Historians and archaeologists have long claimed there is very little documentary or material evidence that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt by the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea. In fact, the only artifact from that era that mentions an encounter between Jews and Egyptians is the Egyptian Stele of Merneptah. Discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 in the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, the inscription declares that “Israel is laid waste,” which isn’t much of a victory cry for Jews. Fortuitously, we find no evidence whatsoever of Jewish Space Lasers parting the waters of the Red Sea, either.
We Jews tell our liberation story differently, with claims of the miraculous as well as good old fashioned grit, determination, and historical memory.
It is the patriarch Abraham, in Genesis, who first learns that his offspring will be “strangers in a land not theirs.” God further tells Abraham in a terrifying night vision that “they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” There is a terrifying reality to Jewish history wherein the ideas of exile and return repeat on our people, both at the level of the Biblical narrative as well as in the historical rendering of a post-Biblical period. Abraham learns of exile and slavery but hears God’s promise of redemption; the Hebrew prophets warn of the First Temple’s collapse and in 586 BCE, Jerusalem is destroyed by Babylonia, followed by a return to the land under the auspices of Cyrus the Great of Persia. A half century later, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, crushing a Jewish revolt and rendering powerless the Jewish system of sacrificing to our God. Brilliantly, as we know, the rabbis had created an adaptive system of Torah learning, Prayer, and Deeds of Loving Kindness which would become the new sustaining model for Jewish civilization over the course of a two thousand year exile. The end goal of the rabbinic project was the notion of the “coming of the messiah,” an idea as wrapped up in a hoped for miraculous intervention as the idea that only through our own actions, earned merit, would that hoped for redemption arrive. For instance, the Talmud wisely teaches, “If you are planting a tree by the side of the road and someone comes to tell you the messiah has arrived, first finish planting the tree; then, go greet the messiah.”
Or, as Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, a great Hasidic master once said, “Elijah the prophet does not come through the door, he comes through the heart and the mind.”
In other words, trust in what we know, do the work ourselves and in our community with others to change the world around us; do not rely exclusively on the miraculous. It’s a very useful bit of Jewish wisdom.
The tension between waiting for the miraculous and taking fate into our own hands was also at the center of the Zionist project. After two thousand years of suffering in exile, the young Jewish dreamers who founded the Zionist movement decided, in the words of the historian George L. Mosse, to foment a “revolution against the rabbis.” There would be no more waiting. If the Jewish return from exile were to happen, if redemption would come, it would be in our hands, not God’s. Elijah doesn’t come through the door; he comes through our hearts and minds.
The message cannot be more clear: if we want change, we must make it. Our faith tradition is rooted in God but its successful execution is in our hands. In other words, we were expelled from the Garden of Eden, the first exile, for a reason: to live in the world as agents of free will, charged in every single moment of our lives with the choice to do good or evil. Our fate truly does reside in our hands — and hearts and minds.
This poignant and challenging lesson is at the core of Parshat Be’shalach, where B’nai Yisrael flee Egypt after the 10th plague and escape through the parted waters of the Red Sea. While the Torah describes the miracle of deliverance being enacted through the agency of Moses raising his staff and splitting the sea, the Talmud says the waters did not part until one volunteer, Nachshon, elected to “wade in the water,” as it were. Only then, with our own will to be free, could the miraculous occur.
We have to choose life, goodness, freedom, justice, and love if we want to see their manifestations in the world.
Messages of both communal and personal responsibility tend not to be as alluring as the miraculously redemptive but they’re probably a safer bet. I would argue one of the issues that has gotten our own nation into a whole heap of trouble over the last generation has been a dangerous drifting away from a sense of shared interest and responsibility compounded by a withdrawal into the realm of utopian fantasy, whether it is the imminent messianism of the radical settler movement in Israel; the unhinged Rapture politics of the Christian Right; Islamic Jihadists; the violent, end-of-days apocalypticism of white supremacy; and yes, even MAGA, a movement of dog-whistling nativism that has transmogrified into an imminent threat to American democracy itself. Each are dangerous and violent examples of a descent into the abyss of extremism. Each is its own visceral scream into the darkness of a perceived lack of order, of a brokenness in the world; but none provide the answer or the succor or the sustenance we need.
Menachem Mendel of Kotsk also said, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart; and nothing straighter than a crooked ladder.” Our imperfections make us human. Our fragility is what we all share. The blinding fires of extremism elide the gorgeous, subtle flaws in each of us that make the human project beautiful in its array of shape, size, color, gender, belief, and ability. And what is more leveling than a global pandemic that threatens us all?
Will it be a miracle that will save us? Will we merit breathing an air wondrously suffused with a vaccine that will lead us to the promised land of perfect health? No. Of course not.
Getting through these troubled waters will require faith, love, patience, kindness and understanding. It will require a commonality of purpose. And most important, our redemption this time will require a bold humility, as the prophet Micah taught, “He has told you, O human, what is good, And what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk humbly with your God.”
Our nation is broken. Our world is broken. On one hand, this is a terrifying idea. But for us Jews, the world has always been broken — from the moment we were expelled from the Garden of Eden until this very day. We are the people who have testified for more than two thousand years that the proposition we are agreeing to is, as the philosopher Emanuel Levinas once said, “a Judaism for adults.” For no sooner did we earn our freedom from slavery then we were given Law, the Torah, to circumscribe our life. Freedom comes with a price and that price is the Law.
And in the hands of our sages in the first century, that law was summarized so succinctly as to silence us into warm embers of its truth. Said the sage Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; all the rest is commentary; go forth and learn.” And Rabbi Akiva said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” this is the greatest principle in our Torah.
Imagine a world if we all only followed those two ideas. Really. Do it. Who brings peace? Does it come from the heavens like a chariot of fire or is it the still, small voice of our own willingness to build the world in which all can be free?
As usual, the choice is ours.