Mayanot Parshat Beshalach: Run For Your Soul
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Beshalach(Exodus 13:17-17:16)

Run For Your Soul

It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people... (Exodus 13:17)

All the commentators are perplexed by this verse. Why does it say "when Pharaoh sent out the people"? Surely the Torah ought to say "when God took the children of Israel out of Egypt." Pharaoh was forced to succumb to the Divine will by the ten plagues. It wasn't his idea to send out the Jews. Why does the verse imply that it was only because he sent us out that we left?

This difficulty is even more glaringly obvious in a later verse.

It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled... (Exodus 14:5)

Rashi quoting rabbinic sources explains the background to the verse thus: Pharaoh sent some of his guards along with the Jews to make sure that they did not violate the three-day limit placed on their royal permission to leave.

The Jews were AWOL and Pharaoh resorted to punitive measures to force them to return.

When the Jews showed no sign of stopping or turning around after three days, Pharaoh came to the conclusion that they were attempting to flee, and he duly decided to give pursuit. At this point they were AWOL and he was entitled to resort to punitive measures to force them to return.

Once again the point is made that the Exodus has something to do with Pharaoh. How can this be reconciled with the idea that:

God strengthened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he pursued the Children of Israel -- and the Children of Israel were going out with an upraised arm. (Exodus 14:8)

Nachmanides says that they left with the full trappings of nationhood -- banners flying etc. -- showing that they left on their own steam not under Pharaoh's terms. Which of these images represents the true Exodus?

 

* * *

 

THE TRUE EXODUS

The answer turns out to be quite complex. The key to understanding it is the realization that there are really two Exoduses -- a physical one and a spiritual one.

The physical Exodus had nothing to do with Pharaoh, and in physical terms the Jews indeed left with an "upraised arm," but the spiritual Exodus was a different story altogether.

When people who have become intertwined with each other over a period of 210 years separate, much more is involved than physical departure or the clear demarcation of material assets. Such separations are comparable to the breakup of families brought about by the end of a marriage, a complicated messy business indeed, always accompanied by considerable emotional trauma.

While this is a rule that applies to all human separations, it is especially true in the case of the Exodus. In psychological terms, the Exodus was akin to jumping off a cliff. The Jews left Egypt where life may not have been wonderful, but was quite predictable, and therefore safe and secure in a way, to go into the desert where there was no food, water or shelter. At the climax of their journey, this people coming straight out of a background of 210 years of subjugation, faced the prospect of a difficult war against trained armies who outnumbered them by far.

 

* * *

 

LOSS OF PREDICTABILITY

To be a participant of the Exodus meant to abandon your entire sense of security, to lose the predictability of life, and place yourself and your future entirely into the hands of God.

To give just one illustration of the psychological difficulty involved:

Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel, "In the evening you shall know that God took you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the glory of God..." (Exodus 16:6-7)

Nachmanides explains this according to the Talmud (Yuma, 75b). The Jewish people complained about the lack of bread and meat. God sent both miraculously, the manna and the birds, but the meat came at night and was not delivered to them with joy as man can survive without meat so they should not have asked for it. The manna was provided joyfully as man cannot live without bread.

Until all the supplies they took out of Egypt were totally exhausted, God provided nothing.

In either case both began to fall only on the 15th day of the month of Iyyar, a full thirty days after the Exodus. Until all the supplies they took out of Egypt were totally exhausted, God provided nothing.

In other words, you could not even complain to God about the lack of food until all your supplies were totally exhausted. Reserves for tomorrow were not an option. Then, when God was finally prepared to listen to fears of starvation, he wanted the people to ask Him for only the bare necessities of survival.

 

* * *

 

EMOTIONAL NEEDS

Imagine yourself living for forty years with no savings, no house, no source of new clothes, no business, no job, without ever having provisions for the next day. The manna fell each day for only that day and could not be stored. Such a life totally ignores the emotional human need for a sense of security. In the conditions of the desert your total security is your ability to rely on God, a being over whom you have zero control by definition.

Nachmanides explains that this was the very point of the manna, and of the entire desert experience.

Behold! I shall rain down for you food from heaven; let the people go out and pick each day's portion on its day, so that I can test them, whether they will follow my teaching or not. (Exodus 16:4)

The word "test" employed here does not imply an examination. The test consists of the subjection of the Jewish people to an ongoing existential conflict between their innate feelings of anxiety -- arising out of the human need to feel that one's future is safe and in control of one's own hands -- and their willingness to entrust their lives in God's hands.

