Drash on Parashat Pesach Day 7
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
Beshalach / Splitting of the sea
This coming Shabbat, we have the final day of Pesach, and we chant Shirat Hayam, recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites find themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the sea, culminating in and ultimately, the splitting of the sea, which allows the Israelites to flee.
At Pesach when we read the story of the Exodus, it is not uncommon to focus our curiosity on the veracity of the biblical narrative, but it is also an opportunity to consider the profound suffering of the Israelites as they flee slavery and persecution in Egypt and accept that these phenomena are not unique to a time and place in history but are ongoing in many contexts within our society.
For some, empathy is difficult unless they have a shared experience, yet Pesach does not ask us to empathise with literal slavery in Egypt, but rather to find the elements of suffering and slavery within ourselves and our community and acknowledge them.
Personal suffering could relate to a medical condition, to onerous work conditions and insecurity, to situations of harassment, family violence, or as we have heard so much in the past weeks, the situation for women around the world who don’t get to feel safe in places where they have every right to – walking home, at school, in their workplaces.
The past year has been difficult years for many of us. It would be fairly safe to say, there isn’t anyone in the world who has not been affected by the pandemic. Whether that impact is the new found appreciation for teachers after home-schooling one’s children, a struggle with personal illness, the effects of isolation due to lock downs and movement restrictions, or the illness of a loved one – we all have a story to tell about this past year and as Queensland heads into another lockdown, we know there is more to come this year. I have personally lost good friends to COVID-19 and had family members who have been ill with the disease.
Remarkably, despite Australia being one of the very luckiest countries in the world with a remarkably successful containment of the virus with eradication almost achieved multiple times, much like the Jews in the Exodus story, complaining is becoming something of a national pastime – wiling away the lockdown hours with endless complaints.
Moshe brought the people out of Egypt, parted a sea (with a little help), led his people to freedom, brought them to Mount Sinai where they were lucky enough to receive Torah and later head towards the Promised Land, and yet they would not cease complaining.
Perhaps it is the human condition. When the Israelites complain in the desert, God literally makes it rain down Manna – providing divine nourishment, and yet, their complaints never cease. And while I do not in any way mean to downplay serious mental health concerns which have been exacerbated by long periods of lockdowns, unemployment, under employment, financial insecurity and the myriad of other repercussions of this virus, Australia has indeed proven itself to be a lucky country, yet again. Our restrictions have protected us from the rampant spread of the virus we have seen elsewhere around the world – over 2,800,000 dead, long-term illness and side-effects from a virus that remains little understood and may cause lifelong health issues for millions. And still we, in relative safety, complain.
In less than a year from the outbreak of this novel virus, the world has been blessed with the miracle of vaccinations made possible and available to humanity through the most remarkable scientific collaboration of modern times. Vaccines which mitigate deaths, hospitalisations, the extent of the illness and the long-term side effects – and yet a whole movement has arisen in opposition.
Halacha (Jewish Law) is excruciatingly clear that pikuach nefesh, or the saving of a life, is central to Judaism and trumps all other laws other than murder, sexual transgression and public idolatry. Halachic authorities around the world have been absolutely clear that it is our Jewish (as well as civic) obligation to be vaccinated as soon as possible – and we should take whatever vaccine is available to us, wherever we might be in the world.
We can empathise with the fear the Israelites felt when their choice was between an advancing army and running through a parted sea, in the hopes it wouldn’t drown them. Likewise, vaccine ‘hesitancy’, especially in communities that have historically had reasons to fear authorities, might make people wary of the push to be vaccinated. But the choice is a stark one – an advancing army or faith in our scientists, health workers and researchers who have put themselves in the front line and likewise, were the first to gratefully accept the protection from such a wonderful discovery. The likelihood of serious side effects from the vaccines are miniscule (though we know they very occasionally occur) but the severity of this virus, its virility and potential to leave thousands of families grieving in its wake are real, ongoing and as Queenslanders are experiencing this long weekend - ever present.
Knowing people whose health is so precarious that they have been advised they should not be vaccinated, it is difficult to understand when others choose not to accept a free gift, that protects them but also helps to protect our most vulnerable. With pikuach nefesh as a central pillar of Judaism, it is harder still to find empathy for those who deliberately seek to confuse or undermine confidence in the vaccines, putting people, even those they love, at increased risk.
As we live through these remarkable times, Pesach reminds us to dig deep, find empathy within ourselves and the momentary braveness necessary to step through the parted sea towards freedom.