The Children of Israel are free at last! Leaving the labour camps and ghettoes of Egypt behind them, they march triumphantly into the desert. It seems like they have the whole world at their feet as they advance to their destiny in the Promised Land.
From the sedra’s opening lines, it’s clear this will not be plain sailing. Rather than take the most direct route, they are told to journey through the desert to avoid conflict with the neighbouring Philistines which could result in their reconsidering their new-found freedom and taking a U-turn back to Egypt.
This apparent regret of their new-found freedom is repeated. Almost every time they encounter a challenge, whether being hemmed in at the Red Sea or running out of food, the refrain is the same: ‘Are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness… It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ (Shemot 14:11-12).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that last week’s sedra deals with the theoretical and ideal aspects of freedom; this week’s deals with the reality people faced. Put succinctly, freedom doesn’t come for free, it has to be earned. The Chasidic masters note the Torah mentions the exodus from Egypt 50 times, as if to tell us that attaining true freedom is gradual.
The Hebrew for the Egypt exodus, yetziat mitzrayim, means ‘the taking out of Egypt’. To be free, they need to be liberated from the slave mentality. As much as the Israelites need to leave Egypt, they need Egypt to leave them. That takes time.
Rabbi Jonny Roodyn is educational director of Jewish Futures Trust @rjroodyn