In this week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, the Exodus really begins. From the opening verses, the Torah clues us into the notion that this will be a bumpy journey for the Israelites and their leader, Moses. We read:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Ex. 13:17-18)
So, even after witnessing God’s awesome power against the earthly ruler, the Pharaoh of Egypt, the people are still not able to trust that that they are destined for better lives.
The crossing of the Reed Sea and the triumphant Song at the Sea form the climax of this parashah. Yet, the sandwiching of this miraculous event between mentions of the people’s fears and grumblings is where we find questions about leadership and faith that still occupy us today.
Just when we thought in last week’s reading that the Israelites were finally liberated, Pharaoh literally had a change of heart. This time, entirely of his own volition, Pharaoh went with his army in pursuit of the fleeing former slaves (Ex. 14:5-9). As they saw the pharaoh and his chariots draw near, the Torah portrays the Israelites as suffering from a slave mentality:
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Eternal. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’? (Ex. 14:10-12)
Responding to this fear with the appearance of great confidence, Moses reassures the people that God will deliver them once and for all from the Egyptian threat (Ex. 14:13-14). But the cryptic next verse in the narrative sequence seems to show that God and Moses had a side conversation about the people’s fears, yet only God’s side of that conversation is reported.
Then the Eternal One said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward…" (Ex. 14:15)
Since the Torah doesn’t provide the substance of Moses’ cry, we might interpret it as message about fears and doubts being difficult to articulate. Especially in this crisis so soon after the parting of the sea, Moses’ lack of clarity about his leadership would be understandable. It took 10 plagues to extricate the Israelites from Egypt. And when they thought they were finally free, Pharaoh pursues them to the Reed Sea!
Even after the crossing of the sea — an event that should have convinced the doubters — there is another crisis that could possibly derail the journey. With the threat of Pharaoh literally behind them: the Israelites turn their survival-worries toward the most basic needs: food and water. Regarding the lack of food, the Israelites once again wonder why they ever let themselves be convinced to leave Egypt, saying that slavery is preferable to a starvation death in the wilderness (Ex. 16:2-3). In an episode that the Torah describes in unusual length and detail (Ex. 16:1-36), God provides miracle-food to the complaining people in the form of the famous manna. In the course of telling the people about God’s saving them once again, this time with the manna, we hear that Moses and his brother Aaron are “fed-up” (pun intended) with the ungrateful and unfaithful people during this whole ordeal:
So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “By evening you shall know it was the Eternal who brought you out from the land of Egypt; and in the morning you shall behold the Presence of the Eternal, because [God] has heard your grumblings against the Eternal. For who are we that you should grumble against us? Since it is the Eternal,” Moses continued, “who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Eternal has heard the grumblings you utter — what is our part? Your grumbling is against the Eternal, not against us! (Ex. 16:6-8)
Moses and Aaron experience another crisis of leadership, just like they did in the episode preceding the crossing of the sea. They are so frustrated that they want to shift the blame away from themselves back to God. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the medieval commentator from Spain, is not bothered by the shifting of responsibility. He plainly explains:
“What was in our power to do? We did what we were commanded.” (ibn Ezra on Ex. 16:7)
For ibn Ezra, what looks like shirking responsibility is a statement of fact. Nachmanides (aka Rabbi Nachman ben Moses or RAMBAN) is worried that even in ibn Ezra’s commentary one might still read the words of Moses and Aaron as a slight on their leadership. Nachmanides, thus, elevates their words to a lesson in theology. While Moses and Aaron are the obvious targets for the people’s complaining (Ex. 16:3), Moses and Aaron, according to Nachmanides, want to make sure the people never believe, even in their complaining, that human leaders are behind any of the miraculous power that got the Israelites to this point:
What Rabbi Abraham [ibn Ezra] said is not right...this was [Moses and Aaron] in the manner of humility [saying] that in your [i.e., the people’s] complaining there is a suggestion that we took you out of Egypt -- we are nothing. (RAMBAN on Ex. 16:7)
As the Israelites and Moses — and God too — continue to journey through the wilderness, there will be more crises to navigate. In each of them, the traumatic experience of Egypt influences the response, which ultimately is the reason that the generation of the Exodus has to die out before reaching the Promised Land.
But the slave mentality never really fades from Jewish historical consciousness. Israeli Reform Rabbi Myra Hovav wrote a series of blogs (in Hebrew) for the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) connecting the weekly Torah portions to modern Hebrew popular songs. In one of her blogs on the Exodus parshiyot, Rabbi Hovav astutely points out that we have a heritage that perpetuates, in a sense, a “slave mentality”:
The difficulty of removing Egypt from the soul is more than we imagine, because our tradition, from the Bible until today, obligates us to continue to remind ourselves of Egyptian slavery… so many mitzvot are about “because you were slaves in Egypt.”
While the Torah offers this reasoning to add power to commandments that celebrate freedom and justice, it may also have detrimental effects on our consciousness to always be reminded of the trauma of the past.
Rabbi Hovav finds a way of liberating us from a slave mentality through the message she finds in the song, “We Survived Pharaoh, We Will Also Survive This” (Avarnu et Par'oh, Na-avor Gam et Zeh) by Meir Ariel (1942-1999) — an influential Israeli artist whose musical style often gets compared to that of Bob Dylan. The opening of Ariel’s song describes a person who is feeling deeply frustrated by the system:
Income tax — they seized my amp!
VAT — they seized my transmitter!
The electric company took my battery.
The water authority stopped up my well.
I see that I’m deteriorating into a crisis -- I’m beginning to hallucinate
But we survived Pharaoh -- we will survive this! (Translation by Reuven Greenvald)
While Hovav connects these lyrics to the attitude in post-Shoah Israel to raise every societal hardship to the level of trauma, she doesn’t see in the refrain of Ariel’s song, “we got through Pharaoh, we will get through this,” a message to stop complaining about the little stuff. According to Rabbi Hovav, there is another way to understand it, as she writes: "Ariel’s song expresses our desire to delegitimize the simple, everyday suffering. Stop complaining, friends! You’re having a hard time with taxes? With our deteriorating leadership? Believe me: in the Shoah and in Egypt it was much worse, and “if we got through Pharaoh, we will get through this.” From this way of thinking, perhaps, one can draw much strength, there are bigger problems."
For leaders and for the average person, complaining is human nature. How we move past these frustrating moments depends on the perspective we put on them.