November 11, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Shabbat Pesach II

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?” –Exodus 14:11

Dini Coopersmith
Women’s Reconnection Trips

How could the Jewish people, having witnessed the miracles of the Ten Plagues and the Exodus from Egypt, complain to Moses with such cynicism and lack of gratitude as soon as they saw the Egyptians on their heels? Where was their faith?

The Ramban says that most Jews trusted God, but were not so sure of Moses’ intentions — maybe he just wanted to rule over them? Perhaps the plagues were God’s punishment to the Egyptians for their evil-doings, but leaving Egypt was Moses’ plan to take control of the fledgling Jewish nation?

Netivot Shalom shares a beautiful insight into human spiritual achievement: Any accomplishment that is not hard-earned, by one’s own effort, will not last long. Hence, soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai came the sin of the Golden Calf. 

After every inspiration, inevitably there is a fall. When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were redeemed unconditionally. They witnessed miracles; watched a sound-and-light show. And sure enough, as soon as they were confronted by the spectacle of the Egyptians chasing them, they lost all faith, as it was not earned by any effort on their part, and cried out in fear. This explains why God answered Moses: “Don’t cry out to me, speak to the children of Israel and let them move!” They must take action, show trust and devotion, wade into the water, in order for this level of spiritual growth and faith to be maintained.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

It almost sounds as if it were written in Yiddish. The sarcasm is inescapably recognizable, the humor distinctly Jewish. “So it’s because you didn’t have enough graves in Egypt that you had to take us out here into the desert?” 

I heard the comic version of this Torah line in a Borscht Belt hotel more years ago than I care to admit. An old woman is watching her grandson play on the beach when suddenly a huge wave sweeps him out to sea. Frantically, she pleads with God, “Please save my only grandchild. Please, I beg you, bring him back and I will worship you wholeheartedly for the rest of my life.” The divine response is immediate. Another wave miraculously delivers the boy back onto the beach. The grandmother looks up to heaven and shouts, “He had a hat!” 

When we desperately need God, we pledge eternal love and commitment. When He responds to our distress and delivers us from the slavery of Egypt, or the ongoing trials and difficulties of life, we replace gratitude with disappointment that our miracle didn’t include the missing hat. American philosopher Eric Hoffer famously noted that the most difficult math for most people is the ability to count their blessings. 

Passover introduced the Jewish people to the powerful importance of memory — the need to recall, every day of our lives, the wondrous divine gifts that allowed us to be the miraculous survivors of history. Those who cannot look back and recognize God’s role in our lives must truly be the ones referred to as “stiff-necked people.”

Yekusiel Kalmenson
CEO, Renewal Health Group 

In a 1958 essay, philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin discusses two kinds of freedom. Freedom from (negative freedom) and freedom to (positive freedom). 

The more negative freedom you have, the fewer obstacles that exist between you and doing whatever it is you desire. Negative freedom can be summed up as: “I am a slave to no man.” Positive freedom enables us to consciously make our own choices, create our own purpose, and shape our own life; he acts instead of reacting. 

Former Soviet refusenik turned activist and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky relates that while in prison, he loved to tell the guards jokes about the Soviet Union. He said, “After the Americans went to the moon, Leonid Brezhnev announced that the Soviets would be sending a man to the sun. The engineers objected. ‘If you send a man to the sun, he will burn up!’

“ ‘What do you think I am, stupid?’ Brezhnev replied. ‘We’ll send him at night!’ ”

The jokes were funny but the guards weren’t allowed to laugh. 

Then Sharansky would say, “You see, you cannot even laugh when you want to laugh. And you say that I am in prison and you are free?” 

We now have context for the people’s ugly confrontation with Moses. They weren’t completely free and had not exercised positive freedom — the ability to shape our own perspective and response. Thus at the first curveball, they buckled without faith and trust in the God who had broken every rule of nature to get them out of Egypt. Freedom is a constant journey; let us attain new heights this Passover!

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

The Midrash teaches that when B’nai Yisrael saw the Egyptians pursuing them, they did what their forefathers would do: They prayed. We read, “B’nai Yisrael cried out to God.” And yet the verse immediately following is not their heartfelt prayer, but a complaint to Moshe. What happened to their prayer? 

Perhaps the prayer was the primal cry — when it didn’t work right away, they turned to complain against Moshe. Or … what if their words to Moshe were actually the tefilah, prayer? Sometimes prayer steps beyond a book and even beyond our visceral cries and tears. Sometimes prayer enters how we communicate with one another. Truth is, prayer isn’t limited to praise and thanks, but can include venting, turning over burdens, or asking for God’s help — admitting we need support. 

With this in mind, we can begin to see our verse as a prayerful human interaction. B’nai Yisrael vent, unburden and ask for help from the human “rock” of their lives (as many of us do with those close to us — although hopefully with less sarcasm). And Moshe imitates the loving and understanding God. Instead of getting angry or hurt, he comforts: Don’t be afraid — you’ll overcome this for the good. Prayer in this form is interactive, accessible, and has room for growth for the petitioner and the petitioned. 

This Pesach, what would our relationships look like if we saw them as microcosms for prayer? And how would our prayer lives evolve if we treated them as laboratories for our relationships?

Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell
Ahavat Torah Congregation

Sometimes our daily life seems to be out of control. What flows to the surface and takes center stage are dormant trigger points. Until we experience a silent moment and take stock, our lives spin out of control. Instead of gratitude, we take life for granted. In the “Ethics of Our Fathers” (4:1) we learn, “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his lot.” 

This did not happen with our Israelites. They were sarcastic, they even had the chutzpah to ask Moses if the reason he took them out of Egypt was because there was not enough space for their graves? Their lives were out of control. Israeli Torah scholar Nehama Leibowitz writes, “They were just newly liberated slaves who suffered from ‘slave-complex’ that was nurtured during centuries of bondage.”

Spain’s ibn Ezra (1089-1167) writes that despite experiencing God’s power during the Ten Plagues, they were psychologically incapable of standing against their lords and for centuries, they suffered from slave mentality. They had no experience of freedom. They looked at Egypt through rose-colored glasses. Egypt was the land of graves, but … it was familiar. 

In my 14 years of volunteer prison work, I find these emotions to be true. Some of my Jewish inmates when they are released after long periods of incarceration can’t handle freedom and so commit another crime. They go back to the familiar, even when knowing that prison is enslavement.