Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
”Fog in Channel. Continent Cut Off!” This was one of the most famous headlines in British newspaper history, some say dating from the 1930’s, and it is, by many accounts, at least to some extent a true story. Rather than Britain, an island in the North Sea, being cut off, it was the European Mainland that could not be reached due to the poor weather conditions. Some versions state this was printed in 'The Times’ after some heavy storms, or after a communications cable was damaged…. or even that it is apocryphal – but nevertheless, true or not, it summarizes a basic truth about the way some people, at least, see the world.
It is all a matter of perspective. This happens to be the first Shabbat following the formal ending of an alliance, an association, a treaty between a Continent and an Island. The Island – or at least a part of it, or at least some of the voters – have decided that they would rather be, or remain, or return to being an Island, rather than being a part of a Continent. Time will tell whether they are proven correct, for the world has changed substantially since the last time this island proudly stood alone to defend itself against evil forces reaching out from this continental mainland. But many claim this is the historical mission, this is the foundational myth of ”the island race” which ”rules the waves” and once had an extensive Empire in other continents too, imposing civilisation and Protestant biblical values in America, in Asia, in Africa, in Australasia. Oh for the days when half of the world was ruled by the Colonial Office and the other half kept at bay, kept in its place by the Foreign Office! Europe was useful for providing the odd monarch when necessary – as was Scotland, come to that – but for the rest it was a matter of Hearts of Oak and Heads of Stone.
Or does History always repeat itself? Is there a difference between an understanding of History and a vague romantic nostalgia for ”the good old days”?
In this week’s sidra we read how the Israelites – some of them willingly, some of them reluctantly, hanging back, wishing to 'remain’ – were compelled to march through the Reed Sea and leave behind them the culture they knew, the food they knew, the status they knew. It had not been all wonderful, by any means – who would describe slavery and having your children murdered as something wonderful? – and yet the power of human resistance to change should never be underestimated. Months later, even years later some of them will still be grumbling to Moses that the Manna is tasteless compared to the great food they had ”at home”, with fish and garlic and onions; that they would rather be buried where their ancestors were, than anonymously in the desert sands…. They will grumble that they were not adequately consulted and they feel themselves victims of historical forces well beyond their control. As indeed they are. The 'Dor HaMidbar’, the Generation of the Desert, always get a bad press amongst the traditional Jewish commentators, for they are accused of not having sufficient faith in God to bring them not only out of Slavery but into their own Land. On the other hand, this God has kept them waiting in slavery for up to four hundred years, has permitted them to be beaten and humiliated and separated from their children, won’t tell them his Name, won’t appear to them directly, puts all sorts of demands upon them, demands that he alone should have a monopoly of their worship from now on, and more. How would You feel?
What is interesting in the Bible is always what is not there. At no point does God attempt to change the Egyptians, to reform them, to correct them in their evil ways. No, the aim of Moses’ mission is simply to get the Israelites ”out of there” as swiftly as possible – even though God sometimes uses tactics which actually delay this exodus, God ”hardens Pharaoh’s heart” so that he will no longer listen to arguments, not even from his closest advisers, whilst the Egyptian economy suffers one blow after another. God leads them along a route which is known to be blocked by a sea of water or marsh, rather than the shortest and most convenient route – God lets them panic at the thought of a 'No-Deal Massacre’ before then commanding Moses to raise his staff – and the rest is, if not History, at least Theology. The waters close behind them, the waters consume their pursuers, they are liberated, free to start a new phase of existence – if only they feel ready for it. Do they? No, they don’t. First there are urgent practical measures of self-defence, of water, of food to sort out, then much more besides. But there is no way back. There is stormy Water in the Channel; Egypt is cut off!
The Israelites feel first a wave of enormous relief which they express in joyous song, glorifying the sudden downfall and destruction of the Egyptian Army. ”They sank in the water like lead!” ”Their horses and chariots proved useless, only a hindrance!” ”Our God smote them all! Not one survived!” They sing this to each other, not to Moses, not to God, not to the author and not even to us, the readers or listeners. It is like an excited crowd all saying at once ”Did you see THAT!?” ”Wow!” This passage gives the sidra its other name, as 'Shabbat Shira’, the Shabbat on which the 'Song of the Sea’ is sung, Exodus Chapter 15 which is even laid out by scribes in the Sefer Torah like two sides of a sea with a column proceeding through the middle. It is a song of triumph, not one for pacifists to enjoy. It is a song of relief at deliverance and salvation. It is a song which marks the end of one phase of history while the other is yet to begin – though it will do so, imminently.
We have experienced other deliverances, when the camp gates were opened, when the oppressors fled or were defeated on the battlefield, when the ghetto walls were dismantled, but it is this one which defines so much of Judaism and Jewish thought. ”Never forget”, we are told, ”that we are the descendants of liberated slaves! Never forget what it was like before the Liberation! Recall each year at a special meal the excitement of that time, so that you feel as though yourself are there, now, in the present!” We are even presented with the Shabbat as a tangible reminder that we are now free to define our own calendars, to decide for ourselves when to work and when to pause, to rest!
Human nature being as it is, it was not long before the positive command ”Take a day off every week!” became overlaid with a whole row of negative commands ”And make sure that you do not do this, or this, or this, or especially THAT!” Human nature being what it is, it did not take long before Jews, too, were divided into those who felt ”Hey, we are free! Let us have a day off, have fun and relax!” and those who felt ”We must not annoy God, therefore I must take enormous care to avoid absolutely everything which is prohibited, obey every rule and sub-rule – and ensure that all my fellow Jews do the same!” Some always see the cup as half full, some as half empty.
Both the positive and the negative commands are of course part of the same system, of the halachah, of the Jewish laws – it is all a matter of perspective. Let us not forget that the command for you to observe Shabbat in Exodus chapter 20 is then expanded to include also your family members, your beasts of burden – and your slaves! How ironic. On the one hand, you are permitted to have ”manservants and maidservants”, ”avdecha ve’amat’cha” – on the other they, too, must be allowed to taste this sweet taste of freedom, for one day a week. Later on we will read that you are even allowed to have fellow Israelites under your command – though they should be allowed to return to their former status once they have paid off their debts and a certain period has elapsed; Unless they CHOOSE to remain slaves. It is all very confusing, isn’t it? Is Freedom something absolute or only relative, is it for all, or only for all who can afford it? Who are not afraid of it?
The Israelites sing their song. They are right to feel relieved. A long-drawn-out process filled with stress and unfulfilled promises and delays has at last come to a dramatic end. The Exitus. What will come next? Ah. It seems they haven’t thought that through, yet. Never mind. God is on their side, isn’t He? What could possibly go wrong now? The Promised Land is in sight, flowing with milk and honey…..