Parsha Beshalach – Leaving Mitzrayim and Becoming Israel

One way a people defines itself is by the ideals the members aspire to achieve. In a very different, indeed opposite sense, others define themselves by who they are not. It is certainly possible to do both, but what is noteworthy in Exodus is that the Hebrews were defined initially by what they were not. They were not Egyptians. The whole effort of the ten plagues as I depicted in the previous two blogs was intended to wash “Egyptianess” out of their souls. Their spirits had to be cleansed before they could travel up to that city on the hill called Jerusalem.

It is said that Jews primarily define themselves as a people who flee the devil while Christians define themselves as a people who seek salvation in oneness with their God. Of course, this is a caricature. But when Jesus gives his sermon on the mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 5-7 just after he has been baptized by John the Baptist (chapter 3) and after he went through a period of fasting and an effort to cleanse his spirit in the wilderness, that is when it is said that he moved from being a Jew to becoming a Christian. For a Jew, one’s life is spent washing the sins of Egypt from one’s soul. For a Christian, that is simply a staged precondition of spending one’s life in search of redemption.

Now it is easy enough to claim that these are two sides of the same coin. And they could be. But not if cleansing oneself from the sins of Egypt is a precondition of even being able to seek salvation. In my interpretation of Exodus, it is characterized by the escape from Egypt and then spending forty years in the wilderness – that is, two generations – trying to wipe Egypt out of your spirit, out of your élan. For Jesus, in repeating this experience, this is but a brief prelude to his ministry which focuses almost entirely on depicting the city on the hill and the aspirations for one’s life. For some, the focus is on how we were born sinners and inherited the evils of the past that must be extirpated. For others, we are reborn in Christ, bathed in the glory of beatification, for the real journey is not a horizontal one from Egypt to Jerusalem, but a vertical one from this life to one of eternal salvation. However, for those who travel forward in space, they must travel forwards in time. To travel forward in time means traveling backwards, not to be expelled, but to expel the spirt of Egypt from one’s soul. For America, it means finally facing how deep the desire is to become an undemocratic monarchy like the world they left behind rather than move ahead to create a new world.

Just before Jesus offers his Sermon on the Mount, he gathers his disciples. It is a tale of leadership and followers and one must have followers if one is about to become a leader. But the Hebrews who enter Sinai on route to the promised land are already a people, a people forged in sweat and labour, in oppression and repression, in facing utter despair at almost every turn. They have a hard time accepting leadership. The problem is not Moses, for he retains the complete conviction throughout the tale that he is totally unsuited to provide such leadership. Nevertheless, he gradually earns the trust of his people and perhaps, more importantly, trust in himself. Jesus, on the other hand, has no doubts about his mission and his suitability – at least, before he is nailed to the cross.

As a precondition for his sermonizing, Jesus fasts. In the desert story, the Hebrews get manna from heaven. In the Jesus story, great crowds follow him and live off every drop of his words. Jesus “came down from the mountain” and was “followed by great multitudes.” Moses has yet to climb the mountain and he returns 40 days later alone with the tablets that dictate what thou shall NOT do. Moses is a stutterer. The people are already constituted but not yet formed as a people. They spend a great deal of effort resisting his words and what he teaches. In Matthew, as in Luke and the other gospels, Jesus offers the beatitudes. They describe the character of a people who live in heaven. They are blessed. The Hebrews, on the other hand, remain cursed with the elements of Mitzrayim they carried with them in their souls as the fled Egypt, primarily an attraction to idolatry. They eventually convince the brother of Moses, the priest Aaron, to build them a golden calf.

In Luke, the woes follow the beatitudes. If you do not accept Jesus as your leader and savoir, you will be cursed. The beatitudes precede those woes. For the Hebrews, the trip through the desert is emphasized, the woes from which we must unburden ourselves if we are to move forward. Clearly, Jesus may indeed have been a Hebrew, but he turned Hebraism on its head and inverted its central message. The initial and predominant message was not the character of the city on the hill, but a new set of ideals focused on love rather than hatred of all that Egypt stood for, a focus on humility rather than a discovery of how to have pride in oneself.  Do you focus on aspiring to become the highest ideals within yourself, to perfect your soul, which was the mission of most Greek philosophers, or is it to free your soul from the burdens of an unwelcome past that dragged you down, inhibited your development and made you nostalgic for the past?

Judaism is about compassion. Judaism is about concern for others. But it is NOT about loving your neighbour as yourself, but respecting your neighbour even though he is different from yourself. It is about treating the stranger well, welcoming him with hospitality, not making the stranger your intimate bosom buddy. Mercy guides your hand rather than the effort to relieve suffering, even if such devotion requires the ruthlessness of a surgeon to reset a bone that is displaced or the infusion of a vaccine to eliminate a virus that has invaded your flesh. Purity is a condition of rather than a result of treatment.

In the teachings of Jesus, disciples are “the salt of the earth.” In the experience in the wilderness, the constant quest is to find fresh water and not to be “washed in the blood of Christ.” The salt of the Reed Sea where the Egyptians drowned must be left behind, abandoned, lest nostalgia grip one’s soul. In the wilderness, a nation is forged with the ideal of becoming a light unto the nations, an exemplar for others. When one submits to the teachings of Jesus and is reborn in Christ, one is immediately transformed into a light unto the world. For that is who Jesus is according to the Gospel of John; he is a light unto the world. It would take a great amount of twisting and turning to describe a political leader like Moses in such a way.

