Is your Past a Stumbling block?
Shevat 13 5780
Parashat Beshalach begins with the Pharaoh “sending” the Israelites out of Egypt, notice that this was not the Creator. For about 80-90 years, they had been slaves to their Egyptian masters, living under a very oppressive regime after the new Pharaoh had ascended the throne. This last generation, which had been born into slavery, possessed a slave mentality which would be very difficult to get rid of. How many people today live under this same repressed mindset? How many of us truly understand what this means? Being free means that we refuse to buy into the attitudes of our environment and instead remain open-minded. Being a slave can be very comfortable. Our masters do all the thinking for us and we don’t have to make any decisions. The ninth plague of thick darkness represents the spiritual darkness that can take over the soul and Israel would need to escape into the light.
When an elephant is a baby, their owners place a heavy chain on their ankle and attach it to a stake. No matter how hard they try, they cannot escape. After a length of time, they remove the chain and replace it with a cord, yet the elephant is already convinced that there is no escape, so even as an adult, it stops trying and remains captive for the rest of its lives. This was the state of the Israelites and it would take the next 40 years to free them from it.
How many of us, when we were growing up, were tied to mental chains that make us immobile today? Fear dominates us, paralyzing our lives. Without realizing it, we pass our slave mentality down from generation to generation. The Bore Olam wants to free us from our fears and give us hope. He doesn’t want us to be His slaves, in contrast with many religious teachings, rather He gave us the freedom to exercise our free will and take responsibility for our lives.
The Creator knew that the Israelites had this mentality. We might wonder why He didn’t perform some hocus pocus and change their way of thinking in one instant. He has the power. The Creator never does that; He wants us to do what we can do and leave the impossible to Him. The Creator changed their route to the Promised Land so that they wouldn’t have to fight the Philistines because He knew that they could not yet deal with war.
These events didn’t happen overnight. The Egyptians, including Pharaoh, would have taken 30 days to mourn their dead; then once they realized that they had to do the massive clean-up job without their slaves, Pharaoh once again changed his mind. He sent 600 of his best chariots manned by three soldiers each, to go after the Israelites to bring them back, dead or alive. In contrast, the Israelites had 600,000 armed men but they were scared to death because they were paralyzed by their slave mentality.
The people of Israel would continue to complain, first about being trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, followed by the incident of the bitter waters, then having no food and once again by thirst. What is the Torah telling us for today? The Creator gives us the opportunity to grow, taking into account our level of maturity. He won’t demand more than we can handle. The more is given; the more is required. They would have to slowly learn to exercise their free will. This takes time.
It is important to understand that there are no perfect or ideal people. The Israelites were neither saints nor strong believers, much like the people of Israel today; however, they like us had a calling and a destiny to fulfill. There were also people who left Egypt with the Israelites – the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who were not Israelites, but they had the same calling. Some might even have been stronger and more dedicated as we see in the life of Caleb, son of Yefunneh, the Kenezite (a gentile). The only two who entered the Promised Land, (from the yetziah or exit from Egypt), were Joshua from the tribe of Benjamin and Caleb from the tribe of Judah. This shows us that being faithful has nothing to do with race but about calling. The Creator calls each of us to do what is right but it is up to us to respond to Him. This can be frightening. Moshe himself did not want to accept his calling. We may ask ourselves the same thing as he did– why me? There are times we will be afraid due to our so-called limitations, but we need to rise above our fears and walk forward. We might not have had a good upbringing but now that we are mature adults, we can’t allow the past to stunt our growth.
That is the reason that the Creator had so much patience with that first generation, slowly weaning them from the idolatry that had taken hold of their lives. He allowed the people to do what they could along the way and only intervened when the situation was impossible for them. Are you convinced that there are things you cannot do? The Creator is showing you not to give up but keep trying time and again until you finally succeed. He opened the Red Sea, but we needed to cross it. Stop allowing the past to hold you back, proceed one day at a time and with the Creator’s help and the encouragement of your friends, you can flourish. Within community, we are each precious and important in the sight of the Creator, holding each other up through bad times and rejoicing together through the good times.