The first four sedirot of the Book of Sh’mot are worthy of a thriller. They are packed with action and excitement and move at an almost dizzying pace. A small baby is saved from death by the ingenuity of his mother and sister and by the compassion of an Egyptian princess. The baby grows to be a man, is angered when he sees an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and strikes down the oppressor. He becomes a hunted man, flees to Midian, where he steps in to help a group of women shepherds who are being bullied by their male counterparts, marries one of the women and settles down, only to be challenged by the voice of God coming from a burning bush. He begins, tentatively and full of misgivings, to assume a new role, is sent back to Egypt, but is almost killed by God on the way, rescued only by the good sense and faith of Tziporah, his Midianite wife. Reunited, after so many years, with brother Aaron and sister Miriam, he confronts the all-powerful Pharaoh and demands that the Hebrew slaves be allowed to go into the wilderness and sacrifice to God. The Pharaoh’s obstinacy means that plague follows plague until, finally, the killer blow of the death of the firstborn brings the Pharaoh to his senses – at least for a time.
The Israelites prepare to leave Egypt, collecting their belongings as quickly as possible, wrapping their unleavened bread to take for the start of the journey. They leave, apparently with the blessing and good riddance of the Egyptians, only to be pursued by the now furious Pharaoh and his mighty army. The might of this army proves to be its undoing, since the weight of the heavily armoured soldiers and horses drags infantry, cavalry and chariots down into the mud, unable to flee the returning waters of the sea. Seeing the Egyptian army drowned, Moses leads the people in a song of celebration and is followed by Miriam and the women, dancing, drumming and singing in their turn. This would surely be enough, but, no, there is more to come. After the Israelites take their first steps towards freedom, swinging precariously back and forth from joy and faith to despair and complaint, they are attacked by Amalek. Led by their commander, Joshua, and inspired by Moses, they win their first ever battle.
A thriller, but so much more, too. Justice has surely won the day. The Egyptians suffer in ways that lay bare their arrogance and false beliefs. Both the final plague of the death of the firstborn and the destruction of the Egyptian army are supreme examples of poetic justice. After all, the Pharaoh had commanded that all the Israelite baby boys should be killed at birth and the army is submerged and mired by its own strength. Surely the people are right to sing in celebration. Justice, yes, justice. Yet where is mercy, that all-important balancing attribute of the Eternal One? Not all the Egyptians hate the Israelites and, in years gone by, during the time of Joseph, they had honoured them. Well, mercy is there, too, and we will discover it many chapters later when God says to the people, through Moses, “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land.” Not only does God show mercy, he instructs us to do so too. We may have been oppressed, we may deserve to celebrate the humbling of our oppressors, but, one day, we need to forgive and forge a new relationship.
We have much more than a thriller to consider. To find out a little of that much, come along this Saturday at 10:30, when Pat Lipert will lead us in celebration, justice and mercy.