For Jesus, the threat is eternal damnation, the fires of hell. For the Hebrews, the threat was slipping back into nostalgic longing for a greater leader who is to be treated like a god. The Hebrews always regarded Moses with a great deal of skepticism. The greatness of leadership was overcoming that self-doubt, and its corollary skepticism, to enable one to move forward, Anger and resentment are to be extirpated form the soul – unless there is an immediate cause. But the Hebrew soul is fed by remembering, by recalling both how they were mistreated and, even more importantly, how they were drawn to, how they were attracted to the Egyptian values that the plagues revealed to be without power and force. Baptism for Jews is going to a mikveh to cleanse the flesh of nostalgia. Baptism is not the transformational experience itself. One must be clean to go before God. Purification was not the product of being one with God, for that by definition is an impossibility.

Jesus rejects the eye for an eye practiced by God in dealing with the Pharaoh. Accountability goes to the heart of Judaism. Forgiveness, even for the pharaoh lies at the heart of the teachings of Jesus and is why he is regarded as an apostate and not just Paul and his teachings. You do not turn your other cheek in Judaism. You smack the other on the cheeks of their soul to wake them up from the magical thinking into which they have sunk, from the beliefs in illusions that the plagues were offered to make these forces impotent. For a Jew, materialism is not a superficial extravagance, but a precondition of a decent life. The acquisition of material goods is valued, not despised, but not to be worshipped, but simply as a precondition of well-being and an insurance against hard times.

There is nothing wrong with good works, nothing wrong with giving and even glorying in recognition for those good works and outstanding accomplishments. One does not have to ensure that they emerge from pure motives, for all motivation is mixed. But you must not be driven, like Pharaoh, by a desire to have control and power over the bodies of others, and, even more importantly, over their minds. Fascism is to be abhorred and critical intelligence encouraged, but criticism without malice or absolute cynicism.

In Judaism, one begins by judging others, in particular the Egyptians, and assert that this is not who we are. In Christianity as taught by Jesus and exemplified in different ways at different stages by his followers, you judge yourself before judging others. In Judaism, one must learn and be taught to judge others in order to judge oneself and ensure that you and you alone are, in the end, responsible for your actions. But that is a lesson learned for the display of who you should not be. And holding evil-doers responsible for their evil deeds is a precondition of learning, not a path to be avoided until one is first pure of heart. Instead of “Judge not that ye be not judged,” the dictum is that you must “Judge others so that one may judge oneself.”

That is why law courts are crucial. They are the scenes where one learns both the process of making judgements plus the content of the values to be revealed in such judgements. It is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he may become an exemplar of what Jews are not to be and whom they are not to follow. That is why four decades in the wilderness must follow four centuries of mental and physical slavery. It takes time for such a transformation. Process counts. Even the worst of us must be given a fair trial and initially be offered many opportunities to reform, not to be born again, but to show one can avoid bad habits and slip backwards into blind obedience rather than traveling a route that depends of questioning.

For aspirants, the city on the hill is a goal not an accomplishment. When John Winthrop, the Puritan author of “A Model of Christian Charity,” set out for Southampton Bay in what is now Massachusetts on the good ship Arbella, it was to found a community that would be “a city on a hill,” one on which the eyes of the world would gaze in admiration with a desire to emulate. That meant fulfilling their Covenant with God. That meant that the Puritans were already attempting to get back to the Jewish roots of their Christianity, to find a political solution constituted by a covenant, neither simple faith nor blind obedience to a sovereign on earth purportedly appointed by God. This was the birth of American exceptionalism, as an aspiration rather than an accomplishment. Not “Make America Great Again,” but “Make America Great.” That is your mission.

Barack Obama in a commencement address when he was still a U.S. Senator referred to the Puritans “dreaming of a City Upon a Hill.” It is why Amanda Gorman wrote and read her poem, “The Hill We Climb” as the highlight of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Written words barely capture the excitement and inspiration of the performance of this 22-year-old. It is a poem about coming together and healing not about divisions between those who have seen the light already versus those who have failed to do so. Harsh truths are not to be erased, but faced.

Like the Hebrews in the wilderness in Sinai that had to be forged into a united nation as a distinctive chapter in Jewish history, Amanda Gorman put forth the desire of America to open a new chapter in its history in the quest to become “A City on the Hill.” The second last plague that engulfed Mitzrayim was a plague of darkness, both external and the internal melancholy that is its complement. And the most horrific consequence if we were not able to emerge from that darkness and more towards the light – we consume our own. We sacrifice our first born, but to no avail, for we once again pursue a misguided effort to resurrect ourselves and head for self-destruction in pursuit of making others once again slaves rather than freeing ourselves.

And so Amanda began:

“When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast, we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”

The goal is not perfection, not a perfect union, but “a union with purpose,” a union that can serve humanity as both a witness and an exemplar. “And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect, we are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”

How? By facing our future rather than creating an imaginary nostalgic past. How? By recognizing the slavery and repression of others upon which that past was built. By recognizing the differences between each and every one of us, not as a wall along the Mexican border, not as a hardened division, but as a recognition and appreciation of diversity.

“So we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another, we seek harm to none and harmony for all.”

The Hebrews in the wilderness did not give up the values and attitudes of a repressed people easily. They longed for, they even grieved for what they had left behind and even thought of returning. But they were saved by growing into a nation, by using their pain to remember what they left behind and what must not be repeated.

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: that even as we grieved, we grew, even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we’ll forever be tied together victorious, not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”

Each of us has our own and unique path to follow at the same time as we work together to forge a common future. To do this, we have to overcome fear, fear of others, fear of ourselves. This is why we lived four decades in that desert.

“That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.”

“In this truth, in this faith, we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us, this is the era of just redemption we feared in its inception we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour but within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves, so while once we asked how can we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.

“We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised.”

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