The Jewish people needed to internalize the lesson that this desert experience was the accurate reflection of the reality they chose when they left Egypt. They needed to realize that any sense of security they might derive from their possessions or from their skills would be forever illusory. The spiritual essence of the Exodus experience was the willingness to face the fact that the only sense of security that a Jew can have in this world comes from the cheerful acceptance of the fact that his fate and his future are in the best possible hands -- God's.

 

* * *

 

BASIC ARTICLE OF FAITH

This realization, a basic article of faith for a Jew, represents the spiritual Exodus that was as real as its physical counterpart, but much more difficult to accomplish.

In this spiritual Exodus, the Jewish people, who were beset by the same insecurities as all other humans, have to manage to separate themselves from their psychological need to feel in control of their future without becoming too traumatized to enjoy life and without becoming crippled by feelings of anxiety. The physical bondage of Egypt was accompanied by the spiritual bondage to physicality, imposed by the need to feel in control. You cannot break one without the other.

Indeed, the rabbis tell us that most Jews didn't make it.

The Children of Israel were armed when they went up from Egypt. (Exodus 13:18)

The Hebrew word employed for "armed" is chamushim, which literally means "one-fifth." The Rabbis learn from this that four out of five Jews refused to leave and died in the days of darkness. (See Rashi in the name of the Midrash.) It is not that these Jews were so eager to continue their state of bondage in Egypt. It is not that they entertained doubts about God's existence. They simply could not face the life of total insecurity that Moses was asking them to undertake in the name of God.

 

* * *

 

PHARAOH'S MISCALCULATION

Pharaoh knew his Jews. While he fully realized that God had the power to forcibly take the Jewish people out of Egypt physically, he could not imagine that they could leave Egypt psychologically.

He could not imagine that they wouldn't return. Where would they go? They couldn't stay in the desert after all. What would they do? Engage in wars of conquest? Peace loving Jews, with no military experience, setting out to conquer warlike peoples? The very thought was ludicrous. Pharaoh was "sending" the Jews out, because he knew they had no alternative to him in human terms.

Pharaoh knew his Jews. He could not imagine that they wouldn't return.

They may have left with all the trappings of nationhood but they would recover from their euphoria and be forced back to Egypt and to his rule by the grim realities of life. Despite God's power, they remained his people.

Indeed we find that the Jewish people were divided in their reaction to the approaching Egyptians.

Pharaoh approached. The children of Israel raised their eyes and behold, Egypt was journeying after them and they were very frightened. The children of Israel cried out to God. They said to Moses, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Is this not the statement we made to you in Egypt saying, 'Let us be and we will serve Egypt'? For it is better that we should serve Egypt than that we should die in the wilderness!" (Exodus 14:10-12)

Nachmanides explains that when the Egyptians approached, the Jewish people separated into groups. One group turned to God in prayer; one group attacked Moses as a false prophet; while still another group said the whole Exodus process was flawed. Despite all the wonders they had witnessed, a large portion of the Jewish people was still deeply skeptical of Moses and his message. In their hearts they were still attached to Pharaoh.

And then the sea split -- the epiphany of the spiritual Exodus.

 

* * *

 

SPLITTING OF THE SEA

When they were still in Egypt Pharaoh had asked Moses and Aaron: "Who is YHVH that I should heed his voice and send out Israel? I do not know YHVH nor will I send out Israel."

They answered: "The God of the Hebrews happened upon us..." (Exodus 4:1-3). The word "Hebrew" means literally someone who passed over to the other side; in this case it refers to the people that emerged on the other side after having passed through the splitting of the sea. (Midrash Shmot Raba 3:8)

In other words, we learn that YHVH -- God in His transcendent identity -- will not be fully recognizable in the world until after they pass through the sea.

There is a quite remarkable but subtle aspect to this particular miracle that perfectly encapsulates the idea of this essay.

The most bizarre aspect of Pharaoh's behavior in the entire Exodus story is his willingness to follow Israel into the sea. He surely understood that the splitting of the sea was a miracle provided by God for the express purpose of allowing the Jewish people to escape his clutches. What could have possessed him to follow?

