In parshat BeShalach as the people are leaving Egypt, the Torah reports,
But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had emphatically sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely take notice of you; and you shall carry up my bones away hence with you.’ (Exodus 13: 18-19)
It is not clear if Moses is keeping the promise for its own sake or as a means to ensure their exodus from Egypt. While Moses has led the people out of their life (or death) of slavery in Egypt, we know that he still needs to get them out of the crisis. They are about to be caught between the bank of the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s chariots. It is interesting to note that their being “noticed” by God seems to be connected to their salvation.
This seems to resonate with the salvation of Noah in the ark. There in parshat Noah we read,
And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; (Genesis 8:1)
Noah was saved because God warned him to build an ark, but ultimately his salvation only happened when God “remembered” him and decided to end the flood. The same is true for the Israelites. While safely averting the life of slavery in Egypt they would have died at the Red Sea if Moses had not “remembered” Joseph. When there was no water Joseph was the one who got them out of the bind by saving the sons of Jacob, similarly Moses is using the bones of Joseph to help them out at the Red Sea.
This “remembering” Joseph gives more depth to the Israelites’ statement in response to seeing Pharaoh’s chariots approaching. There we read,
And they said to Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? (Exodus 14: 11)
Yes, at a certain level the Israelites are doing what they do best, Kvetching. And yes, on a rhetorical level they are communicating to Moses that they do not want to die for “naught”. They have lost faith in the plan of escape and they are telling the leader that they are not happy. But on another level they are telling Moses their doubt that “remembering Joseph” is the best plan. That is to say, it is not just that there are graves in Egypt in which they could have been happily buried, but that Joseph himself was happily buried there.
In his address at the General Assembly, Jerry Silverman, the CEO of Jewish Federations of North America quoted Leslie Wexner in saying, “What got us here will not get us there”. It is interesting to reflect on this idea in light of the people’s kvetching. Jerry made his mark in camping ( and will make his mark in the Federation world) by driving us to be the best at customer service. So, even if the people are being short sighted, it is important to take their complaining seriously. While the Israelites are able to cross the Red Sea, the model of leadership that gets them to that point, represented by the person of Joseph, is not what will get them over the next crisis. This Moses will have to figure out.
So in response to their outcry Moses tries to allay their fears. The Torah says,
And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which God will work for you today; for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.’ Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. (Exodus 14: 13- 16)
While Moses is trying to motivate the people to stick with the plan, God interrupts to motivate Moses to enact a plan. Although the people have doubt in the plan, it seems that God is responding to Moses himself that the old plan is just not going to work. As if to say, ‘You used to look to me to make it happen, but this time it is all you. Stop the Kvetching’. So, what was Moses getting stuck on?
To look at this question I want to return to the story of Noah. Noah brought about salvation by making an ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14) and getting his nuclear family and the animals on board. For Moses, his personal salvation was very similar to Noah and his family. Moses was going to die at the hands of the Egyptians. The Torah says,
And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein, and laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. (Exodus 2:3)
Just like Noah in the ark, Moses is saved from sure death by a basket. It is important to set up a system for solving problems, and making sure that you get the right people on the bus ( or ark) to execute the plan. But Moses is just like one of the animals on Noah’s ark; he is but an object in the story of his own salvation. When it comes time for the salvation at the foot of the Red Sea, it is not just about calling the right play and putting the right squad on the floor ( I am sorry basketball is my default metephor). The Israelites needed to grow up and stop the kvetching. It is also clear that Moses needed to lead the people so that they would move themselves forward (add Nachshon and stir). They could no longer be objects in the story of their own salvation. What worked for Noah, Joseph, and Moses individually was not going to work for the Israelites as a collective. The Israelites needed some out-of-the-basket thinking. Moses needed to think past the limits of himself and the assumptions of his people. Or in the words of Michael Jordan, “If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome.”
As we look forward to the next period of our history, I am confident that the challenge that stands before us is truly an opportunity for us to re-imagine our role in global salvation. However, we are going to hell in a hand basket if we limit ourselves to doing business as usual. Leslie Wexner was right, what got us here is not going to get us there. We too need some out-of-the-basket thinking.