Shabbat BeShalakh: What Does It Take To Let Go?

In this weeks’s parashah, called BeShalakh, we read of our people’s experience leaving Egypt. It includes hard labor, a frightening and uncertain exit through water, and great relief upon emergence into a new world. It is the birth-myth of the People Israel. (I use “myth” in the sense of a grand and ancient story that tells a people who they are, and often why; it is not scientific fact but it is very much true in its own way.)

Last week we saw the demand seven times (a highly significant number in Jewish tradition and storytelling) in the parashah: shalakh, “let go”. Let the people go, said Moshe to Pharaoh. And Pharoah’s response, six times, was lo shalakh, “I will not let them go.”  Then came the seventh time, when it is written after the final and most horrifying plague visited upon Egypt that vatekhezak Mitzrayim al ha-Am l’maher l’shalkham, “The Egyptians pressed the people hard, trying to send them forth as quickly as possible” (Exodus 12.33). 

With a literary parallelism written in terror and blood, the seventh response to the demand shalakh is, finally, l’shalkham. This is underscored by the name of our parashah this week, B’Shalakh, which begins “When Pharaoh sent the People forth” (Exodus 13.17). 

The way to freedom is paved with the acts of both enemies and friends.

This week the world observed the 70th anniversary of the day the concentration/extermination camp Auschwitz was liberated. Many of our people understood the Holocaust in traditional Jewish terms (our lens on life for everything, after all), and the liberation of the death camps was seen as a miracle that saved the remnant of our people from the modern-day Nazi Pharaoh. 

Fewer and fewer survivors are left among us to testify to that time. Here is a true story from one of them:

I was sent to do hard labor deep in Germany, helping to build plants and roads for the war effort. They fed us almost nothing; people died all the time from the work, the cold, the starvation, the disease. One guard was always very harsh with us – but when no one was looking, almost every day he brought me a sandwich from his lunch. That Nazi guard saved my life.

Almost every survivor’s story includes a mystifying moment of compassion like this one. For some of us – not for all of us, and certainly not according to any reason that a human being can discern – the act of an enemy has paved the way to freedom.

That is why in Judaism we do not hold a belief in the demonic. No person, no matter how evil, is a demon. We all belong to the same All, and we all share in its characteristics. This is frightening, because it means that we have to recognize that we all harbor evil within us. But it should also be a source of great hope, because that which is evil is not in its essence different from the rest of us. We know evil intimately because it too is part of humanity, and that is a key to disarming it and destroying it.

Mystical Judaism describes our hearts as constantly balancing between mercy and judgment. We are to seek the middle between those two opposites, and according to the mystics, the middle is not neutrality. It is compassion. 

On this Shabbat of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and on this millennial anniversary of the People of Israel’s birth, may you see the compassion in the world clearly, even in the most unlikely places.

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