Nachmanides explains that Pharaoh was misled by the nature of the miracle itself.

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God moved the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and He turned the sea to damp land and the water split. (Exodus 14:21)

There was no doubt that this was miraculous in itself, but even if the cause was miraculous the effect was natural. Thus Pharaoh believed that it was safe to follow the Jews into the sea.

As long as the Jews didn't drown, neither would the Pharaoh.

As long as the Jews were in the artificial canyon created by the miracle, the canyon could not vanish. If it vanished for him, it would vanish for the Jews as well. As long as the Jews didn't drown, neither would he. The Egyptian experience of entering the sea was going into an area of dry land.

Not so on the Jewish side. When the Jews entered the sea they went down into the water. The sea did not split till they experienced the sensation of drowning in the water that came to over their noses. Nachshon ben Aminodov went first, but they all entered the dry land in the sea only by passing through this sensation of drowning. (Midrash Tehilim 114:8) They did not experience the miracle as the creation of a natural canyon. They experienced the entire crossing as living in the grip of a miracle. They had the sensation of being transported through what was really water, held in the gentle clasp of God's hand.

When the sea closed over the Egyptians, the Jews were still in it. Pharaoh's natural canyon closed and the Egyptian army was drowned, but Israel's passage through the waters in the palm of God's hand continued undisturbed.

 

* * *

 

THE PALM OF GOD'S HAND

The taste of life inside a miracle was a brand new taste in the human mouth. This new flavor is the essence of the spiritual Exodus.

In order to accept living in the palm of God's hand with equanimity, it is not enough to believe in miracles. You have to leave the world of nature behind altogether and enter a brand new miraculous world where different rules apply.

In order to live in the palm of God's hand, it is not enough to believe in miracles.

In this new miraculous world everything comes directly to you straight from God without using the channel of natural processes. The connection is between your soul and God directly, entirely bypassing the medium of nature. In this miraculous world the notion of saving for tomorrow doesn't exist. You have different ideas about what things constitute the necessities of life; as there is no need to maintain control over your survival, your notion of what you need to survive changes.

Of course no one lives in that miraculous world every moment of the day. A dedicated Jewish life can never be entirely free of conflict. We Jews are ordinary human beings with the same innate insecurities that beset the entire species.

As hard as we strive to place ourselves within the miraculous world of the spiritual Exodus described in this essay, a part of our beings necessarily remains in the everyday world of nature. This remnant will always send us the message that we must control our lives to be secure, that we must be masters of our own future. It refuses to allow us to place ourselves entirely in the hands of God.

 

* * *

 

A MANNA SAMPLE

Moses said, "This is the thing that God has commanded: a full measure of it shall be a safekeeping for your generations, so that they will see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness when I took you out of Egypt. (Exodus 16:32)

The Mechilta tells us that this manna was used by Jeremiah, some 1,000 years after the Exodus, to chastise the Jewish people of his time. He told them that they do not devote enough time to Torah study. They answered him that they would happily study more but they need to make a living. This consumed so much of their time that they have very little left over to devote to Torah study. Jeremiah showed them the jar of manna Moses was referring to. He explained to them that God can always provide, and that the lesson of the spiritual Exodus is that He will provide for those who are willing to place themselves in His hand and follow Him into the wilderness.

In order to taste the flavor of the spiritual Exodus every Jew must attempt to decrease the part of his being that remains attached to the natural world and try to focus on the part of his being that experienced the splitting of the sea and became a Hebrew.

As long as we attempt to remain within the false security of the cocoon of the natural world, no matter how observant we may be, we cannot leave Egypt and follow God into the desert. Those who attempt to fully reconcile their Judaism with maintaining total control over their lives, and squeeze it into the time remaining after all the worries about the house and the job and the bank account are fully attended to, will never experience the taste of life in God's palm. They will never eat manna.

Published: January 21, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, February 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Thank you

Thank you for this wonderful reminder. So often I let the physical world, by its very concreteness and mass acceptance, obscure the very web of my existence. Thank you for the reminder that we only need to simplify back into the core of our being and journey in the palm of G-d's hand. Thank you!

(2) Allen Maserow, February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

the last paragraph carries powerful realities

I want to eat manna...

(1) Anonymous, February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Thank you!!

Thank you for writing this column. I print it out and read it each week.

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