Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 3, 2024 / 25 Nisan 5784

Summary: This Oasis Song is adapted from one of my Pesach sermons and contends with the very complex set of thoughts and feelings that Jews have been experiencing since October 7th. Put simply, we have been confronted with the incredibly high price that freedom can demand and are evaluating for ourselves our willingness to pay that price, just as our ancestors also wondered.

Reading Time: Four minutes

In rabbinical school, the phrase “I’ll see you on the other side,” spoken as Passover approached, was more than a temporal marker: it was a ritual re-enactment. It suggested that, like the Israelites at the Red Sea, we, too, were navigating passages of profound transformation. This sentiment echoes through this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Beshallach, where the recently freed Israelites face an existential crisis, pinned between the sea and Pharaoh’s advancing army. Their very freedom, only just won, stands in jeopardy. For those of us who grew up in America, far removed from these events, a large gap of understanding separates us from the experience of our ancestors.

In Exodus 14:10-12, the Israelites’ terror and despair bleed through their accusatory words 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?” This scene is a poignant illustration of the human psyche under siege, when the known horrors of past oppression seem less daunting than the murky terrors of newfound freedom.

There have been years when it was quite difficult to grok where the Jews were at, to understand in our kishkes the emotional valence of this moment to the new nation. This year, we have a better chance to place ourselves in their shoes, yet even so, a gap remains. Can we ever understand our ancestors’ experience at this moment? It is not easy to grasp, so the mind seeks understanding elsewhere.

Parallel to this ancient narrative is the modern story depicted in Maid. The Netflix series maps the journey of Alex, who escapes an abusive partner only to confront the societal and logistical mazes that often ensnare individuals on the margins. Her oscillation between freedom and captivity mirrors the Israelites’ vacillations. Each return to her “Egypt” painfully underscores the gravitational pull of familiar suffering when weighed against the terrifying vastness of freedom.

The series, based on the real-life experiences of its author, Stephanie Land, confronts its viewers with the travails of women trying to break free from abusive relationships. Part of the story occurs in a women’s shelter, where inevitably some of these women who had bravely escaped their bondage find themselves slipping back into their destructive relationships. Each time, a part of me would cry out to these deeply damaged women, “Don’t do it, don’t go back! Please.” But go back they did. Back to their Egypt. As a viewer, the heartbreak of these moments was total, even as they were to be expected.

We know intellectually why they returned because the process is well-documented. Emotional attachment and economic dependence. Fear of retaliation. A misguided hope that this time, finally, their abusive partner will change. The power of isolation, which forces them back into the arms of anyone. It can even be the social pressure of familial expectations and the shame of social stigma. Leaving for good is difficult, and we ought to have tremendous compassion for that fact.

Many women who escape suffer setbacks because of these powerful forces, returning to their personal Egypt. If we had a more fortunate upbringing, perhaps we have compassion for them, but our privilege makes it very difficult to experience emotionally what they have as the remove between our backgrounds is so vast.

Yet the Torah and God do understand. In the very beginning of Parshat Beshallach, 13:7-8, we read:

“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’

So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt” (The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006).

Two essential details here: the violence and devastation of war would be too much for the newly freed Israelites to bear so that they would gladly return to Egypt; like one of those women in Maid, they would imagine that this time Pharaoh would be different. This time the non-Jewish world would treat them better.

The second detail is also essential to take note of: the Israelites were armed. They had the means to resist, to fight back against those who would steal their freedom yet again; even so, God had to take them via an indirect route so that they wouldn’t see war.

Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, explicitly notes that “when they would hear that the Egyptians were mobilizing for war preparatory to chasing after the Israelites, the latter would no doubt return to Egypt out of fear of being killed. This is why G’d decided to lead them on a route not frequented by travelers at all” (trans. by Eliyahu Munk).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expanded on the psychological stakes of this moment. He once wrote that “To go suddenly from slavery to fighting battles for the possession of the land of Canaan was demanding too much too soon from the Israelites. They needed the experience of hardship in the desert to give them courage. The conquering of Canaan needed a new generation, born in freedom.”

The American Jewish community finds us at our Red Sea moment. Birotam milchama. We are witnessing war, seeing the costs of this war in Gaza. It is splitting us apart more deeply than kriat Yam Suf, than the rending of the Red Sea itself.

