Is Our Only Hope Via a Strong Arm Policy? (Exodus 13:17-14:31)
The Pharoah finally let the Israelites leave, and there was a short way to Israel and a long way. The short way was through the land of the Philistines (Pelesht), an area currently known as Gaza. The long way was through Sinai and into Israel via the Jordan River. This verse states that God did not want them to go the short way because at the first sign of difficulties (wars going on in Pelesht), they would likely put their tails between their legs, so to speak, and race back to the “safety” of Egypt, an easy thing to do if they go the short route. So instead they pass through the Red Sea and Pharoah and his soldiers all drown when the waters fall back into place after the safe passage of the Israelites.
The killing of the Egyptians and the legitimacy of that killing — the “strong arm of the Lord” — on behalf of the Israelites is what aroused my attention. With the ongoing political debates concerning the legitimacy of Israel and our supposed stealing of so-called Palestinian lands, these ideas feel particular pertinent to me at this time.
Let us look at the story context: Moses asked Pharoah to set the Israelites free. He waffled and refused, agreeing after one plague and then zigzagging back to refusal, on and on, until the final, most horrendous plague, that of the killing of all firstborn human and animal sons. Pharoah gave the Israelites valuables and told them to go. He thought they would come back a few days later due to the hardships they would suffer outside of his realm. Had Moses had less leverage over them, Pharoah would probably have been right.
When the Israelites did not return, Pharoah set out to bring them back by force. All this time, Moses was struggling with the newly released slaves who were afraid of their uncertain future, sure they were going to die, missing the security of the predictable daily life they had just left, hard as it was.
This story reflects my concerns for Israel today in two very different ways.
Firstly: The story of the exodus shows us that we are in a trap with no clear way out: diplomacy did not work in ancient Egypt and only death and destruction made the Egyptians of the Bible give in to Israelite demands for freedom. And even that did not convince them to just let go and let us live our lives: as soon as the dust had settled, they tried to round us up and get us back as slaves. That seems to imply that peace agreements with the Arab countries, so hard to attain in the first place, do not give us security within our borders, since the Arab countries may change their minds and want all the land back under Arab control.
Secondly: We are not so sure we can stomach what it takes to maintain our national independence. The exodus story has us fighting Moses in the impulse to give up freedom and return to a quieter predictable life in slavery and the inability to sustain a belief in God given the centuries of living under the influence of the Egyptian cultural beliefs. Today, the Israeli left wants to give up the West Bank and Gaza, give up dominion over parts of Jerusalem, give up the Golan, all in the anticipation that this will bring security and peace. Netanyahu and his supporters are trying to convince the nation that only a strong arm policy will get us secure borders. And, of course, we are struggling to define the place of religious observance within the modern State of Israel.
Therefore, on the one hand, we have the Arab countries who do not accept our existence as an independent national entity and, on the other hand, we have two opposing political blocks, one that believes that if we “play nice” we will have peace and the other that believes that only strong will and force will lead the Arab countries to finally begrudgingly accept our presence among them.
And this is all topped off with a Bible full of reverences to a vengeful God who kills people and animals on our behalf.
I’m sorry, but that is not a God I want as my God. I want a God that promotes peace and understanding and not conquest by murder. I value my identity as a Jew and as an Israeli and I long for the day when my neighbours accept me as I am. I wish we could find a way to be assertive and stand up for our own rights without extremists on one side feeling that we need to trample the rights of others in order to stay on top and extremists on the other side feeling that giving in to all the Arab’s demands is the way to go. The Torah just doesn’t seem to offer a third option. It’s either slavery or freedom-by-murder.
Maybe we need the messiah to resolve all of this, but I have heard that the messiah will come only after much of humanity has wiped out much of the rest of humanity.
I am so disappointed that the Torah portion I found this week only highlighted my distress. Anyone have any other interpretations of this portion?