Dvar Torah on Parshat Beshalach

Parashat Hashavua Beshalach 2017 / 5777 - Voters' Remorse: Too much to hope for?

09.02.2017 by

As the Trump fiasco goes on, with new outrages every day, I find myself constantly wondering: How did those people vote for this buffoon? Do they not now see what a mistake they have made? Do they really want this ignorant, bullying, petty, proto-fascist to be our president? Do they not at least feel some “voter’s remorse” over this pathetic, dangerous joke they have played on America and the world?

Well, the parsha tells us about a pair of interesting cases of “buyer’s remorse”, which might teach us something about bad choices.

Parshat Beshalach follows the Israelite nation as they take their first steps after leaving Egypt. We are also told about what the Egyptians were thinking and doing after freeing their Hebrew slaves. Both sides of this particular coin seem to share an interesting form of “slave owners’ and slaves’ remorse.”

First we are told that, realizing that the slaves they have freed have not simply gone into the desert to worship God for a few days, but seem to have left for good, the Egyptians regret what they have done: “And it was told to the King of Egypt that the nation had fled, and the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants turned against the nation, and they said: ‘What is this that we have done, for we have sent Israel out from serving us?’” Although they had excellent and compelling reasons for wanting the Israelites to go – the ten plagues, culminating in the horrible death of the first-born – the Egyptians question their decision of a few days ago, and regret losing their slaves. As a result, they saddle up, and chase after them to the Red Sea.

On the Israelite side there is a similar dynamic. Faced with the Red Sea on one side of them and Pharaoh’s advancing chariots on the other, the Israelites seem to panic: “And they said to Moshe: ‘Are there not enough graves in Egypt, that you had to take us out to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us, to take us out of Egypt?’” Using a phrase similar to the Egyptians’ – “what have we done/what have you done” – the Israelites clearly regret being freed, as they now face possible death at the hands of the Egyptians or drowning in the Sea.

Both sides in this story clearly regret, using much the same language, what they have done and what has happened to them, and seem to prefer a return to the status qou ante. The Egyptians want their slaves back, and the Israelites want to go back to being slaves. For both sides, this position will prove to be tragic: the Egyptians, in their pursuit of the Jewish nation, will drown in the Red Sea, and the Israelites will continue to yearn for the simple, relatively safe and secure life of slavery until, in the Book of Numbers, with  the sin of the spies, when they once again prefer a return to slavery over the prospect of fighting the Canaanites, God gets sick of it, and condemns them to die in the desert, allowing only the next generation to enter the Land of Israel.

What are we to make of these parallel tragedies? How are these complimentary cases of “buyer’s remorse” connected, and what do they have to say to us?

Well, first of all, they are both clearly wrong. The Egyptians really should have learned the lesson of the plagues and let the Israelites go (forget for a moment that slavery is wrong; that might be too much sensitivity to expect from this ancient story), while the Jews should have understood that being free is better than being enslaved, even if there are challenges; after all, God has their back. I think we also need to  notice the difference in the language, between the “what is this that we have done?” of the Egyptians and the “what is this that you have done to us?” of the Israelites to Moshe.

It would seem that the parallel language teaches us that these two motivations – for the Egyptians to keep their slaves and for the Israelites to remain slaves – are two sides of the same coin. The desire to enslave and the desire to be slaves feed off each other, need and compliment each other. The Egyptians, even after the ten plagues, see themselves as possessing agency. They are proud; they are responsible for their actions, and in charge of their fate. The freeing of their slaves is something they see themselves as having done, and not something which God has forced them to do, which would be a much truer assessment of what happened, and now they will undo it. 

The Israelites, on the other hand, have no agency, they have things done to them by others, and it is Moshe whom they blame for freeing them; they take no credit for, or ownership of, that great event.

Regretting the recent past, both nations revert to type, and refuse to learn the obvious lessons of the recent Exodus. The Egyptians see themselves as masters – that’s what they are, no matter what God just did to them - and want their slaves back. The Jews see themselves as slaves, no matter how wondrous the recent events of the exodus might have been, and they want the easy, child-like security of their slavery back as soon as they are faced with a difficult challenge.

These cases of remorse teach us that all too often people revert to type, even when life’s lessons should teach them to behave otherwise. The oppressive, arrogant, violent Egyptians could not learn the lesson God tried so mightily to teach them, and so they revert to being oppressors as soon as they see the chance. The Jews, handed freedom, can not break out of years of a slave mentality, and still see the world not as actors but as those who are acted upon, and, when push comes to shove,  they prefer it that way; they would rather be taken care of – even by vicious slave-owners – than take care of themselves. 

Donald Trump clearly sees himself as some sort of overpriveleged, never wrong, king of some cheesy little world, a world in which he can do whatever he pleases. Many (most? all?) of the people who voted for him have, by doing so, indicated some sort of desire to live in a world where a foul-mouthed bully can run things, and will thereby somehow make things better for them. They have voted to trust and be acted upon by an untrustworthy, selfish, greedy, would-be dictator. They have voted for anger – often a very safe and comfortable place to be –lies, hate and suspicion, for mean-spiritedness and simple, nasty answers to difficult questions. They have reverted to a type we know all too well from the history of the last century, and from most previous ones.

A while back, some people seemed to think that Trump, faced with the reality of being president, might change, abandon the personality type he has inhabited for decades, and shape up. Clearly, he is incapable of this; I fear there will be blood in the streets before he learns anything. The question now is: will those who supported and voted for him be able to see what is really happening, have the right kind of remorse - the opposite of that displayed in our parsha - and regret reverting to such a needy, passive, childish personality type, learn the lessons of history, and reject the mistake they made, as comfortable as that mistake apparently makes them feel.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Shimon

The Egyptians want their slaves back, and the Israelites want to go back to being slaves. For both sides, this position will prove to be tragic.Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Beshalach

בְּשַׁלַּח

In Beshalach, the Israelites are trapped between the oncoming Egyptians, who regret having freed them, and the Reed Sea. The sea splits, the Egyptians are drowned, and the nation begins its journey to the Promised Land of Israel.

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