Beshalach — When He Had Let the People Go
At the sea, after the danger of drowning has passed, after Israel has been saved and six hundred of Pharaoh’s elite charioteers has drowned in the sea, the scripture sums up the essence of the ancient faith in this fashion: “And the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses” (Exod. 14:31). There is a direct, intimate connection between what the people see and their belief in God, as though our text were quoting some sort of Israelite tag line that said, “See it, believe it; don’t see it, don’t believe it.” God has been through a great deal since then. He’s gone from babysitting and sewing underwear for his creatures in the Garden of Eden, intimate chats with his believers by the terebinths of Mamre (Gen. 18:1–15) and drowning their enemies in the sea, to the point where he has disappeared from human events and left us more mature and much more alone in our own time. I once wrote myself a note that I’ve saved:
Avrum Burg draws a number of distinctions in his analysis of parashat Bo. The core of his argument is that “Every struggle for freedom is a struggle to seize the mastery of time” and coordinate with this, and that “command of time is the essence of freedom.”
A subsidiary argument contrasts in a similarly binary way the ideas of slavery and freedom, using the mythic models of Exodus to deploy “Israel” and “Egypt” as metaphors embodying the essential attributes of each paradigm.
Bo – Go In Exodus 10:1–13:16
This week the story of the Exodus reaches its climax. The last plagues come down on Pharaoh and his house. The gates of Egypt are thrown open wide and “my people go.” Thus the Middle Eastern drama of days gone by, whose echoes still spark the imaginations and shape the values of the three great monotheistic faiths. Such myths often fired the imagination of the ancient world, and a few have survived to our time. For example, the Roman gladiator Spartacus led a slave revolt against the Roman republic in 73 BCE. Leading an army of gladiators and runaway slaves, he fought off the trained legions of Rome for nearly three years in what historians call the Third Servile War, before being defeated. His story happened in the far distant past, but it continues to resonate. Numerous modern revolutionary movements drew their inspiration from Spartacus, including the most famous: the Spartacus League, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during the Weimar Republic in Germany. Fictional versions of his story continue to grow in number. Arthur Koestler’s first novel, The Gladiators, published in 1939, was based on the Spartacus story.
Not long ago my niece Shira sent me some comments on the weekly portion in which Moses was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter. She compared the historical events with the life stories of her two grandmothers, who had died at the end of a long, full life after first experiencing a childhood of terror and persecution, from which they were saved by non-Jewish neighbors. Here is what she wrote: “I choose to be an optimist, and following the life experiences of my two grandmothers, to believe in people like Olga and Mikolai, like Umm and Abu Shaker, like Pharaoh’s daughter, who made the right choice. Because of them I stand here today. Because of people like them, because of personal friendships that break down walls, life has a chance, and maybe even coexistence.”