First step to freedom, birth of a leader

In this week’s Parsha Moshe reaches his lowest point but immediately springs back to become the true leader of the Jews.  This is Moshe’s crowning.  Until now, God had done the work, sending plagues, signs, and taking the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  Here, God tells Moshe to do it alone.  And Moshe finds the wisdom to empower the Hebrew slaves’ caged spirit to take the first step out of the narrow straits of Egyptian enslavement.

Leadership comes to Moshe as he and the freed Hebrew slaves stand by the Red Sea watching the Egyptian army rush to capture them back.  The Torah emphasizes its power, unparalleled in that age, with dramatic images of chariots, combat units, foot soldiers, and Pharaoh himself at the helm.  Cornered and desperate, the Jews turn against Moshe with bitter cries.  This was exactly the scenario that they had feared, and the meager rewards of familiar slave life were preferable to being slaughtered in the desert.

Moshe predictably turns to God for help, but this time God rebuffs him. “What are you crying to me for?,” asks God.  “Speak to the people and they will move forward.”  Speak to the people?  Hadn’t Moshe done just that all along?  God’s true message, Rashi explains, was for Moshe, the Prince of Egypt, to find a way “to speak to the hearts” of the paralyzed Hebrews, living in the prison of their slaves’ mind.

And Moshe’s greatness shone through in his next address.  The first step out of slavery, Moshe tells his band of slaves, is surrender.  “Do not fear, just stand by and watch how God will save you today,” he says.  “God will fight for you, and you will watch silently.”  This spoke to the slaves, not because they could miraculously fight the 82nd Airborne of the day, but because they were told to surrender to a higher power.  Surrender acknowledged their powerlessness and fear, and it gave them the first road step towards a meaningful life of freedom.

And indeed God responded, and split the Sea for the Jews.  And having surrendered, the paralyzed slaves saw the road through the Sea that God placed ahead of them, and they sprang to action.  Walking through the pillars of water was also an extraordinarily scary experience, but the “People of Israel stepped into the Sea, on its dry grounds, with the waters as a wall to them to their left and to their right.”  Having surrendered, they were free of the paralysis that had stopped them and could start their journey.

This story speaks to much more than physical slavery.  Breaking out of fear, paralysis, or any mental enslavement, requires surrender.  A dramatic example is the addict or alcoholic who cannot see a way out of slavery to the chemical substance.  For centuries, medicine gave up on them, and viewed them as hopeless cases.  Then, a century ago, “twelve-step” recovery programs were born and brought millions out of chemical slavery.  The “first step”:  admit powerlessness and surrender to a Higher Power for help.

Egypt is famously known in Hebrew as “Mitsrayim,” the narrow straits.  And there are many narrow straights and higher powers; for the struggling student, the higher power is the caring teacher, for the cancer patient, the higher power is the oncologist, and for the crying child, the higher power is the parent or other loving adult.  All of these higher powers fulfill the mission of showing the way out of one’s Mitsrayim.

We can all be higher powers to someone in need, and we can all be leaders who enable the first step of seeking help.  As Moshe’s experience shows us, this requires us to speak to one’s heart.  When we are the Prince, and we speak to the slave, we must speak with a slave voice.  The Talmud tells us that “all of Israel is responsible for one another.”  May we find the way to each other’s hearts to lift ourselves out of all of Mitsrayim and achieve true freedom.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Ari Afilalo (afilalo@camden.rutgers.edu) is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.
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