slim indeed. A new nation is created, or an oppressed nation is relieved of its dictator, and the result, sooner or later, in very many cases, is chaos – or another dictator.
So what made us different? Every emerging nation has its story of deliverance. Every emerging nation has its heroes and its miracles and its message. And some nations reach epic proportions, and then disappear. So how have we survived so long where others have failed?
Our efforts will be sorely tried to find a more rational explanation than Divine providence. Perhaps it was the leaders we had who did not try to impose themselves and their offspring on the people. Or perhaps it was the emphasis we see in today’s parsha on the children, on always trying to inculcate them with a belief that is backed up with specific mitzvoth and rituals.
And then, let’s think what happened when we did have a country. We didn’t do so well. After the first few hundred years of judges and then three kings, we split into two nations, and suffered from internal strife until we were conquered for good.
So, perhaps it was the 2000 years of exile that paradoxically saved us, along with the tradition of the Torah and of the rabbis. Without the murderous infighting that comes when people want to rule, we kept alive through our aspirations for a return to our country and adherence to our heritage.
Which leaves us with another paradox. Is our having a country good for us in the long run? And how long is that run?
I am a pragmatic optimist. I believe that we will come through the vicissitudes of our age, and I hope and pray that we have the wherewithal to survive those who would lead us.