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This week, after the drama of the ten plagues, including the last, awful Plague of the First Born, the people of Israel finally leave Egypt and, escorted by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, come to the Red Sea, where they proceed to act in a totally pathetic manner: "And Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes and behold, Egypt was coming after them, and they were very afraid, and the children of Israel cried out to God. And they said to Moshe: 'What? There weren't any graves in Egypt, that's why you took us out to die in the desert? What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt? This is just what we said to you, in Egypt, when we told you to leave us alone and let us work for Egypt; for it would be better for us to serve Egypt than to die in the desert."
After this pathetic, but funny (I love the sarcasm of, 'What? there weren't any graves in Egypt?') outburst, Moshe quiets them down, God has a few things to say, and then the Sea is split and it all works out, until the next crisis. Of all the commentaries, it is Rabbi Abraham Ben Ezra (1089-c.1164), known as the Ibn Ezra, who has, I think, the most interesting things to say about this failure of nerve on the part of the Jewish people: "One has to wonder, how could such a large contingent of 600,000 men be afraid of those chasing after them? Why didn't they fight for their lives and the lives of their children? The answer is that the Egyptians were masters over Israel, and this generation, which had left Egypt, had learned, from their youth, to suffer the yoke of Egypt; its spirit was lowly, how could they now fight against their masters? The Israelites were weak, and not schooled in warfare... And only God, who does great things and who weighs all occurrences, arranged it so that all the males who left Egypt would [eventually] die [in the 40 years in the desert]- for they did not have the strength to fight the Canaanites - until a different generation arose, the generation of the desert, who did not experience the Exile, and they had a more exalted spirit..."
This remarkable Ibn Ezra describes what is now known as a 'slave mentality'. The Jews of the Exodus, in spite of experiencing the wonders of the ten plagues, were unable to rise above years of social conditioning. The experience of slavery and oppression left an apparently indelible mark on an entire generation, giving them the personality and identity of slaves, even when freed. God's solution to this problem was to kill them off during forty years of wandering in the desert, while waiting for a new and different kind of Jew to emerge from the experience of freedom in the wilderness, a kind of Jew who could stand up to the challenges of fighting the Canaanites for the Land of Israel.
What I would like to take a closer look at here is how the Ibn Ezra sees this process as an almost miraculous divine intervention. It is God himself who understands the basic inability of the Jewish people to rise above their essential identity as slaves and fight like free men, and therefore He arranges it so that this generation will sin - the sin of the spies later on in the book of Numbers - and be punished by not being allowed to enter Israel. Instead, they will wander around in the desert until they die, thus making way for the next generation, which does not have an ingrained identity as salves, to take charge and enter the Land. The Ibn Ezra sees this course of events as being arranged directly by divine intervention, by He who "does great things and weighs all occurrences".
My question is this: if it is God Himself arranging all this, God Himself who is aware of the Jewish people's slave mentality and all that it implies, then why does He choose such a roundabout way of solving the problem? God, the smiter of Egypt, the bringer of the ten plagues, the hardener of Pharaoh's heart, the splitter of the Red Sea, can't do a little something with the Jewish people's personalities? He has to wait forty years for them to get over the experience of exile and slavery? Why must He wait so long for their new identity, as free and proud Jews, to emerge; can't he just whip them into shape?
The Ibn Ezra's assumption is that the answer to these questions is a resounding 'no'. He can not do anything about the slave mentality of this generation. The best He can do is arrange things so as to get rid of these hopeless, pathetic wimps and allow for a new, free, independent generation to arise. This, I think, speaks volumes about the formation of, and the power of, identity and personality. God Himself is unable to undo the social and psychological effects of a lifetime of slavery in Egypt. God Himself is unable to ask Moshe to wave a magic wand and wipe away the damage done by a life lived under oppression and humiliation. God Himself is unable to miraculously create a brave, proud, and free people. He can kill the first born of Egypt, and split the Red Sea, but He cannot undo - or fast-forward - a lifetime of socialization. God must simply arrange for these guys to die out, and wait for time and a new social and cultural context to work its wonders on the next generation of Jews.
Although the differences between the Jews of my generation, who were just being bar-mitzvahed forty years ago, and today's young American Jews may not be as radical as the differences between the generation of the Exodus and the generation of the desert, they are, indeed, great. Living in a society and a culture, in a time and a place, creates who we are, as individuals and as a people. Just as the Jews of Egypt were defined - as Jews and as human beings - by their experience of slavery, and the next generation was defined by their experience of freedom and independence, so, too, I, along with my generation, was defined by the nascent State of Israel, the Eichmann trial, the Six Day War, JFK, Vietnam, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and today's young Jews have been shaped by 9/11, the Intifada, Tupac Shakur, cell phones, Matisyahu, Seinfeld, the pointlessness of post-modernism, and, l'havdil, Harry Potter. Although none of us can change our communal histories and experiences, we certainly need to be aware of them, so we can try as best as we can to work within them, and help the next generation do the same.
Rabbi Shimon Felix