Parshat Beshalach 2018
You have a few days off, free to do with as you wish. What do you do? Take a trip? Fix up things in the house that you’ve been putting off? Sleep? Sit in a bar sipping a beer while watching a game? Of course the answer depends on a hundred things, including what your wife (or husband) says. You’ve just gotten your freedom after a few hundred years of slavery. What do you do? Party? You look over your shoulder to see if the boss is coming and where to hide.
The children of Israel are now out and free, and they’re probably more panicky than euphoric. They’re between masters, having rescinded their allegiance to Pharaoh, whose whims and crises they know well, and are about to transfer it to Moshe and God, unknown taskmasters who (they may be saying among themselves) don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into.
The Torah shows that the new leaders know what they’re doing. The people are brought out and they circle around so that they won’t encounter a war, which would send them fleeing back to Egypt. Education 101 – don’t panic the learners too early or you will traumatize them. So what happens? Pharaoh and 600 chariots and the best of the soldiers appear on the horizon, riding hard to catch the runaway slaves. Is this any way to make their lives easier?
Oh, you may say, that was just a way to create a danger that God could overcome and make the people surer of His protection. Well, maybe. But it could also have the effect of panicking the people into paralysis, which is what happened.
We see from the outset that our parsha is the beginning of the transition period from slavery to freedom but the freedom the Israelites are receiving is not carte blanche to do what they want. Quite the opposite. From here through the book of Vayikra and even into Bamidbar the emphasis is on education.
What is education? It is the instilling of certain codes of behavior, beliefs and modes of thinking that are favored by the governing agent, whether a dictator in a totalitarian regime or the government elected by the people in a democracy.
Schools and education systems are much more than institutions for preparing children to be useful members of the state in terms of employment, economics and even the arts. They are the main means of perpetuating the form of government that rules the country, its likes and dislikes, its rules and regulations. Its success is measured by the citizenry’s acceptance of the laws and its form of ruling. In some cases this support is given for negative reasons: the people simply do not want to be punished.
So our story, after the splitting of the Reed Sea, settles down into a sparring match between the people and Moshe, with God as the referee. But this referee is only partially impartial. He has a stake in the events and the outcome, and so a glimpse at when the referee, God, decides in favor of or against a given complaint – will help to clarify what the educational message is. So far, in this parsha, almost all of the responses are positive for the people.
The water is bitter, the people say. God tells Moshe to throw a tree into the water and it turns sweet. We don’t have enough to eat, the people say. God says –collect the white stuff off the sand every morning and treat it like amorphous bread. You’ll like it. They like it, or they don’t. But they have what to eat. There’s not enough water, the people say. God says, Moishe, hit the rock, and out comes water.
At this point a strange thing happens. God wanted to avoid war but at the end of the parsha the people again face a threat – from Amalek, and this time they go to war. And it goes well for them. Wow, this freedom thing is good. Positive reinforcement.
But the people are learning all the time. They learn that they have to ask for things from Moshe or God, and then there are the laws they have to observe, like taking only enough manna for one day. Or keeping the Shabbat when the manna won’t appear.
This is an indoctrination process that will get tougher and tougher, especially when the commandments from Mount Sinai are piled 613 high. But that’s the way it is. You’re not free to do anything. You’re free to obey the force that now has power over you.
When we were kids it was our parents who ruled us, and our teachers (yes, in those days they did rule, sometimes with a ruler), and some of our peers. If we got married our spouses ruled us (or us them). If we were employed, our bosses told us what to do. When we had kids we told them what to do until they began telling us what to do. That’s our freedom. To obey.
Having this framework is not so bad, as long as the framework sits well on us. The Israelites were torn from the rule of Pharaoh and are being placed under the rules and regulations of their redeemer. But what happens when we think we can do better elsewhere?
That’s a situation we can all face. And that’s what we see in the continuation of the Torah story. The people want to obey but sometimes – other things seem so much more attractive.
We’ll see how the matza crumbles in coming weeks.