Did our ancestors flee the house of bondage or were they pushed? The parashah, B’shallach opens with the words: ‘It came to pass when Pharaoh sent the people away … – Va-y’hi b’shallach Paroh et ha-am …’ (Exodus 13:17). B’shallach is often translated as ‘let go’, but the plain meaning of the Hebrew root, Shin – Lamed – Chet in this intensive active (pi’el) form is to ‘send away’. The verb used in last week’s parashah, Bo, is even clearer. We read: ‘They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt …. ki gor’shu mi-mitzrayim …’ (Exodus 12:39). The Hebrew root Gimmel – Reish – Shin means to ‘cast out’, and in this intensive passive form (pu’al): to be thrust out.

The language of both these verses suggests that the slaves were not actively engaged in their liberation. This impression is further reinforced by the scene at the shore of the Reed Sea. With the Egyptians pursuing them, the slaves were overcome with fear (14:10-12). Terrified of dying in the wilderness they cried out: ‘It was better for us to serve the Egyptians, then that we should die in the wilderness’ (:12). But then the Eternal commanded Moses to lift his rod so that the waters parted and the Israelites walked through the passage created by the walls of water on either side (:21-22).

It seems that the slaves were not exactly enamoured at the prospect of freedom. Indeed, as we discover in the very next scene following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the deprivations of the desert terrified them and they looked back longingly on the security and stability they had experienced in Egypt. We read that after a three-day journey in the wilderness, finding no water, they arrived at Marah, so called because the waters there were ‘bitter ‘– and the people immediately began to murmur against Moses. Their next stop took them to Elim and twelve springs of water, but still as they journeyed on into the wilderness of Tzin, a month into their trek through the wilderness, once again they murmured in discontent (16:3): ‘Would we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

What a miserable lot! Interestingly, rabbinic commentary offers an alternative version of events at the Rea of Reeds. We read in Midrash Mechilta on 14:22: ‘When Israel stood at the edge of the sea, each one said: ‘I will not be the first to enter’ … While they stood there deliberating, Nachshon ben Amminadav [who was a chieftain of the tribe of Judah] leapt first into the sea and plunged into its waves. Midrash Sh’mot [Exodus] Rabbah 21:10 goes further: ‘The sea did not part for them until they had waded into it up to their noses; only then did it become dry land.’

Ruth Sohn’s poem, which focuses on Miriam standing at the shore of the Reed Sea, underlines this very different presentation of the slaves: ‘To take the first step – / To sing a new song –/ Is to close one’s eyes / and dive / into unknown waters. / For a moment knowing nothing risking all – / But then to discover / The waters are friendly / The ground is firm (Kol Haneshamah, Shabbbat Vehagim, The Reconstructionist Press, Wyncote, Penn., 1994, pp.768-9).

It is not easy to be free. It takes courage and determination ‘to take the first step … and dive into unknown waters.’ We all know this. Anyone who has left the security of home, knows that the longing to be free can be overwhelmed by fear of the unknown beyond the familiar walls that contain us. No one leaves their home unless they have developed a powerful sense of personal security that sustains them wherever they go, or, they feel they have no other choice, or, as is the case with so many refugees today, their homes have been shattered by violence and war.

Freedom is so complex. There is freedom from and freedom to, freedom granted and freedom grasped, external freedom and internal freedom, collective freedom and personal freedom.

From its inception at the dawn of the twentieth century, Liberal Judaism in Britain embraced modernity’s gift of this complex bundle of freedoms by responding to Lily Montagu’s call ‘to satisfy the needs of the age’ (‘Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today’ Jewish Quarterly Review, 1899) and make sense of our Jewish inheritance in ways that are relevant and meaningful for contemporary life.

One of the principal vehicles of this commitment to relevance and meaning has been the prayer book. Since the first Liberal Judaism prayer book was published in 1902 under the auspices of the Jewish Religious Union, every twenty-five years or so, a new edition is fashioned that reflects our contemporary needs. And so it is with the new prayer book that is in the process of being created: Siddur Shirah Chadashah, ‘Siddur of a New Song’; the title recalling that moment of freedom at the shore of the sea, when as the g’ulah – the blessing of redemption that follows the Sh’ma – expresses it, our ancestors sang ‘a new song’.

Since Siddur Lev Chadash was published in 1995, LJ congregations have become increasingly accessible to people with diverse backgrounds and life situations attracted by Liberal Judaism’s commitment to equality and justice, compassion and hospitality. A new century calls for new words to reflect our transformed reality. At the biennial in May, responsive to the broad range of feedback we have received, we shall be launching the second draft of the new multi-vocal siddur, which will also include an Erev Shabbat service. Whatever your personal experience of liturgy, we invite you to dip your toes or to dive in – and to sing new songs (and old ones) with us.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

LJ E-Bulletin, February 2020/Sh’vat 5780

Text: 1000 words