As protests against Israel spread on college campuses, some segment of a generation of young Jews sees the devastation of Gaza and places their loyalties with the Palestinian cause at the expense of any compassion for Israelis. An older generation of American Jews, meanwhile, who remember the fragility of Israel and indeed the fragility of freedom, stand in a very different place of understanding. The cultural contexts of this generational divide are as stark as my experience watching Maid and far more painful.

Since I guess I am now more a part of that older generation, it would be easy enough to use this mythic crossing of the Red Sea to state that the college campus protests are full of the abused, those who have seen war and wish to return to Egypt, who believe Jews can be safe without power, something that has never been true in all of our history for more than a few short years, and who see the modern day IDF as Pharaoh’s army, rather than the Jews who left Egypt armed. It would be easy enough to argue that the Jews who stand with Hamas are suffering from a peculiar inversion of Stockholm syndrome. Indeed, it would be polemically powerful to end this thought piece in such a place. After all, I could marshal a hundred arguments for why that is the case.

But here’s the thing. The Torah is eternal; when we take that seriously, we have to contend with the fact that everyone of us is at the sea together and that God doesn’t think anyone of us is ready to see war. This war has undone us all. We all need to take the long road to freedom.

Erica Brown, in her important work, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers, has this to add:

“‘So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness’ (Ex. 13:17–18). In the wilderness, the Israelites would suffer disorientation and would, therefore, not be able to find their way back to Egypt even if they were to change their minds in fear. Remorse and regret have no place to lodge because the wilderness constrains its inhabitants, punishing them with its sameness, blinding them to exit routes and clarity” (Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 8).

Blinding them to exit routes and clarity.

On the 210th day of the war in Gaza, I am unsure that anyone can see a genuine exit route with any clarity. Can Hamas be truly eliminated? Can the ideological concepts of Hamas, that are shared by Islamic Jihad and countless other militant groups in Gaza, be wiped out? How many of the hostages can actually be freed?

Meanwhile, if I were Palestinian, would I accept a nation-state that is not permitted to arm itself, as Israel has demanded, when all I can see is decades of degradation at the hands of my enemy, an eternally recurring Nakba (the “catastrophe” as Palestinians termed 1948)? If I were an Israeli, how could I ever allow the establishment of an armed Palestinian state in Gaza, given their stated goals to repeat October 7th again and again, given the trenchant history of Palestinian rejectionism that stretches back over eighty years?

Some of the best political minds over the last seventy years have labored to produce an exit route that would lead both Palestinians and Israelis to a durable peace. For a long time, the Arab world thought the solution would be to attack Israel en masse—that still seems to be Hamas’s solution—except this approach has been no more successful than the peace agreements.

Our moment is like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where we rush to the exits, fling open the door, and find ourselves face to face with a brick wall.

The Torah reading on the 7th day of Pesach is the equivalent, in other words, to the dilemma of Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down. More than a metaphor for human existence, the 7th day of Pesach reminds us how human life is marked by the persistence of struggle. If that is the case, what are we to do? Where is our freedom?

Albert Camus, in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” famously suggests that one must imagine Sisyphus happy as he embraces the absurdity of his situation without hope for relief, finding meaning in the struggle itself. Given that Israelis score much better on the Global Happiness Index than Americans do, there may be something here.

Other existentialists, such as Sartre, believe that our only exit is our actions and choices, even if they don’t lead us to our desired outcome. When I view the college protesters in this way, it is easier to extend them compassion. Faced with the inextricable nature of human suffering, their need to act is an existentialist cry whose goal is the howl itself.

Finally, the stoic approach to our Sisyphean moment at the shore of the sea would advise us to accept our fate and focus on our attitudes and behaviors since we can learn to control those, whereas no one on the planet knows the outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Passover, in other words, feels different this year. More painful. More difficult, yet also more honest. The ritual re-enactment is complete, while our understanding of freedom is woven with its adult complexities. This year, we all want to go back to Egypt. This year, I hope we also know that the only real path is forward, into a future shorn of our illusions, but glimmering with the truth of freedom’s costs. If that is so, then Dayeinu.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

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