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Parshat Beshalach begins with the nation of Israel out of Egypt, on its way to the Promised Land. However, God is not finished with the Egyptians. He “strengthens” Pharaoh’s heart, and he and his servants, perversely, chase after their recently-freed slaves, and end up at the bottom of the sea.
It might seem somewhat unbelievable, after the ten plagues, which culminated in the truly awful deaths of the first-born sons, that the people of Egypt would willingly go after the Israelites. And yet, although God does strengthen their resolve to make this dumb decision, the commentator Rashi, basing himself on the placement of the strengthening of Pharaoh’s heart after he had already assembled his forces (Exodus, 24; 5-8), points out that Pharaoh, all on his own, was already debating with himself whether or not to go after them; God only gave him the final push. How can this be? Have the Egyptians really not yet learned their lesson? What could drive them to such an obviously suicidal move?
The Torah gives us an insight into their thinking: “And the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants turned [as we said, this happened on its own, without God’s help] regarding the nation [of Israel] and they said: ‘What have we done? For we have sent Israel away from serving us’”. So that’s it. After ten plagues, the dead first-born, all the suffering, the Egyptians want their servants back. Rashi adds that they also wanted to get back the fancy clothing and vessels they gave/lent to the Jews, to use in their religious celebrations. (There is a lack of clarity about whether the Egyptians expected the Israelites to come back after their three-day holiday in the desert, which was the original request Moshe made of Pharaoh, or were gone for good. Either way, it’s hard to believe, after all they had been through, that the Egyptians would want them back, but that is exactly what they do want at this point.) So, this mad rush to extinction upon which Pharaoh has now embarked, after so many lessons in the futility of opposing God and His people, is all because of some creature comforts. It all boils down to material concerns; their servants, the good china, their best suits and dresses.
The Jewish tradition has a lot of respect for the עול פרנסה - the yoke and burden of making a living for yourself and your family. We understand that we all need to feed ourselves and our children, clothe them, shelter them, and pay the bills. Judaism does not, generally, ennoble poverty. Rather, it has a healthy respect for being economically responsible, for honest work and honest pay. However, the lesson we learn from the choice that Pharaoh and his soldiers made here is that there is another, less acceptable way to relate to material things. What Pharaoh and his people were concerned with was not simply earning a living, feeding themselves and their people, sustaining a healthy economy. Rather, it was about sustaining a sick one, based on oppression, theft, denial of basic human rights, and an insane greed, a greed that becomes life threatening, life destroying, both for its victims and, ultimately, for the greedy overlords themselves. Unlike the healthy sense of responsibility we should all have about putting food on the table, the economics of Egypt were about the attainment and display of unlimited wealth and power, an unchecked desire to rule, to take, to have, unfettered by any morality, any sense of fair play or responsibility towards the weak. In fact, it was a kind of cult of exploitation, an almost religious belief in the need to be strong, successful, and powerful by exploiting and oppressing the very weakest in society. Rooted in racist, xenophobic fears, the very identity of Egypt was based, to a large degree, on oppressing and exploiting the foreign, other, weaker, Jewish people.
This should not be that strange to us. The American South, even for many years after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, based its economy, and its social structure, on a ritualized oppression of blacks. Southern life has been, and still is, to some degree, warped by the importance placed on the white community’s dominance over the African American, and the stultifying and damaging effect it has had on growth and progress there.
But this is not limited to the American South. In a world where a shrinking number of people have an obscenely large and growing slice of the pie, and where, concomitantly, more and more people are located somewhere on the spectrum between struggling to make ends meet and starving, and where the excesses of the wealthy – and that definitely includes you and me – are destroying the planet, we need to wonder: how like the ancient Egyptians are we? Most of us in the west live more luxuriously than almost anyone has in human history, and the 1% lives more opulently and wastefully than all but the most outrageous, over-the-top emperors of the past. To keep this up, to serve this cult of comfort, wealth, and ease, we are burning fossil fuels at an insane rate, denuding our forests, despoiling the seas, poisoning the air, and causing, on a daily basis, the extinction of whole species. Like Pharaoh and his men, we are rushing headlong to ecological and social destruction, all in pursuit of the servants who make our sneakers, jeans, and i phones, (think about the working conditions in China, Pakistan, India, etc., and wage and opportunity inequality in general) and the desire to have the latest stuff (think about your newest, favorite gadget, those SUVs, the temperature we keep our homes at 24/7, etc.). If we scratch the surface of our outwardly polite, liberal, reasonable, everyday lives, and think about what sustains the level of opulence we enjoy, I think it becomes clear that we are not that different at all from the ultimately self-destructive cult of power and oppression in which the Egyptians lived, and which, even after the warning of the plagues, they could not bring themselves to live outside of. I don’t know about you, but I think I see the Red Sea in the distance.
Rabbi Shimon Felix