Our tradition is to read our texts, in Hebrew, and to interpret them.
[Synopsis]Our Parsha today is b’shallach. Every Friday night, at Kiddush, we say: “Zecher leYitziyat mitzrayim” “in remembrance of our going out of Egypt”. And this is it! This is the founding myth of Jewish peoplehood. It is just after Exodus, the big event of Passover, and the Israelites are leaving Egypt. “Vayehi b’shallach Pharaoh et haAm, v‘lo nacham Elohim derech eretz Plishtim, key karov hu… Now when Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said [not to anyone in particular, God just said]: “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud…and by night in a pillar of fire…And God said: I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh shall pursue them, and I will get me honour through Pharaoh, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.So Pharaoh regretted his decision; and he took 600 hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt… and pursued them. And when the Children of Israel caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them, they were terrified. And they cried out, and said to Moses – with sarcasm: “Was it because of a lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? Better for us to have stayed in Egypt…”This is a leadership challenge, answered by Moses and God: Moses stretches out his hand, and God causes the sea to part, the Israelites pass through safely, and once they are on the other side, the sea comes together again, and the pursuing Egyptian chariots are drowned. Deliverance!Moses then sings a song, which he seems to compose on the spot, and is one of only two long poetic songs in the text of Torah, known as “The Song at the Sea”. Afterwards, Miriam, who is of course Moses’ older sister, but is described as “the sister of Aaron, a prophetess”, also sings a song, and the women dance with timbrels. The two songs, the long one by Moses, and the shorter musical one by Miriam with drums and dancing women, are both exultations of joy at victory and redemption, and are in the grand heroic mode. Then the Israelites get to the other side, and – grumbling! The water is bitter! (and such small portions!) Moses sweetens the water with a special tree. Then - More grumbling! There is no food to eat! The children of Israel long for the fleshpots of Egypt. So Moses supervises the institution of Manna from heaven to supply their needs every day, and on Friday, two portions – one for Shabbat. And then they are confronted by their enemy, Amalek. Moses directs Joshua to fight and defeat Amalek. And we end the portion with a directive: to blot out the remembrance of Amalek.
Lots of plot! Lots of causation! Wild swings of mood, from triumph at departing, to panic at the sea, to exultation at deliverance, to grumbling at the difficulties. Liberation, looming catastrophe, victory, thirst, hunger, war, remembrance.
Our tradition is to read our texts, and to interpret them.
Well, we read our text; the text was determined; it is precisely, exactly the same text of the Torah we read last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, decade after decade, century after century, for two thousand years. So we read our determined text; but what interpretation shall we make?
[Which route to go?]One lesson jumps out from the very first line, and concerns the principle of “the path not taken”. We could have gone the short route to Canaan, straight across the northern part of Sinai, confronted the Philistines; but instead, “lo nacham Elohim Derech” “God led them not by the way of the Philistines, key karov hu – although it was nearer? BECAUSE it was nearer? So we went via the Sea of Reeds, down toward the south part of Sinai, where we were confronted by Amalek. How ironic! In God’s attempt to avoid the confrontation with our enemy the Philistines, we were confronted with our enemy, Amalek. We see this principle in our own life.
We sometimes avoid one path through life, thinking that we will save ourselves from some confrontation, some challenge, some difficulty, and take an indirect route, which turns out to come with its own set of challenges and difficulties and confrontations.
But that southern route! It’s like the Robert Frost poem, of two paths diverging in the yellow wood, and the path taken has made all the difference. That southern route - led to a miraculous path through a parted sea, to full liberation from slavery to be our own free people; that southern route - led to Mount Sinai, and the Revelation there of this very text; that southern path turned out to be a central - THE central - narrative in our collective life.
[Interpretive Paths Not Taken]But there are not only paths not taken. There are interpretations not taken. There are so many paths we could take in interpreting this action-packed and important narrative. In today’s Dvar Torah we could focus on Miriam, on the role of women, the nature of prophesy, on the meaning of Manna, the sweetening of water, the question of political leadership. Or we could focus on the Song at the Sea, not only from the theological viewpoint it presents, or its strong theory of human creativity, but also its influence on Hebrew poetry from the psalms of David, to the piyutim of Yehuda Halevi in 12th century Spain, to the modern Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, all poetry in the same Hebrew language.
