Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 13rh Shvat 5776, 23rd January 2016
Just when the Israelites believe they have experienced the best – the best becomes the worst. They have witnessed the ten plagues, the utter humiliation of Egypt, they have had freedom thrust upon them by the very king who had obstinately refused to even think of letting them go for three days. They are free. Except that now six hundred of Pharaoh’s choice charioteers are burning the desert sand in pursuit of the Egyptians’ freed labor force, who have nowhere to go because the sea is hemming them in from the other side. What a predicament.
But we know something the Israelites don’t. That they were intentionally made to circle back and give the impression that they were bamboozled by the desert and couldn’t find their way – so that Pharaoh would come after them. This was part of the grand plan, the coup de grace to sink another dagger into Egypt as final proof of God’s dominion.
But the first sentence tells us something else important: that the Israelites were kept from going through Philistine lands so as to avoid war which would frighten them and make them want to return to Egypt. The fact that the Israelites were sent the long way around clearly indicates that this ragtag bunch of former slaves was no more ready to take on the yoke of full freedom in their own land than a baby is ready to run a four-minute mile two weeks after it is born. Which makes one wonder whether the forty-year sojourn wasn’t part of the original plan.
After the tremendous high point of the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians, life settles down into a routine. Complaint: We don’t have water. Miracle. Water. Complaint: We don’t have food. Miracle – manna. Food. Complaint: We want meat. Miracle – pheasants. Meat.
Through it all, and against their will, the people are being shaped and reconditioned to serve God. The process began at the sea. They were helpless and their only source of salvation was the God who had lifted them out of the depths of slavery.
In the desert whatever they needed they had to ask for (usually as a complaint), and if it was reasonable, like water and food, they got what they needed. If not, they got what they asked for and then some – in the form of punishment.
But again that’s at the superficial level. Being a free people requires certain principles and stringencies. The first requirement is obedience, to something. Of course, as slaves they had to obey their masters and fulfill their daily quota of work. Here, they were struggling between the slave mentality of having to wheedle anything they needed, and being free. All of us, free though we be, have certain restrictions and rules to abide by. The Israelites were being given rules intended to build up their trust and belief in their God and to build up their behavior patterns.
The first real principle the people were taught was the importance of rest. Shabbat – the day of rest. As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out, the Shabbat – the complete cessation of work and dealing with the pressures and problems of daily life – is perhaps the greatest contribution of the Jewish religion to mankind. Like shmitta (the seventh fallow year) for the land, Shabbat allows us to recharge our batteries.
Yet strictures and rules have the side effect of bringing out the contrary side in some people as well as their lack of belief. And yes, it can be said that here, with Shabbat, we begin to see the rebellious non-believing nature of the people. Those who did not follow Moshe’s orders about the manna, either took more than they needed for one day or went out to seek manna on Shabbat. But the fact is that we do not know how many of the people actually did so. In other reported cases in the Torah where the Israelites went counter to the command of God and Moshe – those who worshipped the golden calf, those who followed the Midianite women after the story of Balaam – we read of thousands, up to 25,000 being punished (meaning killed) – out of a total of 600,000. That comes to less than five percent of the total population in each case.
Does this mitigate the gravity of their transgressions? No, but it does give us some sense of proportion and also an inkling of the expectations held for the people of Israel. The expectation is for 100 percent adherence. The message intimates zero tolerance for transgressors.
This is an interesting contrast to the general tenor of expectations today which can be encapsulated in one of the sentences made famous by Jerry Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” No matter what you do or believe, no matter what you choose – “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
This is being politically correct – not that there’s anything wrong with that – which has its up side and its down side. The up side is that we are exposed to many phenomena that until now have either been kept under wraps or have not been dealt with or thought about at all. On the down side, we are exposed to many phenomena that until now have either been kept under wraps or have not been dealt with or thought about at all, and it would have been better if they had stayed there.
But who’s to determine what should be and shouldn’t be allowed to be vented? And there’s the rub. Today, the people who want to take the reins and decide for everyone else what is kosher and what is treif are usually extremists, and usually reactionary. And the truth is, that the freedom of expression we have today is often quite enjoyable and liberating for us as individuals. Until we see others (always others) misusing this license and we tsk tsk tsk about the loss of values.
While the Israelites were in the desert they were under the firm hand of God and all transgressions were dealt with firmly. Today, with our alleged freedom, the threat of immediate justice has been lifted and because it is up to us to determine what is right and wrong, we often find ourselves at loose ends. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.