Exodus 14:5-25 - The Exodus

This week’s Torah reading is very special.  It’s about the actual Exodus moment, when the Israelites succeeded in crossing the border of Egypt.  So what really happened?  Well, just before services I overheard one of our students talking about it to his mother.  "The Rabbi told us how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt" he said.  "How?" she asked.  The boy replied: "Well Moses was a big strong man and he beat Pharaoh up.  Then while he was down, he got all the people together and ran towards the sea.  When he got there, he had the Corps of Engineers build a huge pontoon bridge.  Once they got on the other side, they blew up the bridge while the Egyptians were trying to cross." His mother was shocked: "Is that really what the Rabbi taught you?"  The boy replied, "Nah.  But you'd never believe the story he did tell us!"

Of course, we don’t know what really happened.  There is scant historical evidence that our ancestors were even in Egypt.  Scholars have speculated that the story is based on folk memories of a natural event, perhaps a tsunami in the Nile delta caused by the eruption of the island of Santorini in Minoan times.  But even if there is a natural explanation, historically Jews have experienced the event as divinely ordained; the splitting of the sea showed God’s control over nature and history.  It was God who brought about Egypt’s downfall and it was the Divine will, that saved Israel. 

So the Exodus became the foundation stone upon which the rest of Judaism is built.  This event is referred back to repeatedly; the 1st of the 10 commandments is: “I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”  We celebrate Shabbat because in the 4th commandment we are told to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  Just before the Amidah today we recalled the song which the Israelites sang on the shore of the sea just after they were rescued.  So every oppression of Jews over the ages relived the slavery of Egypt; every anti-Semite was Pharaoh; and the Exodus was the model for Jewish redemption from whatever persecution they were suffering at the time.

The idea of the Exodus has been so inspiring to so many people, because of its core message that there is hope for even the weakest in society.  There is justice in the world!  Humans are created in God’s image, which doesn’t of course mean a physical image, but the ability to consciously decide how to live our lives.  And being enslaved takes that freedom and essential human dignity away.  The natural response is to yearn to escape and assert independence.  So if you feel ‘enslaved’ or stressed by your work, by your family or even by Europe, then the drive to break away and seek something different is very appealing. 

Meanwhile 3000 odd years ago, as the Israelites left Egypt, they were initially jubilant and defiant.  But as soon as they saw Pharaoh chasing them, they became frightened.  These recent slaves had very low self-esteem, and were incapable of fighting for themselves.  Instead they wailed despairingly and regretted their impulsive decision to leave Egypt.  The terms for returning were not good and they felt deceived by Moses - its very unlikely he would have survived a vote of confidence!

Rabbis of old imagined the scene on the banks of the Reed Sea, with Moses urging the people to go into the water, but the people holding back.  Would you have had enough faith that a miracle would occur, to put your foot into the sea?  Well [as Laurence read earlier] according to the Talmud, no-one had enough courage, until Nachshon ben Aminadav sprang forward and went into the sea.  Only when he was up to his nose in the water, did the sea part.  Nachshon wasn’t concerned with getting a democratic mandate via a referendum; he showed decisive leadership and just did what he believed was right.  

He is a great example of an audacious Jew; he took a risk and made his dream happen.  Many of you here, have been studying with me a wide range of audacious Jews over the last few years.  Just last Wednesday we looked at the Biblical Jacob.  Unlike Nachshon, he failed his moral test.  When told by his mother to steal his brother Esau’s blessing, he ignored what was the right thing to do and became a slave to his greed.  Of course, this didn’t do him any good; his father still didn’t love him, and after 20 years of regret and fear he gave the blessing back. Taking the selfish option didn’t work out for him.

The week after next, we will be learning about the great 20th century novelist from Prague, Franz Kafka.  For him modern societies inevitably alienated people and encouraged them to act without integrity.  People collude with the system by willingly doing meaningless work and ritual; they effectively enslave themselves.  The result is that their self-absorbed lives have little meaning, they feel disaffected and angry and vote in all sorts of dangerous ways.

In contrast, in April we will be studying the 20th century English thinker, Isaiah Berlin who is most famous for his two concepts of freedom - 'negative freedom', or freedom from interference (of which slavery is an extreme example), and 'positive freedom', or freedom as self-mastery (the freedom to do something).  Our ancestors had first to escape from Egypt, but then needed to so something positive with that freedom.  But they didn’t have a vision of what to do and just ended up whinging.  They failed their test of freedom and remained psychologically enslaved, and so didn’t reach their Promised Land.  It feels much the same today, when many people find it so easy to complain, to criticise others and tear down the status quo. 

So I like the image of Nachshon, marching up to the water and jumping in.  He didn’t wait for others to do something but brought about his own destiny.  That makes me think, what are the areas in our own lives - at work … at home … in the synagogue - where we are hesitating at the water’s edge, where we are enslaving ourselves?  Where are we staying in our comfort zone, without having enough courage to act?

So let’s do a thought experiment which you might want to consider further later.  Imagine you are 100 years old, and you are looking back at your life.  Ask yourself three questions.  1. What did you spend too much time worrying about?  2. On what things did you spend too little time?  3. And if you could go back in time, what would you do differently from today onwards?  As yet another of the audacious Jews, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, famously wrote “If you will it, it is no dream”. 

19 January 2019