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Drash on Beshalach 2023

Rabbi Stanton Zamek

United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

Parashat Beshalach gives us the most glorious moment in the Exodus story— The Splitting of the Sea, celebrated in The Song of the Sea, the victory hymn sung by Moses and the Israelites as they march to freedom. But let’s focus on what happens just before this high point in the story. This moment is much less dramatic, but much more human, bearing its own profound truth. It is darkly funny too.

The Torah tells us:

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to Adonai.  And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?”

“There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” This premium sarcasm has reverberated through generations of Jewish jokes. It is the ur-kvetch from which all kvetches derive. It is funny and also it isn’t.

This episode highlights for us that the story of the Exodus is as much a story of the failure of nerve as it is of triumph. Again and again, the Israelites’ faith fails them. They believe that they do not have what it takes to complete this journey.

We see this lack of confidence even before the Israelites depart Egypt. The people cannot hear Moses’ message of liberation because of their “kotzer ruach”, their shortness of spirit. Ten miraculous divine interventions into the natural order have gotten them to the shore of the sea, but now they believe that there is no escape from this tight spot between the Egyptian horde and the waves. So they turn on Moses with a Biblical “told you so,” reminding him of words they never actually said about preferring Egyptian servitude to this uncertain liberation.

It would be easy to judge our ancestors for their weakness, but to do so is to judge ourselves.  The Torah is a mirror that shows us what we are and gives us insight into our own experience. This is why the Haggadah enjoins us to see ourselves as having been personally redeemed from Egypt. We are meant to understand that at any moment we can find ourselves in Mitzrayim, meaning not the Egypt of the Pharaohs, but our own place of narrowness of heart or mind that prevents us from being truly free.

The sense of insufficiency that keeps the Israelites spiritually bound to their Egyptian masters even when they are physically free ought to look familiar to us. This is Mitzrayim, a narrow place, a state of Egypt-mind, in which we can easily find ourselves, as individuals and communities.

There is a useful term for being trapped in an Egypt of seeming insufficiency— at such times we are part of a “culture of scarcity.”

Years ago, I read an insightful article on this subject by Rabbi T. Gershon Blackmore. He wrote that “[O]ne is facing a culture of scarcity whenever one encounters a pervasive belief that there is not enough [money, resources, membership, etc.] to do what one wishes one could do.” He did not dismiss the real difficulties our congregations face, but he also reminds us that “this culture forms around beliefs rather than around realities,” and he warns us that this distorted view of our own capabilities is dangerous as  “it by nature stifles creativity and creates reactive, rather than proactive, planning and thinking.”

I hope this does not sound familiar, but I know that it probably does. This is an Egypt we all at least visit from time to time.

It is so easy to fall into a culture of scarcity. Money is always an issue. Membership is always an issue. Volunteer power is always an issue. Every generation is faced with its own unique iteration of Mitzrayim. Certainly, the pandemic and its aftermath have felt like a long, long slog through Egypt.

The path through the sea is a deep appreciation of our strengths. We focus on what we have, rather than ruminate on what we lack. We have a compelling vision of Jewish life. Our chevre is sophisticated, skilled, resilient, and innovative. Most of all, we have a sense of mission to grow Progressive Judaism in all the places where we make our homes, not just for our own sake, but for the future of the Jewish people.

We cannot ignore the cautionary tale of the Israelites’ panic at the shore of the sea. The Egypt of the Culture of Scarcity is always close by. When things don’t go well, when we are frustrated or worried, the temptation to head back to Egypt is strong. But the Exodus story is both a mirror of what we are and an image of what we can be. Of course the story does not end with a tart barb about the graves of Egypt:

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which Adonai will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. Adonai will battle for you; you hold your peace!” Then Adonai said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

In our boardrooms and committee meetings we will talk and fret and perhaps wonder if this time our task is too great for us, but b’ezrat HaShem, in the end we will hold our peace and move forward.

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