But those are all northern Sinai paths – interpretive paths we exercise our free will not to take.
Instead I wish to focus on meta-narrative issues – the nature of narrative itself: the relative value of honesty over appearances; the connection between memory and identity; the tension between historical truth and narrative truth; and the narrative connection between free will and determinism. And Rabbi Ed says I only have 10 minutes…
[How We Tell Our Story: Warts and All – Honesty over Prettiness]B'shallach is in the book of Exodus. And it continues the tradition of the book of Genesis, which has stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and which is unflinching in the description of their flaws. Bereshit shows Abraham nobly arguing with God and demanding justice for Sodom, but the next moment, he lies to king Abimelech, to save his own skin, risking the fidelity of his wife. Jacob, in conspiracy with his mother, deceives his own blind father Isaac through subterfuge and lies, to obtain the blessing. It is a noteworthy aspect of the Hebrew Torah that the heroes are shown, warts and all, with all their flaws and questionable behavior.
B'Shallach continues that principle in our tradition of how we tell our story. This time we expand our focus from a single dysfunctional family to the political history of “the people of Israel”. For the first time, we are a free people, liberated from slavery by miraculous acts of God, divine causation, and despite the fact that we have just been liberated from slavery, our first expressions are of panic and sarcasm. Our first line of speech as a free people is – sarcasm – was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die? And then even after another miracle of redemption, the parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of our pursuers, and after a rousing song celebrating God’s power and our deliverance, yet once on the other side, in the Sinai desert, we immediately begin grumbling about food and water. Once again, the principle of the narrative is not to prettify.
It seems to be the nature of Jewish people, and perhaps all people, and perhaps all individuals, to forget the miracle of human freedom, and to get discouraged, and to complain, and to focus on the immediate material problems.
[Applying Meta-Narrative to the Story of Our Own Life – a tradition of narrative]This is not only a lesson about how the Torah narrative portrays our collective history. When you read the Torah every week, as we do, its meta-narrative is a lesson about how one should see reality. The meta-narrative says: When we look at our history, when we look at our families, when we look at ourselves, we should see the story with warts and all. It is better to see reality for what it is, than to have an unrealistic idealized heroic version in which we were all brave and noble, when really, we panicked and grumbled.
In terms of visual art, we are not in favour of Socialist realism, with its heroic idealized vision; nor are we in favour of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with its beautiful idealized pictures. So what is the Jewish cultural rendition of realty? It is famously against images - and for words and texts, narratives and interpretations.
So our art is words - poetry, songs, narratives – less like Sistine chapel, more like Shakespeare.
Our tradition is to read our texts, and to interpret them.
But why are these narratives from the Bronze Age a source of meaning and relevance to us some 3,000 years later? This goes to the inextricable connection between memory & identity.
If you look back on your personal history, there are major events that are memorable and even central and this could include your marriage, the birth of your children, or perhaps the marriage of your children. But as memorable and important as those events are, as much as they may have a big effect in determining your “fate”, for most people, it is the early formative years, in which the memories seem to have the biggest effect in determining your identity. So too with Jewish history. Although the current course of Jewish history is being determined by more recent events, like the establishment of the State of Israel, our collective sense of identity was formed by remembered narratives that occur right at the very beginning of the Jewish people, when we left Egypt, when we stood at Sinai. These are primary, core elements of our collective memory, and the Torah’s rendition of the narratives in words, word for word, at least 2,400 years old, are amazing windows into this deep collective memory.
On one hand, we salute the honesty of the stories - warts and all. But what about historical truth?
