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The Sign of Courage

As we read the story of the Exodus in the course of the annual cycle of Torah lessons and again in the spring during our Passover Seder, we hear very clearly Moses' challenge to Pharaoh - "Let my people go!" We focus our attention on the clash between God and Pharaoh. We imagine Moses going time and time again to the hard-hearted Pharaoh and pleading with him to release our Israelite ancestors before God sends a plague even more dreadful than the one before. Then we hear Pharaoh's firm refusal - "No, I will not let them go!" and we wait with fear and anticipation for the next horror that God will cast upon Egypt. The pattern repeats ten times until every Egyptian family has lost a loved one and Pharaoh finally relents and lets the Israelites go free.

As violent and dramatic as the stories of the plagues may be, God's and Moses' conflict with Pharaoh to achieve the physical liberation of our people is far easier than their struggle with our ancestors to free themselves from the spiritual and psychological shackles of slavery. Being released from slavery and learning to live as free men and women are two different matters. The former is the focus of the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus. The latter is the major narrative theme of the rest of the Torah as we watch our ancestors grow from a generation of freed slaves born into Egyptian bondage to a generation of free men and woman born in the boundless wilderness.

During the difficult and tumultuous forty years our people spent in the wilderness, the nostalgic memories of their simpler, decisionless life as slaves presented a constant temptation. In light of the real, pressing challenges our people faced daily in the desert, it was easy to forget the oppression of slavery and remember the security slavery provided - a hard but predicable life in which the bare necessities had been furnished. Often in the forty years following the Exodus, when confronted with the hardships of desert life, our ancestors looked longingly back to Egypt.

In addition, it is understandable that after being accustomed to the security of slave life, newly freed slaves might find the risks of freedom unnerving. This concern predominates the beginning of next week's portion, Beshalach. There God directs Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt by a round-about route because of God's concern that on the direct route out of Egypt, our ancestors might be confronted by Egyptian military forces and lose heart.

This is not to say that our ancestors lacked courage. They were exceedingly brave, but it is hard to be free. God could break Pharaoh's hold over them but only they could transform themselves into a free nation as they came to understand that the struggle for true freedom is a life-long exercise. First, however, they had to take the courageous and fateful step and separate themselves from their oppressors. This week's Torah portion, Bo, tells us of their daring declaration of freedom.

During the first nine plagues, God spared our ancestors from the plagues worst effects, but Pharaoh, apparently unimpressed by both the plagues and God's protection of the Israelites from them, still refused to let them go. The Israelites remained under Pharaoh's control and were vulnerable to the anger of the Egyptians who had suffered so much to keep them enslaved. Then, they received new instructions from Moses, the man who, nine times before, had failed to convince Pharaoh to let them go despite all the signs and wonders. Moses announced that God instructed them to take a lamb and slaughter it for the Pesach offering and then paint the lintel and doorposts of their homes with the lamb's blood.

What an audacious request! Moses asked them in the land of oppression, among people who despised them, to stand up, and declare themselves to be Jews. They had to separate themselves from the Egyptians, a people who had the will and the means to destroy them, by marking their homes before the tenth and, hopefully, final blow.

What is surprising is that our ancestors did exactly as God had commanded Moses and Aaron. When called upon to declare themselves free, they did so and, in doing so, they were liberating themselves. No matter what would happen that fateful night, they were already free. They were no longer responding to the demands of Pharaoh and his taskmasters. They now had a new sovereign. They answered to the call of our God. They had taken their first step towards freedom.

It took a long while for them to realize the full significance of their courageous act. As a people, they would have to travel a long and difficult road to life and freedom in a new land. None of those brave souls who painted their doorposts and lintels with the blood of the sacrificial lamb completed that journey, but the story of their courage inspired their children and grandchildren, as it still inspires us, to seek a place where they could live their lives as Jews in freedom.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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