Friday, January 29, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

And they came to Marah, and they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter... And the people murmured against Moshe and Aharon saying, 'What shall we drink?'" (Shemot 15:23-24). Parashat Beshalach is the parasha of the apex of the Exodus, as it relates the Splitting of the Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, and the Song on the Sea. It is also the parasha of the murmurings: "And the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael murmured against Moshe and Aharon in the Wilderness. And they said to them: "Who would give that we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to our fill, that you have taken us to this wilderness to kill this entire congregation in starvation" (Shemot 16:2-3). "And the people fought with Moshe and they said, 'Give us water to drink'..." (Shemot 17:3). "And they called the name of the place Trial and Quarrel, because Bnei Yisrael had fought with and tested God saying, "Is God in our midst, or not?" (Shemot 17:7). How is it that the climax of the Exodus could be followed so precipitously with the grumblings and murmurings that were to accompany them for 40 years throughout the Wilderness?

Much has been said and can be said about this in regards to the outgrowing of a slave mentality and the quality of a faith that comes too easily. There is, however, another factor here as well, one that goes to the very core of the Exodus and of the purpose of freedom. What were they heading towards? What was the purpose of yitziat Mitzrayim and how had this purpose been framed to the people?

Both God and Moshe had emphasized that the people would be freed from the bondage of Egypt and be able to enter into a land "flowing with milk and honey" as a free people (cf. Shemot 3:8, 3:17). This material promise of freedom was of course thrown back in Moshe's face when it did not immediately materialize: "Even to a land flowing of milk and honey you have not brought us, nor given us an inheritance of a field and vineyard!" (Bamidbar 15:13). The promise for a physically better life was met with immediate disappointment, and when water and food were lacking, murmuring and complaining ensued. Why not go back to the fleshpots of Egypt rather than endure the hardships of the desert?

The true purpose of yitziat Mitzrayim was, of course, quite different. "When you take the People out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mountain" (Shemot 3:12). While to the people this must have sounded like a ruse to win Pharaoh's agreement to let them out, it was, in fact, the ultimate purpose of the Exodus: to stand at Har Sinai and accept and be commanded by the mitzvot, not just to become physically free, but to transform from slaves of Pharaoh to servants of God. "They are my servants, whom I have taken out of the Land of Egypt" (Vayikra 25:42). Thus, as we have seen "and I will be for them as a God" is the climax of "and I will redeem them... and take them for me as a People" (Shemot 6:7). This is distilled in the concise statement of the Hagaddah, "Originally we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now God has drawn us close to God's service."

The question of the purpose of freedom, and the definition of liberty, was clearly articulated by Isaiah Berlin in his article "Two Concepts of Liberty," where he describes two types of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from constraint, whereas positive liberty is having the power and resources to act to fulfill one's own potential, and often requires a level of education, self-discipline, and certain underlying values. Negative liberty is leaving Egypt, positive liberty is standing at Har Sinai. Ain likha ben chorin ela mi she'osek baTorah, "No one is as free as the one who devotes himself to the study of Torah."

Bnei Yisrael, as an enslaved people, had to first be motivated by the physical freedom and the promise of a better life, but - once hardship was encountered and murmurings ensued, they had to be trained in the second type of freedom. They had to learn to see beyond material privation to something of greater consequence. "There God gave them rule and law and there God tested them" (Shemot 15:25). There - as the Rabbis said - God began to introduce them to law, discipline, and Torah, and gave them "some of the laws of the Torah that they should begin to practice - Shabbat, the red calf, and civil laws" (Rashi quoting Mekhilta). "And God said to them: If you surely listen to the voice of YHVH your God, and do what is right in God's eyes, and listen to God's commandments, and observe God's edicts, then all of the afflictions that I have placed upon Egypt I will not place upon you, for I am God your healer." While still needing to be motivated by the promise of physical protection, the people are being introduced and trained in the accepting of a life of discipline and meaning, a life of mitzvot and of purpose. And even the giving of the man, the most basic sustenance, was followed by, "that I may test them, if they will walk in My law, or no" (Shemot 16:4).

This idea is nicely stated by Michael Walzer in his book Exodus and Revolution (which is a must-read for these parashot):

For the wilderness wasn't only a world of austerity, it was a world of laws...The Israelites had been Pharaoh's slaves; in the wilderness they became God's
servants... and once they agree to God's rule, He and Moses, His deputy, force them to be free. This, according to Rousseau, was Moses' greatest achievement; he transformed a herd of "wretched fugitives" who lacked both virtue and courage, into a "free people." He didn't do this merely by breaking their chains but also by organizing them into a "political society" and giving them laws. He brought them what is currently called "positive freedom," that is, not so much(not at all!) a way of life free from regulation but rather a way of life to whose regulation they could, and did, agree... The Israelite slaves could become free only insofar as they accepted the discipline of freedom, to obligation to live up to a common standard and to take responsibility for their own actions... hence the Sinai covenant" (pp. 52-53).

Two hundred years ago the Jewish People experienced another Exodus - they were freed from the ghetto and welcomed into the larger, secular world. For some, this freedom was a negative liberty, and with it came a rejection of all constraints - the physical and economic constraints (not to mention the oppression) of the ghetto, and the constraints of a life of Torah and mitzvot as well. For others, this freedom was only dangerous, because it allowed for such a complete rejection of constraints, and they attempted - and still attempt - to move back into a world that existed before this freedom, a world that is fully constrained. Others, including today's Modern Orthodox Jews, willingly embraced this new freedom, willingly left the Egypt of old, while still holding fast to the positive freedom of a life of Torah and mitzvot, the true freedom that comes from the commands and demands of the Torah.

What has been missing, however, even for this last group, and for today's Modern Orthodox Jews, is a new vision of the Promised Land. For with this new Exodus, a new vision that gives purpose and meaning to this freedom, a vision that shapes for us how we can embrace this freedom to bring us to a place of higher and ultimate meaning, that explains for us our purpose in life in a way that fully incorporates our new reality - such a vision, at least outside of Israel, is sorely lacking. What, we must ask ourselves, is the purpose of this new freedom? Where are we marching towards? What is our Promised Land?

It is because of this lack that we - in the Modern Orthodox camp - often struggle for an animating religious ethos, and a real sense of purpose. We have spent too many years wandering aimlessly in the Wilderness. Our challenge, then, is not just to accept this new freedom, not just to recognize it as something that has value - to affirm that we can learn from the larger world - but to incorporate it into our religious vision, to give it purpose, to make it part of our vision and part of our life, so that we can lead ourselves into the Promised Land.

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