Cold, soaking, and on the brink of tears, a young mother spoke to a television journalist on the shores of a Greek island. Standing amongst discarded inflatable life-vests, she told him, “Sometimes I wish we’d never left Syria, or that we’d never left the camp, or that we’d stayed in that terrible place in Turkey. Every step is worse. There is no freedom for us”. Her journey away from the war zone that threatened her family’s lives had not yet, and she feared would never, brought them to the safe and free conclusion that they so yearned for.
This week, as images of those crossing the sea to freedom are present in our parashah as well as our newspapers, I am conscious that the crossing is only the start of a long journey. The elation that the Israelites felt on the shore of the sea as they called to God in song does not end their story, but rather begins a new chapter of wandering and one where they must learn to leave behind their identity as an enslaved people.
In this week’s parashah we learn that when the Israelites left Egypt, “God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near’’ (Exodus 13:17). There was a shorter and easier route, but according to the Italian commentator Seforno, “because this route was too close to Egypt, [it] afforded too easy a way to return to Egypt”. Rashi concurs, “They will have second thoughts about the fact that they left Egypt and will think about returning”.
Towards the end of the parashah, we hear that “Moses caused Israel” (Exodus 15:22) to set out from the sea and continue their journey away from Egypt. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that once the Israelites had reached the other side of the sea, they returned to the shores every morning to collect treasures that had belonged to the Egyptians and washed up on the beach. It concludes that the Israelites didn’t want to leave and it was only when Moses realised this that he forced them to depart. Freedom brings with it a whole new identity and set of challenges, and the behaviour of the Israelites in this Midrash suggests to me that they still didn’t see themselves as free.
I think that the decision to take the Israelites on a longer journey comes from an important insight- that it is one thing to become free, but it is quite another to stay that way. The longer route was a protective buffer against being able to return, it forced the Israelites to keep going even if they wanted to give up.
Those who are newly free are incredibly vulnerable. The Syrian woman beamed onto my, and so many other’s TV screens, successively exploited by traffickers, landlords and ultimately, circumstance is just one example of this.
In his book, Sick from Freedom, Jim Downs challenged the narrative that surrounded the ending of slavery in the USA. Whilst the predominant narrative is one of great joy and moral victory, the reality is that hundreds of thousands of freed slaves died in the aftermath of emancipation. The result of this is that some have made the argument that people were, in fact, better off before the emancipation; something which Downs challenges, explaining that the fault lay with a society that was unprepared to meet the challenge that freedom presented.
I don’t think it was just the longer journey that prevented the Israelites from returning to Egypt. Immediate sustenance in the form of Manna, time and community, receiving the law, and ultimately the promise of redemption, are all part of what prevented them from returning.
What made our, the Children of Israel’s, journey to freedom an ultimate success wasn’t just innate resilience; the system was in our favour. The Israelites were not exploited, and with God’s support behind them they were able to take charge of their own lives. Leaving slavery was indeed a redemptive moment for the Israelites, but I would argue that is only the case because it was a successful experience. It is one thing to become free, it is quite another to stay that way. Perhaps the imperative as we read this text is not just to feel a sense of solidarity as we once again are reminded of the narrative of our own sea crossing, but rather to look to the things that enabled us to stay free and consider how our actions might help facilitate that for others too.
Student rabbi Deborah Blausten
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.