How much punishment does Pharaoh want? Having watched – nay, been instrumental in making – his people suffer ever increasing horrors, he gathers his army and sets off in pursuit of the Israelites only hours after agreeing to their departure. Once he catches up with them, does he not see the pillar of cloud which guides them by day or the pillar of light which guides them by night? Well, he is not the only one not to see clearly, for the Israelites themselves suffer from a failure of vision and a failure of faith. The sight of the Egyptian army throws them into a blind panic. Yet God is there to support and save them. They cross the Red Sea and thank God in song. This should be enough, but it isn’t, and soon the people are complaining again, this time about the lack of fresh food. God sends quails and manna and, in so doing, introduces the basic law of Shabbat. They travel some more and became thirsty, and again they lapse into discontent.
Of course, they are not used to freedom. One of the contradictions of slavery is that, while you are forced to labour, often for long hours every day with little or no respite, you are not obliged to do anything for yourself. Everything is decided for you. It is, therefore, not so surprising that a people that has not acted for itself in living memory should be frightened and easily discouraged when it walks into the unknown. What is more, by the end of B’shallach, for that is where we are in the story, the people have started literally to fight for themselves and to provide support for their leader. As they engage in battle with Amalek, they enable Moses to be their inspiration by holding up his hands where the soldiers can see them from the battleground. The road to freedom, both physical and spiritual, is not completed, but it is begun.
A fitting preparation for Yitro, which begins with Moses’ father-in-law advising Moses to appoint community leaders at different levels to administer justice, so setting the foundations for a system of government which will last until the time of the kings. The people move on to Mount Sinai, where there is to be a great revelation. But to hear this revelation, you will need to come to the service this Saturday at 10.30. Liz Berg of the lyrical voice will be leading us.