“What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?”—Exodus 14:11-12
“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”—attributed to Emiliano Zapata, Mexican revolutionary
As the last of the four par’shot that comprise the Exodus story, beshalach finally moves the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Having just witnessed so many miracles first hand, we might expect the Israelites to be confident, defiant. Yet the par’sha is characterized primarily by doubt—on four separate occasions, the Israelites long to be back in slavery!
Why would the Exodus story end on such a down note? Given the unified thematic nature of the narrative, it would have made much more sense to end par’shat beshalach with the Song of the Sea, providing neat and obvious closure.
One answer can be found in the words the Israelites speak to Moses as Pharaoh’s armies approach: “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt?” That is, the Israelites always feared that their struggle would end in disaster.
Like sh’mot, va’era and bo, beshalach is really about the period of time before a revolution has occurred. It is about the doubts and fears that keep people from striving for their own liberation. The story concludes on this theme because it is only after the narrative is done that readers will really begin to decide how to apply its lessons to their own lives. And at this moment, the fears will surface.
When we talk about what it will really take to create a just and sustainable world, it’s not uncommon for a certain fatalism to surface. In my own conversations, this occurs most rapidly when I say that industrial civilization must be abolished, that control of land needs to be handed over to traditional indigenous caretakers, that police and the state have to go, and so forth. Even people who agree with me often get frustrated when I make such extreme claims.
“Ok,” they say, “so colonialism/the state/civilization is inherently oppressive. What do you expect us to do about it? There’s simply no way for us to live without it.”
Or, “The system’s collapse would create lawlessness and suffering far surpassing anything that we deal with now. Our best hope is to tinker with what we’ve got, even if it is inherently unjust.”
In my previous three posts, I argued that the modern way of life is based on murder and that privileged First-Worlders must join the fight to overthrow the current order, even though such a revolutionary struggle will inevitably entail much suffering.
I admit it: That’s really easy to say from where I’m sitting—in front of my Internet-connected computer, inside my heated house.
There’s certainly a lot to be scared of. What would it mean if we actually allowed traditional indigenous people to live off the land and were not able to mine it, pave it or graze cows on it? What would it mean if we really foreswore any technology that was not sustainable?
There’s also a lot to imagine. What if we didn’t have to worry about cancer anymore, because we were no longer pumping out toxins around the clock? What if no one had to work a job they hate, because we all had access to land for growing our own food?
I think I may have made a mistake, when I wrote about par’shat sh’mot, in emphasizing our privilege. Because I don’t think anyone is going to be very privileged when the Earth’s life-support systems collapse—certainly not those of us who have grown up disconnected from the processes of feeding and sheltering ourselves. Our privilege won’t go very far when the resources run out and the global economic system (founded on industrial production, remember) fails.
And I sure don’t feel privileged in a world where the people I love get cancer, suffocate under the weight of crushing depression, develop hormone and neurological disorders, die in car crashes, or get fatally shot by police. And all this before my 26th birthday.
Entering the wilderness—braving the unknown—is an important theme in the Bible. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David all have to leave their homelands at critical points in their lives, not knowing what they will find or how their lives will change. At the end of the Exodus story, the whole Israelite nation must undergo this experience. It is understandably terrifying.
I could argue that God takes care of them, that there is a miracle in response to every complaint. Some other time, I might make that case—but I don’t think too many people would believe me if I did it now.
Instead, I will simply say that the world does not have to be the way it is. We were not meant to be slaves. We were not meant to breathe and eat poison. Children were not meant to have asthma or die of starvation.
I challenge you to imagine the world that you really want. Don’t be afraid of where this might take you. Don’t be afraid to admit that it’s not just the slavery, but the whole land of Egypt that’s the problem.
And above all, don’t be afraid to reach for that liberation. Because whatever the consequences, whatever the suffering we must go through, I know this with all my heart: It will be worth it.
And if not we, then our children or our grandchildren will finally dance on the shore of freedom’s sea, and sing.