Two great and fearsome “tidal waves” have claimed the spotlight on the international stage lately, and for good reason. In addition to the earthquake and tsumani that shook Japan, there are the ongoing seismic quakes of social revolution that continue to sweep over the Middle East and Africa. From Tunisia, where President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali was ousted after 23 years in power, the ripples have turned to waves in Yemen, in Jordan and Syria, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, and, of course, Egypt.
The headline of “Freedom on the march in Egypt” appears both in the news cycle and in the Jewish holiday cycle at this time of year. As Passover, the biblical “Feast of Freedom,” approaches, I am struck by the intersections of these two great stories. In the fields of ancient Egypt, citizens became servants to the whims of a dictator. King Pharaoh, driven by fear and pride, seemed to do nothing but exacerbate a series of plagues. Out of these straits, a new nation was born — a “mixed multitude” united by the call for freedom. And so began Jewish history, and a lasting mission for the Jewish people.
The latest “exodus” story is not so much a freedom from Egypt but a freedom of Egypt. Gathering in city squares, citizens became prophets, not foretelling the future, but, like Moses, forcing its hand. They stood together in protest against the oppressions of an entrenched regime, driven to the streets by the plagues of unemployment and alienation. And in the confines of those city squares, a new community was born, a new national identity — growing around the desire of Egyptians to say to their children (as Jewish parents are encouraged to do at the Passover meal), “I was there. I helped make this change.”
Still, the freedom fighters of today’s Egypt have a sea to cross, a large expanse of turbulent waters, before they can be truly free. An expanse a generation long looms between them and their land of promise. The march of freedom is no picnic stroll. There will be tests along the way.
The first test for newly freed Hebrews came when they found themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the Reed (or Red) Sea. The Bible description of deliverance is more ambiguous than most admit. When the children of Israel were saved by the splitting of the sea, was it on account of Moses and his raised staff? Or was it the mighty winds of the East? What is meant by the elusive expression “the hand of God?” Jewish midrashic tradition answers this quandary with a story about a young man named Nahshon. It is said that not until little-known Nahshon overcame his fears of the unknown, trusted in the possibilities, and stepped into the sea did the waters part. Only then, with his modest initiative, was the path from mere rebellion to lasting freedom revealed.
Once in a generation, an opportunity like this arises. Once a year, in the face of turbulent waters, we are urged by the festivals of the season to practice this precious ability to free ourselves from our fears and place our faith in the possibilities. This is the path of freedom, from Egypt then, and for all of us now.
Benjamin Arnold is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Evergreen.