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Torah Commentary
B'shalach (February 4, 2012)

Hannah Goldstein, Rabbinic Intern

IN EXODUS 13:3, Moses said to the people of Israel, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand.” We retell the story each year during the Passover seder: The Israelites quickly gathered their belongings. They did not even have time for their bread to rise, and so today we eat unleavened bread as we recall their hasty departure. After two centuries, God brought the Israelites out of slavery. And each year, we continue to mark this critical moment in our Jewish story with songs and stories, celebrating as if we ourselves made the transition from slavery to freedom.

And yet, in the biblical narrative, those first moments of freedom were soon overshadowed as Pharaoh changed his mind yet again. Soon, Egyptian chariots pursued the fleeing Israelites.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 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?” (Exodus 14:10-11)

The commentators puzzled over this text. How can we explain the Israelites’ lack of gratitude? How can we understand their harsh condemnation of Moses? How can the newly liberated Israelites’ wish to return to slavery?

Medieval Spanish commentator Nahmanides wrote that the biblical text includes two responses to the approaching Egyptian chariots. There was a group of people who cried out to God, praying for God’s help as they stood vulnerably between the sea and the Egyptian soldiers. There was also a group of people who “denied [God’s] prophet and would not admit to having been saved.” One group cried out to God in prayer, and another cried out to Moses in complaint.

For the Israelites, redemption meant leaving the known. With change, comes discomfort. Even in the most difficult circumstances, it is hard to leave behind the routine and predictable. When confronted with an obstacle, a group of Israelites longed for what they knew, questioning Moses’ wisdom to lead them out of Egypt. But another group was more prepared. According to Nahmanides’ explanation, they were ready to confront the challenges that awaited them. They stood on the precipice of change and prayed for help and strength in the face of a new challenge. They had faith that the future would be better than their oppressive past.

When we remember our story of redemption, let us celebrate the courage to embrace change. Let us honor those who were willing to take a first step toward freedom, those with the faith to tread the path through the wilderness, and those who walked the road to the Promised Land.


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