Maury Grebenau

True Freedom Needs Justice

וַיּוֹשַׁע ה’ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִצְרַיִם מֵת עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם

On that day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dying, on the seashore

The verse above (Shemot 14:30) tells us that the true salvation for the Jewish people was only once they had emerged from the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds), it was Bayom Hahu – on that day – when they truly experienced freedom. The verse says that the salvation happened only once the Jewish people saw the Egyptians dead after they were drowned in the Yam Suf. Ibn Ezra reads this verse simply that the Jewish people were on the banks of the sea and it was there that they saw the Egyptians drowned in the sea. Rashi quotes a Midrashic idea that the description of “on the seashore” refers not to the Israelites but the Egyptians. The sea spit out the bodies of the Egyptians onto the land. This seems unnecessary and even a little macabre. Why was it necessary for the bodies to wash up on the shore and why does the Torah seem to be saying that this was why the Jewish people finally experienced freedom?

The Gemara (Pesachim 118b) where Rashi’s explanation appears does not give an explanation for the necessity for this miracle but in the Midrash Mechilta[1] four different reasons are cited. It is interesting to note that Rashi quotes just one of these reasons and also adds to it. Rashi explains that the Jewish people needed to see the Egyptian dead with their own eyes so that the Jewish people would not say, “just as we are exiting the sea from this side, so too they are exiting from the other side far from us, and they will chase us.” Rashi chooses this specific reason and adds a few words to the Midrash “and they will chase us” to explain why it was so important for the Jews to know that their Egyptian taskmasters did not survive. For the Jewish people to truly be free they needed to know that they were not going to be pursued anymore. But perhaps the need was not just to know their tormentors would not follow them, ensuring their physical safety. Perhaps they needed to see justice meted out to those who had tortured them and enslaved them.

The generation of that left Egypt and travelled in the desert for 40 years was psychologically scarred. The Ibn Ezra (Shemot 14:13) writes that this is why they were so terrified of the Egyptians and did not think to fight back when they were chased even though they seem to have had superior numbers. The next generation that entered the land with Yehoshua were very different in their willingness to engage in the needed fighting to conquer the land. It seems that this is what Rashi means. This generation in particular needed the miracle of seeing the Egyptians dead on the banks of the sea in order to truly feel free. It did not erase their slave mentality or completely heal the intergenerational trauma of 210 years of brutal slavery but it allowed for some sense of healing to begin.

After the Holocaust it is well documented that many survivors did not feel able to speak about the horrors they had seen. When Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in 1961 in Jerusalem and scores of survivors testified about the atrocities he committed, there was a shift. Many finally felt able to speak about their own experience, facilitating some level of healing. It would seem it was not simply that the Holocaust became a permitted topic of conversation that supported this shift but the healing effect that seeing a Nazi tormentor answer for his crimes had on those who had experienced the trauma the Nazis had perpetrated. For survivors, perhaps, this was their moment of “seeing the Egyptians dying on the banks.”

When I think of the current generations in Israel, they seem much more like the generation of Yehoshua than that of the Exodus. Even in the aftermath of the trauma of October 7 and the continued trauma of the hostages and the loss of soldiers, there is moral clarity about the need to protect the people and the land of Israel. Like the generation of Yehoshua, they take up arms to protect and defend the land. But even so, there is no doubt that they have experienced a terrible trauma. There are no degrees of separation between every Israeli and the terrible losses on October 7th and since then. It is frustrating to see and hear armchair critics of Israel respond to the unfortunate leveling of Gaza asking “what more does Israel want?” The answer is that we must remember that Israel’s citizens deserve to know that October 7th can never happen again. There is a need to know that the terrorists who openly say they would commit another October 7th given the chance will have no such opportunity. But just like the Jews of the generation of the Exodus and the survivors of the Holocaust they also need to see the villains who perpetrated such unspeakable acts be brought to justice to be truly free in their land.

[1] מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח – מסכתא דויהי פרשה ו

מפני ארבעה דברים ראו ישראל את המצרים מתים כדי שלא יהו ישראל אומרים כשם שעלינו מן הים מצד זה כך המצרים עלו מן הים מצד אחר וכדי שלא יהו אומרים המצריים כשם שאבדנו בים כך אבדו ישראל בים וכדי שיקחו ישראל את הבזה שהיו המצרים טעונים כסף וזהב ואבנים טובות ומרגליות וכדי שיהיו ישראל נותנים עיניהם בהם ומכירים אותם ומוכיחין בהם

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Maury Grebenau has worked in Jewish day school for 20 years, including leading two Jewish schools for a decade. Rabbi Grebenau has written a number of articles on educational leadership and current issues including teen health and school technology use. His articles have been published in Phi Delta Kappan, Principal Leadership and Hayidion, among others. He currently co-leads a program that supports administrators in Jewish day schools.
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