There are those who say, as there is no independent historical proof the Exodus happened, as there is, say, of the French revolution, or the destruction of the Second Temple, these may be just stories with no claim to truth. In 1595 in England, Shakespeare wrote a play set in Verona called “Romeo and Juliet” about a pair of star-crossed lovers. It is one of the greatest love stories of all time – but it is fiction. Since then, there have been literally millions of actual lovers who spoke millions of actual words to each other. All these actual lovers, and all these actual words, are forgotten, but the fictitious legend of Romeo and Juliet, and the exact words of that play, word for word, inform our sense of romantic love to this day. In that sense, Romeo and Juliet are more real, and truer, than all the millions of actual lovers and the millions of actual words they said. Ah! Says the skeptic: And what about the question of authorship of the narrative? There is an old joke that says: the plays of Shakespeare weren’t even written by Shakespeare; they were written by some other guy - with the same name.
So our text is based on a 3000-year old narrative, a collective identity-forming memory that reflects a truth whatever its relation to actual fact. And indeed, other than the story in the Torah, there is no objective way to know what actually actually happened. But is that different from our experience of life? Even in our own personal life, there is no objective, factual, historical truth of our childhood; there are some photos, some letters, and memories and narratives, and it is these memories and narratives - and the interpretation we choose to give them - which determines our identity.
And therefore in our personal life, our challenge is to see our own past, warts and all, to closely read the text of our narratives, and to learn which path of interpretation we should take.
Even God himself cares about the narrative – he hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh shall pursue the Israelites, so that God will get honour through Pharaoh – and indeed, the Egyptian chariots drowning in the Red Sea, makes an unforgettable story! So in our tradition of texts and narratives, God is the great author. And indeed, he did get honour through Pharaoh, and the story of the exodus from Egypt is one of the most famous stories in the world.
Which bring us, finally, to a central tension in any narrative – destiny or free choice?
[Free Will vs. Determinism]The text says, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God”. That is the Biblical understanding of human nature – that the seat of the soul is in the heart - and the Biblical theory of causation - divine causation. Today we would say: “Pharaoh changed his mind, and pursued the Israelites with his chariots”. But it raises the perennial question in philosophy of free will vs. determinism, which has challenged thinkers, and in particular Jewish thinkers, for centuries. This question may have been made even more difficult in our own day by our current quickly advancing understanding of brain science, namely that all thoughts, feelings, understandings, and decisions are products of brain processes. And these brain processes are taking place in a physical brain made of matter, and matter is governed by laws – strict laws – immutable laws – of chemistry and physics. If brain processes are determined by chemistry and physics, from a scientific point of view, there is no room for a supernatural independent entity called the soul, and therefore, free will is impossible. So the old question we would ask at the Passover Seder: how could Pharaoh be said to exercise free will, if God hardened his heart? Can now be restated: how can Pharaoh be said to “change his mind”, to exercise his free will, if Pharaoh’s material brain processes, governed by immutable laws of chemistry and physics, determined the decision? And yet even those of us who understand intellectually that the soul and free will are impossible from a scientific point of view, subjectively experience life as having free will; we irrationally believe in free will, and indeed our entire legal, psychological and political systems are based on the belief – unproven belief, but a deep belief, really a religious belief - that human beings have free will.
Free will and the soul are like Romeo and Juliet, the fictitious lovers in a remembered narrative, alive and true even though we know they do not exist. And so we believe in free will, even if we know it does not exist.
Our tradition is to read our texts, and to interpret them.
And I believe in a deep and beautiful way, our Jewish tradition of reading our texts and interpreting them, offers us a model to resolve - somewhat - the tension of determinism and free will. The text of the Torah, the narrative, is fixed, and we read that identity-forming collective memory each year, word-for-word; that is determinism; but the interpretation, which path of interpretation we choose, is our exercise of free will.
And so I say to the young couple, as you set out across the magically parted Sea of Reeds, and as you head out on a long journey together through a wilderness towards a promised land; yes, the wilderness has the bitter waters of Marah, but it also has the revelation of Sinai. Your task is to build collective memories together; be honest in your assessment of the past, so you are not disappointed by the distance between idealized images and the warts-and-all reality of life; accept and read deeply those things which are determined; and use your belief in free will to interpret and choose good paths together.
Jan. 11, 2014 • Dvar Torah: b’Shallach • Choosing a path of interpretation