Beshalach: The First Taste of Freedom

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 4 months ago

      Born in the 1920s, Irina Zhivova followed her children to the US from the Soviet Union aged in her 60s or 70s, and found herself lonely, in a world to which she felt she could not adjust. Of the little (and completely unpublished) writing that she did in her last years of life, much is about not fitting in in the West, nor in the 21st century, and dreams “in which I see again what can never be repeated anywhere; in which my only home lives.” She herself marvels at finding a free and prosperous world that she could once hardly have imagined—and yet feeling this way; and to the friendly strangers (practically an oxymoron in the USSR) that surround her, she writes “If only I had the vocabulary, I would explain to you more simply how sweet that bitter life is; but I am afraid that you could never understand me.”

      The Torah does understand. After the crossing of the sea in this week’s parashah, the Jews sing in joy and awe, and the women emerge with musical instruments to sing and dance. But the high quickly wears off. Moshe drives the people away from the sea[1] and a vast desert opens before them, where, in the following three days, they find no water. When they finally do find some, it is bitter and they cannot drink it.

      Escaping our enslavers and witnessing their destruction can be exhilarating, but then what? As the Torah tells us, and as Zhivova discovers for herself, the first taste of freedom can be bitter. The people, accustomed to being slaves, do not seek for themselves how to solve this problem; they complain to Moshe, asking “what will we drink?” Slaves are used to having masters who address their problems for them and then tell them what to do; they do not know what to do with freedom. Freedom is lonely, cold and bitter.

      God helps Moshe solve this problem for the people[2] (and informs him that if they follow His laws, He will not send the ills of Egypt upon them[3]—a bit of a sinister note to us today, given what we have explored before). And then the Jews keep moving, sometimes through more pleasant experiences[4], only to start complaining again, saying “If only we had died in Egypt, sitting at pots with meat and eating our fill of bread[5].”

      A slave mentality does not simply dissipate; freedom is more difficult to live with. “What bird is this,” writes Zhivova, “screaming outside my window like a broken, rusty saw…? Maybe it, too, like me, in this too-free captivity, has come to miss its cage, but cannot return home.”

      Where we live is freedom to Zhivova, who lived her life in much more of a slave society; but as we have explored in many other posts, our freedom, too, is incomplete. Even in the United States, people are not treated fully like people; the world still has not had a society where humanity can achieve its full potential, and we here today can feel just as uncomfortable as those from classic slave societies about acquiring more freedom and independence. Perhaps more alarmingly, there is a significant movement within our society of people who want their freedom further curtailed.

      Under the merciless hand of capitalism, the reasoning goes, life is a constant struggle. Unless one continues paying rent, one loses the roof over his head; unless one continues buying (and thus paying for) food, one starves; unless one continues paying for each instance of medical care, one does not receive it. Perhaps the exponents of this line of thought believe that before capitalism, one could relax, do nothing, and dependably and comfortably eat, sleep and receive medical care.

      We will watch, in the desert, how the Jews remember Egypt ever more fancifully, and long for their comfortable life there. Slavery is enticing when we are not experiencing it; and when we are used to it but suddenly outwardly freed, it is more difficult than ever to shake off its internal bonds.

      Slavery forces us to misplace our trust: slave societies give us people to depend on (in modern societies, generally in the form of a government), and the dependence is enforced. However, Tehillim tells us otherwise: אל תבטחו בנדיבים בבן אדם שאין לו תשועה—“Do not put your trust in princes; in men, in whom there is no help[6].” It is by trusting in God rather than man that we can overcome slavery and be comfortable with freedom, but that is more easily said than done.

      At the end of Uva L’Tzion, we say ויבטחו בך יודעי שמך כי לא עזבת דרשיך ה—“Those who know Your name will trust in You, because You have not left those who seek You, God.[7]” In the desert, the Jews begin to learn that they can get along fine “on their own,” if they seek God; that He will not leave them. But achieving this trust is a long and difficult process, and it becomes clear that sufficient change will only come with a generational turnover.

      Irina Zhivova came from a place where religion was banned, and it could be a risk to one’s life to learn a few Hebrew words or attend a Jewish event. Practically speaking, she had no access to the idea of trust in God; after her government-mandated education, the thought would likely have sounded superstitious to her. Perhaps if she had had more contact with that mindset, her transition to American life would have been easier. Alas, as with the Jews in the desert, it was to take at least one shift in generations. Although many, including Zhivova, made admirable efforts with partial success, none of the nonreligious immigrants of that generation, to our knowledge, were fully able to integrate into American life. In a poem, Zhivova asks where her home is, but instead of finding a place, she concludes that it is somewhere between 1939 and 1942.

      We, too, are often comfortable where we are. We, too, can have significant trouble even imagining a freer world than what we have; when we hear about it, we often reject it outright. A freer society than ours could not possibly work, we say—people cannot be trusted to take care of themselves and make their own choices; and, without being forced, will not be generous and will not provide social safety nets, we often think.

      Trusting in God—that He made us such that we can follow His laws voluntarily; that His law, given freely, will work better than human laws coercively enforced; that He will provide for us more dependably than politicians—is extraordinarily challenging, but phenomenally rewarding. When we are afraid to adjust to greater freedom and independence, let us take heart when we say Uva L’Tzion.

      [1] Shmot 15:22; the only place where this expression is used for how the Jews move locations. The midrash says they were driven like sheep—very appropriate in their slave mentality. Another midrash says that they had to be dragged away from collecting Egyptian valuables that were washing up on the shore; it is natural to want to extract all the positive and take it with oneself, but focusing on that to the point of preventing progress is very dangerous.
      [2] ibid. v. 25, in which God shows Moshe a tree to throw into the water to make it sweet; by one interpretation, adding a bit of the Garden of Eden to one’s freedom makes it sweet
      [3] v .26
      [4] v. 27, where they discover 12 springs and 70 palms (according to one interpretation, symbolizing the tribes of Israel “watering” the nations of the world)
      [5] 16:2-3
      [6] Tehillim 146:3
      [7] Tehillim 9:11

    • Michal 4 months ago

      I suppose I now have to ask myself,

      Q: In what areas do have I allowed myself to feel so comfortable , that are not true choices of freedom?

      I think it is not a coincidence that Moshe Rabeinu introduces Shabbos to Klal Yisroel by  “Mara” when Klal Yisroel was confronting themselves when they were met with bitter waters.    The essence of Shabbos is true freedom, as it contains all the elements of “bitachon”, Emunah, living a life of Olam Habbah, not restricted by a physical world when attaching to Hashem.

      So I might suggest that we use Shabbos our barometer for freedom.  For example,  I can ask myself:

      Q: Was my response with a “Shabbos Voice”?  ( A concept taught to me by Harav Simcha Weinberg, n”y)

      Q: Did I handle business knowing that the Source of Brachah is Shabbos?

      Q:  Did I treat  others with Kavod as we are taught to do on Shabbos?

      Etc…

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