We have too much freedom – Parshah Beshalach (5771)

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Let me tell you the one thing I have against Moses. He took us forty years  into the desert in order to bring us to the one place in the Middle East that has no oil – Golda Meir

Nine year old Isaac is asked by his mother what he has learned in Hebrew school.

“Well mum,” says Isaac, “our teacher told us how G-d sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and everyone walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent men to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”

“Really Isaac,” says his mother, “is that really what your teacher taught you?”

“Not really mum,” replies Isaac, “but if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe me!”

* * *

The overarching theme of this week’s parsha is freedom The overarching theme. After centuries of slavery the Children of  Israel are finally free. Not only free from the hellish environment they were trapped in – but free of the fear of recapture, for their enemies now lay dead at the bottom of the sea.

Only once the stormy waters had calmed, covering forever the remains of the Egyptian army, were the Israelites able to relax and to rejoice at their salvation. Only then, tells us the Torah, did they truly believe in G-d and in His servant Moses. The cold hard facts were now undeniable, Egypt as a threat to the Jewish people was history.

The people then broke out in spontaneous song – thanking and praising G-d for His miracles. The women, whose strong faith had led them to bring musical instruments along when they left Egypt, also began to sing, dance and play the tambourine (or maybe it was a bodhran) in thanks to Hashem.

Freedom is something which can only be appreciated by those who have not always had it. In the words of D.H Lawrence, “Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools.

Freedom is the most precious of all gifts, never to be taken for granted, but even freedom has its limits, and too much freedom can have its own problems.

So how can we have too much freedom?

This week we celebrate the 15th of the month of Shevat, known as Tu Bi’Shevat (Tu = 15) – the New Year for the Trees, as it is now that the earliest fruit trees (in Israel) will begin their new cycle of fruit bearing. Traditionally we celebrate this minor festival by tasting 15 different fruits, or at least the seven species with which Israel is blessed: Dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, wheat and barley.

Using poetic license the words in the Torah “Ki ha’Adam eitz Hasadeh,” are often translated as “for Man is a tree of the field” and the sages, using this comparison, derive many lessons from trees as to our desired behaviour. We learn that trees take little and give a lot – they give us oxygen, shade, fruit, wood, shelter etc. We learn that problems with junior saplings which are uncorrected become greatly exaggerated problems with adult trees, and we also learn two messages which are very relevant to this week’s message of freedom:

1) The deeper the roots are buried the greater is the tree’s vitality.

2) The wider the roots are spread the stronger the tree is anchored.

Both of these messages are applicable to us and to our understanding of freedom. True freedom for G-d’s people cannot be achieved without these two points. We need to be connected deeply to our roots, and we need to have a broad knowledge of our roots, our teachings, and our history. Without this deep connection we might feel free, but, like a tree with shallow roots, we begin to drift, to lose stability, and to lose that crucial connection to our source of vitality. Too much freedom can be our own undoing.

So this Shabbat, as we read of the Exodus to freedom and the spontaneous song of a free nation, and as the fruit trees begin their new cycle of fruit bearing, let us dig deeper and wider roots in our own traditions and Torah knowledge, so that we can continue to be, and to raise up, proud and upstanding members of a truly free nation – the Chosen People.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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