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On the Road Again, to Freedom

Torah Talk on B’shalach 5779

Journeys are centrally important in Judaism. The act of leaving and heading out into the great unknown is crucial for us. At some level the proper theme song for Jews ought to be “On the Road Again.”

Repeatedly great Jewish leaders, or even the whole of our people, head out into the wilderness to seek God and make a new life somewhere else. It happened first with Abraham in the Torah portion of Lech Lecha; it happens two generations later with Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel as he becomes the founder of our people; and it happens again with Moses, who flees his country of birth in Egypt to find God in the Sinai desert, leaves there to go back to Egypt, and finally takes the whole people of Israel out of slavery in this week’s portion of B’shalach and puts them on the path of redemption and freedom. And it keeps happening throughout Jewish history. The idea of the wandering Jew has ideological relevance as well as pathos. Wandering seems to be something that we need to do, not just something we are forced to do.

In particular, Jewish religious tradition has a peculiar perspective on the events of the Exodus, which reach a climax in this week’s Torah portion of B’shalach. The great drama of Jewish history really begins with the Exodus from Egypt and escape from Pharaoh on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, and it’s logical that we focus on that. But in our prayers, practices, and traditions we raise up this liberation from slavery and journeying out into the Sinai Wilderness to the highest conceivable historical status, even beyond what seems to be appropriate.

It’s not just that we make Passover such a central holiday. The preeminent festival of freedom should be focally important. But we remind ourselves of the Exodus far more often than once a year. Every Friday night when we say Kiddush we declare that we observe the Sabbath “zecher l’tziat Mitzrayim,” in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt—which isn’t really true, since according to our own Torah the Shabbat goes back to God’s creation of the world, long before the Exodus. In every evening and morning service we chant Mi Chamocha, a direct quotation from this week’s Song of Moses in B’shalach, reminding ourselves yet again, thrice daily, that we were slaves and were freed to head out into the wilderness. We focus on this great narrative and its denouement in nearly obsessive ways. Why?

Perhaps because our central Jewish story is about transition, travel, hitting the road. It is the core narrative of Judaism. To paraphrase Descartes, “we left, therefore we are.” Our essential nature as a people was formed by this Exodus.

When we find ourselves in slavery, either physical, psychological, or moral, we must, as Jews, choose to leave. And seeing the way our ancestors did it, against all odds, in order to ultimately find a new life of ethical freedom and covenant with God, can inspire us today.

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